Dallas Cowboys: Barry Church

Cowboys defense struggles

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- For the Cowboys defense, this isn't about the statistics.

Monday night, against a third-string quarterback, at home, the Cowboys defense failed in critical moments of the game.

Washington was able to beat Dallas 20-17 in overtime and continue a wacky trend in the NFC that had three quality teams -- Philadelphia, Green Bay and Dallas -- all losing this week.

"I had a simple message for us before the game. [It] was to get it done," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. "We didn't get it done today. We made too many mistakes, and it don't matter what a team's record is, there's too much talent around this league. We made too many mistakes, and we just didn't get it done."

The Cowboys defense failed to respond when quarterback Tony Romo went down with a back contusion in the third quarter. When it was time for the Cowboys defense to make quality plays, it instead allowed the Redskins to score the go-ahead touchdown.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Jordan Reed
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesThe Redskins completed this 16-yard pass to Jordan Reed in overtime to set up the winning field goal.
In overtime, the defense couldn't make a key stop, get a sack or force an interception. It allowed a 23-yard completion and an 8-yard run before tight end Jordan Reed converted on third-and-3 by catching a 5-yard pass against safety Barry Church.

There was Colt McCoy, the third-stringer who got the start with Kirk Cousins sitting and Robert Griffin not ready to return due to injury, directing traffic during a scramble.

Faced with a first-and-10 from the Dallas 45, McCoy was flushed out of the pocket and then pointed to Reed to move downfield. McCoy lofted a pass over linebacker Bruce Carter and turned it into a 16-yard completion to Reed.

Four plays later, Kai Forbath nailed a 40-yard field goal to give Washington the lead. Dallas had it's own chances to tie or win the game but couldn't even get to midfield.

"Situational football again came to bite us in the butt," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "Across the board, we hang our hat on winning our one-on-one matchups on defense, and too many times today, we didn't win those."

Overall, the Cowboys' defense did pressure the quarterback and record a season-high three sacks and six quarterback hurries. McCoy threw passes underneath for the majority of the game and completed a stunning 25-of-30 for 299 yards. He didn't throw any touchdowns, but he threw just one interception, on a deep pass into the end zone that was picked off by safety J.J. Wilcox.

The Redskins run game was strong and gained 4 yards a carry. Speedy, big-play threat DeSean Jackson caught six passes for 136 yards.

McCoy was efficient and worked within the confines of the offense to make things happen.

"I wish we could have done more, man," said defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who did have a sack. "We didn't make the plays we should have made. That's what cost us the game."

One of the leaders from this defense, linebacker Justin Durant, is done for the season with a torn biceps. He finished with a team-leading 10 tackles and added two tackles for loss.

Henry Melton, the defensive tackle who was missing for a bit, had his first multi-sack game as well as three tackles for loss.

Rolando McClain (seven tackles and one pass breakup) and Church (six tackles) -- two of the more reliable players -- missed tackles. The Dallas defense made the basic plays, but there were several missed tackles -- two from Church and one from McClain.

"Very disappointed," Church said. "I feel like this has been my worst game since I became a Dallas Cowboy. I played really [badly] overall. It wasn't a great performance in any of the phases."

It's something the Cowboys need to clean up.
IRVING, Texas -- Safety Barry Church is making plays these days, and it’s among the reasons the Cowboys’ defense has yet to allow more than 21 points in its past four games.

Church
 Church had eight tackles and a forced fumble against the New York Giants, and he had five tackles and broke up a pass at the goal line with a big hit against Seattle.

He’s provided stability on the back end of the defense, and he hasn’t missed many tackles, a key for any safety.

Church leads the defense with 41 tackles and helped limit New York’s running backs to 80 yards on 24 carries. Andre Williams did have a 22-yard run, which means Dallas limited the Giants to 68 yards on their other 23 carries, which is beyond acceptable.

“He had a really good game against the Giants and was very active," coach Jason Garrett said. "He was around the ball and was active making tackles in the running game -- and they were good tackles because they were down around the line of scrimmage.

“That’s always something he’s done well and that was one of the more consistent games he’s played this season.”

5 Plays that shaped the game

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
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IRVING, Texas - There were 119 plays in the Cowboys’ 31-21 win over the New York Giants. They weren’t all created equal. It’s never that way. Touchdowns and turnovers get most of the attention, but who wins or loses is often determined by plays that get lost in shadows of those that command the most attention.

