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Cowboys news: Just how good is this Cowboys defense?

The Monday morning links.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Sham: Here’s why this Cowboys defense can’t be considered great ... yet - Brad Sham, SportsDay

How good is this Cowboys defense? Brad Sham gives his thoughts.

Is this a great defense?

Sham: “Not yet. Not yet. It depends on how you define great, and part of that is in the end result because they’ve got the fourth quarter of the season to go. They have to play close to this level in order to keep winning. But they’re getting there, you know?

”As [DeMarcus] Lawrence and [Tyrone] Crawford and a number of them keep saying, in order to be a great defense you have to take the ball away a lot on a regular basis. And they only got one takeaway [on Thursday]. Now, that’s a hard team to get takeaways against, and the one was pretty good. But I think you have to get into defining your terms ... but it’s pretty good.”

Sham also gives his thoughts on the scary young linebacker duo.

What else can you say about the combo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch?

Sham: “Nothing. I don’t have any more words. But there’s more than that to me. From this defense - this goes from front to back and back to front, you know. The first possession of the game for the Saints, three and out, that’s all because of coverage. Every one of those plays was contested in the secondary, and you really had outstanding coverage. And what the two guys you just named do is they kind of take away the middle of the field. ... [Most of] what the Saints want to do is short and intermediate and then run. And those two guys - and [Sean] Lee when he gets back out there - they don’t let you do that.

Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch a Dominant Defensive Duo - John Williams, Inside The Star

Here’s more on Jaylon Smith and LVE:

Their ability to flow sideline to sideline and make plays in the running and passing game has been monumental for the Cowboys defense and you saw it on display on Thursday night. They’ve been solid and spectacular and have completely changed the feel of this defense.

Jaylon Smith has been a physical presence in the middle, blowing up running plays and sacking the quarterback and cleaning up misses by other members of the team, like when Smith beat Alvin Kamara to the goal line when Byron Jones missed the tackle.

Leighton Vander Esch looks like he’s been in the league a long time. He’s been the surest tackler on the team. When he gets his claws latched onto a player they almost always go down.

The two of them haven’t been perfect in pass coverage, but they haven’t allowed a lot of big plays either. And both have shown amazing range in pass defense. Remember when Jaylon was running with Odell Beckham Jr. way down field? I do. That kind of speed and athleticism is rare in a 250 pound linebacker.

Top five players Cowboys should consider retaining with their future cap space - Jon Machota, SportsDay

The Cowboys will have some tough decisions to make in the near future if they want to keep their new, young, and talented defense intact. Retaining Tank is crucial.

1. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence

Lawrence has had 23 sacks since the start of last season. Only Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones (29) and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (27.5) have more during that stretch.

Lawrence is Dallas’ defensive MVP. He’s playing this season under the franchise tag, which is paying him $17.1 million. He’s seeking a long-term deal. The last thing the Cowboys want is a Le’Veon Bell situation where Lawrence ends up sitting out the entire 2019 season because Dallas attempts to use the tag on a him a second consecutive season.

Khalil Mack set the pass rusher market in September, signing a deal with the Bears that pays him an average of $23.5 million per year through the 2024 season. Lawrence is a year younger than Mack.

”He’s getting it all done,” Stephen Jones said recently about Lawrence. “We’ll be fine. When they’re worthy of it, I don’t have a problem paying it.”

But Dak Prescott is also pretty important, too.

2. Quarterback Dak Prescott

Prescott is under contract through 2019, but he’s eligible to negotiate an extension at the end of this season.

Prescott isn’t expected to command elite quarterback money, but his annual salary could end up being in the $20-$25 million range. Sixteen NFL quarterbacks currently average at least $20 million per year. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers tops the list at $33.5 million annually.

Finding a franchise quarterback is one of the most difficult jobs in the NFL. The Cowboys believe they have found theirs.

”We’ll be in talks with Dak next year when we’re able to look at it,” Stephen Jones said recently on 103.3 ESPN radio [KESN-FM]. “As all QB contracts are, there will be a lot to it, but we’ll certainly go to work on it.”

Dallas Cowboys: 5 Safety targets in 2019 free agency - Randy Gurzi, NFL Spin Zone

Speaking of singing players, Gurzi gives five safeties that the Cowboys should target in the offseason.

2. Anthony Harris, Minnesota Vikings

We mentioned the fact that George Iloka has gotten less snaps at safety than the other players Minnesota has at the position. Of those who see the field more for the Vikings, Anthony Harris has been the best graded according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). At 92.1, PFF has him rated as the second best safety in the league, which means he likely enters free agency in 2019 looking for a big contract.

Undrafted out of Virginia in 2015, Harris has worked hard to become a valuable member of the Vikings defense. After three seasons serving as a role player, the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Harris found his way into the starting lineup this season after pushing Andrew Sendejo for time.

He had filled in for Sendejo some last season, which led to the Vikings giving him a one-year deal which allowed him to put some more tape out there ahead of the 2019 free agency period. Harris is still growing as a player and enters Week 13 with three interceptions and five pass deflections.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Minnesota let him go as they have other options at the position and plenty of money tied into other positions as well. If so, Dallas could be a nice landing spot for the young man.

247Sports hands out NFL Week 13 game balls - Connor Casey, 247Sports

Zeke earned himself a game ball from the 247Sports staff for his effort in the victory over the Saints on Thursday night.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB

The Cowboys pulled off a colossal 13-10 upset over the Saints on Thursday night, bringing an end to New Orleans’ 10-game winning streak.

