Dallas Cowboys: Ahmad Bradshaw
Our man John Clayton offers a quickie breakdown in the video above of what he sees as a very competitive NFC East, and he thinks the New York Giants "probably have the best chance to win the division." He acknowledges their question marks on defense but cites Eli Manning, young running back David Wilson and their other offensive weapons as the reasons to favor the Giants to claim their second division title in three years.
John's is obviously an opinion I respect quite a bit, but that doesn't mean we always see things the same way. And, although I'm not ready to make my own prediction for the NFC East yet, I'm not overly enthralled with the Giants as a favorite right now. I find it hard to see where they got better, especially on defense. Assuming full-year health for Hakeem Nicks is risky, and I think the offense lost a lot of valuable blocking help with the departures of Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett and the loss of Henry Hynoski to a knee injury for at least a little while. I also don't think we know yet how the running game will work out or whether Wilson is up to the task of a full-season starter's workload as a ball carrier and a pass-protector.
That said, you never can rule out the Giants, and they're likely the safest pick. Their ceiling doesn't feel overly high, but you do feel as though you know where the floor is. They're unlikely to be a bad team, and they always contend until the final weeks. Manning and Tom Coughlin are the cornerstones at the key positions of quarterback and coach who make sure of that every year.
I think the Redskins, if Robert Griffin III is healthy all year (a big "if," by the way), and the Cowboys, if they can keep their defense healthy, have more potential to have a great season than the Giants have. But there are also more things that can go wrong in those places. The Redskins still have major question marks in the secondary, the Cowboys on the lines. Picking one of those teams this year, I believe, carries more risk than picking the Giants does.
And no, I haven't forgotten about the Eagles. And no, I don't think it's impossible that they could win this division that hasn't had an 11-win team since 2009. But I do think they have the shakiest quarterback situation in the division by far and that they're all being forced to learn a lot of new things all at once on both sides of the ball under a new coaching staff. And I think they have the toughest road to contention of the four teams. I think the Eagles have the best chance of any of these four to have a poor season in 2013.
One key positional battle for each NFC East team as training camps get underway.
Dallas Cowboys: No. 2 tight end
The Cowboys used a second-round pick on tight end Gavin Escobar, even though starting tight end Jason Witten isn't going anywhere, and they liked what James Hanna showed as a receiver during his 2012 rookie season. They also signed veteran Dante Rosario and continue to look out for a more blocking-oriented tight end. What this all means is that the Cowboys would like to use more two-tight end sets in 2013 (and presumably beyond), largely eliminating the fullback position from their offense and offering quarterback Tony Romo a greater variety of options in the passing game. Training camp will help reveal the depth chart and the ways in which these guys all can expect to be used. Was Escobar drafted because they liked his ability to do something specific? Can Hanna hold him off for reps? How does Rosario factor into the mix? Change is afoot in the Cowboys' offense, and the tight end position is a big part of it.
New York Giants: Starting running back
David Wilson, their first-round pick from the 2012 draft, emerged as an electrifying kick returner in his rookie season and flashed big-play ability out of the backfield. He is the odds-on favorite to seize the starting running back role following the team's release of Ahmad Bradshaw. But, as is often the case, things aren't that simple. The Giants liked Andre Brown a lot as a goal-line back last season and used him a couple of times as a starter, with some success. He's back, and he doesn't intend to hand the job to Wilson without a fight. The Giants' backfield depth chart also includes veteran Ryan Torain, third-year fan favorite Da'Rel Scott and rookie Michael Cox. And these are the Giants, remember -- a pass-first offensive team that needs its running backs to pick up the blitz and help keep Eli Manning safe. Wilson offers the most upside as a runner, but it's entirely possible he could lose the starting job to a better blocker during this camp.
Philadelphia Eagles: Starting quarterback
What else is there? This is the big story of the Eagles' camp and will be one of the big stories in the NFL for the next month. Veteran Michael Vick has the experience, the foot speed and the arm strength, but new coach Chip Kelly wants a quarterback who can avoid turnovers, get rid of the ball quickly and make good, fast decisions in tight spots. These have not been Vick's strengths, which is likely why he faces a challenge from second-year quarterback Nick Foles and maybe even rookie Matt Barkley or veteran backup Dennis Dixon. Vick has to show that he's capable of running Kelly's offense the way Kelly wants it run -- and that he won't revert to his career-long tendencies to try to extend plays and make something happen with pure athleticism. If he can rein it in and operate the offense efficiently, it's his job. If he can't, one of the younger guys could snatch it from him and cost him his roster spot entirely.
