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Cowboys news: Optimism for the return of Keanu Neal and Carlos Watkins on defense

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Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Optimism On Keanu Neal & Others For Week 5 - David Helman, DallasCowboys.com

More playmakers are on the way for this already impressive Cowboys defense.

The Cowboys’ full list of injuries is a long one, so they won’t have everyone back this weekend. But team chief operating officer Stephen Jones did offer some optimistic timelines on Monday afternoon, starting with Keanu Neal.

Sunday was Neal’s second-straight missed game after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Sept. 22. As Jones illustrated, Neal was initially placed on the list as a close contact, but he eventually tested positive later in that week. Having to restart that isolation period so close to the Sept. 27 game against Philadelphia was always going to make it difficult to get back in time for Week 4 against Carolina.

“That was just a tough situation for him,” Jones said. “He was sitting it out, he had five days that he had to test negative, and unfortunately he tested positive toward the end of that and the clock started over for him so he missed two weeks. But he should be full-bore, ready to roll.”

It will bear monitoring, but Neal’s return would be a boost for the Cowboys’ linebacker corps, as the coaching staff continues to juggle Micah Parsons’ position flexibility to ease concerns on the defensive line.

Speaking of which, the defensive line could be getting some help back, as well. Joes did allow that Dorance Armstrong is still unlikely to be available against the Giants, but he was optimistic about the return of Carlos Watkins from a tweaked knee.

“I think we’ll get Carlos Watkins back this week, and hopefully Armstrong’s not far behind,” he said.

Dallas Cowboys: 3 Breakout defensive stars helping early success - Cody Williams, NFL Spinzone

Odighizuwa has really earned a role in this defense as part of the rookie brigade.

2. Osa Odighizuwa, DT

Another rookie, this time one of the team’s third-round picks, Osa Odighizuwa had plenty of fans in the draft community but there was still a curiosity about if the 280-pound defensive tackle could be a disruptor up front.

Odighizuwa hasn’t just been disruptive, he’s actually been one of the best defensive tackles the Cowboys have had on the roster in recent memory. After leading Dallas in pressures against the Panthers in Week 4, but he now has seven quarterback hits in four games. That’s more than any defensive tackle had in the entirety of the 2020 season for the Boys.

His ability to push the interior of the pocket has been huge for a defense playing without its best defensive end, Lawrence. It forces quarterbacks off their spots and either pushes quicker decisions or gets them into the path of the other ends. His impact can’t be understated.

NFL’s biggest wins in Week 4: Cardinals, Cowboys, Tom Brady shined in Sunday spotlight - Adam Schein, NFL.com

The Cowboys are getting recognition from the media after Week 4.

The win: Dallas Cowboys 36, Carolina Panthers 28

I spent a good portion of the offseason hyping the Cowboys’ offensive explosiveness. And it was on full display Sunday. Carolina entered the game with an unblemished record and the No. 1 defense in football. The Panthers had allowed a total of 30 points over the first three weeks of the season, yielding an average of just 191.0 yards per game. The Cowboys scored 36 points, piling up 433 yards in the process. And it was a balanced approach, as Dak Prescott threw four touchdown passes while Ezekiel Elliott ran 20 times for 143 yards and a score. Dak’s clearly healthy, and the reports of Zeke’s demise were greatly exaggerated — the 26-year-old back was a superb blend of power and speed for the second straight week.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ defense is no longer a hopeless sieve. The appointment of Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator is clearly paying off. And second-year CB Trevon Diggs has emerged as a dynamic ballhawk, with two more picks on Sunday giving him a league-best total of five in the young season.

Carolina trailed 36-14 before adding two fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was a game that made the Panthers look more like pretenders than contenders. But the Cowboys, on the other hand? They looked like a team that’ll run away with the NFC East title and look to do damage in the postseason.

Dallas Cowboys: Defensive versatility and intensity at the heart of resurgence - Kenneth Wilson, The Landry Hat

The Cowboys defense has certainly changed the narrative.

