Dallas Cowboys: Brian Orakpo

Top free-agent roundup: NFC East

March, 10, 2014
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Here are the top 15 free agents, followed by their rankings, entering Tuesday's signing period as compiled by NFC East reporters Dan Graziano, Todd Archer, Phil Sheridan and John Keim. There are some strong options at the top, but there is not a lot of depth in the NFC East when it comes to free agency. And if Dallas' DeMarcus Ware gets released, he vaults to a top spot on this list. As always, ESPN's free-agent tracker will keep you updated during this period.

1. LB Brian Orakpo, 8.5: The Redskins used the franchise tag on him, so barring a surprise, he’ll be back. It’s a controversial move among fans, but the Redskins need his pass rush and promise to unleash him more often. His career best for a single season is 11 sacks.

2. DT Linval Joseph, 8: A very big, strong and young (25) interior run-stuffer who has also shown the ability to create pressure from the interior, Joseph could be available because of the Giants’ depth at defensive tackle and their many needs.

3. DT Jason Hatcher, 8: He is coming off an 11-sack season, but he turns 32 in July and Dallas doesn’t have much cap space.

4. LB Jon Beason, 7: The Giants are working hard to sign him before free agency opens, as his leadership and high-energy play at middle linebacker helped transform their defense during the 2013 season.

Nicks
5. WR Hakeem Nicks, 7: This grade is based on talent and past accomplishments, and a feeling that he was being overly careful in 2013 in order to hit free agency healthy. Lacks his early career speed, but knows how to play the position as well as anyone.

6. WR Jason Avant, 7: For a team in need of a third-down possession guy, the sure-handed Avant will be a great value.

7. P Donnie Jones, 7: The Eagles are expected to re-sign Jones, who was an underrated contributor to their NFC East title team.

8. DE Anthony Spencer, 6: He is coming back from microfracture surgery, so the cost won’t be high.

9. LB Perry Riley, 6: The Redskins need to re-sign him because they already have a hole at inside linebacker after London Fletcher retired. But they won’t break the bank for Riley, who needs to improve in coverage.

10. DE Justin Tuck, 6: Coming off an 11-sack season that came out of nowhere after two down years, Tuck turns 31 later this month but is a locker-room leader and a 4-3 defensive end who can set the edge against the run.

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11. QB Michael Vick, 6: With Nick Foles' ascension, Vick is looking for a chance to start elsewhere.

12. RB Andre Brown, 5: He played very well in his first few games back off a broken leg, but faded down the stretch and fumbled too much in the final few games. He is likely not a guy who can be relied on as a starter, but potentially a valuable piece.

13. TE Brandon Myers, 5: A huge disappointment in New York after catching 79 passes as a Raider in 2012, Myers also contributed little as a blocker. The Giants are likely to let him go. He could fit better with a different system.

14. CB Terrell Thomas, 5: He played all 16 games after missing the previous two seasons because of ACL tears in the same knee. Thomas believes he can hold up as a starter off a real offseason, and would like to cash in.

15. S Danny McCray, 5: He is a core special teamer only, so the Cowboys could find value here.

Cowboys ready for anything from Redskins

December, 20, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- In the middle of a six-game losing streak, there is little for the Washington Redskins to play for.

And that could make it more difficult to get ready for the Redskins.

The Cowboys will have to get ready for just about everything from fake punts and kicks to going for it on fourth down. Last week Mike Shanahan elected to go for two after scoring a touchdown with 18 seconds left. The conversion attempt failed and Washington lost to the Atlanta Falcons.

“They’re an aggressive team anyway,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They’re aggressive on offense. They’re certainly aggressive with their defense and their overall approach. That’s an element to this game, there’s no question about that.”

The Redskins would also like nothing more than to possibly ruin the Cowboys’ season. Longtime linebacker London Fletcher is most likely playing his final home game with him being “99.9 percent” sure he will retire after this season.

“They’ve got a lot of proud players,” tight end Jason Witten said. “[Brian] Orakpo is playing, in my mind as good as I’ve seen him play. They have good leadership. I know defensively Fletcher, Orakpo, [Ryan] Kerrigan, they’re going to rally the troops and play well. It’s always a fight in this league and especially when we go against them. I think we anticipate anything or even more because their mentality is 'we’re out of it but we’re going to build on this.' We’ve got to be ready for this fight.”

Cowboys need to handle Redskins' blitz

October, 12, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Last December, Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had the Dallas Cowboys' number.

He dialed up several blitzes involving the strong-side and middle linebackers that threw the Cowboys' offense for a loop.

As a result, Tony Romo had a season-low in completion percentage (54.1), a season low in yards (218) and was intercepted three times. The Redskins had only two sacks, but the pressure was bothersome all night.

“I know how good this defense is,” Romo said. “It’s a great challenge for us. Tough to score points on. We’ve got to be able to do some things that they’re not prepared for. I know they’re going to have new pressure packages. They’re going to be ready to bring it after us. We’re going to hopefully have some things up that will give them some trouble.”

