Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: The Cowboys biggest strengths on the offensive side of the football are guard Zack Martin and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Considering the passing game is still somewhat of an unknown quantity, Dallas needs to begin the season by running the ball with authority and leaning on those two players. If they can do that, they will give quarterback Dak Prescott a much better chance of finding a rhythm with new wide receivers Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin and Michael Gallup.

–Cowboys C Joe Looney vs. Panthers DT Kawann Short. Looney will spell center Travis Frederick until Frederick is ready to return to action. That means Looney gets a trial by fire in the opener against a solid Carolina defensive front. Short is the Panthers’ best interior defensive lineman as he posted 7.5 sacks in 2017.

–Cowboys QB Dak Prescott vs. Panthers secondary. Like the Cowboys, Carolina has revamped its secondary with cornerback James Bradberry as the only holdover from last season in the current starting lineup. Prescott will also be working with a new group of receivers. His ability to connect with Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin and others will be in sharp focus.

–Cowboys CB Chidobe Awuzie vs. Panthers WR Torrey Smith. Awuzie looked like he could be one of the Cowboys’ defensive stars during training camp. He missed a chunk of last season with a hamstring injury, but he’s healthy to start this season and has a chance to show it versus the Panthers passing game.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Dak Prescott. Backups – Cooper Rush, Mike White.

Prescott is trying to repeat his rookie success again after a sophomore slump. He won fewer games (9 in 2017, 13 in 2016), had fewer touchdown passes (22 in 2017, 23 in 2016), passed threw for fewer yards (3,324 in 2017, 3,667 in 2016) and produced a lower passer rating (86.6 in 2017, 104.9 in 2016). He had trouble getting the ball downfield. The Cowboys have made the offense Dak-friendly and will allow him to go through his reads to receivers who will be where they are supposed to be. He will also use his feet more in spread situations. Rush played the role of the starter in the final two preseason games as the Cowboys sat Prescott. Rush didn’t dazzle anyone against the Cardinals or Texans, leaving some to wonder if third-stringer White isn’t a better option if something happens to Prescott.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Ezekiel Elliott, FB Jamize Olawale. Backups – Rod Smith.

The Cowboys’ biggest hopes of a bounce back in 2018 are because of the return of Elliott and his ability to play all 16 games. He missed six games last season while serving a suspension, and it likely cost the Cowboys a playoff berth. Dallas went 3-3 without him. Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards. He gained 983 in 10 games last season. If he is on the field for 16 games, he could again lead the league in rushing and be the bell cow of the Cowboys.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Geoff Swaim. Backups – Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers, Dalton Schultz.

Jason Witten is gone and this group of tight ends has nine career catches, all by Swaim. He is a solid blocker who will likely win the starting job. But the Cowboys have high hopes for Jarwin as a receiver and the rookie Schultz’ development as a complete tight end. The wild card is Gathers, who spent last season on injured reserve. A former basketball player in college, Gathers is still learning the game. But he has the body and athleticism to be a red-zone scoring threat.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams. Backups – Cole Beasley, Tavon Austin, Michael Gallup, Deonte Thompson, Noah Brown (IR/could return later in season).

The entire Cowboys receiver corps underperformed in 2017 so the Cowboys made wholesale changes by jettisoning No. 2 receiver Dez Bryant. It will be a unit by committee in 2018 with the focus on route running and fundamentals under new receivers coach Sanjay Lal. The Cowboys traded for Tavon Austin, who they appear to be deploying primarily as a receiver. And they expect him to offer a nice change of pace and bring some explosiveness to the attack. Hurns was added in free agency with Gallup and Wilson added in the draft. Hurns missed 11 games the past two seasons, but he is expected to replace Bryant’s production. The Cowboys need Beasley to get back to form after seeing 39 fewer receptions in 2017 from 2016. The Cowboys have high hopes for Gallup.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT La’el Collins. Backups – G Joe Looney, T Chaz Green, T Cam Fleming, T Kadeem Edwards, G Marcus Martin, T Bryce Johnson, T Blake Campos.

