Dallas Cowboys: DeAngelo Hall

Win over Redksins at top of Romo's finest moments

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
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IRVING, Texas – Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett described Tony Romo as “devastated,” about not being able to play in Sunday’s season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles because of back surgery.

Think of Romo’s lasting legacy from the 2013 season.

Knowing what we know now about the extent of Romo’s injury, Romo’s play in the fourth quarter of last week’s win against the Washington Redskins should be one of the quarterback’s defining moments.

Romo had been limping before he averted a Rob Jackson sack, stumbled and completed an 8-yard pass to Miles Austin on third down, but after that play was when it became truly apparent he was hurting.

Even Jason Garrett had a cavalier reaction after the game when the Cowboys were unaware how much Romo was hurting.

“He certainly was hobbling around a little bit and you just suck it up, pull your sock up, spit on it and keep going,” Garrett said.

Romo kept going.

He completed seven of his final nine pass attempts for 119 yards. One of the incompletions was a drop by Terrance Williams. The other was a great last-second deflection by DeAngelo Hall on a deep throw to Dez Bryant.

Twice on the game-winning drive Romo bought himself time with the Redskins pass rush crashing toward him. He hit Williams for a 51-yard gain and then won the game when he shook free and bought time that allowed DeMarco Murray score the game-winning touchdown on fourth down.

“Tony did an unbelievable job helping us to get to this point,” Garrett said. “He might have had his finest hour against the Redskins last week. What he did at the end of that ball game, under the circumstances, pretty special. We talk about mental toughness being your best regardless of circumstances. There were a lot of circumstances going against him and he certainly rose to the occasion and somehow, someway helped us win that ball game.”

Romo’s story is mostly about the Cowboys’ late-season miscues and lack of playoff success. But what’s often left to the side are games like last week’s or when he played through a punctured lung and broken rib against San Francisco.

“He willed himself in that game to think five days later, what he's gone through,” tight end Jason Witten said “He put the team on his back on that drive. He obviously was in pain. (It was) just unbelievable gut and will that he had to find a way for us to win.”

Miles Austin's return only 'OK'

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
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IRVING, Texas -- What was the assessment of wide receiver Miles Austin from Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett?

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“I thought Miles looked OK,” Garrett said. “He's clearly working his way back into it. I don't think he looked as explosive as he did early on in the year. He's clearly trying to get his hamstring healthy. He came through the game, looked like he was able to function, everything we asked him to do. But he's a work in progress coming back.”

Austin missed two games because of a hamstring strain but was able to go through a full week of practice last week. He did not have a catch on four targets from QB Tony Romo in Dallas' 31-16 victory over the Redskins on Sunday. Austin barely missed a touchdown when Redskins CB DeAngelo Hall knocked away a pass in the end zone.

After missing two games in 2011 with a hamstring injury early in the season, Austin returned with a seven-catch, 74-yard effort against the New England Patriots. After missing four games with a strain later that season, he came back with a four-catch, 63-yard, one-touchdown effort against the New York Giants.

With hamstring injuries for most of the last two seasons, Garrett wonders if there is a mental hurdle Austin has to clear.

“I think that's probably something that you have to consider with any injury -- how confident is the player coming back, whether it's a hamstring, whether it's a knee or my ankle or my arm if I'm a thrower,” Garrett said. “Just the level of comfort you need to play with, and anytime you're dealing with something you have to make sure that your mind is right by the time you step on that game field.”

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 6

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys’ 31-16 win over the Washington Redskins:

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/LM OteroTony Romo and the Dallas offense stepped up their production in the third quarter.
Man, what coverage: If you’re looking for a change in how the Cowboys played defensively, it was in the secondary. Cornerback Brandon Carr followed Pierre Garcon all over the field. Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick were matched up in man coverage more. The result was three pass breakups apiece for Carr and Claiborne and two for Scandrick.