The Cowboys spent a good chunk of the offseason trying to protect Romo better against blitz looks. The biggest change came on the interior of the line, with three new players in Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick and Brian Waters.

The return of Brian Orakpo changes some of the Redskins' defense, but they still expect a lot of pressure from Haslett to slow down a passing game that went off for 506 yards last week.

“You go back a couple of years ago, when the game was on the line, I think it was a third-and-23 and he still brought the house,” tight end Jason Witten said. “That’s the mentality of the way that defense plays. They bring pressure, they have success bringing pressure and they bring pressure with a lot of different guys. It’s not just all [Brian] Orakpo and [Ryan] Kerrigan. They bring it with secondary players and corners. Just stay on top of it and be alert so that you can have answers when they do bring it.”

Double Coverage: Redskins at Cowboys

October, 11, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins will meet for the 107th time in their historic rivalry, but neither team has gotten off to the kind of start to the season they envisioned.

At 2-3, the Cowboys are tied for the NFC East lead, and the Redskins are 1-3 coming off their bye weekend.

ESPN.com Redskins reporter John Keim and ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down Sunday's matchup at AT&T Stadium with this week's Double Coverage.

SportsNation

How many yards will Tony Romo throw for against the Redskins?

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Discuss (Total votes: 9,008)

Archer: The last time Robert Griffin III was at AT&T Stadium he threw four touchdown passes and was dynamic. Are we starting to see Griffin look like the Griffin from last season?

Keim: Todd, we are starting to see more of the old Griffin, though the offense was rolling a lot better at that time last season than it is now. But in the last game before the bye at Oakland, Griffin used his legs more -- mostly to escape trouble -- and big plays resulted. That's his game; even if the zone-read option isn't a huge factor, his legs still can be. But the difference was this time there were a couple plays on which, last season, he would have taken off running. Instead, he kept his eyes downfield and threw for a solid completion. I think it'll help him to have a more balanced attack; his play-action passes were lethal last season, as the Cowboys discovered. Because of how the games have unfolded, they haven't been as balanced as they'd like.

I'll stick with quarterbacks: Tony Romo's stats are fantastic. Is this his best start? If so, why?

Archer: It's definitely his best start. I know people won't get the interception at the end of the Denver game out of their heads, but his decision-making has been great. He's seeing the field. I think with his involvement in the offense, he's taken it upon himself to be more careful, but against the Broncos he was smartly aggressive with his throws down the field. He is more accurate than he has ever been as well, completing better than 70 percent of his passes. I think the Denver game could be the start of something for this offense in terms of how they attack defenses. Romo loves the empty package because he can get the ball out of his hands quickly and he's got some quarterback friendly targets.

The last time the Redskins saw Romo, they hurt him with pressure. Safe to say that with 15 sacks they're still pressure happy?

Keim: Yeah, they want to pressure, but they had to send extra guys last season against him because, without Brian Orakpo, their four-man rushes applied little pressure. Six of their seven sacks against Oakland earlier this season came with four-man rushes, allowing them to focus on coverage. That would be their ideal. However, those rushes take a little time to develop and Romo is much better than Matt Flynn was for the Raiders. So I would definitely expect some blitzes; they can't let Romo get comfortable in the pocket. They had success with blitzes through the A-gaps and sending linebackers off the edge. They also sent several slot-corner blitzes. I think they'll still do some of that Sunday, but if they don't get there, big plays will follow.

While we're on the topic of blitzes, aside from one play last season, Romo did not handle the extra rushers well. However, last week against Denver he did. Has he improved in this area?

Archer: He has done better in that area. So far, he has four touchdowns and no interceptions against the blitz this season and has been sacked only three times. The offensive line is playing as well as it has played in three or four seasons, and I think, as Romo's confidence in it has grown, the ability to attack the blitz has grown. Part of it is experience. Part of it is getting rid of it quicker. Part of it his better protection. Having offensive line coach Bill Callahan as the playcaller might mean he's more willing to give his guys some help with extra blockers, but it's not like the Cowboys go into a shell when they see a blitz.

From afar, Alfred Morris is off to a good start. He hurt the Cowboys last December, too. How's his health?

Keim: His health is fine. The ribs are a little bit sore, but he's practiced fully Monday and Wednesday, and, barring a setback, he'll play Sunday. Morris' total rushing yards are down, but he's averaging 5.3 per carry and 2.30 yards after contact, both better than in 2012. Morris is taking better angles and does an excellent job setting up blockers because he's so patient. Teams have keyed on him in the zone-read but he's still effective in the outside zone game. There have been some blocking issues from all over, but the Redskins want to run the ball more, so look for that Sunday.

We hear a lot about the Dallas passing game, but DeMarco Murray is off to a strong start. How good has he been, and what sort of problems could he cause the Redskins?