Here’s a look at five plays that shaped the Cowboys’ win:

Murray
Play: DeMarco Murray run
Situation: Third-and-1 from Dallas 29
Score: Dallas leads, 28-21
Time: 4:04 left in fourth quarter

Taylor's Take: The Cowboys knew they needed a couple of first downs or there was a good chance the Giants would drive for the game-tying touchdown. The Cowboys lined up in a three-tight end formation and ran right behind them, Jason Witten, James Hanna and Gavin Escobar each won their individual battles and Murray ran over Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for the first down. The Cowboys took 4:59 off the clock before kicking a field goal that clinched the win.

Play: Jason Pierre-Paul sack
Situation: Second-and-5 from Dallas 25
Score: Tied, 0-0
Time: 14:28 left in third quarter

Taylor's Take: Few things are worse -- it has been reinforced this season -- than a first quarter turnover that gives an opponent early momentum. Romo was trying to throw a checkdown pass to Murray, when he saw a Giants’ player in that area. When he pulled the ball back, Romo lost control of it. He juggled it several times and finally corralled it just as Jason Pierre-Paul sacked him. Lose a fumble right then and the Giants almost certainly would have taken an early lead.

McClain
Play: Terrell McClain tackle
Situation: First-and-10 from Dallas 35
Score: Tied, 14-14
Time: 11:44 left in third quarter

Taylor's Take: On their first possession of the third quarter, the Giants were driving to take the lead. They converted two third downs and had moved to the Dallas 35, when Terrell McClain made his biggest play of the season. McClain sliced through the line of scrimmage and drilled running back Andre Williams for a three-yard loss. He stripped the ball in the process, but Williams was ruled down because his forward progress had been stopped. That hit energized the Cowboys’ defense, and the Giants punted after failing to convert a third-and-18.

Play: J.J. Wilcox pass interference penalty
Situation: Fourth-and-1 from Dallas 38
Score: Dallas leads, 7-0
Time: 12:50 left in second quarter

Taylor's Take: New York coach Tom Coughlin was already feeling desperate, which is why he went for it this early in the game. The Giants called a play-action pass and Dallas covered it perfectly. Barry Church was behind tight end Daniel Fells and J.J. Wilcox was perfectly positioned in front of him. But Wilcox didn’t trust his coverage, so he put his hands on Fells drawing a penalty and giving the Giants a first down. Four plays later, the Giants tied the score.

Play: Rueben Randle penalty
Situation: First-and-10 from Dallas 40
Score: Dallas leads, 21-14
Time: 3:10 left in third quarter

Taylor's Take: The Cowboys had just taken the lead, and the Giants were driving once again to tie the score. The Giants wanted a bubble screen to Preston Parker, but Orlando Scandrick recognized it so quickly that Randle had no choice but to hold him because he was going to blow the play up. The penalty made first-and-20, thwarting the Giants' drive.

Sound tackling key for Cowboys

October, 9, 2014
Oct 9
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IRVING, Texas -- It's simple, but sound tackling is the key to bringing down Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch.

It's harder than it sounds, and the Cowboys will have to deal with that on Sunday when they visit the defending Super Bowl champs.

Church
This season, Lynch has broken five tackles, tied for the fifth-most in the NFL. Of 69 plays, 7.2 percent have included from a broken tackle. Lynch has 306 rushing yards, but Wilson is also adept and breaking tackles and getting up field with his 209 yards.

Wilson is good at faking handoffs and taking off after the fake fools the linebackers. The defensive ends come charging in on the handoff, and by the time they realize it's a fake, Wilson is down the field.

It leaves the secondary with opportunities to make open-field tackles, but if they miss, good luck.

"You got to hit hard, especially Marshawn Lynch," safety Barry Church said. "You got to wrap him in, you just can’t go in there with a shoulder and think you're going to blow up the guy. He's too strong, way too strong. With Russell Wilson you got to treat him like a running back as well, if you try to pepper down, he’s going to slide or he’s going to stiff-arm you in the face and keep going. So we have to treat all those guys like running backs."

Lynch is a physical back who doesn't shy away from contact, but when he gets into the open field he's difficult to stop because it puts linebackers in a one-on-one situation.

"I think they’re equally the same," linebacker Justin Durant said. "When you got a guy like Marshawn who is one of the toughest guys to bring down in the league, he’s always going to be a No. 1 option. So you can’t really say that either one is more important. Russell is definitely a tough guy and Marshawn is tough as well."

Dallas Cowboys' pass rush is lacking

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' defense has been good at times this season but it needs improvement.

