This could be the best news of the week.
The Dallas Cowboys' defense has not been fully stocked all season, but it’s getting closer.
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens has missed the first four games because of a tibial plateau fracture, but he is expected to take part in full practices this week for the first time this season. David Irving's four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy is over. Sean Lee could return from a one-game absence because of a hamstring injury. Chidobe Awuzie could be back from a two-game absence because of a hamstring strain.
Jerry Jones is also saying Hitchens and Lee are likely to return.
But that’s the initial point. When the Cowboys welcome the Packers to AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon, there’s at least some optimism they’ll have some reinforcements on defense – starting with their top two linebackers, Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens.
“The good news is we’ve got a chance to have both back right now, this week,” said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones on Tuesday. “We’re going to see how they do in practice. It could be early. We’ve got the bye week coming up. That may be a decision to make there.”
It sounds like David Irving is raring to go.
David Irving couldn’t talk to any Dallas Cowboys coaches or staff, or be at the team’s facility, during his four-game suspension to start the season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
So Irving was responsible himself for staying in shape and making sure he’d be ready to go when he returned. Irving feels he is after working out at Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney throughout his suspension and credits going through boxing workouts there as a reason why.
Boxing is something that helped Irving in the past. He lost 43 pounds by going through boxing and MMA training to prepare for his pro day after being kicked out of Iowa State before the 2015 NFL Draft.
With the roster exemption, the Cowboys don’t have to decide who to cut until Saturday.
The Cowboys have a one-game roster exemption for their 24-year-old defensive lineman, meaning they don’t have to activate Irving this week leading up to Sunday’s home game against the Packers. If Irving is activated this week, the team must create an open roster spot.
Meanwhile, on Green Bay’s side, Montgomery and Davonte Adams are banged up.
Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery admitted that he is nursing multiple broken ribs heading into this weekend's game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Montgomery was injured in the first quarter of Thursday's 35-14 victory over the Chicago Bears.
"I'm going to do my best to try to be out there (against the Cowboys)," the 24-year-old converted wide receiver said on USA Today's Clubhouse Live. "But of course, I have to be wary of risking something more serious. I don't want to puncture any internal organs. We all know how serious that can be.
Surprising as it is, one source said today he believes Packers WR Davante Adams could play Sunday vs Dallas. “I think he goes,” source said.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 3, 2017
Sturm’s Decoding Linehan piece is required reading. Here are two snippets.
So, how did they lose this thing?
Well, it was a game where field position mattered. The Rams were able to start drives on the Cowboys end of the field three different times. Twice from turnovers that the Cowboys handed over and a third when the kickoff return team set them up nicely. The Cowboys never started a drive - not one - of their 10 outside their own 25 yard line. That doesn't help.
And it doesn't help to take a -2 in the turnover department. The Cowboys are now 3-20 under Jason Garrett when they lose the turnover differential by two or more.
And the second, more important one. Cowboys are not winning first down, and that’s mostly on the running game and the new offensive line.
Again, this is pretty clear stuff. Win the early downs with the best recipe for Cowboys success. Run the ball and play-action behind it to throw into high-percentage spots. That is the opposite of what third down affords. On 3rd down you are playing a defense that doesn't care if you run - they are sitting back waiting for your familiar pass routes that they will defend with numbers.
Now, in the interest of time, allow me to say this: This is the result, not the cause. The cause is being unable to stay ahead of the sticks and on schedule. When you run well on early downs and take advantage of what the defense cannot defend, you have success. But, when they stop you on early downs, then you have to beat them in a more difficult manner. In other words, in 2016, the Cowboys were a dominant first-down team. They had success at an extremely high level for first-down runs. This year, they are average. They dropped from third in the NFL to 18th. Let that sink in.
Now for a series of articles that delve into what ails Dallas. Many place the blame at the feet of the offensive line. Here’s Rick Gosselin’s take.
Which side of ball needs more help? The offensive side of the ball because they will dictate how well the defense plays. The Cowboys have to get back to last year when they were controlling the ball for a league-high almost 33 minutes a game. They were keeping the defense off the field -- that's why that defense was able to survive.
You can't have your defense on the field that long. Especially with Sean Lee out of the mix, he's the one playmaker you've got. You've got to protect the defense and the line's got to protect the quarterback. I don't recall seeing Prescott knocked around like he did last week.
The whole thing points to the offensive line. That line has to start playing like the best line in football. They've got to open up holes for Elliott, got to protect the quarterback. You can say there are seven to eight guys in the box but there were seven to eight for Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher. This offensive line has to step up.
Renner is not a regular writer for the Post. He also talks about the Cowboys’ defense.
It’s almost difficult to comprehend how they could take such a step back because the offense looks the same. You have all the young stars – Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin — still in place. One would think they’d be getting better based on natural career progressions, yet they’re getting worse.
The reason for the regression goes back to their balance. It’s been non-existent in 2017. The losses of Ronald Leary and Doug Free have hurt more than most thought. The 2016 Cowboys line could go man-for-man against any defensive front in the NFL and be confident they’d win. Overloaded boxes didn’t matter to them as they’d open enough holes to make up for it.
The 2017 Cowboys line does not have the same prowess. Left guards Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper have grades of 34.2 (fifth-worst among starting guards) and 32.8 (third-worst), respectively — while in Denver, departed Ronald Leary is currently the ninth-highest-graded guard. Right tackle La’el Collins has a grade of 38.3 (sixth-worst among starting tackles). Tyron Smith appears to be hampered by an injury. All of it adds up to an offensive line that looks overmatched at times. They’ve still not “forced” the running game in my opinion, but because of that they’ve only ran on 39.7 percent of snaps this season. The balance in the offense is gone. With much more asked out of Prescott — with those on second-and-5 scenarios getting a little longer — they’ve been, and will continue to be, a far more inconsistent offense.
