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The Dallas Cowboys’ five biggest flaws; can they be fixed this year?

After three games, it’s not too early to take stock of the biggest issues facing the team this year, and assess the chance of them being fixed as the season goes on.

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NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are 2-1 after three games. Is that time enough to take stock of the team’s perceived flaws to this point in the season? We are going to give it a shot.

Flaw #1 - The offensive line isn’t as good as it has been

Last year’s offensive line, once Ron Leary took over for an injured La’el Collins at left guard, was an awesome force. Ezekiel Elliott never had less than 83 yards rushing after an opening day loss to the Giants, and was only twice held under four yards per carry (once at 3.95 ypc and once at 3.9 ypc). He ended up leading the NFL by 318 rushing yards. Dak Prescott was sacked only 25 times.

Football Outsiders didn’t rank the Cowboys offensive line first in any category, but they were fourth in adjusted line yards, third in power rank, fifth in stuffed rank, fifth in second level rank, and eighth in open field rank. No other line was that consistent across the board. Pro Football Focus ranked the Cowboys line second behind Tennessee.

This year, with Ron Leary gone to free agency and Doug Free retired, the Cowboys line has not been the same. As we just mentioned in our snap counts article, Pro Football Focus gives terrible grades to Chaz Green and La’el Collins and mediocre grades to Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, with only Zack Martin seeming to uphold the standards we expect out of the Dallas line.

Here are this week’s Pro Football Focus season grades for the Cowboys linemen:

Tyron Smith: 62.2

Chaz Green: 34.2

Travis Frederick: 77

Zack Martin: 85.5

La’el Collins: 32.9

Football Outsiders ranks the Cowboys line tied for best in power running, and better than last year in pass protection, but much lower in all the other categories.

Why this poor performance? Here are some thoughts.

  • Chaz Green and La’el Collins are both playing new positions.
  • Chaz Green was hurt for much of training camp and preseason, so is just now getting the reps he needs to get better.
  • The Cowboys have faced three strong defenses so far.
  • Chaz Green is getting his first extended action as a starter in the NFL.
  • Green and Collins don’t have the skill level of Leary and Free, and the weaknesses they bring to the line hurts the unit as a whole.

Can this flaw be fixed in 2017?

This is a big question that we do not have an answer for. One would hope the line will get better as their time together increases. The Cowboys are also going to play against some more forgiving defenses. There really isn’t a whole lot more the Cowboys can do here. They have Jonathan Cooper in the wings as a potential replacement for Chaz Green, but they don’t have a tackle who is likely to be better than La’el Collins.

Flaw #2 - The defensive secondary is young and inexperienced

Although Eli Manning and the Giants were unable to threaten the Cowboys secondary, it appears that stemmed more from the Giants ineptitude, especially without Odell Beckham Jr., than with any great defensive prowess by the Cowboys. The rude awakening came the following week at Denver, when Trevor Siemian shredded the Cowboys secondary. In week three, Carson Palmer was well on his way to a banner day with an easy opening 82-yard touchdown drive, and seemingly a second touchdown pass on the second drive. But the latter was negated by a holding penalty, and after the field goal was missed, Dallas seemed to find its defensive footing. Palmer ended with lots of yards, but he was sacked six times and his efficiency plummeted.

The Cowboys adopted a strategy in the offseason thay may have been necessary, but was very risky when they let four veteran members of their secondary walk in free agency. Out went cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. All four signed for lucrative contracts elsewhere.

In their place, the Cowboys signed cornerback Nolan Carroll, and drafted Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Marquez White. They promoted Jeff Heath from special teams ace and backup safety to full-time status. And they expected Orlando Scandrick to be fully healthy. Anthony Brown returned off his stellar rookie year.

This all seemed okay until all of the rookies came down with hamstring issues in training camp and preseason, limiting the reps they could get. Even into the season, the Cowboys are dealing with this, as Awuzie has been healthy for only one game, and Jourdan Lewis may have tweaked his hamstring at the end of the Arizona game. Nolan Carroll, in the middle of a horrible outing in Denver, suffered a concussion, and is out indefinitely.

This is now the most important part of the defense that needs fixing. As we’ll see below, the pass rush looks to be in much better shape than expected with the emergence of DeMarcus Lawrence and Maliek Collins and the imminent return of David Irving. The linebacking has had some issues as Jaylon Smith continues to get back to 100% health, but Anthony Hitchens will return to help shore up this group. It’s the secondary that’s the biggest issue.

Can this flaw be fixed in 2017?

As with the offensive line, how can we know? We’re relying mostly on unproven rookies to patch up the secondary. My take is that this group will get much better. Jourdan Lewis, if he can stay healthy, has already shown some amazing quality. Xavier Woods has also looked pretty good when pressed into duty. We haven’t seen enough of Chidobe Awuzie (he only played against the inept Giants offense), but his draft pedigree is good, and he has the flexibility where he could play some safety.