Archer: I don't feel as good about Murray as you do about Morris, even though the numbers tell a different story. He has been OK, but he has left yards on the table. I guess every running back does, but his just seem more noticeable. He's not been able to run it much, with just two 20-carry games, which -- oh, by the way -- have come in the Cowboys' two wins. I hate the stat, but the Cowboys are 10-0 when he gets 20 carries. Why not just hand it to him 20 straight times to open the game? I kid. Anyway, I think the Cowboys have found out they run best when they are in a three-wide set, which spreads the field and gives Murray some options. The Cowboys will need him Sunday, especially if the Redskins decide to play coverage, but the coaches need to call on him when the running game isn't doing that well. He's also a decent receiver out of the backfield, and the third-down back, Lance Dunbar is battling a hamstring injury.

I want to go back to the Redskins' defense. I've thought a few times DeAngelo Hall was done in recent seasons, but he was great versus Dez Bryant in last season's finale. Do you think the Redskins will have him follow Bryant on Sunday?

Keim: I do expect them to do that a decent amount Sunday. He did the same thing against Calvin Johnson a couple weeks ago. They used Josh Wilson against Bryant a lot in the first game, but Wilson is playing more in the slot in the three-corner set. And rookie David Amerson is not ready to cover Bryant more than a little bit, though he does have the size. So that leaves Hall, at least when they're in man coverage. If they play him like they did last season, then they will mix in a lot of zone coverage in an effort to give Romo pause. I'm with you: Every time I think Hall has slipped a bit, he'll have a big game. Hall will get beat and often gives up too much cushion, but he's a smart player who competes hard. It serves him well.

This is a pretty basic question, but how has the transition been to the 4-3?

Archer: To be kind, I'll just say not as well as the Cowboys had hoped. They have been lit up the past two games by Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. I guess there's no shame in having either of them do that, but it's been historically bad around here. The problem is they cannot generate pressure with four rushers. They miss Anthony Spencer, who's out for the season. They miss Jay Ratliff, who is on the physically unable to perform list. They miss Tyrone Crawford, who tore his Achilles the first day of camp. As well as George Selvie and Nick Hayden have played, you like them more as rotation guys and not starters. DeMarcus Ware has been banged up for three straight games, and Jason Hatcher has been put in check the past two games. They don't blitz often, but I'm not sure they have faith in their coverage to try to do it more.

One area that has killed the Cowboys in this 4-3 is passes to runners and tight ends, but those doesn't look to be featured parts of the Washington offense. Could that change Sunday?

Keim: I think it could change, at least to a degree. They do like to get the ball to the receivers, but one reason running back Roy Helu hasn't been a bigger factor in the pass game is because of their inability to convert third downs, which prevent more plays. But Helu has shown the past two games just how dangerous he can be in the open field. I saw some of the issues Dallas had covering backs; Helu would hurt them. At tight end, their top two pass-catchers, Fred Davis and rookie Jordan Reed, are both healthy. Reed is an up-and-comer, an athletic kid who makes tough catches. He's a threat after the catch, so there's a chance the Cowboys' troubles here will continue.

The Cowboys allow only 3.8 yards per rush. Is that a function of them stopping it well or teams not testing them more on the ground?

Archer: The easy answer is a little of both. They did a nice job on Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, but late in the game, he converted a crucial third down. San Diego and Denver were able to grind them a little. Knowshon Moreno had 93 yards on 19 carries and a lot of his work was done between the tackles. I'm not sure if they're better suited to handle Washington's running game this season compared to last season. They were just guessing on some zone-read stuff at FedEx Field and were mostly wrong. And it's not like Monte Kiffin slowed it down when he was at USC. They've done OK when teams have tried to pound it on them, but San Diego and Denver were able to run out of a stretch look.

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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC East team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Dallas Cowboys: Last offseason, the Cowboys used premium resources to acquire Brandon Carr in free agency and Morris Claiborne in the draft so they could be better equipped to play man coverage on the outside. Then this offseason, they went out and hired Cover 2 guru Monte Kiffin as their defensive coordinator. Kiffin supposedly will incorporate more man coverage into his play calls, but Carr and Claiborne are not ideal players for Cover 2, which will be Dallas’ base coverage. Still, these two, along with nickelback Orlando Scandrick and fourth-round pick B.W. Webb, give the Cowboys an excellent set of cornerbacks overall. Scheme notwithstanding, Claiborne should be much improved in his second season. Safety is another story though. This position was a huge weakness in 2012. Free-agent signee Will Allen is penciled in to start opposite Barry Church, who is highly unproven. The Cowboys used a third-round pick on J.J. Wilcox, but Allen is not starting material and Wilcox is extremely raw. Wilcox has a ton of ability and should be an immediate standout on special teams, but trusting him to read quarterbacks and route combinations as a rookie could be a disaster. To me, safety remains an immediate weakness for Dallas.

