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Reflecting on Cowboys’ Weaknesses with Super Bowl LI Stage Now Set

Bryson Treece

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Mason Crosby, Packers

The Dallas Cowboys had something of a Midas touch for the NFL this season. Ratings rose when the Cowboys played, their Divisional game against the Green Bay Packers topping all, and Super Bowl ticket sales fell when they exited the playoffs.

The NFC/AFC Championship games were all-out snooze-fests. About the most exciting part of them was more about stats. Tom Brady, arguably the best NFL quarterback ever, got a bright addition to his asterisks-filled career by earning a record-setting seventh Super Bowl appearance. And Matt Ryan, who had one hell of a year, managed to do what the Cowboys haven't been able to; beat the Packers in the playoffs.

So yeah, the Falcons knocked off the anointed one (Aaron Rodgers), and the Patriots bested "Big" Ben Roethlisberger, but it wasn't fun to watch. The only real entertainment was seeing Rodgers frustrated, but watching Aaron Rodgers suffer is probably something I found more enjoyable than most; I can't stand that guy.

Ryan and Brady were both over 350 yards with 70% or better completion rates. Combined they threw for seven touchdowns on Sunday and their passer ratings were over 127 each. Super Bowl LI has the makings of an absolute shootout, and I can't wait to see it.

But in the back of my mind, I'm looking at the games last weekend and thinking, "where's the pass rush?"

There were two sacks in the Championship round of the playoffs this year, and both were Pittsburgh sacking Tom Brady. Two! How the hell do we have Super Bowl teams coming off zero-sack games? What ever happened to "defense wins championships?"

Indeed, 2016 has been a season of offense. The Patriots have it, as do the Falcons, and the net result is a trip to the Super Bowl.

Why didn't the Cowboys get that chance?

In spite of how the Championship games went, defense is still important, and the Cowboys are missing a critical piece of D: pass rush.

The Cowboys were top-five in scoring this season at 26.3 points per game (ATL 33.8, NE 27.6), but they gave up 19.1 points per game on defense (ATL 25.4, NE 15.6). Sure, they were better than the Falcons but as I said before, Matt Ryan (and Julio Jones) had a hell of a year. When you're scoring an average of 33 points a game, you can afford to give up a little on defense.

And that applies to the Cowboys as well. They gave up less than 20 points a game, which is good. And they also scored more than 20 points a game, so they won, a lot.

But for me, the lack of interceptions is a problem. The Falcons and Patriots had 12 and 13 interceptions, respectively, while the Cowboys only had nine. Sure, Dallas had a couple more fumbles recovered than the other two teams, but this is a passing league right now, snatching those balls out of the air is crucial.

How many times did we see Byron Jones go after a ball only to have it fall incomplete? I said it all year, they need to make Jones catch 30 balls in pre-game warm-ups -- or tar his hands -- just so he could capitalize on being in position. He's good at getting in position.

But here's another passing related stat from the year:

  • Atlanta Falcons - 99 (ranked 5th in the NFL)
  • New England Patriots - 84 (ranked 17th in the NFL)
  • Dallas Cowboys - 73 (ranked 27th in the NFL)

Any guesses what those numbers are? No? Alright, they're the number of passes defended by each team during the 2016 regular season, according to NFL.com statistics.

A lot of us were quick to say how well Morris Claiborne was finally playing, or that young Anthony Brown was really showing something, but looking at the numbers for the year, our passing defense was down. How you factor that into the outcome of the season, the effectiveness of the defense, is a matter of opinion. I prefer to attribute it to the pass rush.

It is a passing league after all, so getting pressure on the quarterback is essential to success. The Cowboys knew that and did their best, but always seemed to gain any much-needed pressure by sacrificing coverage. An extra man in the box, cornerback blitz', etc..

You can't bring a linebacker to the line without leaving a hole on the field somewhere, you just scheme properly for that hole and move on.

The Cowboys gave up an average of 260 yards per game through the air, which amounts to 226 passes gaining a first down, or 53% of all passes thrown against them. Teams like the Giants and Packers had success against us by taking advantage underneath, dinking and dunking their way down the field more than others.

Opposing quarterbacks were comfortable, they had time to find the open the receiver, and they completed short passes for positive yards. That resulted in fewer interceptions but more fumbles (during the Run After Catch).