Washington Redskins: No. 2 wide receiver
This would be the "Z" receiver in the Redskins' offense. Pierre Garcon plays the "X" position -- the outside receiver who lines up on the line of scrimmage. Santana Moss likely plays the slot again. The "Z" is the outside receiver opposite Garcon -- the "flanker" who lines up off the line of scrimmage to keep the tight end eligible and motions to different parts of the formation if that's called for. The candidates here are Leonard Hankerson, Josh Morgan and Aldrick Robinson. Morgan is the most polished and well rounded of this group, but he has trouble staying healthy. Hankerson is the one the coaches believe has the most upside, but he hasn't been able to develop consistency in his game. If he could, he'd be a valuable piece, because the Redskins believe they can use him in the slot as well. Robinson showed a lot of potential as a favored deep threat last season for Robert Griffin III, but he also has a lot to learn before he's a complete enough player to be used reliably here. Watch to see if Hankerson shows drastic Year 3 improvement in camp. If he does, it's likely his spot to lose, especially if Morgan is banged up as usual.
How does each NFC East team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?
After a season in which they ranked third in the league in passing yards and 31st in rushing yards, the Cowboys seek greater balance in their offense. Any balance, actually. The starting running back remains DeMarco Murray, whose toughness and physical style give the Cowboys an extra dimension when he's on the field. Murray's problem is staying on the field, as he's had to miss nine games over his first two NFL seasons due to injury. The team let Felix Jones leave as a free agent and drafted Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle in the fifth round. It's no coincidence that Randle is a back who didn't miss a single game in his college career. The Cowboys needed someone durable and reliable to back up Murray, who's already struggling with hamstring problems this offseason, and neither Lance Dunbar nor Phillip Tanner showed enough in limited work last year to prove he was the backup they needed. What the Cowboys need at running back is to get and keep Murray as healthy as possible and to get Randle up to speed so he's ready to step in when he's inevitably needed as the fill-in starter.
New York Giants
The Giants let starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw depart via free agency, a difficult choice necessitated by salary and health concerns. That likely leaves the running game in the hands of 2012 first-round draft pick David Wilson, who opened eyes as a big-play threat and a kick returner in his rookie season, and Andre Brown, who functioned as a reliable goal-line back before an injury ended his season. Either should be able to handle full-time starter duties, and it's likely the team will split carries somewhat between them anyway. What the Giants need to do is establish whether Wilson and/or Brown can handle the pass-blocking duties at which Bradshaw excelled for so long. If one of them demonstrates superior performance in blitz pickup, that's likely to give him the edge for playing time over the other. With fullback Henry Hynoski out now with a knee injury, and with excellent run-blocking tight end Martellus Bennett now a Chicago Bear, the Giants remain on the lookout for reliable blocking backs. The recent injury to Tim Hightower shows that, and it remains to be seen whether Ryan Torain, Da'Rel Scott or seventh-round draft pick Michael Cox can be part of the solution.
Every prediction about Chip Kelly's offense claims certainty that the Eagles will use the run game and the screen game more this year than they did in the past. LeSean McCoy remains the starter, and one of the best running backs in the league when healthy. Bryce Brown showed when McCoy got injured last year that he could handle starter's responsibilities brilliantly, but his fumble problems obviously must be overcome if he's to be trusted with significant carries. The Eagles signed Cowboys castoff Felix Jones for depth, and they still have Chris Polk, so the candidates for carries are plentiful this offseason. What remains for the Eagles is to establish the manner in which they'll distribute those carries (and catches) among their backs in an offense that will try to run as many plays as possible every game.
Sixth-round pick Alfred Morris came from the back of the depth chart last offseason to overtake Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster to claim the starting running back job, and he quite literally ran with it. A perfect fit in Mike Shanahan's one-cut zone-blocking run schemes, Morris finished second in the NFL with 1,613 rushing yards as a rookie and delivered a 200-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece in the regular-season finale/division-title game against the Cowboys. Shanahan does love to play the volume game at running back, and he still has Helu and Royster as well as late-round 2013 draft picks Chris Thompson and Jawan Jamison. What remains for the Redskins is to figure out the pecking order behind Morris and work to find ways to use the talent they have at running back to ease some of the physical pressure on quarterback Robert Griffin III. It's also important to note that Washington was able to re-sign fullback Darrel Young, a key figure in a run game that led the league with 169.3 yards per game in 2012.