New York Giants: There isn’t a lot of change here from 2012 -- and that isn’t really a good thing. Gone is Kenny Phillips and in are Aaron Ross and Ryan Mundy, but this is a franchise that relies on its defensive line to make the defense go -- and the line does look impressive. Safety Stevie Brown made a lot of plays last season and will be asked to replace Phillips on more of a full-time basis alongside Antrel Rolle, whose best trait is probably his overall versatility. At cornerback, the Giants are counting on Prince Amukamara and Jayron Hosley to take noticeable steps forward in their young careers, especially from an overall consistency standpoint. Terrell Thomas returns from yet another major injury and Ross will provide corner depth, but Corey Webster is the player New York absolutely needs to play like he did earlier in his career. In 2012, Webster struggled mightily and Hosley was often beaten, which obviously is a huge concern.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles gave their secondary a total overhaul this offseason. While there was talent in this group a year ago, it collectively made a ton of mistakes and just allowed far too many big plays. Simply said, the Eagles’ secondary was dreadful in 2012. One carryover is Brandon Boykin, who played well as a rookie and should be the ideal nickel cornerback going forward. The starters at corner, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, have plenty of questions around them. I don’t see either player as close to being a true No. 1 cornerback, but if they can show some consistency it will be an improvement for Philadelphia at the position. At safety, the Eagles signed Kenny Phillips from the Giants, an excellent move and a massive upgrade if he stays healthy. They also inked Patrick Chung away from the Patriots. There is much more uncertainty around Chung, who has never stepped up as many expected he would have by now. Earl Wolff, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Curtis Marsh provide the Eagles with young talented depth, but while the secondary has been totally reshuffled, the starters here are far from sure things. But like the rest of Philadelphia’s secondary in 2012, Allen and Coleman had a rough go of it last season.

Washington Redskins: Probably the biggest need area for this team heading into this offseason was the secondary. In free agency, the Redskins added E.J. Biggers, who should be a very solid all-around third cornerback. In the draft, Washington addressed its secondary in a big way, using a second-round pick on David Amerson, a fourth-rounder on Phillip Thomas and a sixth-rounder on Bacarri Rambo. Right now, the starters are DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson at cornerback and Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty at safety. Surely the Redskins would love for Amerson, Thomas and Rambo all to challenge for starting spots right out of the gate, but rookie cover men often struggle. Still, Doughty is very average. Meriweather is returning from injury and has been highly inconsistent and untrustworthy, while Hall is one of the more overrated players in the NFL, who can look great one week and terrible the next. Wilson might be the best member of Washington’s secondary, which is an indictment of the status of this unit overall. The Redskins have, however, added young talent, and the return from injury of Brian Orakpo, their only truly top-notch pass-rusher, also should help the cover men a great deal.

Eight in the Box: Playing for a contract

June, 1, 2013
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC East team who must deliver in 2013.

Dallas Cowboys: Playing on a one-year franchise player deal for the second season in a row, defensive end Anthony Spencer is key to the Cowboys' transition to a 4-3 defensive front. He and fellow pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware will switch from the 3-4 outside linebacker position they've always played to a 4-3 defensive end position that will put them closer to the offensive line and likely require them to be more physical in their efforts to get to the quarterback. Spencer took a huge step forward in 2012 as a pass-rusher and was, for much of the season, the best player on the Cowboys' defense. He had 11 sacks, and his previous career high had been six. If he can make the transition to his new position and follow his best season with another excellent one, he'll likely be able to get the long-term deal he seeks. If he can't, the Cowboys will be looking for a new pass-rush anchor next offseason.

New York Giants: Sticking with the pass-rush theme, defensive end Justin Tuck is the Giants player under the most pressure this season to perform the way he used to perform. After racking up 11.5 sacks in 2010, Tuck has collected just nine, total, in the past two regular seasons. The Giants' pass rush took a step backward last season and lost Osi Umenyiora to free agency. They'll replace Umenyiora by moving Mathias Kiwanuka back up to the line from the linebacker spot he played the past two seasons, but their pass rush would function best with Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul as dominant bookend starters. Another lackluster season could mean the end of Tuck's decorated career with the Giants. A return to early-career form could transform the Giants back into a championship contender.

Philadelphia Eagles: Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles' 2009 first-round pick, has averaged 65 receptions, 863 yards and 6.5 touchdowns in his first four seasons in the NFL. His numbers are actually pretty consistent, year to year. But what the Eagles had in mind when they drafted Maclin was a No. 1 wide receiver. And while he's flashed that ability at times, he hasn't been able to maintain that level or develop his game. The Eagles have fellow wideout DeSean Jackson signed long term, but they will have the money and the cap space to sign Maclin next offseason if they choose to do so. Whether they will want to depends on how Maclin plays in the new Chip Kelly offense and, likely, whether he looks as though he can be counted on to carry the load as a true No. 1.