“I think that takes us back to what we’re all here for,” Scandrick said. “Whether it’s man or zone, it’s our job to play the scheme, but Brandon Carr was brought over from Kansas City, gave him a bunch of money to play man-to-man. Mo, traded up for him to play man-to-man. Signed me long-term to play man-to-man, so …”

Answering the call: In a Sept. 22 loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Cowboys ran just seven plays in the third quarter and lost 30-21. On Sunday they ran only eight plays in the third quarter but managed to score a touchdown thanks to Dwayne Harris’ kickoff return. After that, however, the offense had two three-and-out drives. After Kai Forbath missed a 49-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys answered with a nine-play drive that ended with a 30-yard field goal from Dan Bailey for an eight-point lead. For six of those nine plays, the Cowboys went with their “empty” personnel, spreading the field. Tony Romo completed four of six passes for 42 yards with no running back on the field with Cole Beasley catching three of the passes.

Need line help: The trade deadline is two weeks away, and the Cowboys will be open for business but face salary-cap restrictions when thinking about making a deal. While DeMarcus Ware felt confident his strained quadriceps would be OK, there is little proven help along the defensive line, leading to a question about adding a defensive lineman through a trade or free agency. The Cowboys have about $2 million in cap room, making the acquisition of a name player difficult. At one point the defensive line Sunday was Caesar Rayford, Drake Nevis, David Carter and Kyle Wilber, who did have his first career sack. They pressured Robert Griffin III at times, but can this “no-name” group, as Jerry Jones called it, get it done every game?

Quiet return: After missing two games with a hamstring injury, Miles Austin was held without a catch against the Redskins. He was targeted four times and nearly had a touchdown, but Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall managed to deflect the Romo pass at the last second. It was the second straight game Austin was held without a catch by the Redskins. It also happened in last year’s season finale, but he missed a lot of action in that game with an ankle injury. For the offense to be at peak efficiency, Austin will need to make some plays. The good news is that he did not aggravate his hamstring injury, so he should improve as he grows more confident in his legs.

Double Coverage: Redskins at Cowboys

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
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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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    3%
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    30%
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    57%
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    6%
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    4%

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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Hall can't get in Bryant's head anymore

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
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IRVING, Texas -- Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, one of the league’s best cornerbacks when it comes to getting under the skin of receivers, used to be able to rattle Dez Bryant.

Hall
Bryant
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“Of course. No doubt, no doubt, no doubt. No question, he did,” Bryant said Wednesday. “I think I’m kind of past that and I think he thinks that, too. It’s a respect between me and him. Last game that we played, we didn’t say a word, as far as disrespect. It was more, ‘Let’s go. Let’s play.’ Basically competing against one another.”

Maybe Hall gave up on verbally harassing Bryant because the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver learned to ignore it. That’s a message Miles Austin drilled into his head -- often while telling him to stop jawing and get back to the huddle -- for the first two years of Bryant’s career.

Or perhaps Bryant simply earned Hall’s respect with an eight-catch, 145-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Redskins last Thanskgiving.

Hall basically lobbed Bryant long-distance verbal bouquets this week, mentioning how facing a receiver of his caliber provided a little extra motivation.

“Any time you have a chance to go against somebody that you feel is one of the best, you’re going to try to rise to the occasion,” Hall said, according to the Washington Post. “That’s in anything you do. That’s just the competitiveness in all of us. ...

“Any time you have a guy like that, who I feel like is a hell of a football player, and he’s obviously one of the best in the game, so you definitely want to bring it.”

Hall acknowledged that “mind tricks” wouldn’t be part of his game plan against Bryant, who has learned not to let Hall vs. Bryant become bigger in his mind than Redskins vs. Cowboys.

“There’s no issue between us,” Bryant said of Hall. “I just think it’s the competition of the game. That’s all it is. We have mutual respect for one another. Sunday, it’s going to be a battle.”
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.