Everything is connected on an NFL defense. Every assignment, every read affects the other 10 players on the field. When you're unable to get to the QB with a defensive lineman, you give up yards in other areas of the field, and that catches up with you when you're going up against an experienced quarterback who isn't afraid to take what he's given.

I may not like Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning, but they both understand the value of the short game, and they use it to their advantage.

That's why I'm watching ITS Staff Writers Sean Martin and Kevin Brady right now. They're reviewing EDGE rushers for the upcoming 2017 draft on our parent site, Slant Sports.

The Dallas Cowboys have devoted a lot of resources to build the NFL's greatest, most talented offense. They lucked out with Dak Prescott, but made very carefully calculated moves signing Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Ezekiel Elliott in recent years.

With a stout offensive line, and great running back, quarterback, and wide receiver corp (not to mention Jason Witten's contributions), the Cowboys have the ability to outscore any team they face.

But why leave it to the offense to have to outscore opposing teams?

What we're missing in Dallas is a pass rusher. We need a guy who can make quarterbacks nervous. We haven't had that guy since DeMarcus Ware left.

Most of us were heartbroken over the loss to Green Bay, but we've bounced back because we know how special this team is, and all the new pieces give us hope like we haven't seen in a very long time. This year is our year; we can just feel it. But if the Cowboys' front office doesn't address the defensive line in a major way, whether via the NFL Draft or free agency, I believe we're destined for more heartbreak next January.

What's the biggest single position of need right now?

Let me know in the comments below.



Nothing gives me greater joy than the experience of being a Dallas Cowboys fan come time to check another victory on the schedule every Sunday. I live Inside the Star everyday and blog on it occasionally, as well. Follow us on Twitter - @InsideTheStarDC

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3 Comments
  • Russ_Te

    It’s amazing how much more precise the coaching and execution is now in the passing game. QB’s going an entire year throwing just a few INT’s used to be unheard of, and that was on fewer passes. CB’s like Everson Walls would get 10 INT’s a season. Not anymore.

    Stat amalgamations can be misleading, but this chart generally bears it out >
    http://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/def_int_year_by_year.htm

    And the top rated QB’s of all time are all recent players >
    http://www.profootballhof.com/all-time-passer-rating-2014/

    To me it just says the offensive coaching – how to avoid the INT – has improved at all levels. That’s how a Dak can come right in and produce like Rodgers or Brady.

    That said, football fundamentals never change. If you can’t get pressure on the QB, you’re most likely losing.

    That’s why I’m hopeful that any move made at RT, is completed before draft day. If Free is to be changed out, I don’t want pressure to do so weighing on the top couple picks the Cowboys have.

    • https://InsideTheStar.com/ Bryson Treece

      Well, I think it’s also time we shift from the heavy offensive focus during the draft (prime picks) and get back to defense. The last time we really focused on D was under Parcells. Had some duds (Bobby Carpenter) and a great (DeMarcus Ware). We tried with Claiborne and Byron, but neither have panned out exactly like we hoped. Still time for Byron tho.

  • Michael Moy

    The Boys’ O was the perfect storm this year, let see what next year brings. Maybe it’s time to overhaul the whole D, including the DC.

Star Blog

How Will Safeties Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier Fit Kris Richard’s Secondary?

Sean Martin

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How Will Safeties Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier Fit Kris Richard's Secondary?
(Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, David Irving's most recent four game suspension is the main story for a Dallas Cowboys team finished with OTAs and mini camp, left only to wait for training camp now. I've chosen to focus on the players that were on the field for the offseason program, that will continue to contend for starting jobs in Oxnard. Standing out from a lackluster group of safeties, for a Kris Richard led secondary that is off to a fast start, are safeties Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier.

Joined by Jeff Heath, Tyree Robinson, Jameill Showers, and Marqueston Huff, the Cowboys are lacking a dominant force at safety to pair with their young and talented group of cornerbacks. With the likes of Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones (the former safety), and Anthony Brown already improving under Richard, the Cowboys hope is that the same will apply to this group of safeties.

It's still entirely too early to know how the Cowboys want to deploy their safeties this season, but the only players that have shown their strengths and weaknesses over any period of time are Heath, Frazier, and Woods. This is sure to cause an uphill battle for the fringe players looking to push this trio of versatile safeties.

