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Can The Cowboys' Secondary Shut Down The Falcons' Receivers?

So far, the Dallas defensive backs have looked very good. With Tony Romo out, they will need to continue the trend to give the Cowboys a better shot at winning.

Can the Cowboys handle the Matt Ryan to Julio Jones  connection?
Can the Cowboys handle the Matt Ryan to Julio Jones connection?
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The challenges facing the Dallas Cowboys are obvious. They have to find a way to win games with Brandon Weeden at quarterback (in for Tony Romo) and without Dez Bryant for at least several weeks. Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, and Randy Gregory are also still waiting to get on the field, and now Terrell McClain, who has played very well, has joined Orlando Scandrick on injured reserve.

Despite the steady stream of bad news, Dallas has managed to get to 2-0, and both wins are in their own division. A very large share of the credit for the wins this season goes to the defense. OCC documented how they are a top five unit by one analytical measure, but one problem at this point in the season is that the sample size is so small. And since the Giants and the Eagles are both struggling at 0-2, there is an obvious question of whether Dallas is really that good, or the opponents were that inept.

We are going to find out a bit more about that when the Cowboys face the Atlanta Falcons. In a strange twist of the NFL schedule, the Falcons are the only team that the Eagles and Giants have played besides Dallas. Like the Cowboys, Atlanta comes into the game at 2-0. For both, a win would give them a serious leg up in the playoff race. As OCC documented in his post about how fast or slow starts affect playoff chances, a 3-0 record historically gives a team a 72% chance of being in the postseason, but slipping to 2-1 drops that to 51%. And the stakes are probably much higher for the Cowboys, since there is a considerable amount of doubt about how many games they can win without Tony Romo and the other injured players.

The Cowboys will likely have to rely on their defense to carry them through until Romo is back in November. Atlanta looks to be a major test for them, coming into the game fifth in the league in total yards. They are heavily dependent on the passing game, with the third-highest total yardage per game at 318 yards per game. Their rushing attack is only generating 80.5 yards per game, and their best rusher, rookie Tevin Coleman, is expected to miss the game with a fractured rib. That's why the challenge for the Cowboys is to shut down the passing game. So far, the pass rush has only generated two sacks, although the pressure appeared to disrupt both Eli Manning and Sam Bradford, who gained considerably more yards throwing the ball against Atlanta than they did against Dallas. But this may also be largely due to the greatly improved play in the secondary. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Tyler Patmon, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, and Byron Jones have combined to largely neutralize all the receivers they have faced, wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs alike. They have also gotten a nice assist from Sean Leeweek two NFL Defender of the Week, who reasserted himself as the best pass-intercepting linebacker in the league against the Eagles.

A Cowboys victory may be dependent on whether or not those defensive backs can continue the trend against Matt Ryan's targets. His main ones so far have been wide receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Leonard Hankerson, tight end Jacob Tamme, and running back Devonta Freeman. They have accounted for all but 49 of the team's 661 yards receiving so far this season. Those are the players that the Dallas pass defense has to stop.

Julio Jones and White are the two biggest targets, although White uncharacteristically did not have a reception in week two against the Giants, the first time that has happened since 2006. Jones is also nursing a sore hamstring, apparently suffered in the season opener. It led to him being limited in Wednesday's practice, but it didn't stop him from catching 13 passes for 135 yards against the Eagles. Those two, plus Hankerson, are the primary responsibility of the cornerbacks, while Byron Jones will likely be called on to help cover Tamme.

Based on the experience so far, the Cowboys should be up to the job. In week one, the secondary limited Odell Beckham Jr., considered by many to be the rising wide receiver star in the league, to only 44 yards. The following week, he would explode for 146 yards and a touchdown on only seven catches. Throttling the top receiver did not mean that the team let the number two man get loose, either, because they limited Shane Vereen to 46 yards. He would get 76 the next week.

The job they did against the Eagles receivers was not as good, but the results were skewed a bit by the 80-yard drive for a touchdown when the game was largely decided. Still, they held the main receiving targets for Philadelphia, Jordan Matthews, Darren Sproles, and Zack Ertz, all to less yards than they got in their first game. Only DeMarco Murray had more receiving yards against Dallas.

Again, we are dealing with a very small sample size. But the records to date are all we have to project the likely outcome of the game on Sunday. And everything we know at this point indicates that the Cowboys should be able to limit the damage by the Atlanta receiving corps. The defense has been even better against the run, so they should match up well in that aspect.

The offense for Dallas will still have to hold up its end of the bargain, and that is going to be its own challenge. But the defense looks quite capable of handling its assignment against the Falcons.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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