Yes, Dez Bryant could get 2,000 yards

March, 27, 2013
3/27/13
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Say what you will about Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, but never say he lacks confidence. In an interview with ESPNDallas.com, Bryant said it's not out of the question for him to be the first player in NFL history to collect 2,000 receiving yards in an NFL season:
The 24-year-old Bryant believes his 2012 breakout season, when he caught 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns, was just the beginning. Bryant had 50 catches for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns in the final eight games, numbers that would be among the best in NFL history if projected over a full season, and production that Bryant believes he can build upon.

"That's still scratching the surface," Bryant said in a telephone interview with ESPNDallas.com. "It's only going to get better, to be honest. I still have a lot to give. I feel like nobody's seen anything. Nothing.

"I feel like it can be a lot more than that. That's just being honest. I honestly feel like [2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns] can potentially happen."

Can it? Over the final eight games of the 2012 season, Bryant racked up 879 receiving yards. Double that and it works out to 1,758 for a whole season. That would rank fourth in NFL history and would obviously get him in the ballpark. Detroit's Calvin Johnson set an NFL single-season record in 2012 with 1,964 receiving yards.

The opposing arguments are numerous, of course. In the first eight games of the Cowboys' 2012 season, Bryant had only 503 receiving yards, which projects to a more pedestrian 1,006 for a full season. He was handled in the finale by the Redskins' DeAngelo Hall. He plays somewhat recklessly, without concern for his own bodily harm, and that could lead to injury. (He played the final three games of 2012 with a broken index finger.) And we all know about the time bomb that is his off-field life and family background.

But I don't think Bryant's assertion is crazy at all. I think he can do it. First of all, he's come along at the right time. Passing yards aren't going down anytime soon, as far as I can tell. His quarterback, Tony Romo, is one of the best in the game and loves to throw to him. He's a physical mismatch against almost any defensive back in the league. He can fight for catches in traffic, he can go over the middle for the ball, he can make the spectacular catch and he's a threat to score from anywhere on the field.

Oh, and he's only 24 years old, and he won't turn 25 until the second half of the 2013 regular season. There's absolutely no reason to think the dazzling year he just had is the best he can do. The off-field issues will always hang over his head, but Cowboys coaches and players will tell you that he's never been a problem for them at the facility or on the practice field -- that he listens well, works hard to improve and wants to get better. Combine that with his obviously eye-popping raw ability, and it's not hard to believe Bryant is capable of doing anything he wants to do on the football field.

So when I heard that he thought he could gain 2,000 yards and score 20 touchdowns in a season, my first thought was, "Yeah, I'll bet he could." Assuming he stays out of trouble and stays healthy, I'll bet this isn't the last time we're talking about this as a real possibility.

Eight in the Box: FA winners or losers?

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
12:00
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each NFC East team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Dallas Cowboys: Loser. The only significant free-agent move the Cowboys have made is the franchising of Anthony Spencer, who will be one of the starting defensive ends in their new 4-3 defensive alignment. Even if you like that move, you have to acknowledge that its $10.6 million cost has worked as a detriment for a team that had no cap room to start with. The Cowboys still need a lot of help on the offensive line and at safety but have been unable to maneuver around the cap. Their inability so far to reach agreement on a long-term deal with quarterback Tony Romo -- a move that would reduce his 2013 cap cost -- has also deprived them of the ability to address needs so far. The Cowboys haven't lost any significant pieces in free agency, but a lack of flexibility compounded by $5 million in leftover cap penalties has kept them from adding where they need to add.

New York Giants: Winner. I mean, not in the same way that teams like the Seahawks or the Chiefs have been winners, but in their own, Giant-like way. Replacing tight end Martellus Bennett with Brandon Myers at low cost, re-signing left tackle Will Beatty before the market opened, signing Keith Rivers and Dan Connor at linebacker ... nothing that's going to knock your socks off, but some targeted, low-financial-impact moves designed to keep the program winning. The Giants still could turn out to be losers if they don't do at least some work on the offensive line. And I think it's possible they'll end up missing safety Kenny Phillips more than they think. But to this point, they're operating their offseason the way they like to operate it. Low-key but productive.