Even though he was facing the No. 1 running defense in the league, Ezekiel Elliott still came away with a 136 yards from scrimmage, including six catches for 60 yards and a 16-yard touchdown.

”I think the sky’s the limit with this team,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win. “We have a lot of talent, a lot of young talent, a lot of great players with very bright futures, but we’re 100 percent not in a place where we can get comfortable. We’re 7-5, the division’s still up for grabs, we’ve just gotta make sure we finish this season off the right way and get in the playoffs.”

UPDATE: NFL fines Ezekiel Elliott over $13K for putting Dak Prescott in the Salvation Army kettle - SportDFW

But that is not the only news that Zeke has made recently, as the NFL, for whatever reason, decided to fine the running back for having fun for a good cause.

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was fined for over $13,000 by the NFL for unsportsmanlike conduct when he put Dak Prescott in the Salvation Army kettle in the Thanksgiving win over the Washington Redskins, according to a report from NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

Xavier Woods was also hit with a fine.

Cowboys hot topic: How Jason Garrett improved his job security by out-coaching Sean Payton - Tom Ryle, BTB

How has Jason Garrett saved himself from the hot seat? Tom explains.

Garrett won the coaching battle on the field. But that leads to two other points.

First, head coaches, especially ones who don’t serve as their own coordinator or play-caller, don’t really have that many decisions to make during games. It is just a few if any. This means that mistakes are magnified. Even when they make a good decision with a high probability of success, as the decision to go for it on fourth and goal was by Payton, it can turn out wrong. In this case, the stop just boosted the confidence of a Cowboys defense that was en route to an epic performance. And what we don’t consider enough is just how much pressure there is on coaches with these kinds of calls, especially the time crunch. With a 40 second play clock, they have to make the calls quickly, and don’t have the luxury of watching a replay over and over or even just thinking things through. They have to make snap decisions. And those are hard to get right all the time. All coaches make errors here.

Second, and more importantly, the head coach’s main job is really what happens between games. He is responsible for creating the culture, setting the tone, directing his coordinators on how some things are to be done, and getting as much as he can out of the players. That last was reportedly a big one for the Cowboys leading up to the game.

Is it Time for Cowboys to Return to Connor Williams at Left Guard? - Sean Martin, Inside The Star

Should the Cowboys go back to Connor Williams at left guard?

Despite being a fifth-year pro, Su’a-Filo’s play has slipped in recent weeks. The former Houston Texan and Tennessee Titan allowed two sacks on third down drop backs from Dak Prescott against the Saints, as the Cowboys offense survived with 13 points while allowing seven total sacks.

The Cowboys have every reason to still believe in Williams as their long-term answer at left guard, drafting the collegiate tackle at 50th overall. Williams was available in the second round due to injuries he suffered his Junior season at Texas, diminishing his level of play as a perennial first round talent.

Where Williams struggled in the first eight games of the season making the transition both to guard and the NFL, Su’a-Filo has been worse off with his technique and consistency as of late. The Cowboys decision at left guard is no longer about riding with the better player, but rather finding out if they can help Williams reach his potential and solidify this offensive line for a playoff run.

Film room: late-season Cowboys seven-round mock draft - John Owning, SportsDay

Owning gives his latest Cowboys mock draft, all the way to round seven.

Round 3: Isaiah Buggs, DL, Alabama

With David Irving’s contract up after the season, defensive tackle, specifically under tackle (three-technique defensive tackle), is one of the sneakier needs on the Cowboys roster. Maliek Collins has come on as of late, playing the best football of his season in the last couple of Cowboys game, but that shouldn’t prevent Dallas from looking to improve the depth and talent level of the position.

In the third round, Alabama defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs would be an excellent option. At Alabama, Buggs has played all over the Crimson Tide defensive line, though he best projects as an under tackle in Dallas scheme.

This year, the senior defender has recorded 38 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks, three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

Monday Night Football: Washington Redskins vs. Philadelphia Eagles Prediction and Preview - Tom Bowles, Athlon Sports

The Cowboys played (and won, if you forgot) on Thursday, but there’s a huge NFC East battle tonight. Bowles of Athlon Sports weighs in on the pivotal game.

No one may have been shouting at the television more during “Thursday Night Football” than the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. They were supposed to be sitting there eating popcorn while their rival for the division, the Dallas Cowboys, received a national thumping at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. After all, just two weeks back, the Saints slaughtered the Eagles 48-7. Surely, Drew Brees would feast on the Cowboys too? A 6-6 record would leave them in perfect position to capitalize, right?

Not exactly. An emergent Cowboys “D” kept the Saints on their heels, producing a shocking 13-10 upset that changed the course of the NFC East. Suddenly, a 3-5 Dallas slump is a 7-5 turnaround that’s left them a half-game atop the division. A schedule that features the Bucs and the Giants should give them at least nine wins.

That makes Redskins-Eagles a virtual division elimination game. If the Redskins fall, they’re 6-6 and the equivalent of two games behind the Cowboys (they lose the tiebreaker). If the Eagles lose? The reigning Super Bowl champs are 5-7, down three games to the Cowboys and would need to win out in order to have a chance. Did I mention their schedule includes the Rams on the road, the Texans at home and a date with those red hot Cowboys next week?

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