A look at a key player from each NFC East team who needs to show something in offseason sessions:
Dallas Cowboys: DT Jay Ratliff
He missed 10 games in 2012 due to injury. He cursed out the team's owner after a game. He got busted for driving under the influence mere weeks after friend and defensive linemate Jerry Brown was killed in an accident for which friend and defensive linemate Josh Brent is facing intoxication manslaughter charges. He costs $4.072 million against the salary cap for a team that struggled all offseason to find cap room. It's kind of a miracle Ratliff is still on the roster. One of the reasons the Cowboys decided to switch to a 4-3 defensive alignment was their belief that Ratliff would thrive as one of two defensive tackles in Monte Kiffin's defense, and in order to overcome all of the good reasons they have to get rid of him, Ratliff could stand to look as healthy and dominant as possible this offseason on that defensive line.
New York Giants: RB David Wilson
The Giants let Brandon Jacobs leave as a free agent last offseason and released Ahmad Bradshaw this offseason, which means their running game has been completely overhauled. Wilson, their 2012 first-round draft pick, needs to be a big part of what that running game becomes this year. He showed last season that he has a quick burst and big-play capability, and he became a force on kick returns. Wilson should get the opportunity this offseason to show that he can handle the responsibilities of a No. 1 feature running back. With the Giants, those responsibilities include blitz pickup and pass-protection duties. If Wilson shows advancement in those areas and the ability to handle regular carries, he could keep Andre Brown in a goal-line role and decrease the team's need to find a third-down back with Bradshaw-like blocking ability. If not, the Giants could be tinkering with their run game all year.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Michael Vick
Vick is the clear favorite to win the Eagles' starting quarterback job. He has considerably more NFL experience and more 2013 upside than any of his challengers. He still has the arm strength, the speed and the athleticism to offer the Eagles something at the quarterback position that no other team in the league has -- the stuff that has made coach after coach dream of what's possible since he was lighting it up at Virginia Tech. However, Vick will turn 33 next month and also has a well-established reputation as an injury-prone, turnover-prone risk-taker who holds the ball way too long and doesn't read defenses effectively. New Eagles coach Chip Kelly has said he needs a quarterback who can make quick decisions and unload the ball in a hurry. Vick will surely get the chance to show he can do that, and it's possible a scaled-down offense that leans more on the run game than Andy Reid's did will help. But if Vick struggles in the preseason with his decision-making and timing, he could lose the job to Nick Foles or Matt Barkley or Dennis Dixon. And if that happens, he could lose his roster spot, too.
Washington Redskins: LB Brian Orakpo
After a second consecutive season ended early due to a pectoral muscle injury, the Redskins' 2009 first-round pick finds himself having to prove something that was never an issue in his first two seasons -- that he can stay healthy. By now, Orakpo was supposed to have established himself as a disruptive pass-rushing force on par with the best in the league. He hasn't been able to do that, in large part because of those injuries. He has one year left on his contract, and there has been talk that he could get an extension prior to the start of the season, which is an appealing idea to the Redskins since they likely could get him at something of a discount due to the injuries. But if he struggles with health or effectiveness in the preseason, that's liable to make the Redskins think twice about a preseason extension, and to turn 2013 into a make-or-break year for Orakpo.
|Todd Archer joins Galloway & Company to discuss the latest on the Cowboys giving Tony Romo a six-year, $108 million contract extension.
What about running back?
Yes, the Cowboys have the emerging DeMarco Murray, but his foot injury last season and the recent history of health problems among their running backs has raised concerns at Valley Ranch about the position.
The Cowboys love how Murray competes.
However, the lifespan of a running back is short.
Season to season, game to game, moment to moment.
With a little more than $5 million in cap space that will increase to $7 million in June due to the release of Marcus Spears, should the Cowboys sign a veteran running back?
Ahmad Bradshaw, who was released by the New York Giants, is available but most likely isn't looking to become someone's backup.
More realistic names are Felix Jones, Cedric Benson, Kevin Smith and LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said he's open to bringing Jones back into the fold, but the running back's health was an issue in his time with Dallas. With salary-cap space and a need for a backup running back to compete with Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner, the Cowboys might invest in a veteran running back to provide depth for 2013.