Jeff Heath has appeared in 77 games over five seasons with the Cowboys. Frazier and Woods combined? Just 24 games, with 16 of them making up Woods' rookie season a year ago. This makes finding a potential role for both players vital to the Cowboys.

How Will Safeties Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier Fit Kris Richard's Secondary? 2

Dallas Cowboys S Kavon Frazier (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Safety Kavon Frazier

Working mostly as a special teams player through two seasons in Dallas, Kavon Frazier has patiently awaited his opportunity to spark the Cowboys defense as a sixth round pick of 2016. Doing so in a memorable week 13 win over the Washington Redskins, Frazier earned an increased role as an enforcer on defense.

This is a player whose straight line burst and power is ideal for a ST starter, and when Frazier connects coming downhill on defense, the results can be catastrophic for an opposing offense.  Surely these are traits that will remind Kris Richard even slightly of his Super Bowl winning "Legion of Boom" defenses.

The distinction between Frazier being a part-time player or one maximizing his potential to start deep in the Cowboys secondary is an important one. Limited in coverage, Frazier may be at his best when conceding snaps to another safety on the Cowboys roster with more of an all-around game -- which the Cowboys can only hope Xavier Woods continues to be.

Safety Xavier Woods

Xavier Woods may not have the pure stopping power that Kavon Frazier possesses, but as a fellow sixth-round pick there is more than enough to like about what Woods brought to the Cowboys in 2017 out of Louisiana State. With 14 interceptions and six forced fumbles out of college, Woods slid in the draft enough for the Cowboys to trade up for his services.

The team wasn't cheated out of their investment in Woods last season, giving him the "Byron Jones treatment" as Woods lined up all over the field. It was Richard that came to Dallas and almost immediately moved Byron Jones down to cornerback, seeing a better use of his natural size and skills there.

Doing the same for Woods -- while keeping the natural FS free to react -- should be next up on Richard's offseason to-do list. This is a player with sideline to sideline range, enough athleticism to cover down in the slot, and the functional strength to compete in the box.

Amidst this uncertainty for both Frazier and Woods, early reports out of the Cowboys practices thus far have Jeff Heath specifically matching up against the tight end. This is an ideal role for Heath, and one that could compliment Woods very well.

How Will Safeties Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier Fit Kris Richard's Secondary? 1

Dallas Cowboys CB Anthony Brown, S Xavier Woods, Jeff Heath

Regardless of where Heath is on the field, Woods should be able to coexist with him as a similarly instinctive safety.

There is also the possibility that both Heath and Woods struggle to handle these "starting" responsibilities, leaving the Cowboys with very little trusted depth at safety. If there is an area Woods needs the most improvement in, it is the angles he takes against the run to consistently make stops, a weakness also potentially mitigated by the Cowboys improved linebacker play (investing the 19th overall pick at the position).

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

Between Frazier and Woods, it feels safe to say the Cowboys must find a starter for a secondary that could still achieve great things in 2018. The Cowboys are entering this season with a loaded group of cornerbacks, all capable of making a safety's job relatively easy, especially while learning under Richard.

Such can be the hope for a raw player like Frazier and, in a sense, Xavier Woods. The second-year player in Woods is a great unknown for the Cowboys right now, as he'll remain that way for some time before next month's training camp.

With this, we'll have much more time to sit around and continue pondering what certain position groups will look like once meaningful Cowboys football graciously returns. I've written before that I'm paying close attention to this team's group of wide receivers, and you can add in the secondary players they'll be competing against too.

Tell us what you think about "How Will Safeties Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier Fit Kris Richard’s Secondary?" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Star Blog

No, Cowboys Shouldn’t Cut David Irving

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Cowboys' Pass Rush: Who Will Be QB Sack Leader In 2017?
Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY Sports

For the past five years, Dallas Cowboys fans have gone through painful offseason stories regarding upcoming suspensions for defensive players. It doesn't matter how much talent the front office is able to find through the Draft, there's always one player that ruins what feels like a successful offseason. This time, for the second consecutive year, David Irving is the player to let Cowboys Nation down.

On Friday it was announced that Irving will serve a four-game suspension after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

Understandably, a lot of Cowboys' fans want to see Irving released by the franchise that has preached the "Right Kind of Guy" philosophy while failing to establish such a thing. It's disappointing to see such a talented player limiting himself  by not "wanting it" bad enough and by making mistakes like this repeatedly.