Philadelphia Eagles: Winner. Again, we're operating on a curve here. This division in general has not been the league's most exciting since the start of the free-agency period. But the Eagles have added two starting safeties (Patrick Chung and Phillips, on a low-risk/high-reward deal), two starting cornerbacks (Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher), pass-rusher Connor Barwin, a versatile fullback/tight end type in James Casey and a big, 24-year-old wide receiver in Arrelious Benn. The Eagles still have plenty of cap room with which to pursue the right tackle they need, and they've addressed enough positions to allow them flexibility with the No. 4 pick in next month's draft. No one can predict how their new additions will play, but they do seem to have targeted and acquired the players they wanted.

Washington Redskins: Loser. They've actually done well to hold together as much of their division-champion team as they have, considering the $18 million in cap penalties they're still dealing with this year. But they had to cut cornerback DeAngelo Hall, lost special-teams captain Lorenzo Alexander, and have yet to re-sign tight end Fred Davis. More importantly, though, they still have major needs in the secondary and have been unable to land the free safety or the starting cornerback they need. E.J. Biggers is probably better as a No. 3 cornerback, though at this point he may project as one of their starters. The good thing is that the safety and cornerback market still has lots of options, and the prices aren't going up. But the Redskins have no first-round pick next month, so they have some challenges ahead.

Waiting out the defensive backs market

March, 13, 2013
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The main reason Tuesday night was so quiet in the NFC East in free agency was the relative lack of salary cap space among the division's teams. But another reason was that all four have significant needs in the secondary, and defensive backs aren't really signing anywhere just yet.

It's simple supply and demand -- so many veteran cornerbacks and safeties have been released in the past couple of weeks that the market is now flooded. When supply goes up, prices go down, and that could mean the defensive backs on the market aren't finding the deals for which they'd hoped. Assuming that's the case, it would be good news for the teams in the NFC East, all of whom are in the market for at least some help in the secondary:

[+] EnlargeAntoine Winfield
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesA glut of veterans like Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield, 26, has created a buyer's market for teams seeking secondary help.
The Dallas Cowboys have their starting cornerbacks, but have a need at safety after releasing Gerald Sensabaugh. The Cowboys are dealing with $5 million worth of those same cap penalties the Redskins have, and will need to create room and find a bargain if they're to address the position. Every day that goes by without a flurry of big safety signings is good news for the Giants and the Cowboys.

You want names? They are too many to list here. Check out ESPN.com's free agency tracker if you want wish lists for these teams at cornerback Insider or at safety Insider. As you can see, plenty of interesting choices across the spectra of talent, age and versatility. One of the reasons the defensive backs market is likely slow to rev up is because of the big names that have landed on it in recent days. If you were a team making plans to pursue a free-agent defensive back and then, over a 48-hour stretch, guys like Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha and Antoine Winfield became available, you'd have to at least press pause and evaluate, no?

Whatever the reason, the slow-developing, supply-choked market for cornerbacks and safeties is good for teams in the market for help at those positions. The NFC East has four such teams. So while I understand it's a fan's job to panic when your team doesn't sign anyone on the first day of free agency, I ask you to take a deep breath and consider that, in this case, that might turn out to be a good thing.

Eight in the Box: Biggest cap casualty

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
12:34
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Who will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?

Dallas Cowboys: Offensive tackle Doug Free. The performance issues are obvious with Free. He struggled massively in 2012, and Jermey Parnell gives Dallas a replacement with experience within the system. Free’s 2013 cap number is $10.02 million, but the Cowboys can shed $7 million of that by releasing him under the post-June 1 designation. At more than $20 million over the cap and with Anthony Spencer set to hit the open market in free agency, the Cowboys have substantial work to do to put themselves in a position to retain the talented pass-rusher. Restructuring the deals of other high-paid veterans could aid the effort to accomplish that, and releasing Free would relieve the team of some of its cap congestion.