Assuming they move on from Felix Jones, the Cowboys will be in the market for a running back who can spell starter DeMarco Murray and, if need be, replace him when he gets injured. Unlike Calvin, I actually think someone like Turner or former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw would work here. They need someone who's used to carrying the load, since it doesn't appear as though they can count on Murray lasting a whole season. And even if he did, they'd need someone who can replace him for long stretches during the game in order to help keep him healthy. I understand the temptation for a speed back as a change of pace, but Jones was supposed to be that and it didn't work. Why not a veteran grinder who runs with power and is used to playing in a passing offense? Someone like Phillip Tanner or Lance Dunbar could develop into what they need behind Murray, but it's not a bad idea to bring in someone with experience just in case they don't.
New York Giants
After cutting Bradshaw, the Giants appear set to go with second-year man David Wilson as the lead back and, assuming they re-sign him, Andre Brown as the goal-line guy. Maybe Brown's duties increase over what they were last year behind Bradshaw. And maybe Wilson isn't (a) ready or (b) the right kind of back to handle the running and pass-protection responsibilities in the Giants' offense. They ended the season with guys like Ryan Torain and Kregg Lumpkin on the roster for depth, and they could go back to one or both of them. I imagine they'll give Wilson the shot at the lead-back role, but they'll want to be protected in case he can't handle it. So don't be surprised if they bring a few backs to camp that you've heard of.
The Eagles look pretty well set with LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown as electric playmakers in the backfield. They also still have Dion Lewis and Chris Polk kicking around for depth. I don't see this as a need area for the Eagles this offseason.
As Mike points out in that link up there, it appears the Redskins would like to find someone who can fill in for workhorse starter Alfred Morris on third downs. That could certainly be Roy Helu if he could manage to stay healthy, but to this point he has not done that, and Mike Shanahan will surely want to bring four or more backs to camp for depth and competition purposes. As great as Morris' rookie season was -- and it was fantastic -- this is a position at which Shanahan has a well-known history of trying to stay ahead of the curve. If the Redskins' running game hierarchy is altered in 2013 from what it was in its very successful 2012, it would not be a surprise.
In discussing the state of the Cowboys' running game, Calvin quotes coach Jason Garrett saying this:
"We have to do a better job running the football, and you’ve heard me say this a lot, that balance is critical," coach Jason Garrett said when the season was over. "You want to be able to attack defenses a lot of different ways. DeMarco Murray was out for a large portion of this season, but having said that, you have to put the next guy in there and you have to be effective running it."
In theory, that makes sense. But if Calvin's point is that many of the teams having success in the playoffs are strong in the running game, I submit that they're strong around a reliable central figure who takes all of the snaps and the hits and keeps on grinding. Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. Ray Rice in Baltimore. Arian Foster in Houston. Denver got lucky, when Willis McGahee went down in the second half, it was able to turn to a former first-round pick in Knowshon Moreno and keep going.
The problem in Dallas is Murray has an injury history that starts in college and has drastically impacted both of his pro seasons. And as a result, the Cowboys don't know for certain that they can count on him going forward. They not only need to improve their depth around him, they need to see if they can find a running back capable of handling a full-time workload in his absence.
There was a similar problem in New York, where the Giants wanted to give Ahmad Bradshaw the chance to be the lead back this past year but he couldn't hold up physically either. Recurring issue with Bradshaw that has the team thinking about moving on and going with 2012 first-round pick David Wilson in a "lead dog" role. Can that work? You hope so, certainly, when you take a guy in the first round. But the Giants don't know. Issues with Wilson include ball security (famously) and pass protection. And it's not necessarily that Wilson can't pass-protect, but rather that Bradshaw's the best in the league at it, so if you're going to switch from Bradshaw to anyone as your "lead dog" your offense will have to adjust somehow.
The Cowboys and Giants both went into this season thinking they had solutions at running back, but they came out of it with questions -- some fresh and some old. Expect both teams to address this position in some meaningful way this offseason.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:
Rookies making history. The Washington Redskins are the first team in NFL history to feature both a 2,000-yard rookie passer (Robert Griffin III) and a 1,000-yard rookie rusher (Alfred Morris). Griffin is poised to join Morris as a 1,000-yard rusher if he can average 71.5 rushing yards per game the rest of the way. Griffin already is just the fourth player in league history to pass for at least 2,500 yards and rush for at least 700 yards in a single season, joining Cam Newton (2011), Michael Vick (2002) and Randall Cunningham (1990). The Redskins are 6-6 and pushing for a playoff spot, and the success or failure of the rookie engines of their offense over the final four games could determine whether they can get in.
