5 Wonders: Can defense carry the day?

August, 29, 2012
8/29/12
10:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys will play their final preseason game tonight vs. Miami and a lot of players are wondering if they have secured a spot on the 53-man roster for the regular season.

I’m just wondering about five things.

Here we go:

** One thing to remember about the final cuts that will be made after the Dolphins game is that nothing will be settled. The Cowboys will actively look at the waiver wire for upgrades to their roster, but there’s no way they can expect immediate help. Remember, their first game is on Wednesday against the Giants. They will get awarded players Saturday, which is a normal “Wednesday” practice, so to ask a player to learn a system, learn a new team and learn the opponent in such a short turnaround is nearly impossible. It’s another unfortunate part of playing the first game of the year because other teams have more time to get a waiver pickup ready. I think the Cowboys will look at offensive linemen, secondary and possibly receiver for help once the final cuts are made.

** The Cowboys will not know if Jason Witten can play against the Giants. They know Miles Austin and Phil Costa will be available, but without any or much work in the preseason games, how ready will they be to play the Giants? They will have two new guards who also missed a lot of practice time. They will have a new fullback. That’s a lot of uncertainty, to a degree, on offense. I wonder if Rob Ryan’s defense will have to carry the day for the offense against the Giants -- and potentially early in the season. And, yes, the defense has some turnover too with Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and, possibly, no Jay Ratliff. That’s a lot to ask the defense in Week 1 after Eli Manning & Co. ripped them apart in two games last year. Or maybe the Giants are the perfect opponent for Week 1 after what happened last season.

** The Cowboys will try to sneak players through waivers and on to their practice squad, and it will invariably upset some fans if their guy gets claimed by another team. I wonder if the Cowboys will try and sneak outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton and/or wide receivers Danny Coale and Andre Holmes through. Hamilton has looked good and his pass rushing ability makes him different than some other defensive cuts, but he has a long way to go before he can help on the field. If he makes the team he has to be a special teams contributor, and right now he’s just not that comfortable doing it. As a fifth-round pick, Coale might have some value for another team. Teams liked his versatility coming into the draft, but a foot injury robbed him of an offseason and lot of training camp. Holmes is probably the No. 6 wide receiver right now and the team might not be able to keep that many with injuries at other spots. But at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he looks most like a future starting receiver. The Cowboys spent last season and this summer developing him and might want to see the process through. A team tried to pry Holmes away late last season when he was on the practice squad. I purposely left Matt Johnson off the list because his situation is a conundrum.

** Jason Garrett always refers to the importance of the offense, defense and the kicking game. I wonder if people realize just how difficult it put together a special teams unit. For the most part, the Cowboys do not use their top coverage and return teams that much in the preseason because they want to look at a lot of players to see if down-the-line players have the special teams’ ability. It’s not necessarily a Cowboy problem. A lot of teams do it. But it’s also why you see a lot of returns early in season because players simply aren’t used to playing there. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis feels like he has more personnel than he has had the last two seasons to be a top group, but they haven’t worked much together. His best player, Danny McCray, has a neck injury. Another special teams stalwart the last few years, Barry Church, is now a starter, so his work will be limited. A rookie linebacker, Kyle Wilber, is expected to be a big contributor but he has a busted thumb.

** I wonder if Jason Hatcher will have a breakout season -- and for a 3-4 defensive end a breakout season is seven or eight sacks. He had a sack on the first series vs. St. Louis. He was able to overcome a hamstring injury in camp, which is different than the last two years when injuries slowed him down during the summer and kept him from getting back to form quickly. He had 4.5 sacks last year. It’s hard to believe this is his seventh year, but he was a project when the Cowboys drafted him in 2006. Finally, it seems, he has it figured out. Patience is a good thing and the Cowboys were patient because Hatcher had natural pass rush abilities. They wouldn’t have been as patient if he didn’t show the ability to get to the quarterback.

Todd Archer

ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter

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