Overall, it ranks eighth in scoring defense (20.6) and is tied for 10th with 10 turnovers.

However, the Cowboys' pass rush, something that was a concern going into the season, is lacking.

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The Cowboys have just five sacks, tied for 26th in the NFL and their blitz frequency on pass plays is among the lowest in the NFL. On third-down plays, the Cowboys have blitzed just four times, employing more defenders to drop back into coverage than rush the passer.

Dallas has blitzed more times on second down, 22 times, than any other down, this season.

The offseason additions of defensive tackle Henry Melton and Terrell McClain, who has been hampered by nagging injuries, and the absence of end Anthony Spencer, has hampered the pass rush somewhat.

The solid play of the linebackers, Rolando McClain and Justin Durant, have been considered a positive sign, likewise the secondary led by the safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox.

Yet, pressuring the pocket is the key to any defense's success.

"Obviously we haven't had huge sack numbers, but I do think we've affected the quarterback," coach Jason Garrett said. "I think that was the case a little bit (Sunday vs. Houston) as well. We didn't have the big dramatic losses, but we were around them, trying to make him feel uncomfortable. We use the word effect a lot, you got to effect the quarterback. You effect with individual pass rush, we effect with dogs and blitzes that you would bring. I think at different times we were able to do that, force (Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick) to hurry a throw, maybe throw from an uncomfortable position. I think we were able to do that throughout the game even though we didn't have the sacks."

Dallas Cowboys' defensive snaps

October, 6, 2014
Oct 6
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IRVING, Texas -- Justin Durant is showing Rod Marinelli that he can be an every down linebacker in the Dallas Cowboys' 4-3 scheme.

For the second consecutive game, Durant played every snap and he was at his best in overtime. He was the only member of the front seven to be on the field for every play.

Durant did a nice job covering Arian Foster on the Houston Texans' final offensive play, giving Jerome Mincey time to pressure quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick into throwing an incomplete pass.

Marinelli continues to manage his eight-man defensive line rotation as Henry Melton (groin, hamstring) and Anthony Spencer (knee) round into shape.

Marinelli has said he wants to keep Melton between 38-40 snaps per game. He played 20 Sunday against Houston, and 24 the previous week.

Tyrone Crawford, who seems to have found a spot at defensive tackle, led all defensive linemen with 45 snaps.

J.J. Wilcox -- 59
Brandon Carr -- 59
Orlando Scandrick -- 59
Barry Church -- 59
Justin Durant -- 59
Rolando McClain -- 47
Tyrone Crawford -- 45
Jeremy Mincey -- 41
Sterling Moore -- 37
George Selvie -- 34
Nick Hayden -- 34
Anthony Hitchens -- 33
Anthony Spencer -- 23
Jack Crawford -- 21
Henry Melton -- 20
Terrell McClain -- 18
Kyle Wilber -- 1

Cowboys defensive playing time

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
4:00
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Here's a look at the snap counts for each of the Cowboys' defensive players on Sunday:

Rolando McClain erased any doubts that he’s just a two-down linebacker with his performance Sunday against Tennessee. With Justin Durant (groin) out for a few weeks, McClain was on the field for 48 of 49 plays. It’s impressive because the Titans used a lot of formations with three receivers, which is why Sterling Moore played 44 snaps. Defensive lineman Jack Crawford saw his first action with the Cowboys, playing 12 plays. Kyle Wilber has lost his starting strongside linebacker job to Bruce Carter, but he’s getting playing time as a pass-rushing defensive end. He played 12 plays against the Titans.

Bruce Carter: 49
Brandon Carr: 48
Rolando McClain: 48
Barry Church: 45
Morris Claiborne: 45
Sterling Moore: 44
Jeremy Mincey: 43
J.J. Wilcox: 41
Tyrone Crawford: 30
Henry Melton: 26
Nick Hayden: 25
George Selvie: 22
Davon Coleman 19 Terrell McClain 18 Jack Crawford 12 Kyle Wilber: 11
Jeff Heath: 10
Anthony Hitchens: 9

Upon Further Review: Defense shines

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
1:30
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The Dallas Cowboys moved to 1-1 with a commanding 26-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon.

After every game we take a look back in Upon Further Review.