Flipping the rookie script? Philadelphia Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown has been more impressive since taking over for concussed starter LeSean McCoy than rookie quarterback Nick Foles has been filling in for concussed starter Vick. But that could change this week in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are allowing just 82.3 yards per game on the ground this season, the lowest figure in the NFL. They are allowing an NFL-high 309.4 yards per game through the air, which could turn out to be historically bad. No team in NFL history has allowed an average of 300 or more passing yards per game over a full season. So Foles has a chance for his best game yet, while Brown is likely to find the going tougher this week.
Not going to be a Brees. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is 4-0 with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his four career games against the New York Giants, who host the Saints on Sunday in New Jersey. ESPN Stats & Info tells me the 11 touchdowns are tied for the most any player has had against a team that has not intercepted him. Drew Bledsoe had 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his career against the Cardinals. Of course, the Giants could be catching Brees at the right time. He threw five interceptions and no touchdowns in Week 13 against the Falcons in Atlanta. It broke a league-record streak of 54 consecutive games in which Brees had thrown at least one touchdown pass.
On the ground. Neither the Saints nor the Giants have been very good at stopping opposing runners in the backfield. New Orleans is allowing an average of 3.4 yards per rush before initial contact, which is the second-highest figure in the league, while New York's 3.2 yards allowed per rush before initial contact is third worst in the league. So Ahmad Bradshaw and whichever Saints running backs are active this week could have an easier time than usual making it to at least the line of scrimmage.
T5. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins vs. New York Giants (Mon.)
9. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles
10. Eli Manning, Giants at Washington (Mon.)
I honestly think Romo's too low. The past two quarterbacks to play the Eagles have won NFC Offensive Player of the Week awards. Romo himself was 19-for-26 for 209 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles three weeks ago, but Philadelphia's pass defense has reached new depths since then. They're literally not covering anyone. On the flip side, neither Nick Foles nor Michael Vick is in this week's top 25. Vick looks to be out again with a concussion, and Foles isn't doing anything in his stead.
9. Alfred Morris, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)
13. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants at Washington (Mon.)
14. Bryce Brown, Eagles at Dallas
T27. Felix Jones, Cowboys vs. Eagles
41. David Wilson, Giants at Washington (Mon.)
43. DeMarco Murray, Cowboys vs. Eagles
I picked up Wilson in a league in which I've already secured a playoff spot, but I didn't do it because I expect him to assume Andre Brown's touchdown-maker role. I did it because of the reasonable chance he's the Giants' starting running back in at least one of the next four games. If you're desperate, you could use him this week on the off chance he breaks a big one, but Bradshaw's likely to get those goal-line carries Brown was getting, as long as he stays healthy. Speaking of healthy, it appears Murray might play Sunday night, but that situation is murky enough that I might stay away from it and just play the Cowboys passing-game guys this week against Philly. Especially since you might not know Murray's status until after all of the early games are over.
8. Dez Bryant, Cowboys vs. Eagles
T9. Victor Cruz, Giants at Washington (Mon.)
11. Hakeem Nicks, Giants at Washington (Mon.)
24. Pierre Garcon, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)
28. Miles Austin, Cowboys vs. Eagles
39. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles at Dallas
46. Santana Moss, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)
Nicks and Cruz are every-week musts, and the matchup against the Redskins' pass defense is enticing. But man, those Redskins have a way of giving the Giants' passing offense fits. Other than the one big play that won the Giants the Week 7 game, Manning hasn't thrown a touchdown pass against Washington over the past two seasons. Austin's low ranking is health-related, I have to assume. Ed Werder has been reporting this week that Austin will play, and if he does I would start him. Garcon as a low WR2/high WR3 in 12-team leagues seems about right, especially with 10 days' rest.
3. Jason Witten, Cowboys vs. Eagles
12. Martellus Bennett, Giants at Washington (Mon.)
22. Brent Celek, Eagles at Dallas
25. Logan Paulsen, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)
Starting to feel redundant, but yeah, Witten. If I'm trying to make the fantasy playoffs and I can start a guy who's going to be running pass routes against the Eagles, I'm going to start him.
