Dallas Cowboys: Aldrick Robinson

Eight in the Box: NFC East camp battles

July, 26, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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.

Eight in the Box: WR status check

March, 30, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How do the Cowboys look at wide receiver and what still needs to be done?

Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant broke out in a huge way in the second half of his third NFL season and finished the year with 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. If he can keep himself in one piece, he's one of the top wideouts in the league. Miles Austin is the perfect complement on the other side -- good enough that defenses have to pay attention to him but not the kind of guy who's going to complain if Bryant gets more catches. Austin has to keep his hamstrings healthy, and if he does the Cowboys have a top one-two wide receiver combo. Dwayne Harris came on strong last year as a No. 3 wide receiver, and guys such as Cole Beasley and Danny Coale could provide intriguing depth. Dallas could look to add a veteran wide receiver to its mix heading into training camp in case the young guys don't produce, but it's not a high-priority issue.

To see what the other NFC East teams look like at WR, click here.

Look back: No answers for RG3, Alfred Morris

November, 27, 2012
IRVING, Texas – Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III stole the show with his four-touchdown performance against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

He made one poor decision and it resulted in an interception, but he had an answer for everything defensive coordinator Rob Ryan threw at him.

Ryan brought five guys seven times and Griffin completed six passes, including three that went for touchdowns. When the Cowboys chose to go with four-man pressure, Griffin was 12 of 17 but he was also sacked four times. Griffin went 2 of 4 against three-man pressures, including a check down to Leonard Hankerson, who slipped away from Danny McCray for a 12-yard gain late in the fourth quarter.

It was not McCray’s finest hour. On the 68-yrd touchdown to Aldrick Robinson, McCray was flat-footed on the play-action fake and Robinson ran right by him.

It was not Brandon Carr’s finest hour either, especially in the first half. On Robinson’s touchdown, Carr played off coverage and dropped 7 yards before the ball was snapped, giving Robinson a free run. He had no chance in catching up. On the 59-yard TD to Pierre Garcon, Carr, who was playing safety for his first snap of the game, slipped as he closed on the crossing route and Garcon was off to the races. Carr set up Alfred Morris’s touchdown run with a pass interference penalty in the end zone. With no help to the inside he allowed Hankerson to cross his face at the snap and get position, leading to the penalty on the Griffin throw. He was also beaten for Santana Moss for a 6-yard touchdown after turning the wrong way.

The Cowboys paid an awful lot to get Carr and Morris Claiborne. They liked their press coverage ability. They liked it so much vs. the Redskins that the Cowboys played across-the-board press only nine times, eight in the second half. Why? Is Ryan so worried about the safety play that he doesn’t want to expose his corners? Let these guys play aggressively at the line and win some battles.

The Cowboys lined up in off coverage 28 times and played half-press 24 times.

But let’s get to something that was overlooked because of Griffin’s masterpiece. The run defense was awful. The Redskins opened the game by trying to run wide but were thwarted by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, so they adjusted to running between the tackles. The Cowboys defensive line could not get off blocks. Josh Brent lost too many battles and had his shoulders turned sideways to free up lanes for blockers to get on the linebackers. Same goes for defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and Marcus Spears.

The Cowboys did a good job against the read option, but Spencer and Ware both bit in the second half that led to good runs by Griffin.

On offense, the story was the same as it’s been all year. They couldn’t run the ball.

Felix Jones should be praised for his toughness, but there comes a point where he’s just not effective enough. On a few plays – which are big when you have nine run calls – Jones was just unable to get to the hole. If he did, larger runs were there.

Washington came after Tony Romo in the first half. They brought five-man pressure on 15 of Romo’s 21 throws and the line and backs did a good job handling it. Same with the wide receivers. On one five-man pressure Romo chose to hit Dez Bryant underneath for a first down when he had Cole Beasley open for a touchdown with both Washington defenders jumping Bryant. But there was no way Romo could find Beasley with the pressure coming at him.