Washington Redskins: I still think it's possible linebacker Brian Orakpo gets his contract extended before the season starts, but if he doesn't, he'll enter the season carrying the pressure of a contract year along with the pressure of having to kick-start the Redskins' pass rush. A pectoral muscle injury in Week 2 ended Orakpo's season, and fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan struggled without Orakpo on the other side to draw the attention of opposing blockers. The Redskins' 3-4 defense is designed around the idea of former first-rounders Orakpo and Kerrigan getting to the quarterback. They need Orakpo to stay healthy and to produce like one of the best pass-rushers in the league.

Eight in the Box: Key offseasons

May, 10, 2013
5/10/13
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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.

Defenses will decide the NFC East

December, 13, 2012
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Robert Griffin IIIBrad Penner/US PresswireNew York's title hopes may depend on Jason Pierre-Paul and a Giants pass rush that has been underwhelming this season.

Can the New York Giants' pass rush perk up and help a Big Blue defense that held the Falcons offense scoreless during the playoffs last season repeat that performance Sunday in Atlanta?

Can the two men the Dallas Cowboys brought in to be shutdown cornerbacks keep the Steelers receivers covered while Ben Roethlisberger scrambles to keep plays alive?

Can the Washington Redskins scheme, adjust and work around their defensive personnel shortages for another week, keeping Trent Richardson in check and daring Brandon Weeden to beat them in Cleveland?

These are the key storylines Sunday as the NFC East race spins into its final weeks. Amend them with different opponents, and they are likely to remain the key storylines in this division the rest of the way. Although the quarterbacks get all the attention in this division and statistically there's not a top-10 defense in the bunch, the team that plays the best defense in these final three games is the one most likely to emerge with the division title.

The NFC East race is a jumble. The defending champion Giants hold a one-game lead, but they have road games the next two weeks in Atlanta and Baltimore and are far from assured of winning out. The Falcons and Ravens are a combined 11-1 at home this season and 65-11 the past five. Sure, New York is a defending Super Bowl champion that has shown it can win anywhere, but there's not a team out there that could safely assume it would go 2-0 in those games. The Giants are going to have to play the way they played in January, not the way they've played for most of the past month and a half, if they're going to keep control of the division. To do that, they need to be more ferocious on defense.

The Giants have 31 sacks -- tied for 12th most in the league. Jason Pierre-Paul leads them with 6.5. Osi Umenyiora has six. Justin Tuck has only three.

The numbers are fine, but they're not Giants numbers. This is a pass rush that took out Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady en route to its second Super Bowl title in five years. Unless someone gets more than one sack a game the rest of the way, they're going to finish the regular season without anyone in double figures. That doesn't compute, and it has as much to do with why the Giants haven't already put away this division as anything.

It's possible that seeing Ryan and the Falcons will rekindle memories of how dominant they were up front 11 months ago, and if that's the case, the Giants could be the team that gets on the defensive run that gives them the division title.

The Cowboys sit one game back of the Giants, tied with the Redskins for second place. Statistically fine for much of the season, the defense has endured a brutal rash of injuries. Both starting inside linebackers, a starting safety, a starting defensive lineman and their nickel cornerback are on injured reserve. This week, star pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware (elbow) and starting cornerback Morris Claiborne (concussion) have already missed practice. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff remains in doubt, and his backup, Josh Brent, is out because of his well-publicized issues. The Cowboys are running short of players on defense, which could take them right out of this picture if it continues.

But they've made it this far in spite of their deficiencies. They've won four of their past five games. Running back DeMarco Murray is back in the fold, red-hot wide receiver Dez Bryant apparently is determined to play in spite of a broken finger, and the offense is humming.

The defense has to hold it together, and the key is in that secondary. Ware and Anthony Spencer are playing well at outside linebacker, and the defensive line is average and going to stay that way. The defense is counting on Claiborne and fellow corner Brandon Carr to shut down receivers, especially in a game such as this Sunday's against Pittsburgh's receivers. If Claiborne can't go, the responsibility falls to Sterling Moore, who has looked good in his short time in Dallas.

Carr and Claiborne have been occasionally brilliant but generally inconsistent in coverage this season. The price the Cowboys paid for Carr in free-agent money and for Claiborne in draft picks says they're big-time talents who need to play that way. If they can shut down opposing receivers the next three weeks, the Cowboys' chances of coming from behind and stealing this division are a lot better.

In Washington, all eyes are on rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has a knee injury and may not play Sunday in Cleveland.

But the Redskins aren't really worried about their offense. They can run the ball with Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon can get open down the field for backup Kirk Cousins, and they can score enough points.

Defense has been the Redskins' issue all season. They rank 28th in total defense and 31st against the pass. A secondary that didn't look all that great to begin with is now missing two starting safeties and a starting cornerback. The defense is also missing its best pass-rusher, Brian Orakpo, and starting defensive lineman Adam Carriker. It has been a struggle.

Yet the Redskins, which have managed to win their past four games to move within a game of the Giants, have a real chance. They have looked bad on defense for long stretches during the streak -- the second half against Dallas on Thanksgiving, the first half against Baltimore last week -- but they've managed to hold on. Coordinator Jim Haslett is doing an excellent job of changing up the game plan from week to week and half to half to maximize any advantage he can find. Outside linebacker Rob Jackson can be a disruptive pass-rusher for a half. DeAngelo Hall can be a decent cover corner for a couple of drives.