1. Lawrence Tynes, Giants at Washington (Mon.)
9. Dan Bailey, Cowboys vs. Eagles
T17. Kai Forbath, Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)
All of the division's kickers have been good, including unranked Alex Henery of Philadelphia. Tynes' team gives him the most chances, though.
9. Cowboys vs. Eagles
16. Giants at Washington (Mon.)
24. Redskins vs. Giants (Mon.)
T27. Eagles at Dallas
Yeah, Cowboys are the only NFC East defense I'd start this week. But I'd feel pretty good about doing it.
Here are five plays that shaped the game:
Play: Ahmad Bradshaw fumbles
Situation: First-and-10 at New York 40
Score: Giants, 23-0
Time: 11:37 left, second quarter
Taylor's Take: Although the Cowboys were getting blown out, you could tell from the reaction of Morris Claiborne, who recovered the fumble, and his teammates that they truly excited about the way they were playing. Defensive lineman Kenyon Coleman stripped Bradshaw as he ran up the middle and Claiborne pounced on the ball, changing the game’s momentum and giving Dallas an opportunity to get back in it.
Play: Danny McCray intercepts pass
Situation: Third-and-2 at Dallas 46
Score: Dallas, 24-23
Time: :59 left, third quarter
Taylor's Take: Gerald Sensabuagh delivered a perfect hit, dislodging the ball from Victor Cruz before he secured the pass, and McCray plucked it off Cruz’s butt. The play, however, required a lengthy review -- first to see if the pass was intercepted and then to determine if McCray had been touched negating his return. The extended review allowed the Giants to gather themselves while taking away some of the crowd’s emotion and the Cowboys’ momentum. The replay acted like a timeout in a basketball game.
Play: Tony Romo incompletion
Situation: Second-and-1 from the New York 15
Score: New York, 29-24
Time: 1:23 left, fourth quarter
Taylor's Take: Tony Romo and Jason Witten had been virtually impossible to stop on an option route that allowed Witten to find a soft spot in the coverage against zone and run an out against man coverage. Romo had completed eight consecutive passes to Witten and nine of 10. But on second down, one play after a 9-yard completion to Witten, Romo led the tight end too much and he couldn’t make the catch as he ran out of bounds. Two plays later, the drive ended with an interception.
Play: Tony Romo incompletion
Situation: Second-and-10 from the New York 27
Score: Giants, 29-24
Time: :01 left, fourth quarter
Taylor's Take: On the game’s final play, Osi Umenyiori beat Doug Free off the snap and immediately pressured Romo, forcing him to roll left. Romo eluded the pressure but as he ran toward the line of scrimmage Jason Pierre-Paul peeled off his blocker and pressured him too. Romo’s final pass sailed out of the end zone because he didn’t have a chance to set his feet and make an accurate throw.
Play: Dez Bryant 55-yard reception
Situation: Second-and-1 at Dallas 21
Score: Giants, 23-7
Time: 2:11 left, second quarter
Taylor's Take: The Giants busted a coverage, and Dez Bryant found himself along the left sideline without a defender within 10 yards. Instead of throwing a pass that Bryant could run under, Romo heaved a pass that resembled a punt. Bryant waited for it, which gave the defense time to recover and tackle him at the Giants 24. Instead of a touchdown, the Cowboys settled for a field goal.
No wonder Jason Garrett didn't have any confidence to run the ball when the Cowboys needed a yard to extend a potential game-winning drive. With DeMarco Murray sidelined, the Cowboys gained a grand total of 19 yards on 17 carries. Felix Jones had all 19 yards on 13 carries, running tentatively after being bothered all week by a bruised knee. He lost a fumble caused by center Ryan Cook's butt. Third-string tailback Phillip Tanner got stuffed at the goal line on his only two carries of the day. The Giants' front seven dominated the line of scrimmage all day.
The Dallas passing game produced a lot of pretty numbers. Tony Romo threw for a career-high 437 yards. Jason Witten had a franchise-record 18 receptions, more than any tight end in NFL history. The Cowboys had three 100-yard receivers for the second time in franchise history with Witten (167), Miles Austin (133) and Dez Bryant (110). But all the pretty numbers were outweighed by a butt-ugly stat: Romo's four picks, including one returned by Jason Pierre-Paul for a touchdown. The turnovers put the Cowboys in a 23-point hole, forcing Romo to throw a franchise-record 62 times while trying to lead a comeback, making all the meaningless, pretty numbers possible.
