NFL teams can absorb injuries when they are spead out. Coordinators cringe when the injuries blow a single position off the depth charts. That happened to last year's Cowboys team at several positions.
Think left guard. Kyle Kosier goes down. Montrae Holland is supposed to spell him but takes three quarters of the season to get fully prepared. Then, he injures an ankle four quarters into his time in the lineup. Wide receiver had the same issue. Miles Austin and Sam Hurd lost a lot of time to injury. Then Dallas acquired Roy WIlliams, who suffered plantar fasciitis just two games after Tony Romo returned to the lineup.
The bogey position on the defense was strong safety. Roy Williams went down early. His backup Pat Watkins tried playing with an injured neck and finally had to be pulled. Dallas had to claim Keith Davis off waivers from Miami and play him for significant time. Then, he went down against Baltimore, meaning the Cowboys had to play much of that critical game with street free agent Tra Battle, their fourth option. Given Davis' marginal status, one can reasonably claim Dallas didn't have an NFL caliber strong safety on the field last year.
The team cut ties with Davis and Williams and then acquired Gerald Sensabaugh through free agency and Michael Hamlin in the draft. Four games into this still-young season, Cowboys strong safeties again resemble Spinal Tap drummers.
Hamlin broke a wrist on a special teams play in the 49ers preseason game and has been absent every since. Sensabaugh broke a thumb early in the Denver loss and had surgery early this week. The Cowboys are gain working with a third teamer, this time the last-stand Watkins, and the early impressions are not pretty.
Watkins took a lot of grief from Bill Parcells his head-first tackling technique. The Tuna warned Watkins that he was risking serious injury by diving low at runners and receivers. Pat is still taking those risks. He missed a couple of tackles near the line by diving at Knowshon Moreno's ankles. Moreno easily stopped over Watkins and continued up the field.
In the open field, Watkins' tackling technique can be described as grab-the-shoulder-pads, fall-backwards, and hope-the-two-of-you -and-short of the first down marker. He may be the softest defender I've ever seen. He's just as tentative forcing play and tackling now as he was when he played with a disc problem last year.
Josh McDaniel didn't attack Watkins too much but he did isolate tight end Tony Scheffler on Watkins three times by lining Scheffler as a wide receiver. Denver completed two of those passes for two first downs. When Denver threw to Scheffler a fourth time Mike Jenkins had coverage responsibility.
Dallas can probably get past Kansas City with Watkins at strong safety. Sean Ryan is a Pat Watkins-caliber tight end, who has bounced around the bottom quarter of several NFL rosters. The matchups will get considerably tougher after the break. Seattle has John Carlson, and Cowboys fans will recall how he toasted Keith Davis to a crispy brown last Thanksgiving. Atlanta will then bring Tony Gonzalez to Cowboys Stadium. Do I need to explain him? The following week, Philadelphia will match Brent Celek against whomever the Cowboys play at the strong. He's not great, but if your safety isn't up to the matchup, he will make you pay. The Eagles started their second half comeback in last year's NFC Championship game on Celek's catches.
What you see are three speed tight ends who can be focal points of passing attacks, with head coaches who know how to use them. The Cowboys corners have had two strong games and have played the way they did in the preseason. The opposition will ignore then and go at the safeties and linebackers if the matchups present themselves there. These games should be competitive and one mismatch could be what throws a game against the Cowboys.
I don't think Wade Phillips puts his season and his job at Pat Watkins' disposal. If Sensabaugh can't make a quick return, I would not be surprised to see Ken Hamlin slide into the box while Alan Ball sits in centerfield. The Cowboys played a lot of 11 vs. 10 last year. I don't think they'll tolerate this again.