However, even if it's a very frustrating situation, the Cowboys shouldn't cut David Irving. 

First of all, Irving's hit against the cap space is pretty minimum and nothing to be concerned at all. After being handed a second-round tender earlier in the year, #95 was set to earn $2.91M during the season. With a four-game suspension ahead of him, that number will be even lower.

We're talking about a guy who in eight games managed to get to the quarterback seven times in 2017 and consistently pressured opposing signal callers. Not to mention he's going to be just 25 years old when the season begins.

For the Cowboys, David Irving has the talent needed to average one sack per game. All of this for less than three million.

Irving has proven by now that he's not worth a long-term extension. That much is clear.  In order to get one of those, a player must prove his availability.

Talking specifically about 2018, though, I'm sure the Cowboys will be better off if they count on Irving for the final 12 games of the season. The team counts with pretty decent depth at the position with Maliek Collins, Datone Jones and Jihad Ward, but Irving has the potential to end the season with double-digit sacks.

The team gains nothing by releasing Irving. The team will not even be "sending a message" if they were to release #95. Maybe if the team had consistently sent this kind of "messages" over the years it would make sense.

However, we know this team sticks with their players and supports them in moments like this. They have done just that with Randy Gregory and it seems like it will pay off soon.

Whether we're mad at Irving's actions or not, the truth is letting him go wouldn't be wise at all. The Cowboys are not paying him big-time money, he's young and he'll be productive on the field when the defense needs him to.

We're talking about a football team that wants to make a run for the Lombardi Trophy. They can't be letting starting-caliber players go just like that. They need all the help they can get and even though his situation is far from ideal, David Irving will play a big role on defense.

Tell me what you think about "No, Cowboys Shouldn’t Cut David Irving" in the comments below, or tweet me @PepoR99 and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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Star Blog

Should Cowboys Add Another Safety Before Training Camp?

Brian Martin

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Should Cowboys Add Another Safety Before Training Camp?

The Dallas Cowboys are extremely thin at the safety position. Fact. They haven't really brought in anyone to upgrade the position from last season. Fact. I just wanted to point that out because there's a lot of discussion as to whether or not the Cowboys need to add another safety before training camp.

I don't know where you stand on this debate or how I feel about it personally, but it's definitely something that needs to be discussed from the Cowboys end. It is the one position where there is a lot of unknown and inexperienced. If one of their current safeties were to go down with an injury and miss any time, the whole defense would suffer.

As things stand right now, Jeff Heath is the only one who will reprise his starting role on the backend of the Cowboys defense. Behind him are Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier, but knowing exactly how they fit in at this moment is completely up in the air.

Unfortunately, that's the top three safeties for the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2018 season. What's even more bothersome is their fourth might be an undrafted rookie, Tyree Robinson. I don't know about you, but I find that very concerning. But, maybe Kris Richard, the defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator, knows something we don't.

Kris Richard

Dallas Cowboys DB Coach Kris Richard

Fortunately, Kris Richard was recently asked if he had any concerns about the safety position on the "Doomsday Podcast" with Matt Mosley and Ed Werder. He said he had "none".

"I'm confident. I feel really good at this point in time and it's because the level of character of our guys," he said. "We're going to get better. That's the deal because our guys are young, focused, I think the hunger's there. I love the look in their eyes. I love how everyone is buying in, is focused and paying attention to detail. It makes a difference when guys care. It makes a difference when each one wants to teach one. We're trying to build something special. We want to be tribe-like. We want to be more than a team."

It certainly sounds like Kris Richard is excited about the Dallas Cowboys current safeties. Of course, he would never just come out and say that this group is terrible or he wished they'd add Earl Thomas another available safety. That's just not how things work. He's here to coach up the guys on the roster and not worry about personnel moves.

I don't know about you, but I know I would feel a lot better if they had one more experienced safety who could come in and compete for a starting job. Maybe someone like Tre Boston or Kenny Vaccaro, who are still unsigned. Maybe make that trade for Earl Thomas? That's a dream that just won't die.

Regardless, the Dallas Cowboys need to do something to address their depth at the safety position. I don't know what their plans are moving forward, but hopefully they have a contingency plan in place. It's just smart business.

Do you think the Dallas Cowboys need to add a safety before training camp?



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