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Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Defense Pushed to the Brink in Week 1 Loss

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: Cowboys Defense Pushed to the Brink in Week 1 Loss

The Cowboys entered their season opener in Carolina with plenty of hype on the defensive side of the ball, and just as much cautious optimism on offense. With the Panthers defense having other ideas, it was the Dallas defense that made the most lasting impression from this otherwise forgettable week one performance.

Falling 16-8 with only 232 yards to show for it on offense, the Cowboys find themselves quickly looking for answers in the passing game ahead of a week two home meeting with the 0-1 New York Giants. The Cowboys inability to make any plays on the outside limited their rushing game against the Panthers, as Ezekiel Elliott made his return to the field by failing to gain over 70 rushing yards for just the third time in his career.

Elliott was responsible for the Cowboys lone touchdown, which gave the team some hope behind their strong showing on defense. As always, here are my initial thoughts on the game that was for the Cowboys on the road Sunday.

  • Great, acrobatic play from Jarius Wright on third down to make a catch while falling down, but it was a missed opportunity for Anthony Brown to get the Cowboys defense off the field.

Wright would extent the Panthers first scoring drive, which ended in a Cam Newton touchdown run, with his tumbling catch in the second quarter. Cowboys Cornerback Anthony Brown played the rub concept well, flipping his hips to steer Wright towards the sideline.

With Newton under pressure, he had no choice but to throw the ball where Wright could come back to it. Doing just that, Wright secured the catch in front of Brown, who simply didn't react to the pass. If he did, Brown likely has no problem knocking the ball away from an otherwise out-of-position receiver, ending the Panthers drive.

The play was a concerning reminder that Brown has regressed from his 2016 form. A rookie at the time, Brown elevated himself to a starter as a sixth round pick by consistently making plays on the ball. The Cowboys will give Brown every chance to do so this season, but the Purdue product is no longer the same player.

  • The Cowboys defense got off the field in a big way when they sent a well-timed linebacker blitz at Cam Newton on third down in the fourth quarter. It would unfortunately lead to a missed Brett Maher field goal on the next drive.

The Cowboys are not known for sending many linebackers on blitzes under Rod Marinelli. Still this team's play caller, Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard has worked closely with the linebackers, and had his say in when Marinelli's defense brought pressure.

The Cowboys can only hope that Sean Lee's struggles in this game were early season rust, but it's a great sign that they still played as well as they did without their captain being his usual self. Dallas stayed committed to using a true rotation at linebacker, with Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Damien Wilson, and Justin March-Lillard all seeing action.

On a pivotal third down play, backed up to their own 20, Newton had absolutely nowhere to go with the ball as the Cowboys sent both linebackers on the field at him. Give credit to the Cowboys defensive front for occupying their blocks, as the play created pressure in Newton's face and brought up a Panthers punt.

  • Kavon Frazier continues to take advantage of opportunity every time he can, a welcome sight for a Cowboys defense thin at safety. 

Playing without Xavier Woods, Cowboys Safety Kavon Frazier proved that he'll remain an integral part of the Cowboys rotation in the secondary regardless of Woods' status. The Cowboys struggled to contain the edge a number of times early against the Panthers power running game. Their adjustment here was to move Frazier closer to the line of scrimmage.

Frazier was as comfortable as always coming downhill to make physical plays against the run in the box, but also flashed a few times in coverage. One of his best traits remains Frazier's ability to cover ground quickly and efficiently. If the Cowboys scheme allows him to do just that once Woods returns to the lineup, this team could be much better off at safety than ever expected.

  • I'll wait for the game tape to make any definitive judgments on the Cowboys offensive line, but I'd love to know how much the absence of Travis Frederick affected rookie Left Guard Connor Williams.

Backup Center Joe Looney had his hands full in his first regular season start for the Cowboys, and although he wasn't the most glaring issue with the Cowboys offense, this team still clearly missed Travis Frederick.

His ability to keep the offensive line playing together, and help his guards to either side with blocks, is what makes Frederick one of the best, technically refined linemen in the league. The Cowboys won't get the same level of cohesiveness from Looney, and this affected rookie Connor Williams at left guard.

Williams continues to struggle against power rush moves as a smaller guard (and college tackle). The Cowboys were in no position to help Williams and potentially get him out in space more thanks to the Panthers depth up front, which occupied the entirety of this Dallas line.

  • DeMarcus Lawrence's two stops on the Panthers last drive proved why he's among the elite defenders in the NFL.

As a whole, this probably wasn't the dominant performance that the tight-knit Cowboys defensive line was expecting against a weakened Panthers OL. Newton was hit four times (sacked three) on 26 drop backs.

Lawrence was still able to prove that he's the undisputed leader of this group late in the fourth quarter.

Lawrence showed off his hand usage on a first down run from C.J. Anderson, effortlessly getting inside of his blocker and making a stop. Later on third down, Lawrence would pressure Newton off the left edge and force him to step up into a waiting Tyrone Crawford for a gain of one.

It's a shame the Cowboys did so little with their final possession, because the Cowboys defense did everything it could to win this game on their own, up until the closing moments with Tank leading the way.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

With plenty to still unpack about how the Cowboys began their 2018 season, it's too early to consider what an 0-2 start could mean for this team. The Cowboys brass was clearly unhappy with this 16-8 result at the Panthers, with both Jerry and Stephen Jones declining to comment after the game.

As expected simply by looking at the box score, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan has also taken plenty of heat for the way his offense came out flat and predictable.

Whether or not it continues to bode well that this Sean's Scout covered mostly the Cowboys emerging defense will be determined by the offense's ability to get in manageable down-and-distances and find creativity in the passing game.