They mix, match and patch it together, and so far it's not falling apart. The key will be for the Redskins to keep walking that tightrope, and if they can do it for three more games, they absolutely have a chance.

So if you're trying to make sense of this NFC East race as it hits the home stretch, look not to the big-name quarterbacks and receivers but instead to the defenses. If one of these three teams can do something on defense it hasn't been able to do so far, that could make enough of a difference to decide the division.

Redskins must pressure Tony Romo

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
10:29
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Thursday's Thanksgiving Day game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys is a significant opportunity for both teams. A win for the Cowboys would move them within a half-game of the first-place New York Giants, who have a tough game Sunday against the Packers. A win for the Redskins would put them in a position to really make a mess of the division race with the Giants coming to town in Week 13.

But as Jason Reid points out in this piece of pregame analysis for the Washington Post, the Redskins aren't going to find this week's opponent as accommodating as they found the dead-in-the-water Eagles on Sunday. And they'll have to hope that the improvement their pass rush showed Sunday is repeatable against Tony Romo and a more dynamic Cowboys offense:
This past Sunday against Cleveland, Romo made just enough plays (he passed for 313 yards) to lead Dallas to a 23-20 overtime victory, but he was sacked seven times. The lesson for the Redskins, which I’m certain defensive coordinator Jim Haslett learned from past frustrating experiences against Romo, is that you have to keep Romo guessing with different blitzes. And rushing the passer had better result in quarterback hits and sacks.

The Redskins tied their season high with four sacks against Philadelphia, which should bolster the confidence of a unit that hasn’t had much to celebrate this season.

The Redskins’ pass rush disappeared after outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, the Redskins’ sack leader the past three seasons, and defensive end Adam Carriker, who had a career-high 5.5 sacks in 2011, suffered season-ending injuries. The team is tied for 23rd in the league with 18 sacks.

The difficulty for the Redskins on Thursday, as I see it, won't be in getting through the Cowboys' permissive offensive line. The key difference this week will be that, once they get into the backfield, the Redskins' pass-rushers will be confronted with a more mobile quarterback than Nick Foles. Romo is as skilled as anyone in the league at sidestepping pressure and extending plays that can result in big downfield gains. He's had to be, the way his line has played the last couple of seasons. If the Redskins' pass rush is to impact this game Thursday -- and I agree with Jason that it must if the Redskins are to win -- then the key will be the ability of those pass-rushers to finish plays once they have a chance.

All-NFC East Team: Week 2 Update

September, 19, 2012
9/19/12
10:00
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Eli Manning made it tough. I'm not going to deny that. His performance in the fourth quarter in Sunday's comeback victory against Tampa Bay was nearly enough to get him the starting quarterback spot on this week's edition of the All-Division Team. His yardage total of 510 for the game was the ninth-highest in league history, and is only 16 yards short of Robert Griffin III's two-game yardage total so far. When I sat down to make this week's team, I did so on the assumption that Manning would regain his 2011 season-ending spot as the quarterback.

But then I remembered the disclaimer that nobody reads: This All-Division Team is not simply a roundup of the best performances of the past week. It's an assessment of overall season performance to date. Griffin has a higher completion percentage, fewer interceptions and -- yes, this matters -- is the division's fourth-leading rusher with 124 yards on 20 carries. Manning has proven more over his career, obviously, and yes he's being asked to do more in the passing game than Griffin is in Washington. But it's not as though Griffin's being asked to play like Alex Smith. He's made big plays and protected the ball, and in the end this week's spot goes to the guy who's played eight good quarters so far this season, as opposed to one astoundingly brilliant one.

One of the results of this, I found when I tallied things up at the end, is what I believe to be a first. The Redskins have the most players (eight) on this week's All-NFC East team. The Giants and Eagles each have seven, and the Cowboys only have five for some reason, including their punter. Odd, since the Cowboys' Week 1 game was perhaps the best all-around game played by anyone in the division to this point. Strange how these things shake out sometimes.

Anyway here is the rest of the team, and then the explanations after:

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins (Last week: Griffin)

Running back: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles (DeMarco Murray)

Wide receiver: Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, New York Giants (Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Maclin)

Tight end: Brent Celek, Eagles (Martellus Bennett)

Fullback: Darrel Young, Washington Redskins (Young)

Left tackle: Trent Williams, Redskins (Williams)

Left guard: Evan Mathis, Eagles (Mathis)

Center: Will Montgomery, Redskins (Jason Kelce)

Right guard: Chris Snee, Giants (Snee)

Right tackle: Todd Herremans, Eagles (Herremans)

Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants; Jason Hatcher, Cowboys (Pierre-Paul, Hatcher)

Defensive tackle: Fletcher Cox, Eagles; Rocky Bernard, Giants (Bernard, Cox)

