Cowboys are out of the division race. This is a wild card pursuit now.— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) October 13, 2017
Given that there are still 11 games to play, including all of the season’s games against Philadelphia and Washington, that may be a bit premature. But in any case, things must change for the Cowboys to have any chance at the postseason. The record is the record, and Dallas is clearly in a hole.
What can they do? Here are what appear to be the main things, roughly in order of likelihood.
Fix the linebacking situation.
This is one thing that may largely be done with the expected return of Sean Lee to the field. The struggles in stopping the run the past two games seem to be directly linked to his absence while recovering from a hamstring problem. The team made a strategic decision to keep him off the field against the Green Bay Packers. We all have to hope that was the right move.
Keep improving the pass rush.
Coming into the Packers game, the sack rate was dramatically improved, but that was almost entirely due to the red-hot start by Demarcus Lawrence. His performance carrying the rush was likely unsustainable. But good news came against Green Bay as David Irving, in his first game back from suspension, put two sacks on the board. Two effective pass rushers is a big plus. And the Cowboys just missed on other sacks against Aaron Rodgers, their new nemesis. Most NFL quarterbacks would likely not have evaded as well as he did. If the pressure keeps coming and getting home, this could have a major impact.
Also keep improving the secondary coverage with the new players.
Jourdan Lewis pretty much single-handedly showed Nolan Carroll the door. Xavier Woods is also off to a great start. Now if Chidobe Awuzie can stay healthy, things may be looking up for the coverage. The Cowboys took a pretty huge gamble in parting ways with Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Barry Church all at once. Although it has not gone perfectly, they do appear to have a pretty good chance of winning that bet. But the young players now carrying the load have to keep performing. It is going to be a challenge.
Get the offensive line back to its accustomed ways.
This is one that the coaching staff has to get right, and that is not certain. Against Green Bay, Jonathan Cooper looked much better at left guard than he did against the Los Angeles Rams, and better than Chaz Green had in the first three games (at least according to many observers). The issue is that the staff has at times seemed committed to giving Green the starting job ahead of Cooper no matter what. Now that Green’s injury issues have once again come into play, will that make a difference? We can only hope.
La’el Collins has also had his struggles, and needs to do a better job holding down the right tackle spot. Again, the coaches really need to work with him on his technique, which seems to be where he falls short at times.
Reduce the hits on Dak.
This ties directly to the preceding point, but also is something Scott Linehan needs to focus on as well. Dak Prescott is young and tough, but they need to use his mobility. He also frequently makes his best throws on the move. Additionally, he gets a bit jumpy in the pocket. Rolling him out and using run/pass option plays a bit more can play to his strengths while helping him avoid getting beaten up.
Get the best receivers on the field more, and get them open.
Let’s keep this simple: Brice Butler needs to move ahead of Terrance Williams as the WR2. Butler has been markedly more effective, especially on deep throws. It is time for him to step up.
It is may also be time to give Ryan Switzer some more snaps at the expense of Jason Witten. That is going to be a hard sell given Witten’s experience and determination to be on the field. And Switzer is still unproven. Still, some difficult calls may be needed at this point.
Keep the running game going.
With Ezekiel Elliott once again suspended (at least for the moment), the Cowboys have to find a way to keep running the ball without him. It will likely be more of a committee approach with Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, at least until one of them shows he can carry most of the load. Rod Smith is also a part of the mix, although it is not as likely he would become the lead back. And Keith Smith is starting to show that he can be a real value as both a lead blocker and pass receiver. The latter ability means that going with two-back sets does not lock them into running the ball, which can make defending them more difficult.
Avoid the injury bug.
This is perhaps the biggest thing. It is also the most uncontrollable one. Already this year we have seen so many NFL stars go down with likely season ending injuries. Odell Beckham Jr. and J.J. Watt are just two of the names that have been lost for the year. The Cowboys are already facing ongoing issues with Tyron Smith, Lee, L. Collins, and Awuzie, and we don’t want to even thing about something happening at quarterback.
Can the Cowboys get all these things accomplished? Frankly, that is doubtful. But they don’t have to do them all. They were so close to winning against both the Rams and the Packers, and just having Lee available might have tipped the scales in their favor.
If they can do a majority of the things listed here, they have a real chance of winning enough games going forward to make the playoffs. That is the only goal that matters right now. Failure in too many of these areas could cause them to fall short, of course.
It is going to be a tough road. We will see how tough this year’s edition of the Cowboys is.