The Giants struggled to run the ball effectively despite stud inside linebacker Sean Lee being out for the season and fill-in starter Dan Connor leaving the game with a strained neck. The Giants averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. Ahmad Bradshaw (22 carries, 78 yards) never got rolling. Reserve running back Andre Brown was more effective, accounting for 21 yards and a touchdown on his three carries, running through Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff once. However, Ratliff was a force for the majority of the afternoon. He finished with five tackles, highlighted by one when he tracked down Bradshaw behind the line of scrimmage and outside the numbers to kill a Giants drive.
This is about as good as it possibly gets. The Cowboys kept an elite quarterback from making an impact on the game. Eli Manning completed only 15 of 29 passes for 192 yards and no touchdowns. Danny McCray came up with an interception when strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh delivered a hit on Victor Cruz that would have made Darren Woodson proud -- a clean but vicious blow that separated Cruz from the ball on a third-down throw over the middle. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick made Cruz (two catches, 23 yards) and Hakeem Nicks (four catches, 46 yards) nonfactors.
The Cowboys had a catastrophic special teams mistake in a loss for the third time this season. Dez Bryant was responsible for this one, losing a fumble on a reckless punt return that was doomed from the moment he failed to field the ball cleanly. That gifted a field goal for the Giants. There were several bright spots for the Cowboys' special teams, saving Joe DeCamillis' units from another failed grade. Dan Bailey hit a 51-yard field goal. Lance Dunbar had a 44-yard kickoff return. Brian Moorman averaged a net of 41.0 yards on four punts, three of which pinned the Giants inside the 20.
The Cowboys continue to be a dumb team. Ivy League-educated Jason Garrett can't escape the blame for that. His message about the importance of protecting the ball obviously isn't getting through to his team, which committed six turnovers in this loss. This is twice in the last three meetings against the Giants that the Cowboys looked woefully unprepared, putting themselves in huge holes. And Garrett's pass-happy play-calling when the Cowboys failed to pick up 1 yard on three downs with a little more than a minute to go gave ample opportunity for second-guessing.
Ware took a cleat to his side after attempting to tackle New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw with 4:47 left in the first quarter and missed two plays. He returned for the next series.
“I just got the wind knocked out of me,” Ware said. “I was already low in wind, so I got that knocked out and I couldn’t breathe. I was trying to say, ‘Hey, release it.’ But I got my wind back and went back out there.”
Ware said he felt fine after the game and did not believe there would be an issue going forward.
Not a lot of changes this week to the All-Division Team. Only two, I think, and neither one is the quarterback. Both Robert Griffin III and Eli Manning are playing at an extremely high level right now, and yes, I thought about using the fact that Manning won the game against Griffin's team as the tiebreaker. But as I watched that game Sunday, for those three hours, the best player on that field was not the two-time Super Bowl MVP. He got the last laugh, sure. And everyone who reads this blog regularly knows how I feel about Manning. But as of this moment, he's a notch behind Griffin for the starting quarterback spot on the All-NFC East Team. I think this is the first week all year in which they haven't switched places, so it's that close.
Before we go on, the disclaimer that no one will read: This is an all-division team based on overall season performance to date. It is not -- repeat, NOT -- simply a position-by-position list of those who played the best this week. That's why Santana Moss isn't on it.
So as I said, only two changes this week. Not the most exciting week we've had with this. I'll explain those two changes, and offer some insight on which players nearly changed my mind, after I give you the team:
Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins (Last week: Griffin)
Running back: Alfred Morris, Redskins (Morris)
Wide receiver: Victor Cruz, New York Giants; DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles (Cruz, Jackson)
Tight end: Martellus Bennett, Giants (Brent Celek)
Fullback: Henry Hynoski, Giants (Hynoski)
Left tackle: Trent Williams, Redskins (Williams)
Left guard: Evan Mathis, Eagles (Mathis)
Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Montgomery)
Right guard: Chris Snee, Giants (Snee)
Right tackle: Todd Herremans, Eagles (Herremans)
Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants; Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys (Pierre-Paul, Hatcher)
Defensive tackle: Cullen Jenkins, Eagles; Linval Joseph, Giants (Jenkins, Joseph)
Outside linebacker: Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins; DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys (Kerrigan, Ware)
Inside linebacker: Sean Lee, Cowboys; DeMeco Ryans, Eagles (Lee, Ryans)
Cornerback: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eagles, Prince Amukamara, Giants (Rodgers-Cromartie, Josh Wilson)
Safety: Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown, Giants (Rolle, Brown)
Kicker: Lawrence Tynes, Giants (Tynes)
Punter: Sav Rocca, Redskins (Rocca)
Kick returner: David Wilson, Giants (Wilson)
Punt returner: Rueben Randle, Giants (Randle)
- Bennett had the big game catching the ball, yes, and Celek was off, but Bennett was close behind to begin with. What he and Hynoski are doing as blockers, in the run game and the passing game, is absolutely invaluable to the way the Giants are playing right now.