Outside linebacker: Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins; DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys (Kerrigan, Ware)

Inside linebacker: DeMeco Ryans, Eagles; Sean Lee, Cowboys (Ryans, Lee)

Cornerback: Josh Wilson, Redskins; Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eagles (Wilson, Rodgers-Cromartie)

Safety: Kenny Phillips, Giants; Gerald Sensabaugh, Cowboys (Kurt Coleman, Antrel Rolle)

Kicker: Billy Cundiff, Redskins (Cundiff)

Punter: Chris Jones, Cowboys (Chas Henry)

Kick returner: David Wilson, Giants (Brandon Banks)

Punt returner: Brandon Banks, Redskins (Banks)
  • Pierre-Paul is a slam-dunk at one of the defensive end spots. He's a nightmare for opposing defenses, and Tampa Bay was clearly focused on his side almost all game. He needs help from his teammates on the other side, who have yet to do anything. For the second week in a row, I went with a 3-4 end along with Pierre-Paul, which was a little bit tougher this week given the way Jason Babin and Trent Cole played Sunday. But I really think Hatcher is bringing something special to the Cowboys' defensive front, and that he showed as much as anyone on the defense this week coming off his huge Week 1. The guy who nearly bumped him out, actually, was another 3-4 end -- Washington's Stephen Bowen, which would have made nine Redskins! Bowen is worthy of consideration. I think Hatcher's played a tick better.
  • And truth be told, it could have been 10 Redskins, as I very nearly gave the second outside linebacker spot to Brian Orakpo over Ware, who was invisible this week. But this is an all-year team, and sadly, Orakpo won't be making it this year, as this turns out to have been his last chance. He's out for the season with a chest muscle injury.
  • Cornerback is a place where Cowboys fans will complain, and I hear you. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have played very well. But I think Wilson and Rodgers-Cromartie, when you go back and watch the tape, are playing at a remarkably high level right now. In last season's cornerback competition on this weekly exercise, Dallas' guys would have been winning easily. This year the competition is tougher.
  • Switched up the safeties. Nate Allen of the Eagles came close to snagging Sensabaugh's spot, especially with Sensabaugh getting hurt. Phillips is the division's best safety and one of the best in the league.
  • I didn't think I'd put Mathis back in at left guard because of the penalties, and Nate Livings is the No. 2 guy on my list here. But what Mathis does in the run game is just ridiculous, and it keeps him at the very top.
  • Almost kept Bennett in at tight end because of the job he's doing as a blocker, but Celek is the third-leading receiver in the division right now, behind the Giants' studs.
  • Trent Williams is making it easy at his spot, as he's always had the ability to do. He's fun to watch.

Okay, that's it from me. Your thoughts?

NFC East Top 20: No. 1 Eli Manning

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
9:43
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post. And if you want to read any of the other posts that have run since we started this series, you can find them all here, in this link.

No. 1 -- Eli Manning, Giants QB

Manning
This wasn't easy, and the fact that it wasn't easy to pick a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback as the best player in the division says a ton about the rest of the players in the division. It was a very tough, close call between Manning and Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware for this spot, and I gave more than a passing thought to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who finished third.

But in the end, Manning deserves the spot. He's earned it by performing with incredible consistency at a high level and in the biggest of spots. He ranks behind only Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck in passing yards among active quarterbacks, and each of those players has at least a three-year head start on him. He's fifth (behind those same four guys) in touchdown passes among active quarterbacks. Only Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees and Ben Roethlisberger among active quarterbacks have engineered more game-winning drives, and only Peyton Manning and Brady have more comeback victories.

So Eli is a top-level quarterback in terms of production (and in spite of a stubborn, lingering reputation to the contrary), but what truly sets him apart as a great player is the way he's performed during the two Super Bowl title runs the Giants have made with him under center. He has a 61.5 career completion percentage, a 17-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his 11 career playoff games and has led the team from behind to beat Bill Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots in two separate Super Bowls. He's the unquestioned leader of his team, the calming influence which Giants players know they can count on in tough times, a key to his team's uncanny ability to handle adversity and a proven champion without whose individual performance those Super Bowl titles would not have been possible. The best quarterback in the NFC East is the most clutch quarterback in the NFL right now and is the division's best player.

The rest of the rankings:

2. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys
3. LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles RB
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles DE
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 2 DeMarcus Ware

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
11:40
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 2 -- DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys LB

Ware
A six-time Pro Bowler who's led the league in sacks twice, Ware is universally regarded as one of the very best defensive players in the NFL. There are plenty of people who call him the best. He is fifth among active players in sacks and 29th in league history already at the age of 30. His lowest sack total of the past six years is the 11 he posted in 2009. He led the league with 20 the year before that and 15 the year after, and his 19.5 in 2011 would have led the league in almost any other year. He enters each season a threat to break the all-time single-season sacks record. He's as good at hunting down quarterbacks as any player in the league.