New York Giants: Cornerback Corey Webster. The Giants have already parted ways with a number of key veterans, led by running back Ahmad Bradshaw, whose toughness was roundly respected in the locker room. But the difficult reality of releasing Bradshaw is partially alleviated because of the promise shown by David Wilson during his rookie season in 2012. Webster, 30, is no longer the player he was when he signed a lucrative contract in 2008, and his $7 million base salary for 2013 is too rich to hang on to. Trouble is, the Giants lack substantial cornerback depth behind Webster and will need to address that position this offseason. The team needs the cap room to pay left tackle Will Beatty and work toward extensions with receivers Hakeem Nicks and restricted free agent Victor Cruz.

Philadelphia Eagles: Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The Eagles are in really good shape from a salary-cap perspective, with big money already cleared by the release of left tackle Demetress Bell and recent reworking of quarterback Michael Vick's deal. But as ESPN's NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported on Friday morning, Asomugha will need to revamp his deal, or he will be released. He’s on the books for $15 million for 2013, only $4 million of which is guaranteed. Given his struggles during his first two seasons with the Eagles, Asomugha isn’t worth the hefty price tag he currently owns. Regardless of Asomugha's future, the secondary will be an area of emphasis for the Eagles this offseason.

Washington Redskins: Cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall has said he is willing to explore the possibility of tweaking his current deal, which includes $16.5 million over the final two years. That’s probably the only way he’ll stay with the Redskins, as it’s far too much to pay the 29-year-old, who had his share of struggles in 2012. Lump receiver Santana Moss ($4.15 million salary in 2013) into the same boat, as he’ll likely need to restructure his deal to return. The Redskins have endured salary-cap penalties in recent seasons and need to continue to clear space to be able to retain their own free agents and be players on the open market. Removing Hall from the books is one way to kick-start that process.

Dez Bryant's season ends quietly

December, 31, 2012
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IRVING, Texas -- It wasn't a broken finger that ended Dez Bryant's season but back spasms so severe, he needed a wheelchair to leave FedEx Field, that cost him to miss the late stages of Sunday night's loss to the Washington Redskins.

Bryant finished the game with four catches for 71 yards and no touchdowns, ending his string of consecutive games with a touchdown at seven.

On season, Bryant finished tied for 10th in receptions (92), sixth in yards (1,382) and produced the fifth best receiving game of the NFL season. Bryant snagged 224 yards in a loss to New Orleans in a Week 16 loss to New Orleans.

Bryant has a career 200 receptions, placing him 20th in franchise history. His receiving yardage was the fourth-most yards in a single-season in franchise history.

In the Cowboys locker room after the game, Bryant was laying in pain on a trainers table as strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik tried to rub his lower back. Bryant needed help by two trainers to his stall and to the shower area.

Said a somber Jason Garrett on Bryant: "Back, he hurt his back. He really couldn't even walk."

It was a wonderful season for Bryant, who missed a Pro Bowl bid despite his numbers and he emerged as a talented threat in the passing game. Quarterback Tony Romo developed a trust with him during the season and it showed during the season. It was clear when Bryant didn't get any touches in a game, the Cowboys missed him and it seemed the rhythm of the offense struggled, especially Sunday night.

Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall provided tight coverage on Bryant forcing Romo to look elsewhere.

"Well, they just came after us a lot with some pressures that gave us some trouble," Romo said. "We did the best that we could. At different times, we didn't handle it as well, at other times, we handled it well. But give (Washington) credit, they played a very good football game and made it very difficult to move the ball on them through the air."

