- With Dak Prescott working with a bunch of third- and fourt-caliber receivers, can Dallas get enough through the air to get back to the playoffs? Because the run game and the defense are ready
With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Dallas Cowboys, who finished 9–7 in 2017.
1. There’s no debate: the Cowboys are deficient at wide receiver. Entering training camp, the position boasted six to eight capable contributors … unfortunately, all of them would be third or fourth options on most teams. This offense suffered through shoddy receiver play last year and became inconsistent. Head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan must reshape their approach. Out with the spread formations that were built to emphasize Dez Bryant outside and Jason Witten inside. With receivers who cannot win on their own in space, an offense must manufacture aerial opportunities via designs from its running game. Those designs often come from condensed formations, where receivers can appear to be potential run-blockers.
The good news is a dominant O-line (more on that later) and an explosive, deceptive runner like Ezekiel Elliott, make Dallas’s ground game the best in football. It’s an almost unbeatable equation when you factor in Dak Prescott’s mobility, which can occupy unblocked defenders and, via rollout designs both real and fake, tame a defense’s backside pursuit.
2. To maximize that ground game, Garrett and Linehan should flavor it with more misdirection elements. Jet sweeps, end-arounds, decoy pull-blockers and multi-option zone reads would be great additions to Dallas’s staple ghost reverses and split-zone runs, where receivers and tight ends work back across the formation. The Cowboys are primed for this; if they weren’t, they would not have traded for ex-Ram Tavon Austin (and his $3 million cap number, which is more than five times pricier than similarly skilled 2017 fourth-rounder Ryan Switzer, who was shipped to Oakland in a separate deal).
3. Prescott is best-suited for a run-first offense—and that’s not a slight at his quarterbacking. He has what few mobile QBs possess: the poise and toughness to stay in the pocket and deliver with defenders closing in. That’s crucial for long-term development. But Prescott is not an aggressive anticipation passer like most of the league’s top pocket QBs. He’s a facilitator who can make second-reaction plays when need be. This type of skill set works great on play-action, bootlegs and rollouts—tactics, in other words, that stem from the running game.
4. Prescott will miss his security blanket, Jason Witten, particularly when facing zone coverage, where the future Hall of Fame tight end was so steady. Dallas’s futility at tight end—last year's No. 3, Geoff Swaim, is the projected starter, with undrafted second-year pro Blake Jarwin contending—is problematic.
5. We’d be remiss if we didn’t dedicate one of these 10 points to marveling at this offensive line. It’s not hyperbolic to say that if second-round rookie left guard Connor Williams emerges quickly and 25-year-old right tackle La’el Collins becomes a more consistent pass protector, this could be the greatest front five of the NFL’s modern era. Left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin are all the best at their respective positions and smack-dab in their primes. Worth noting: new offensive line coach Paul Alexander, who comes over after 23 years in Cincinnati, has long taught unconventional blocking techniques. Will he instill those with such an overwhelmingly talented group? Or will he adjust to fit what’s familiar to his players.
6. Coordinator Rod Marinelli’s defense has a crisp profile: various traditional zone coverages and a deep rotation of personnel packages to keep players energized enough to fulfill his relentless demands on rallying to the ball.
7. Marinelli has one of the NFL’s most youthful, intriguing cornerbacking groups. Second-year pros Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods could very well comprise the nickel unit by season’s end. If they don't, it means third-year corner Anthony Brown reclaimed a spot. Talented fourth-year defensive back Byron Jones is also moving from safety/slot corner to the outside in hopes of eradicating the problems that his poor spatial reasoning created in zone D. Nothing has to be decided quickly; almost all of these men have played on both sides of the field and from the slot, and Woods has gotten significant snaps at safety.
8. The D-line is full of talent and buts. 2015 second-round end Randy Gregory is talented, but he’s been suspended for 30 of the past 32 games (substance abuse). Third-year defensive tackle Maliek Collins has the superb short-area movement to be elite, but he missed most of the offseason recovering from multiple surgeries on his left foot. Dynamic fourth-year pro David Irving is quick and agile enough to slip and even elude blocks from a defensive tackle position, but he’ll begin the season on a four-game substance abuse suspension. At least there’s no longer a but with franchise-tagged defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. His once-troubling back problems have stayed away and his repertoire of moves has become highly refined against both the run and pass.
9. The Cowboys rarely blitz. Instead, their front four executes a litany of slants, stunts and twists. Most 4-3 teams employ these on third-down pass rushing. The Cowboys will use them on first- and second-down run-stopping. The idea is to attack a gap before a running back can, forcing him to redirect. For this to work, your linebackers must have the talent and awareness to consistently clean up. That’s why superstar Sean Lee is joined by 2016 second-rounder Jaylon Smith and 2018 first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch.
10. Here’s a factoid extraordinary enough to defy overemphasis: In the 39 games Sean Lee has played over the last three years, the Cowboys have allowed an average of 19.6 points and 278 yards. In the nine games Lee has missed, they've allowed 32.7 points and 376 yards.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a talented young defense playing opposite the league’s most imposing ground game. Fifteen years ago, that would have assured 12 victories. That’s still obtainable today, but it will require winning a lot of close contests. 8-8 feels likelier.
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