Sacks are his game, but they're not his whole game. Ware is smart and fast and athletic enough to make a decision on the fly to change course and run down a running back. He can play either side of the field and get into the backfield just as quickly. He is constantly double-teamed, which is a testament to his own remarkable ability as well as the fact that the Cowboys have yet to establish a consistent pass-rushing threat other than him. But he's handled that responsibility every year and hasn't allowed it to affect his production. He's a classy professional who sets a strong example for younger Cowboy players who revere him.

Ware is a superstar in his prime and shows no signs of slowing down. He is one of the headline players who help this star-studded division retain its reputation as one of the toughest in which to play year after year.

Rankings so far:

3. LeSean McCoy, Eagles
4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 3 LeSean McCoy

September, 2, 2012
9/02/12
1:20
PM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 3 -- LeSean McCoy, Eagles RB

McCoy
Amid the quarterbacks and pass-rushers who dominate the top part of our list we find a running back -- the best in the division and one who may be on the verge of becoming the best in the entire league. After rushing for 1,080 yards in 2010 in his second year in the league, McCoy rushed for 1,309 in the 15 games he played in 2011 to rank fourth in the NFL. He also ran for 17 touchdowns and caught three more in 2011, establishing himself as the top scoring threat on the Eagles' high-powered offense.

McCoy has shown an ability to be a workhorse back, a goal-line back and a receiving back. His 78 catches led the Eagles in 2010, and while his total dropped to a more reasonable 48 in 2011, he's obviously a help to the passing game as well as the run game. His speed and vision make him a dangerous threat when he gets the ball in his hands and has space in which to operate. He's the complete package in an era that is seeing the running back position become more specialized. It says a lot that the only criticism Eagles fans have of McCoy is that the team needs to give him the ball more often.

McCoy is poised for even greater things. He just turned 24 years old in July, making him one of the youngest stars on this list. He was already one of its brightest.

Rankings so far:

4. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles
5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 4 Trent Cole

September, 1, 2012
9/01/12
11:12
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 4 -- Trent Cole, Eagles DE

Cole
Quick quiz: Cole entered the league the same year as Justin Tuck. Who has more sacks? The answer is Cole, and it's not even close. Cole has 68 sacks in his seven-year career, which is good for 10th among active players. Tuck has 45.5. Cole's only one behind Tuck's teammate, Osi Umenyiora, who has 69 and began his career two years earlier. He doesn't have the Subway endorsement deal or the two Super Bowl titles, and I'm sure he'd trade all of his sacks for the latter. But those numbers help to illustrate that Cole is a much better player than his rather low national profile tends to indicate.

Cole is the Eagles' do-everything defensive end, kind of like Tuck is for the Giants. While teammate Jason Babin was hanging out with the league sack leaders last year, Cole got his 11, reaching double digits for the third year in a row. He also plays the run very well, shows a variety of ways of getting to the passer from the outside or, when needed, the inside. And because opposing offensive coordinators don't care about headlines or national profiles and know who the scariest player is on the defense, Cole found himself fighting through double-teams more often than his teammate on the other side of the line. His Pro Football Focus grade last year ranked him the No. 1 4-3 defensive end in the entire league, first in the pass rush and 10th against the run.

Cole is a quiet star, but make no mistake about it -- he is a star. In a division loaded with some of the top pass-rushers in the league, he deserves to be ranked here, behind only the very best and ahead of some of his better-known rivals.

Rankings so far:

5. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles
10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins
12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

NFC East Top 20: No. 5 Jason Pierre-Paul

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
9:30
AM ET
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

Pierre-Paul
No. 5 -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants DE

Since we began this list, oh, I guess about 15 days ago, people have asked me what the criteria are. Career accomplishment? 2011 performance? Projections for 2012? The answer is, as you can see if you look at the list, a combination of all of those things. But in the case of the first member of our top five, it's clear that the second has played an overwhelming role.

Pierre-Paul's second year in the NFL was a thunderous exclamation point of a season that established the New York Giants' defensive end as the kind of player who can completely dominate a game. He registered 16.5 sacks, which was good for fourth in the league, and added another half-sack in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco. He was the lone stalwart in the Giants' pass rush in a season that saw Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora struggle with injuries, and more often than not he looked like the best player on the field when the Giants were on defense.

Pierre-Paul's signature game was the Week 14 victory in Dallas, in which he had two sacks, eight tackles, a forced fumble and blocked the field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. His standout performance in a game that featured almost no defense by either team otherwise helped the Giants end a four-game losing streak and secure a victory that would prove crucial in their ability to overtake the Cowboys for the division title. Still just 23 years old, he's already among the most feared defensive players in the NFL, and his potential appears to be nearly unlimited.

Rankings so far:

6. Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants

7. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys

8. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants

9. Jason Babin, DE, Eagles

10. Victor Cruz, WR, Giants

11. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins

12. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

13. Tyron Smith, T, Cowboys

14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins

15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys

16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys

17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

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