NFC East wrap: The year of RG III

December, 29, 2012
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my 2012 all-division team:

Division MVP: Interesting word, "value." The Washington Redskins decided that fixing their problem at quarterback by drafting Robert Griffin III was worth three first-round picks and a second-round pick. That's the "value" they assigned to Griffin as their short-term and long-term solution at the game's most critical position -- willingly not having another first-round pick until 2015. The first-year result is the current six-game winning streak that has delivered the Redskins' first winning season since 2007 and a shot Sunday night at their first division title since 1999.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jonathan Newton/Getty ImagesThe Redskins paid a steep price to acquire Robert Griffin III, but the move has paid off handsomely.
A number of things have gone right to help the Redskins to this point, but at the center of it all has been Griffin, who has delivered big plays with his arm and his legs, has thrown just five interceptions and piloted a Redskins offense that has the most rushing yards and the fewest turnovers in the league through 16 weeks. In their wildest dreams, the Redskins couldn't have imagined Griffin performing at this level in his first year, but the fact that he has is the biggest reason they're where they are at this point. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is having a big year, as are Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris. But the award is for the Most "Valuable" Player, and the upgrade Griffin has provided for the Redskins at the most important position on the field has a value that surpasses anything anyone else in the NFC East has provided this year.

Biggest disappointment: This one isn't hard. The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles were a disappointment. That word isn't strong enough to describe what the 2012 Eagles turned out to be. They went into training camp with Super Bowl expectations and a chip on their collective shoulder after last year's flop, and they out-flopped even themselves. There was promise in their 3-1 start, in spite of the turnovers and the fact that they were barely winning. The defense was playing well, Michael Vick was leading them from behind in the fourth quarter and it made some level of sense to believe that they would play better and start winning more comfortably.

Instead, it went the other way. The eight-game losing streak that followed that 3-1 start doomed the Eagles to a sub-.500 season, and the 11 losses they already have with one game to go ties the most Andy Reid has ever had as a head coach. (He lost 11 in his first season there.) Injuries were a huge part of this, as 10 of the Eagles' Week 1 starters on offense have had to miss at least one game and the offensive line hasn't been together all year. But the problems go much deeper, and center on a poorly constructed roster that failed to adequately address holes at positions such as safety and a dysfunctional coaching staff mismanaged by the man in charge. Reid appears certain to pay with his job for failing to make good on his mulligan, and big changes are around the corner in Philadelphia.

No defense: The NFC East hasn't had a repeat champion since the Eagles won it back-to-back in 2003-04, and it won't have one this year either. The New York Giants opened November with three more wins than any other team in the division, but their collapse following a 6-2 start has eliminated them from the division race with a week to go. The winner of Sunday night's game between the Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys will be division champs. If it's Dallas, it'll be the team's second title in four years and would be the second year in a row (and ever) that the division didn't produce at least one 10-win team. If it's Washington, it'll be its first division title in 13 years and would mean four different division champs in four years. This may not be the dominant, monster, "Beast" division it's been in some years past, but the intensity of the rivalries and the closeness of the quality of the four teams keep it the league's most competitive and entertaining year in and year out.

Each NFC East team had a turn in the spotlight this year. The Cowboys flashed greatness in their nationally televised victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in the season opener. The Eagles got out to that 3-1 start. The Giants at one point stood 6-2, and their victories over San Francisco and Green Bay had folks talking about them as the best team in the league. The Redskins are on a six-game winning streak right now and one of the hottest stories in sports. Say what you will about this division or any of its teams, but you can't say it's not fun.

Better "corner" the market: Looking ahead to the 2013 offseason, expect each of the NFC East's teams to make the secondary a high priority. The Cowboys like their corners, and they may be OK at safety if Barry Church comes back healthy, but they'll probably lose Mike Jenkins to free agency and could look to maintain their depth back there. The Giants need to figure out whether this is just a bad year for Corey Webster or if he's a player in decline, and at safety there are questions about Kenny Phillips' long-term status with the team after his injury-plagued season. The Redskins need all kinds of help in the secondary, where Josh Wilson has been fairly consistent but not great at corner, DeAngelo Hall is clearly in decline and they're getting by with backups at safety. And the Eagles have to figure out whether to keep one, both or neither of their veteran cornerbacks and whether it's time to cut bait with safety Nate Allen.