The Cowboys have games against 2016’s highly rated quarterbacks from Green Bay, Atlanta, Washington (twice) and Oakland. In 2017, the quarterbacks for Kansas City and the LA Rams are ranked first and third in the NFL in passer rating, while Washington‘s and Oakland’s quarterbacks are top-10 repeaters. That’s seven out of 13 remaining opponents.

The secondary is going to be tested. We will just have to wait and see if they pass.

Flaw #3 - Teams have found a way to shut down Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley

We have been tracking yards per snap in our offensive snap counts articles, along with completion percentage and touchdowns for all the receivers and tight ends. From this you can see that Terrance Williams, Brice Butler, and Jason Witten have been the Cowboys’ most productive receivers. Far less productive, on a per snap and per target basis, have been Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, the two top receivers from 2016.

Can this flaw be fixed in 2017?

The biggest issue here may be the defenses the Cowboys have faced. Each of them - the Giants, Broncos, and Cardinals - had a highly ranked defense last year. The Cardinals were second in yards, and led the league in sacks in 2016. The Broncos were fourth in yards and points allowed, best in pass defense, and tied for third in sacks. The Giants were second in points allowed, and second in pass defense.

Each of these teams had cornerbacks they could trust to match up with Dez one-on-one, and the latter two also had a top slot cover guy who could shadow Cole Beasley.

The Cowboys still have Seattle, Kansas City, and the Giants in New York, but most of their other opponents are unlikely to be able to defend Dallas the same way.

The other way to fix this flaw is to present other threats. Brice Butler burned Arizona for keying too much on Zeke. Once Rico Gathers gets healthy, he’ll offer a large receiving mismatch out of two tight end sets. Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown may also work their way into the offensive mix. So, even if teams are able to take away Dez and Cole, the Cowboys should have plenty of other options for moving the ball.

Flaw #4 - Dak Prescott cannot carry the offense if the running game gets stuffed

Dak Prescott didn’t have a great opening game against the Giants, but it was much better than either of his games against them in 2016. The important fact here is that the run game was not stuffed. Zeke got his 105 yards rushing, so the offense moved the ball. The team just needed to do a better job in the red zone.

It was the game against the Broncos that brought up this flaw, and most of the first half against the Cardinals. Without a running game in Denver - Zeke was held to eight yards on nine carries - Dak was forced to throw it 50 times, which played into Denver’s stifling pass defense. The Cardinals also forced several three-and-outs and completely dominated the first quarter and most of the first half.

Can this flaw be fixed in 2017?

The first question here is: is this really a flaw? Very few quarterbacks can carry an offense that can’t run the ball. As we showed in this article, no matter who was behind center for Dallas since 2012, if the team rushed for less than 70 yards, the team was 4-14. Above 70 yards? The Cowboys were 43-24. Ten of those losses were in 2015.

When Dallas has a balanced offense, they have continued to demonstrate success. This is likely to remain true in 2017.

Flaw #5 - The Cowboys’ pass rush isn’t strong enough

This was one of the top flaws cited before the 2017 season started. After all, the leading sack man in 2016 was Benson Mayowa, with a less-than-overwhelming six sacks. The most single season sacks any member of the defensive line posted was eight by DeMarcus Lawrence back in 2015 when he was opposite Greg Hardy, and he was coming off a one-sack 2016 season when he was suspended for four games and injured for several more. With doubts about first-round pick Taco Charlton, this was near the top of most commentators preseason concerns about the Cowboys.

Can this flaw be fixed in 2017?

This is one flaw that may already have been fixed. The Cowboys are tied for second in the NFL with 11 sacks after three games, coming off a six-sack of Carson Palmer. DeMarcus Lawrence is leading the NFL with 6.5 sacks. Damontre Moore has just returned from suspension, and David Irving is coming off suspension after the Rams game this weekend. The Cowboys appear to have their War Daddy in Lawrence, an interior beast in Maliek Collins (who has 2.5 sacks himself), and a supporting cast that is getting stronger. They probably don’t even need much from their first-round pick Taco Charlton, who may be the ninth man after Irving returns, though he should get better as the year goes on.

Conclusion

The 2017 Dallas Cowboys aren’t even close to being a finished product, with serious concerns on the offensive line and in the secondary. They are also facing more dangerous looking teams in Washington and Philadelphia within their division, though the Giants no longer appear to be a threat. It could easily be a harder slog to the division title than it was in 2016.

Given this, and the tougher schedule that comes from winning the division last year, the Cowboys need to get healthy, get their suspended player back, and keep improving from week to week. It starts this week with the Rams, a vastly improved team that most likely penciled in as an easy win before the season started. It’s no longer likely to be easy. The Cowboys just need to make sure it’s still a win.