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Point-counterpoint: Looking for the Cowboys’ weakest link

Another debate about the season opener as we gear up for actual football.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
La’el Collins is on IR, and that ain’t good.
Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot more for us to wonder about the Dallas Cowboys this season than usual. Between the loss of all offseason and preseason work, and severe reductions in training camp time, the preparation has been severely curtailed. Add in the Cold War level paranoia of head coach Mike McCarthy, and we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

We can figure some things out, however. There is a lot of excitement about fresh ideas from the coaching staff and a huge infusion of new talent, but problem areas have emerged. Our Terence Watson and Tom Ryle have their own takes on what the biggest are.

Terence:

The biggest issue for the Dallas Cowboys heading into this season will be on the offensive side of the football, mainly the offensive line, and this first game of the season may just highlight it for us. The loss of Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick this offseason can’t be overlooked heading into this game against the Los Angeles Rams and the best defensive tackle in the league in Aaron Donald. Incoming center Joe Looney has played well in the past, but he’s nowhere near Frederick’s level when it comes to playing the center position. But wait, it gets better and by better, and by that I mean worse for America’s Team. Now we’ve learned that starting right tackle La’el Collins will miss at least three games this season with a hip injury that has been nagging him this offseason and we have Cam Erving to step in until he returns, which isn’t exactly comforting. That hurts the team twofold. Pass blocking becomes a major issue on that right side and the running game will also suffer when two out of the three best run blocking offensive linemen for the Cowboys aren’t on the field, leaving Zack Martin to try and help both Looney and Erving.

Tom: Maybe I’m just being contrary, but I think the offense is more about coaching this year. We have seen the Cowboys struggle when their line was more intact. Look for Kellen Moore to find a way to adjust, with some help from Joe Philbin.

I’m more concerned about the secondary, particularly safety. The Ha Ha Clinton-Dix experiment failed. Now, we are not fully certain what the real plan for the Rams game is, since the depth chart that has been released is not official. But going by that, Xavier Woods is one of the starters, which does make sense. He is the best safety from last year. The problem is that he was not fully healthy in camp, missing several practices with a groin strain. Jerry Jones has stated that he is good to go for Sunday. And of course he would never lie or be mistaken. Darian Thompson and his limited résumé is penciled in as the other starter. Backing them up are Donovan Wilson, of even less experience, and rookie Reggie Robinson II, who we thought was a cornerback when he was drafted.

Longer term, veteran Brandon Carr is expected to help out at safety. He is needed, but he had to first clear the COVID protocols and has barely had time to find his locker at the Star. It was very creative to sign him to the practice squad since the new rules mean he could be active on Sunday. Effective is another matter altogether.

Terence:

All fair points, the secondary is already down key players but that secondary has the luxury of being able to lean on the defensive line to help cover up their weaknesses. DeMarcus Lawrence, Everson Griffen, Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory, when he returns, will give the Cowboys a first and second line of pass rushers that will force quarterbacks to make poor decisions this young secondary can exploit. Also, Thompson and Wilson have shown flashes in limited action under the old regime, and the new coaches obviously liked what they saw in camp. Now they are being given the opportunity to get on the field and it could pay off for the Cowboys.

The offensive line on the other hand doesn't have that luxury. Yes, the offensive scheme can help cover up weaknesses but the passing game will more or less just be quick curls, slants, outs and more screen passes. That can only work for so long before teams are game-planning for that and defensive ends can now pin their ears back and go after Dak Prescott. Then you’re back to square one. As for the running game, just because you insert big bodies in to replace others, and they may have done well in practice, it doesn’t mean they will be able to have the performance translate to a real game. Ezekiel Elliott isn’t going to see the same running lanes he’s had in the past because the players in the lineup now aren’t as good as what we are missing. Philbin is a hell of a coach, but he can’t elevate talent that much.

Tom: I do agree that Elliott won’t see the same running lanes. He’ll see better ones because every indication is that the Cowboys are going to use personnel, formation, and motion to open the field up. No more lining everyone up in tight and banging into a defense that’s ready for it. Play-action can slow down the pass rush, and Prescott’s mobility is another way to extend the play, and one of the few things that snuck out of camp as something they were practicing. Add in some help for Erving or whoever is at RT from TEs and RBs, and I’m pretty confident in the offense.

That secondary still strikes me as the biggest worry, and we haven’t even touched on how both Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie are on the injury report. I think Trevon Diggs is going to be a star, but not necessarily right out of the gate. So the entire cadre of defensive backs is either not terribly strong, inexperienced, or hobbled, just about.

Add in the fact that the defensive coaching staff is almost all new, with some real schematic changes, while Kellen Moore provides much needed continuity on offense, and I still think the DBs are the big problem that has to be overcome. Of course, that new coaching isn’t all bad, as there might actually be a chance they get some picks just from facing the ball instead of the receiver. Still, they are the biggest problem in my mind.

One thing I think we agree on, how fast the team gets these two areas figured out will have a lot to do with how the first part of the season goes. So let’s just hope for the best.