This division includes the No. 21, No. 28 and No. 30 pass defenses in the NFL, and the only NFC East team in the top half in the league in that category (Philadelphia, No. 11) has major question marks at cornerback and especially safety. Once known for its fearsome pass rushes, the NFC East learned this year that you can't always count on even that to be consistent, and it's time for this division's teams to prioritize their last lines of defense.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanJason Garrett's Cowboys, winners of five of their past seven, can win the NFC East with a victory over the archrival Redskins on Sunday.
The men in charge: You can expect wholesale coaching staff changes in Philadelphia, of course. But what of the division's other three teams, at least one and likely two of which won't make the playoffs? Head coaches Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan are clearly safe in New York and Washington, and Jason Garrett appears safe as well in Dallas after a year in which he's admirably led the Cowboys through injury and off-field tragedy into another Week 17 division title game. But that doesn't mean there can't or won't be changes at the coordinator level.

Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are both whispered about when head-coaching jobs come up, and the success of Griffin and the Redskins' offensive system could make Kyle Shanahan an especially hot candidate this offseason. Would he jump ship, or stay to see things through and possibly succeed his father down the road in D.C.? Redskins fans clamor for the head of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, and I guess you never know, but I think Haslett's got this Washington defense overachieving, and I've heard nothing to indicate that the team is dissatisfied with the job he's doing. As for the Giants' Kevin Gilbride and Perry Fewell ... Fewell's no longer the head-coaching candidate he used to be for some reason, so it's likely a matter of whether they want to keep those guys around. The Giants tend to value organizational stability, and Gilbride and Fewell were coaching in and winning a Super Bowl less than 11 months ago, so it's hard to imagine they're in trouble. But I think the Giants are surprised at the way the last couple of weeks have gone, and I doubt they've seriously considered yet whether changes on the staff are warranted or necessary.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

We do this every week, so you're used to a lot of these names in a lot of these places. There are some close calls, including at quarterback, where the Cowboys' Romo is as hot as anyone in the league and has thrown just three interceptions in his past eight games after throwing 13 in his first seven. Romo is third in the league in passing yards, and his responsible play and leadership are central reasons for the Cowboys' second-half surge. And if he beats Griffin and Washington on Sunday night, you can make the argument that he deserves the spot. I think it's that close right now. But Griffin's had the more consistent season and, as detailed above, the more dramatic impact. So he holds the spot.

The only other very tough call is at fullback, where Darrel Young and the Giants' Henry Hynoski are both excellent and worthy. Hynoski, for me, has been the slightly better blocker, but the Giants' recent struggles have hurt his case and Young, who actually touches the ball every now and then, takes the spot away from him. ... Kicker is a good race, as all four have had good seasons. And yes, I know Kai Forbath hasn't missed, but he's kicked barely half as many as Dan Bailey has. ... Philadelphia's Brandon Graham has made a strong case at defensive end with his second-half play, but Jason Hatcher's been a rock all season as a 3-4 end for Dallas. ... Dez Bryant and Alfred Morris are no-brainers as the division's best wide receiver and running back. What kind of odds could you have got on that in early September?

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.

Tony Romo: 'We need to do better'

November, 23, 2012
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw for a career-high 441 yards with a career-high 62 attempts. He completed 37 passes and threw three touchdowns to go along with two interceptions. It wasn't enough against the Redskins.

"We just have to find a way to do some things better," Romo said. "I think some things are there that everyone can see that we need to do better. ... We work on a lot of things that our team has done throughout the year that we need to do a better job of. I don't know how to explain it other than we just need to play better."

Romo upped his interception total to 15, four away from his career high of 19 set in 2007. Romo threw 17 interceptions the last two seasons combined.