Dallas Cowboys: Defensive Versatility And Intensity At The Heart Of Resurgence

On how far the defense has come since last season, though only through four weeks and meaning they’ll need to keep playing at this level, there seem to be two things at the core of the resurgence. Dan Quinn seems to be the cause of it all, the only logical thought, but what are those two things that are actually seeming to show up?

First, it’s the intensity. They are playing like a classic Dan Quinn defense. They are running around, firing off, and hitting anything that they can legally hit. And they are hitting whatever it is… hard. That’s a given though. That also needs no explanation.

However and because, well, why not, Damontae Kazee is one bright example of the hitting aspect. He had a legal-looking shoulder to shoulder collision on Sunday that drew a flag. Though it wasn’t a foul hit, the flag was, almost, understandable. It was a downright nasty tackle that reflects what Quinn defenses typically do.

The next part of the equation is the part that’s a bit more nuanced, intricate, and exciting all at the same time though. The second part of what has the Cowboys defense almost nuclear, at the moment, is their versatility.

Cowboys 2021 rookie report: Chauncey Golston has a breakout game - David Howman, Blogging The Boys

Don’t look now but the Cowboys might have another special player in the making.

Chauncey Golston, EDGE

Chauncey Golston deserves some special recognition. After missing basically all of training camp, including every preseason game, he made his NFL debut last Monday. Before then, the last time he wore pads and actually competed was in college, nearly a whole year ago. In his debut, Golston had three tackles, two hurries, and two pressures.

In his second game as a professional, and coming just six days later, Golston notched five tackles, split a sack with Odighizuwa, and landed a hit on the quarterback. Like his fellow rookies, Golston seemed to be all over the field, constantly getting penetration and creating problems for Darnold. He’s another player who Quinn sees as versatile, having the ability to play both inside and out, and Golston’s performance Sunday was a solid step forward in his very young career.

Dominant Run Game, Cowboys Pass Rush Hand Panthers First Loss - Sean Martin, Inside The Star

For years he Cowboys haven’t had good safety play, but that is changing.

Dan Quinn continued to find success with three safeties on the field. The Cowboys went to this Big Nickel look on Carolina’s first drive of the game. Damontae Kazee stuck with Tommy Tremble in coverage, and Anthony Brown was able to undercut a route with help from Jayron Kearse over the top. Randy Gregory sacked Darnold on the following play to force a punt.

Rookie defensive end Chauncey Golston may have made his NFL debut against a mobile QB last week with Jalen Hurts, but he was put in a tough spot on the first of two Sam Darnold rushing scores. Golston was the read man for Darnold to pitch the ball wide or keep it, which he did once Golston lost contain to allow a walk-in touchdown.

Dallas Cowboys: How the 2021 Draft already saved Dallas’ season - Reid Hanson, Sport Dallas Fort-Worth

Dan Quinn and Will McClay were clearly on the same page for this draft.

Rookies Micah Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa have both been key starters on defense from Day One this season. They are team leaders in pressures and in snap counts (for their respective position groups). On a defense decimated by injury/unavailability, they have been cornerstones and high caliber performers. Both rookies lead their draft class in pressures, despite the former being just a third round pick.

But it doesn’t end there. Chauncey Golston, who missed nearly all of camp and two regular season games, has been a huge part of the rotation as well. His 30 pass-rush snaps led the unit on Sunday and his two pressures and half-a-sack did not go unnoticed. Like Osa, Golston was a third round pick. It’s abnormal for a third rounder to receive this heavy of a workload, let alone make this big of an impact. But here we are – with two third round “steals” in the making.

Sixth round pick (192 overall), Quinton Bohanna, has played an abnormally big role as well. He’s averaged roughly 30% of the snaps on defense this season which is impressive given his fairly one-dimensional skill-set and role. He’s been one of Dallas’ best pluggers at DT this year, rookie or otherwise.

These four players alone have single-handedly saved the Dallas Cowboys defense this season and should continue to play enormous roles going forward. The best part is – it probably won’t end with them.

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