Worth reading, even if their numbers can be confusing.
Most of Dallas’s metrics are roughly the same as they were last season, with the major exception of the passing game (and some faulty special teams). Last year, in QB Dak Prescott’s first NFL season, he led the Cowboys to the sixth-most expected points added (EPA) through the air of any offense in football — a highly effective complement to Dallas’s second-ranked running game. But although the Cowboys still rank among the top five in rushing EPA, Prescott and the passing offense has fallen to 19th in the league in EPA. Prescott’s traditional numbers aren’t bad, but he’s all but stopped throwing the deep ball and the Dallas receivers are picking up very few yards after the catch. The result has been an aerial attack that struggles to move the chains, keeping the Cowboys from scoring as many points as they should.
The bad news doesn’t stop there for Dallas. The Cowboys face a tough road if they hope to win the division, because even though the Giants are floundering, the rest of the NFC East has played better than we predicted in the preseason. And based on FiveThirtyEight’s Week 5 NFL Elo ratings, Dallas has the toughest remaining schedule of any team in its division; the Cowboys’ opponents have an average Elo rating of 1525, while the teams New York is facing average 1514, Washington’s opponents average 1499, and the rest of Philadelphia’s schedule averages 1496.
First of two Q&A sessions with Bob Sturm.
Bass: Are we seeing the beginning of the end of Dez Bryant? Is he going to be expendable?
Sturm: It starts with who exactly is the plan to fix wide receiver. If your No. 1 isn't a No. 1, then cutting him just puts you in an even worse bind. There's no question that his contract is a massive issue right now moving forward. They pay him like Julio Jones, like A.J. Green, like Antonio Brown and he's not in their class at all. He's a fantastic big-play guy, but Julio Jones beats you with 10 plays a game... a machine that just keeps going.
Dez makes their money and doesn't produce in enough different departs they do. It's important to remember the Cowboys restructure literally every contract that is anywhere close to big and they did not touch his contract last summer. I thought that was kind of telling that they wanted to at least be able to consider an exit if his lack of productivity in '15 and '16 - which, by the way, were largely due to health but that's part of playing in the National Football League. If you're not productive because you're hurt all the time, the fact is it really doesn't matter. You're not productive. And he hasn't been productive since 2014 on a regular basis.
Second of two Q&As with Sturm. These weren’t the only questions.
Horn: I'm hearing more and more people thinking Jason Garrett got outcoached. Are you buying or selling?
Sturm: I'm not a huge fan of him tactically but we also have to understand he has some real issues on this roster that will never be fixed with his coaching.
Opponents are playing them different but also this offensive line - if they're going to pay their left tackle, center and right guard more than anyone at their positions in the league, they've got to be dominant. They haven't been dominant so far.
This was what I talked about yesterday in my offensive snap counts piece.
I'm curious how Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will respond to defenses taking away WR Cole Beasley: The ball is in Linehan's court now. Cowboys opponents have made more of an effort to take away receiver Cole Beasley, Dak Prescott's favorite third-down target, as an option. You're seeing teams double-team Beasley more and that's helped get more pressure on Prescott because he doesn't have Beasley as a dump-down option when he's rushed. Beasley led the Cowboys in receiving last year. He became a security blanket for Prescott, one that moved the first-down chains. Over the last two games, Arizona and Los Angeles have held Beasley to only four catches for 21 yards on seven targets. Beasley has only three catches for 31 yards in the first half of the first four games. Also, tight end Jason Witten hasn't been a factor in the offense the last two weeks. Witten has only two catches for 12 yards on six targets the last two weeks. If you take away Beasley and Witten, Prescott isn't left with many underneath options when the heat is on him.
For all the hand wringing about Dak, Zeke, Dez, Beasley, Witten, missing Sean Lee, etc., what likely cost the Cowboys the win last Sunday was losing the turnovers 2-0. Rod Marinelli is right. This has to change for the better.
Forget about Dak Prescott’s second-half struggles, the inefficiency of Prescott hooking up with Dez Bryant and the defense playing without Sean Lee.
Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli had an easy explanation for Sunday’s 35-30 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“It’s tough to win close games with no takeaways,” Marinelli said. “You’ve got to have them.”
Speaking of turnovers ... Doesn’t seem like the haunt Ryan Switzer.
“What makes me a great player is my gut and my instincts on the field,” Switzer said. “Obviously that doesn’t always turn out to be the right decision, but more times than not it is.
“Sometimes as a player you want to make a play so bad, you get so anxious, maybe you don’t make the best decision. I’m pretty confident with my mental instincts, my decision making. I’m looking forward to continuing to show that throughout the year.”
We’ll leave it to Sullivan to talk you back from the ledge.
One final point: Of the last 10 Super Bowl winners, four had .500 records through four games or later, including the 2011 New York Giants, who were 7-7. The sky is not falling. The Cowboys are relatively healthy compared to the other 31 teams, have the bye on the horizon, rookies Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods are improving by the day, never mind the week, and we have to hope the offensive line comes together.
This feels like a team that will peak later rather than sooner. Until then, we just have to remain rational.
Didn’t every kid want to be the Dallas Cowboys quarterback? Perhaps everyone but Tony Romo, who loved Brett Favre.
“I wanted to be the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback,” Favre told Matt Mosley and Ed Werder on the Doomsday Podcast. “When I was a little kid, my favorite player — and still my favorite player of all time — was Roger Staubach. There was nothing about the Cowboys I could not tell you.