- And yes, Amukamara is the best cornerback in the division at this moment. Wilson is having a fine season, the final play of Sunday's game notwithstanding, but Amukamara has done absolutely nothing wrong since returning from his injuries. With Corey Webster having a down year and the Giants' secondary in need of a boost, he's performing like a first-round pick.
- Williams holds down his spot at left tackle after holding off Pierre-Paul all day Sunday. He's playing left tackle as well as anyone in the league. His closest competition in this division is the Giants' Will Beatty.
- Looked at Nate Livings for left guard and Chris Chester for right guard, but I still have each a notch below the guy listed at his spot. Herremans hasn't been great, but you don't have to be to beat out Doug Free, Sean Locklear and Tyler Polumbus. I did think Polumbus played a good game Sunday. But again, year-long list.
- Thought about Miles Austin over Jackson at that receiver spot but didn't pull the trigger. Another big Ahmad Bradshaw game could have threatened Morris at running back, because of what Bradshaw brings as a blocker. But Morris is the clear running back leader in this division right now.
- Kerrigan's had two kinda bad games in a row, and I thought about putting Dallas' Anthony Spencer there instead. (He got a sack!) Will monitor this in the coming weeks to see if Kerrigan returns to his dominant early season form.
- I didn't think Rolle or Brown looked remarkably impressive Sunday (Brown's interception notwithstanding), but I really don't see who deserves to have taken the spots from them. Maybe Nate Allen? Meh.
- And finally, Lee is obviously not long for this inside linebacker spot, as he's out for the year with a foot injury. The leading candidate to take the spot at this moment is Washington's Perry Riley, but we'll see how the potential replacements play in the coming weeks. It's not ridiculous to think that Lee could hold the spot for a week or two without playing. That's how good he's been.
As ever, I welcome your thoughts.
|ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon and Jean-Jacques Taylor join Ben and Skin to talk all things football in another award-winning Cowboys Think Tank.
After a 7-yard run by Murray on second down, the Giants used their final timeout with 2:17 remaining. On third-and-2 from the Dallas 34, Murray picked up the first down and wisely slid before going out of bounds to keep the clock running.
Without a timeout, the Giants would only have the benefit of the two-minute warning and the game would have effectively been over. The holding penalty kept the drama up for another play and Murray’s decision was overlooked.
Marion Barber made similar smart moves with the Cowboys, but was famously unable to stay in bounds last year in Chicago and it led to a Tim Tebow-comeback for Denver in the final moments. In the Super Bowl, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw was unable to stop his momentum at the goal line after New England let him score, giving the Patriots a chance to win the game. Ultimately, the Giants won anyway.
Murray said he did it last year with the Cowboys and during his time at Oklahoma.
“We worked on it through training camp and just having an understanding for the game and the situation,” Murray said. “I just knew what to do.”
Bruce Carter might be able to backpedal faster than Bradie James and Keith Brooking can run straight ahead at their advanced age. Carter reportedly ran a 4.39 40 at North Carolina before tearing his ACL his senior season, an injury that caused him to slip to the second round, where the Cowboys considered him a Lee-like steal.
“We are faster,” owner/general manager Jerry Jones said Friday on KRLD-FM. “There’s no question when you look at No. 54 Carter out there, who is the fastest inside linebacker in the NFL, maybe the fastest linebacker, period. He adds speed. It’s a big difference out there.”
Carter won a training camp competition with free agent addition Dan Connor to start next to Lee. Judging by the snap counts in the season opener, it wasn’t much of a contest.
Carter played 30 of the Cowboys’ 56 defensive snaps. Connor played just four.
Don’t expect that to change. Carter played a significant role in an outstanding defensive performance, getting credited for five tackles, including a couple of times he stuffed tailback Ahmad Bradshaw at the line of scrimmage.
“You can see that Bruce is somebody that can really run to the football,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He makes a lot of plays sideline to sideline.”