The line goes into this season looking to regain its reputation as the best in the league after a subpar year in 2017 because of injuries to Smith, a lack of depth at tackle, struggles at left guard and Collins transitioning from guard to right tackle. Smith is healthy again, but the Cowboys improved the depth with the addition of Fleming in free agency. They drafted Williams in the second round to take over at left guard. Smith, Frederick and Martin are expected to dominate their positions again and Collins should be comfortable at right tackle. Frederick was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome in August and it’s unclear how that will affect his availability in the regular season. Looney will step into the center role until Frederick comes back.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE DeMarcus Lawrence, NT Maliek Collins, DRE Tyrone Crawford. Backups – DE Randy Gregory, DE Datone Jones, DT Lewis Neal, DT Richard Ash, DE Taco Charlton, DT Daniel Ross, DT David Irving (SUS).

Lawrence, who had nine sacks his first three seasons, made 14.5 sacks last season in a breakout campaign. He was the team’s first double-digit sacks leader since 2013 when Jason Hatcher made 11. Lawrence will be a free agent after the season so he will be motivated to be better and cash in. Tyrone Crawford will start opposite Lawrence, but the depth on the edge is impressive with Taco Charlton and the return of Randy Gregory from a year-long suspension. Armstrong is a drafted rookie who could make an impact as well. The Cowboys have high hopes for Irving, who was disruptive in making seven sacks in eight games, but he will miss the first four games on NFL suspension. Collins will continue to man the nose after recovering from offseason foot surgery.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – WLB Sean Lee, MLB Leighton Vander Esch, SLB Jaylon Smith. Backups – Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington.

Sean Lee is the undisputed leader of this group. But the Cowboys are hoping to get him some help with the addition of Vander Esch, the first-round pick from Boise State. He will start at middle linebacker, pushing Jaylon Smith to strong-side linebacker where the Cowboys hope to keep his snaps to around 50 percent where he is most efficient. Wilson, a former starter, will give the Cowboys versatile depth off the bench as well as Thomas and March-Lilliard. Lee has missed 41 games with injuries in his eight seasons. The Cowboys will rotate him with Vander Esch and Smith to maximize his production and keep him healthy.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Chidobe Awuzie, RCB Byron Jones, SS Jeff Heath, FS Xavier Woods. Backups – S Tyree Robinson, S Kavon Frazier, CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Anthony Brown.

The Cowboys have completely remade their secondary. Jones is moving from safety to corner where he is expected to start opposite Awuzie. Both are the big cornerbacks who have the size preferred by new secondary coach Kris Richard. Lewis and Brown will battle for the nickel spot in place of the departed Orlando Scandrick. Questions remain at safety. Xavier Woods will start at free safety. Jeff Heath will continue to start at strong safety, and Kavon Frazier will spell Heath. But the Cowboys are still hoping to trade for Seattle Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas before the start of the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Brett Maher, P Chris Jones, KR/PR Tavon Austin, LS L.P. Ladouceur.

In a surprise move, the Cowboys cut Dan Bailey on Saturday, turning the starting kicking duties over to Maher. Maher has four seasons of pro football experience in the CFL, but he will be kicking in the NFL regular season for the first time against the Panthers. Chris Jones proved he is one of the best punters in the league last year when he averaged 44.1 yards per punt and had a whopping 37 downed inside the 20. There are no concerns at punter or deep snapper. Ladouceur has never botched a snap. The addition of Austin gives them a game-breaking kick returner for the first time in years.

PRACTICE SQUAD: WR Dres Anderson, T Jake Campos, RB Jordan Chunn, S Treston Decoud, WR Lance Lenoir Jr., CB Donovan Olumba, LB Kyle Queiro, RB Bo Scarbrough, G Cody Wichmann.