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Cowboys hot topic: Mounting worries about the 2017 team

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A .500 record has many on edge. Is the concern justified?

Los Angeles Rams v Dallas Cowboys
The offensive line is just one area causing headaches.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Coming off the wildly successful 2016 regular season, there was a lot of optimism about the Dallas Cowboys among fans. The media also tended to see them as a favorite to win the NFC East. But now they are stuck at .500 after playing the first quarter of the season. Discontent is rising as so many things that went right last year are clearly not going so well.

It is hardly time to write off the team, as they are only one game back of the Philadelphia Eagles in the race for the division. Still, after seeing one completely horrible performance against the Denver Broncos and the highly disappointing second half collapse against the Los Angeles Rams, there are plenty of things to create worry. Here are some of the most cited.

Is the sophomore slump real?

Dak Prescott set the league on fire a year ago, but so far, he has looked far more average, at least in crunch time. He is missing open receivers or just not seeing where the ball needs to go. There also seems to be a much better understanding of how to defend against him by opponents. The Cowboys made the daring move last season to make him the quarterback of the future and part ways with Tony Romo. Now there are many who are second guessing whether it was done too soon.

The offensive line has not handled the changes well at all.

Last year, the Cowboys had a dynamic and nearly unstoppable running game with rookie Ezekiel Elliott, and the performance of the offensive line was a key element in that. They also provide Prescott with great protection, allowing him time to make his reads and get completions. That has simply not been the case, and the obvious cause is the changes at right tackle and left guard. La’el Collins is still re-learning how to play tackle after having been a guard since turning pro, and both Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper are often having communication and assignment issues. This is leading to a lack of the openings Elliott was able to exploit last year, while often putting Prescott under unaccustomed pressure. Time will likely improve things, but the question is whether the team will run out of season before things come together.

Receivers are just not getting open, especially in the middle of the field.

Last year, the Prescott to Cole Beasley connection was money. Defensive coordinators took note, and now, Beasley is double and even triple teamed to frustrate his talent at getting open. Jason Witten is also getting a lot of attention. This leaves the wide receivers single covered, but Prescott just has not shown the same chemistry with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Brice Butler. He has made some good throws at times, but not with the consistency he needs.

Injuries and suspensions have hobbled the defense.

While Demarcus Lawrence is off to a very impressive start (he is half a sack away from his career season high of eight with twelve games to go), things have not gone so well elsewhere. Damontre Moore missed two games, and David Irving is just now back from his suspension. The injuries have been a bigger issue, and none more so than Sean Lee sitting out the Rams game. Running the ball was key to the comeback win by the Rams, and it is hard to believe that Lee would not have made a difference had he been available.

Add in the absence of Anthony Hitchens, who is often underrated and was seen by many observers as the best defender in training camp, and that left Dallas in a bit of a lurch at linebacker last Sunday. Jaylon Smith is doing remarkable things given his injury history, but he is also clearly still working his way back, and lacks crucial experience.

Meanwhile, the secondary has been really hurt by injury. Chidobe Awuzie and Nolan Carroll have missed games, while Jourdan Lewis and Orlando Scandrick have both had to play through injuries. This has forced some tough adjustments, including safety Xavier Woods having to play at cornerback.

These problems have combined to lead to crucial breakdowns defensively.

Zeke’s status is still in question.

As the fight between the NFL and the NFLPA over Elliott’s six-game suspension rages on in court, the Cowboys are left simply not knowing if he will miss a chunk of the season or not. While the team insists it is not letting that distract them, it is hard to imagine it is not having some effect on things.

Those are the big things that have so many worried. If Dallas cannot get things fixed, then this could be a very long season.

All is not doom and gloom, though. While there is no guarantee the problems will be fixed, they all do appear to be fixable. And some of them may get corrected very quickly.

The team needs to play to Prescott’s strengths.

There is a very interesting statistical trend to note from the Rams loss. Dave Halprin noted it earlier this week, via Pro Football Focus:

Dak Prescott excelled when blitzed, completing 10 of 14 passes for 118 yards, 2 TDs and a 136.3 passer rating. However, when not blitzed, he only completed 10 of 22 passes for 134 yards, a TD, an INT, and a 61.6 passer rating.

It is hard to say why that happened, but it may be that Prescott is able to rely more on the instincts he honed in the spread offense at Mississippi State when he is on the move. In any case, it seems that the team needs to look at getting him on the move deliberately. Don’t just wait for him to have to escape the pressure. Design rollouts and let him work the field that way, while stressing the defense with the threat of him using his legs to move the chains.

And there is a bit of selective amnesia about him. He has only played 20 NFL games to this point. He is still learning. It is highly probable that he will just get better as time goes on. Dallas still has the coaching staff that managed to make him the offensive rookie of the year. Don’t give up on them just yet.

The offensive line has faced some challenging opponents.

None of the first four games were going to be easy for the O line. The New York Giants have invested hugely in their defensive line. The Arizona Cardinals have a top ten passing defense. The Rams’ Aaron Donald was a one-man wrecking crew, as usual, and they are tied for third in team sacks. And as for the Broncos:

There is obvious need for improvement by the Dallas offensive line, but as mentioned, time will probably help things there as the new players get more used to things. Admittedly, this is probably the most crucial thing the Cowboys need to fix, so we have to hope they don’t take too long.

Scott Linehan needs to get creative with the passing game.

If the opponents are going to take Beasley out of the equation, he needs to move Bryant and the other receivers around more. Get them into more crossing routes and slants. There is too much ability in the receiving corps to not find ways to get more open targets for Prescott. And one good thing that came out of the Rams game was some use of Elliott out of the backfield. He had four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. Getting the ball to him in open space just leads to good things.

The defense may be the first thing to come around.

Irving is back, and that may well be the best news Lawrence has had all season.

Plus there is hope that Lee, Awuzie, and Carroll will all be on the field against the Green Bay Packers this Sunday. We know how Lee will likely improve things, especially against the run. And that injury-riddled secondary has actually done surprisingly well, as noted by Aaron Carney in an article at Cowboys Wire.

This year’s secondary, as full of injury-riddled holes as it is, has allowed an average of 231.8 passing yards per game. Their schedule includes three of the Top 6 passing yardage teams (Cardinals, Rams, Giants) on the season. Last year’s unit allowed 263.5 passing yards per game to the third-ranked Redskins, 15th-ranked Bears, 25th-ranked Giants and 31st-ranked 49ers.

To put it more simply, this year’s secondary has been far better defensively against far better offenses in the box score.

Despite his injury issues, Lewis has been playing very well, both defending passes and making sure tackles. And as for Woods playing out of position:

Now with Awuzie coming back, the secondary should be in even better shape. Carroll is in danger of being something of an afterthought. But with two corners likely returning this week, Woods should be able to go back to working at safety, which will mean the team won’t have to rely as much on Jeff Heath, who has not been very effective this year.

The Zeke suspension will just have to play itself out.

Some things are just out of the team’s control at this point. This is unfortunately one of them, and we can only hope for the best.

There are still a lot of “ifs” involved, but there are also some fairly obvious ways for Dallas to right the ship. And they are hardly in terrible shape in the standings. There is still a lot of football to play. The Cowboys just need to make it better than it has been so far.