Sun, 06 Dec 2020

3 & Out: It's Quite A Thin Line At 2-4

Dallas Cowboys
22 Oct 2020, 19:24 GMT+10

Rob Phillips

FRISCO, Texas - Back with three quick topics as the Cowboys look to maintain the most tenuous of division leads Sunday at Washington:

Another Line Shuffle Defense's Balancing Act How Many Wins Will It Take?

I Know...

two more injuries to the offensive line is tough timing for this particular division matchup.

We'll see about Zack Martin this week. He is currently in the NFL's concussion protocol, which requires meeting a series of benchmarks before clearance to practice and play. His return Sunday would obviously help stabilize the interior line against a Washington front loaded with former first-round picks. Washington has 16 sacks, tied for seventh in the league this year and the most ever by a Washington team in the first six games of a season.

If Martin isn't ready on this short week, the Cowboys would be down to one offensive lineman who was a projected starter this summer: third-year left guard Connor Williams.

Rookies Tyler Biadasz and Terence Steele are fill-in starters at center and right tackle, respectively. And now the Cowboys are facing a backup-backup plan at left tackle with Brandon Knight, Tyron Smith's injury replacement, out at least a couple weeks following Tuesday knee surgery. Mike McCarthy said Cameron Erving is expected to practice again this week, so a potential return from IR would give them a veteran option.

It's challenging when a key player goes down. It can be crippling when multiple injuries hit a particular position.

That said, head coach Mike McCarthy was proud of the young, depleted line for battling through an excessive number of pass plays (54) against Arizona's blitzing defense. The Cowboys didn't plan for that much imbalance, but turnovers again threw everything out of whack. Andy Dalton was sacked three times and hit eight times, but upon review of the film, it looked like the protection held up pretty well for stretches.

In the last decade, the Cowboys have built a great offensive line through continuity as much as talent. Across the board, this is the line's most challenging situation since that two- or three-year stretch in the early 2010s when they transitioned from a veteran group (Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier) to a dominant core of Smith, Martin, Collins and the now-retired Travis Frederick.

How this new group responds against Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and rookie Chase Young will be critical to Sunday's outcome.

I Think...

we got some good insight from Mike McCarthy into the current balancing act on defense.

McCarthy was asked Tuesday if the staff tried to implement too much schematic change without an offseason or full preseason.

"It's part of the checks and balances process that all the head coaches are going through this year, especially the first-year head coaches," he said. "I would say, 'Should we have simplified sooner?' Frankly, I think we did it after the second game. So, I don't have a problem with where we are as far as what we're asking our guys to do because that was part of the change and why I feel strongly that philosophically we're going in the direction that we are defensively."

Remember, in changing staffs this offseason, it was clear the Cowboys felt the defense needed a more 'multiple,' varied approach than they've had in the past. That was a philosophical commitment they made in the winter and spring.

McCarthy added, though: "Our job is to make sure that we're putting players in position to be successful. Now, with that we have to be accountable to that and to their skill set and how it all fits together. Now, they also have to be accountable to the fact that maybe a scheme or technique that they have done in the past may be easier or they liked it differently than we're asking them, but we feel it's in the best interest for the team. I think these are all common questions, these are all common situations regardless of the position, offense, defense or special teams, that you go through in the first year."

Through six games, the defense is currently 27th in yards allowed (410.0 per game) and last in points allowed (36.3), though there's a Giants interception return for a touchdown mixed in there.

Allow me to duck as I write this: there were signs of progress Monday against Arizona. The Cowboys forced three punts to open a game for the first time this season. Run containment against Kyler Murray is a problem for every team, but he was inconsistent in the passing game, completing only 9 of 24 attempts. Turnovers on offense continued to put the defense in compromising situations.

The biggest challenge continues to be the back-breaking big plays. Three of at least 60 yards Monday. Christian Kirk blew the game open with an 80-yard touchdown catch and Kenyan Drake sealed it with a 69-yard touchdown run. For the season, opponents have posted seven plays of at least 40 yards, all leading to touchdowns.

Sean Lee, who's hopeful to return from IR soon, says the key is "playing together as a group and then playing with a certain speed because you know the defense inside and out."

"I think if you look at different games, we've played well in maybe the pass game but not the run game or we've played well in the run game but maybe not in the pass game," he said. "It's putting it all together for a full 60, 70 plays and playing with a certain type of speed and intensity.

"I think the effort's there. We're playing better with how we're playing, but there's no question that we have to put a full game together as a group."

I Have No Idea...

how many wins it'll take to win the NFC East this year.

Excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season, no team has ever clinched the East with fewer than nine wins since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Only three teams have clinched the division with fewer than 10 wins: the 2011 Giants (9-7), Washington in 2015 (9-7) and the 2019 Eagles (9-7).

Since the league went to an eight-division format in 2002, no team has won any division with fewer than seven wins. Only four teams have gotten in with fewer than nine wins: the 2008 Chargers (8-8), the 2010 Seahawks (7-9), the 2011 Broncos (8-8) and the 2014 Panthers (7-8-1).

The Cowboys' 2-4 start is mitigated by the fact that the Eagles (1-4-1), Giants (1-5) and Washington (1-5) have three combined wins. At some point, one team will get on a streak. It always seems to happen.

Even with all the injuries and frustrating miscues, the Cowboys don't believe they're far off. But this two-game division stretch, starting with Washington, is big. One game separates first place and last place right now.

A thin line, indeed.

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