His first pick was on a pass thrown toward Cole Beasley that was picked off by DeAngelo Hall, who also finished with two pass breakups.

The second pick was snagged by linebacker London Fletcher on a pass intended for Jason Witten.

Romo said he rushed the throw to Witten, but he didn't comment on the throw to Beasley. It appeared to be a bad throw.

"I wish I could have spotted him there because the timing to throw wasn't going to be there for when I let it go," Romo said of Fletcher. "That was disappointing on my part."

Romo didn't have a bad game, but his numbers look fantastic because he had to rally his team back from a 28-3 deficit.

"We need to do the little things better," Romo said. "I know we have a lot of new guys playing right now and a lot of guys banged up. But that's why we practice and do a lot of things so guys can step in and do a great job."

NFC East Stock Watch

September, 11, 2012
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FALLING

[+] EnlargeKevin Ogletree
AP Photo/Julio CortezThe New York Giants secondary allowed the Cowboys and receier Kevin Ogletree to have a field day.
1. Giants' secondary. Tony Romo had a field day in last Wednesday's opener, consistently finding open receivers in the New York Giants' defensive backfield. It wasn't Miles Austin and Dez Bryant doing all the damage, as Laurent Robinson Kevin Ogletree had the biggest statistical day and scored two touchdowns. And it wasn't just backup cornerbacks Michael Coe and Justin Tryon getting burned, as Corey Webster was the victim on two of the most important plays. The Giants could get a boost this weekend if Prince Amukamara returns from injury, but he's far from proven as an NFL cornerback and they will need to play better overall on the back end going forward.

2. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. Yes, they won. Yes, Vick engineered the game-winning drive (something he didn't do all of last year). But four interceptions in the season opener after an offseason in which you promised everyone from King of Prussia on up to the Mars Rover that you were a new man? It's possible Vick was rusty, but if that's the case he's going to have to shake off the rust extremely soon and show proof of his offseason claims about a newfound devotion to study and detail. We didn't see much of that Sunday.

3. Roy Helu and Evan Royster, Washington Redskins running backs. This is more about the "rising" of rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Morris, who was Washington's starting running back and carried the ball 28 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns. No other Redskins running back got more than two carries in the game. And while Helu still looks as though he could be an option here and there on third downs and in the passing game, for right now this appears to be Morris' job. The Redskins have health concerns about the other two backs, and Morris has played well enough to earn the carries.

RISING

1. Cowboys' defense. The Dallas Cowboys believe they would have won the NFC East last year if they'd been able to cover receivers better, so they spent the bulk of their offseason resources on cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. In the season opener against the Giants, the performance of the Dallas secondary was critical. Not only did they get the Giants' excellent receivers covered with the combination of Carr, Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick, but safeties Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh both looked quick and aggressive and made smart plays on the ball. The return of cornerback Mike Jenkins from injury, which could come as soon as this Sunday's game in Seattle, will only deepen a position group that the Cowboys believe they have turned from a crippling weakness into a strength.

2. Redskins' secondary. Lost amid the RG3 hype Sunday was the way the Washington Redskins' defensive backs performed, largely in man coverage. The Redskins don't usually like to isolate their cornerbacks on opposing wide receivers, but a sudden lack of depth at safety and the importance of devoting extra coverage to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham made it a necessity. Josh Wilson, Cedric Griffin and DeAngelo Hall were up to the task and covered the New Orleans receivers well all day while the linebackers and safeties did their best to try and slow down Graham. A perceived weakness of the team in the preseason, the secondary deserves praise for its effort in the opener.

3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eagles cornerback. The Eagles' defense was strong overall, and the performances of linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks as well as safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are all worthy of mention. But Rodgers-Cromartie is a player on whom lots of folks have their eye in Philadelphia this year. Playing the outside cornerback spot opposite Nnamdi Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie is going to be tested by opposing quarterbacks. The two interceptions he made Sunday should make them at least think twice.

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