In the second half, the Redskins relied mostly on a four-man rush, doing it 30 times and producing one sack. With such a big lead, they decided to sit back more. Bit when the Cowboys got down to the red zone late in the fourth quarter defensive coordinator Jim Haslett brought six-man pressure on three straight plays. The final time it burned him with Romo hooking up with a back shoulder throw to Bryant for a touchdown.

Dwayne Harris did a nice job of sealing Bryant’s 85-yard touchdown in the third quarter with a key downfield block. Bryant, however, did not return the favor on a 36-yard gain by Harris, allowing Josh Wilson to come from behind for a tackle. Harris might not have scored, but Bryant could have done more to help there.

Rapid Reaction: Redskins 38, Cowboys 31

November, 22, 2012

ARLINGTON, Texas -- This was an embarrassing performance on a big stage for the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. The 38-31 loss to the Washington Redskins has now put the Cowboys' playoffs hopes in dire straits.

You don't get credit for the second-half comeback or for playing hard in the NFL. You get credit for victories, and the Cowboys didn't get one Thursday.

With five games remaining in the regular season, the Cowboys might have to win out and get some help, hoping the New York Giants lose at least two games, to possibly win the division. It might not be enough if the Cowboys win four of their next five games. And guess what? The Redskins (5-6) are tied with the Cowboys for second place in the division and own the tiebreaker, head-to-head.

The season appears to be over, unofficially.

What it means: The Cowboys haven't won three consecutive games since the middle of the 2011 season, when they ripped off four consecutive in November. The two-game winning streak is a thing of the past now, and the Cowboys will have nine days off to reflect on what might have been if they'd swept this three-game stretch in which they didn't play a team with a winning record.

More injuries: The Cowboys lost linebacker Bruce Carter (elbow) in the fourth quarter and wide receiver Miles Austin (hip) and cornerback Orlando Scandrick (broken hand) in the first half to injuries. At one point during this game, the Cowboys' injury list included Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman, Sean Lee, Barry Church, Tyron Smith, Phil Costa, DeMarco Murray, Austin and Scandrick. We're not making excuses, but the Cowboys are hurting without their regulars.

What happened in the first half? This game got away from the Cowboys in the first half. The Cowboys' fans booed them on Thanksgiving Day as they walked off the field at halftime down 28-3. Big plays killed the Cowboys. Wide receiver and SMU product Aldrick Robinson caught a 68-yard touchdown pass from Robert Griffin III. Robinson ran past Brandon Carr and Danny McCray on a pass that appeared to be overthrown. But Robinson caught the ball in stride for a 7-3 Redskins lead. The second Redskins score was set up by a Griffin play-action pass that froze the defense. Griffin is so good at these because he does a nice job of messing up the defense with the fake. He found Pierre Garcon on a slant for 19 yards to convert a second-and-3. Two plays later, Alfred Morris scores from the 1 for a 14-3 lead. The game was secured on a 59-yard reception by Garcon in which he caught a pass behind him and outran the defenders to the end zone. What was interesting on the play was that Charlie Peprah blitzed from the slot, and after Garcon caught the pass, Carr fell down. If he doesn't slip, he has a chance to make an open-field tackle. Garcon's score made it 21-3.


Will Jason Garrett return as the Cowboys' coach next season?


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Who kept Cowboys in it? Dez Bryant and Tony Romo. Bryant caught eight passes for 145 yards with two touchdowns. Romo, in comeback mode, had career highs with 441 yards and 62 pass attempts. But Bryant and Romo weren't alone. Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris also contributed. Beasley had seven catches for 68 yards and Harris caught four for 71.

Kick settles it: The Cowboys made this a one-possession game, but one of their former kickers, Kai Forbath -- who didn't kick for the team because he was nursing a leg injury -- made a 48-yarder with 2:58 to play, extending the Redskins' lead to 38-28. It ended an 11-play, 50-yard drive that lasted 5:20. One of the key plays was a missed open-field tackle by McCray on Leonard Hankerson on a second-and-9 play.

What's next: We're not sure if Andy Reid is going to be the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles or if Michael Vick is going to be the quarterback, but the Eagles visit Cowboys Stadium on Dec. 2.