Tell us what you think about "Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Defense Pushed to the Brink in Week 1 Loss" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

Game Notes

Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Zack Martin

The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.

Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:

Dallas Cowboys

  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
  • DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
  • DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
  • DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
  • G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
  • DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
  • LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable

The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.

Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.

The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.

Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.

Atlanta Falcons

  • LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT

It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.

The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.

Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.

So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.



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Game Notes

Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta

Sean Martin

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Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta

The Dallas Cowboys play their next three games in 13 days, all critical to their hopes of winning the NFC East despite alternating wins and losses since week one. For the Cowboys to earn consecutive road wins, their first coming on Sunday night at the Eagles, they'll have to come out of Atlanta in much better shape than they did just a year ago.

As expected in the NFL, a lot has changed in this year. The Cowboys 27-7 loss at the Falcons in their first game without Running Back Ezekiel Elliott was the beginning of the end on a season that forced a multitude of coaching changes in Dallas.

The Cowboys stubbornness in allowing Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn to sack Dak Prescott six times by beating Chaz Green and Byron Bell is something they hoped to move past when new positional coaches were brought in at OL, TE, QB, and WR.

It took the team admitting that these moves below Offensive Coordinator Scot Linehan were not all correct two weeks ago for the Cowboys to see any real progress, but with their win last week there's hope that the Cowboys are the improved team expected weeks ago - arrived just in time for Thanksgiving.

Firing Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander was the first move, as the Cowboys named Marc Colombo OL Coach and Hudson Houck his assistant. Colombo told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas this week that he has injured Center Travis Frederick on a headset during games as well.

Colombo, Houck, and Frederick have the Cowboys offensive line confident in their ability to play to their strengths, rewarded with a renewed faith in the zone blocking scheme that was forgotten under Alexander.

If the Cowboys offensive line was their first problem in last year's Falcons loss (it was), it's becoming their biggest strength at the right time in the season.

The Cowboys necessary changes didn't stop here though.

In desperate need of a play maker on the outside, the Cowboys are seeing their investment into Wide Receiver Amari Cooper pay off so far. Cooper is averaging 3.2 yards of separation on his routes this season, ahead of Cole Beasley's 2.6 yards as the next closest pass catcher.

Cooper's presence was a big part of Ezekiel Elliott's 151 yard rushing performance at the Eagles. A player that can win on the outside with ease and dictate coverage has benefited Prescott and the Cowboys game plan on offense enough to send away a first round pick.

It will be up to this "rebuilt" Cowboys offense to match the Falcons on Sunday. Atlanta is averaging 27.1 points per game this season, but a much more dangerous 32.2 at home. After a 1-4 start, the 4-5 Falcons are playing in front of their home fans for the first time in two weeks, losing at the Browns in week ten.

The Cowboys felt they'd be prepared for games like this after their offseason moves, instead needing to show the type of in-season urgency that's been rare for Jason Garrett's team. The same can be said about a Falcons team that's experienced playing with their backs to the wall much sooner than the Cowboys have this season, setting up a big NFC match up in the early slot Sunday.

Dak Prescott will be thankful that Chaz Green nor Byron Bell are protecting him, wanting nothing more than to deliver another win for the Cowboys to take into Thanksgiving against the division-leading Washington Redskins. Not all of the coaches responsible for the lack of adjustment in last year's game are gone. What the Cowboys do have are tangible new ideas from coaches that understand they need more than a win at the defending Super Bowl champions to call this Cowboys season a success.

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

Do Or Die: Chidobe Awuzie Must Improve Sunday, Or Cowboys Season Could End

Kevin Brady

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Will Chidobe Awuzie's Return Benefit The Cowboys' Defense?

Coming into the season there was a lot of hype surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' cornerbacks. With Byron Jones moving from safety full time, and now second year player Chidobe Awuzie playing opposite Jones after a promising rookie season, there was a lot for Cowboys fans to be excited about.

Through the first 10 weeks of the year, though, only one of those two has maintained fans' excitement. While Byron Jones has been arguably the best cornerback in all of football, Chidobe Awuzie has been damn-near an automatic completion when thrown at.

Awuzie has a -5.8 coverage rating this season, 65th among cornerbacks in the NFL. Coverage rating is a metric which factors in how often a cornerback is targeted as well as how many passes they've defensed per target. Quarterbacks also have a 116.6 passer rating when targeting Awuzie, compared to just 64.5 when targeting Byron Jones. For comparisons sake, Jones' coverage rating is a +45! So you can see why "cornerback opposite of Jones" is becoming a need for the Cowboys.

What's perplexing about Awuzie's season, though, is that he is only giving up an average 0.95 yards of separation, 27th in the league (courtesy of playerprofiler.com). So while Awuzie is playing relatively sticky coverage, he's still being targeted often, and he's still allowing completions way too often.

This week, Chidobe Awuzie will be tested once again, this time by the dynamic passing game of the Atlanta Falcons. The match-up many fans are focusing on is that between Byron Jones and Julio Jones, but how Awuzie does against Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu may play a bigger factor in the result.

Both Ridley and Sanu are solid supporting receivers, and considering how much attention the defense typically has to pay to Julio Jones, they tend to get man coverage often. This allows for a precise route runner like Ridley to take advantage of opportunities, and come away with the types of big plays we've seen from him this year.

When matched up with either of these weapons, Awuzie will need to continue to stay close, but play and defense the ball better. He must continue to make it hard on these receivers and force them into contested catches, but hopefully he can improve on his play when the ball gets to the catch point.

Sunday will be another big test for the Cowboys' young defense. And as well as they have played most weeks, this game has the potential to be a season ender if certain guys do not step up. One of those guys who will certainly play a key role in influencing the result in Chidobe Awuzie.



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