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Dallas Cowboys: Secondary unit in crisis

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I'm going to be honest.

I've got a bad feeling about Sunday's game.

I think we're going to win. Don't get me wrong.

But I'm concerned about our secondary.

Suddenly what seemed like a deep, talented unit has now been hampered by injuries and altercations. This unit is in crisis. Our best cornerback is hurt. Two of our safeties (Roy Williams and Pat Watkins) are hurt. Our prized acquistion is making the wrong kinds of news again. This unit has no interceptions in the first five games. The controlled, short-drop, quick-hitting passing game has bothered us all season. And our pass rush hasn't been consistent enough to hide some of our deficiencies. And as if that wasn't enough, this week we face Kurt Warner, who is a master of the short-drop, quick-release that has given us problems this year.

There are four things that I've been obsessing over: Newman's injury and how it impacts the unit, Jones' altercation and how that could impact the unit, the Cardinal offense and how they could exploit these new developments and the opportunity for others to step up and meet these challenges head on.

Terence Newman's injury

Newman is unquestionably our fastest, highest-paid and most accomplished cornerback. We need him to achieve our ultimate goal IMO. So this makes the discovery of his abdominal strain (ESPN is calling it a sports hernia) that much more worrisome. If he has surgery, he could miss six weeks. Can we survive without him for six weeks? I have confidence in rookies Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, but with Torry Holt, Plaxico Burress and Santana Moss on our schedule, do you trust them in a pivotal situation to man up on these receivers?

This week his absence is critical. We face one of the top-rated passing offenses in the league. We face Larry Fitzgerald -- one of the top receivers in the league. Without Newman's leadership and gifted physical skills, there will need to be a team effort to curtail Fitzgerald. There's just no other player on this team that can physically match up with him. Without Newman, we are more dependent on Jones, who replaces him in our standard defense. Scandrick takes Newman's spot in the nickel package and Jenkins will stay in the dime package. 

Pacman Jones' altercation

I agree with Grizz. This is the worst time for this to be happening, particularly with Newman's injury. With all due respect to Anthony Henry, Jones is arguably our best cornerback when Newman isn't on the field. If he's suspended, then that means we'd be down two cornerbacks and two safeties. As I put on my rose-colored glasses I'll say this: I see an argument for Jones. He was not arrested and the situation has been resolved. But the whole thing just doesn't pass the smell test. He was drinking, he hit someone and (although I could care less) he was hanging around a rapper which I'm sure does not please Gestapo Goodell (if anyone has any evidence that he's a Ludacris fan, I'll apologize immediately). This incident brings back my trust issues with Mr. Jones.

This week we should be focused on the Cardinals. But now it has instantly become "Pacman Jones Week." The media will focus on this incident and we'll all be waiting on Goodell's decision, should there be any. If Jones does play, he'll need to stop his tendency this year to drop picks. Warner has strengths but he can turn the ball over in bunches. He will throw picks, he will force throws and he will fumble if you get pressure on him. Jones has good anticipatory skills and a lot of his gambles have paid off. We'll need that aggressiveness against a quality opponent on the road.

But if Jones is suspended that leaves us with the possibility of a rookie starting in our base defense and an expanded role for our other rookies and fifth and sixth-string cornerbacks. Not. Good.

The Cardinal Offense

This offense is the kind of offense that could give us serious trouble. We lucked out that we won't have to face Anquan Boldin. But his replacement Steve Breaston is also dangerous. In the last two games, Breaston has 16 catches and 199 yards. Fitzgerald has almost 500 receiving yards and four TDs this year. Warner is the third ranked QB in the league with more than 1,400 passing yards and 10 TDs. In other words, this offense is for real.

What wakes me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat is how quickly Warner gets rid of the ball. I watched highlights of him against the Bills defense -- a pretty solid group -- and the ball was gone so quickly. Three-step drop and boom! Ball's gone. His short immediate passes were accurate, on-time and hit receivers in stride. Sound familiar? This is exactly the gameplan that the Redskins used against us two weeks ago and it worked like a charm.

The difference is, unlike Jason Campbell, Warner does turn the ball over. He has four INTs this year and his history shows that he's highly susceptible to fumbling and being stripped. The problem is you have to get pressure on him to do that and that's something we haven't done consistently so far this year. Also, like any QB, the less pressure you get on him, the more confident Warner gets. And lemme tell you. Once Warner starts getting confident and firing on all cylinders, he's almost impossible to stop, particularly when he has tools at his disposal. If Sunday rolls around and Warner's staring at a rookie cornerback (assuming Jones gets suspended) and a third-string safety in our secondary, his eyes are going to light up. And as a consequence we might get lit up.      

The Opportunity

Our team is faced with dire circumstances and I'm worried. Our most vunerable group -- due to injuries, altercations and inexperience -- faces a team who's strength could expose them. The Cardinals, IMO, can not only beat us, but they could make us look bad. They hung 41 points on the previously undefeated Bills. They played the Redskins as tough as we did. They've played well at home. Now is not the time to have a depleted secondary.

But in the midst of this crisis arises an opportunity. There's an opportunity for increased time for our rookies Jenkins and Scandrick. They might get exploited but then again they might respond and validate why the coaching staff is so high on them. There's an opportunity (assuming the Commish shows mercy) for Jones to validate the high-risk, high-reward trade for his services. There is an opportunity for the secondary to create the turnovers that have been so rare this season.  

We'll see come Sunday. This team has risen to face many challenges this season. Our secondary will be shorthanded but their ability to overcome this adversity is essential to our success.

I hope they respond.

They better.

Or I'm really going to be worried.