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Things the Cowboys need to focus on against the Eagles

The Cowboys have a chance to get their house in order when they play the Eagles.

NFL: OCT 16 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys find themselves in a somewhat unexpected place. Despite the loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, they locked up a playoff spot thanks to the outcomes of other games. This week they face the Philadelphia Eagles in what was supposed to be the biggest game of the season. News of the injury to Jalen Hurts, who is expected to miss the game, changes the nature of this game. Dallas also has almost no hope of overtaking Philadelphia for the NFC East. Meanwhile they obviously have myriad problems that have surfaced over the past two or three games. The approach for this game should be different than we once thought. Here are things they need to work on.

Find the missing pass rush

Three weeks ago the Cowboys led the league in sacks. In the past two games they have recorded exactly one. It is no coincidence that they barely beat the Houston Texans, owner of the worst record in the NFL, and lost to the Jaguars. If they don’t get home rushing the passer, they give up too many yards and points. Against Jacksonville they were still credited with 28 QB pressures, but as was clear, when the opposing quarterback functions at a high level under pressure as Trevor Lawrence did, that is ineffective.

The Eagles have a very good offensive line, but if Hurts does indeed miss the game, Gardner Minshew is not the same threat to break containment and gash you with his legs. Despite the better protection, this should still be a chance to get things back on track. One worry for the game is Micah Parsons dealing with illness. At this stage, focusing on health for the playoffs is always a consideration. In any case, if the pass rush does not get better in this game, it is a major warning sign.

Shore up the run defense

After several games where they seemed to have gotten better, they reverted to getting exploited by the opponent’s ground attack. The Jaguars used motion and misdirection to badly confuse the Dallas defense and move the ball with disturbing ease. The loss of DT Johnathan Hankins clearly hurt, and now LB Leighton Vander Esch is questionable for this week. With both elements of the run defense now short-handed, the remaining players need to step up. Even without Hurts, Philadelphia has a potent running game with Miles Sanders already over 1,000 yards. The Cowboys have to get more out of players like Osa Odighizuwa, Carlson Watkins, Anthony Barr, and Damone Clark to slow down that running attack. Just like with the pass rush, a failure in this area would be a very bad sign for the postseason.

Figuring out the third cornerback

The problems were at every level for the defense last Sunday. Kelvin Joseph had a very bad day trying to replace Anthony Brown, another injury loss. One of the priorities for practice this week is to figure out who will join Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland. Those two have been about as good as we could ask, with Bland who is turning into one of the best finds of this year’s draft. But if they don’t come up with something better for that third corner, it just leaves the opposing offense with a glaring weakness to exploit. They have added Mackensie Alexander, Kendall Sheffield, and Trayvon Mullen, and Nahshon Wright is also in the mix for what is seen as an open competition. But there is no guarantee that any of them will beat out Joseph. It is possible that the Jaguars game may have been a learning experience for Joseph, who is still very inexperienced. This might be the biggest single concern for the playoffs, where the offenses are pretty much by definition the best in the league.


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Get the offensive line tuned up

The return of Tyron Smith and his ability to switch to right tackle could not have come at a better time. It provided a ready answer for the loss of Terence Steele, who in actuality was the best offensive tackle the team had. Now Smith should be able to play more downs as he gets back into game shape, and Jason Peters is able to step in when he needs a breather.

But the loss of Steele means that Tyler Smith has to remain the starter at left tackle, and while the rookie has been good at times, he has his struggles in pass protection. Dak Prescott has effectively masked the issues with the blocking in front of him because he is one of the best in the NFL at avoiding the rush and getting the ball out.

The line is also crucial in the running game, which is just one more place Dallas had some clear issues last game. A combination of blocking breakdowns and questionable play-calling led to multiple failed runs in the second half. That was a major contributor to how Jacksonville was able to erase a 17-point deficit to eventually win the game. The Cowboys simply could not score or control the ball when needed. The problem is not with the running backs, because Tony Pollard is going to go over 1,000 yards and Ezekiel Elliott might still get there as well. The talent is there, it just has to be used effectively.

Remake the wide receiver group into more than a one-horse stable

CeeDee Lamb is having an excellent year. He has exceeded 1,000 yards and has the eighth most yards receiving in the league. Unfortunately, as far as wide receivers go, he is too often the only truly effective one on the field. Noah Brown has had some very good games, but at other times he is not able to exploit the way defenses focus their attention on Lamb. He has also had some unfortunate drops, especially against Jacksonville. Michael Gallup simply has not been the receiver he was before his injury last year. He may have come back too fast as the team was desperately searching for help at the position. Now T.Y. Hilton is expected to make his debut, but he is unfortunately an unknown quantity because of age and a long layoff. The best case scenario is that he will be an effective target for Prescott and thereby increase the overall effectiveness of the WR corps.

If Hilton works out, the team may get the help it badly needs for the postseason. The danger is that it still might be too little, too late. That can be said to some extent about all the problems facing the team. With the playoff spot sewn up, the main emphasis for the final three games is to get things right so this is not another frustrating one and done appearance. The team should be in a position to hone and polish things. If Dallas doesn’t get those things under control, they may wind up ending things on a very sour note.

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