1. After training camp there were plenty of concerns about the defense from its pass rush to secondary play. Losing Sean Lee at middle linebacker was also a major blow to a defense that ranked last in 2013. Two weeks into the season, the defense is doing just fine. In the victory over the Titans, safety Barry Church had a pick, linebacker Rolando McClain also had one, Morris Claiborne almost picked one off and corners, Sterling Moore and Brandon Carr had strong performances. Moore knocked down several passes and Carr did a solid job in one-on-one coverage. The pass rush also got to Jake Locker numerous times and the Cowboys defense was on point. The unit was more physical this week and the increased snaps for defensive tackle Henry Melton helped. There was even a Kyle Wilber sighting as he obtained half a sack on a bull rush move.

2. Melton didn’t start against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, but in Week 2 he became a starter and showed the Cowboys’ coaches why he was worth signing in free agency. Melton’s tipped pass led to a McClain interception and he picked up a half-sack when he flushed Locker out of the pocket. Melton, using the three-technique along the defensive line, was able to push the pocket and he didn’t face a lot of double-teams. That might change this week when the Cowboys take on the St. Louis Rams.

3. DeMarco Murray was fantastic on Sunday. He rushed for 167 yards on 29 carries with one touchdown. Murray broke 11 tackles and despite a fumble for the second consecutive week, was able to brush it aside and run with a fury downfield. Murray has adopted the one-cut technique from position coach Gary Brown. In years past, Brown noticed the Cowboys’ running backs were doing too much dancing when they got to the hole, so Brown told the backs to get what they can. If the hole dictated one or two yards, so be it. Murray isn’t afraid to get just one or two yards, however, the offensive line is getting a good push into the second level of the defense, allowing him to make that one-cut and get up field.

4. Last week, left tackle Tyron Smith played a solid game though he allowed one sack and was penalized twice. Right tackle Doug Free gave up two sacks in the first half and looked over matched. As the game progressed, the veteran took over and handled outside linebacker Derrick Morgan and defensive end Ropati Pitoitua one-on-one with little trouble. There were times he had tight end Jason Witten lined up with him, but Free was able to produce a strong effort overall.

5. One of the biggest plays of the game came from Witten. With Dallas leading 16-10 late in the third quarter, Tony Romo floated a pass into the flat over a leaping defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. The pass was too high for Witten to haul in and safety Bernard Pollard caught the ball. Witten had the presence of mind to strip Pollard and force an incompletion. If Pollard maintains control of the ball he probably gets a pick-six and the Titans take the lead.
Defensive tackle Henry Melton, the Cowboys' prized offseason acquisition, was hobbled with knee and groin issues in the preseason.

He missed the entire preseason, which is why he played only 26 snaps against San Francisco in Week 1. The Cowboys want to work him in slowly to ensure he doesn't aggravate the groin injury. Jeremy Mincey led the defensive line with 43 snaps. Rolando McClain played 44 snaps and did a good job of providing a physical presence. Kyle Wilber, a projected starter at linebacker much of training camp, had only four snaps.

Here's a look at the snap counts for each of the Cowboys' defensive players on Sunday:


J.J. Wilcox: 58
Brandon Carr: 57
Barry Church: 51
Bruce Carter: 48
Morris Claiborne: 47
Justin Durant: 47
Rolando McClain: 44
Jeremy Mincey: 43
Sterling Moore: 39
Tyrone Crawford: 33
Nick Hayden: 33
George Selvie: 27
Henry Melton: 26
Ken Bishop: 21
Lavar Edwards: 15
Jeff Heath: 7
Anthony Hitchens: 5
Kyle Wilber: 4
OXNARD, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys arrived at Naval Base Ventura County at Point Mugu on Tuesday afternoon under clear blues and temperatures in the mid 70s.

It was far different atmosphere from the high-90s temperatures that greeted the players at Valley Ranch on Monday for the players who ran a conditioning test.

[+] EnlargeJason Witten
Tony Gutierrez/AP PhotoTight end Jason Witten was one of several Cowboys veterans who wanted to run a conditioning test before heading to training camp.
Barry Church and Travis Frederick said Jason Garrett canceled the conditioning test -- a series of sprints ranging from 40, 50 and 60 yards that need to be completed at different times depending on the player’s position -- but older players such as Jason Witten called for the test to be run anyway.

League rules prevented any coaches from being on hand because the facilities are closed down 10 days prior to the start of training camp.

“When coach said we weren’t going to have a conditioning test this year a couple of the older guys wanted to make sure that we had everybody in the right shape,” Frederick said. “Sometimes if you don’t do it, you’re not in the right shape and you’re not ready to practice. When you come out and practice as hard as we do and you do it as much as you do during training camp, that’s when it leads to guys getting hurt. A couple of the older guys wanted to make sure guys were in shape, so we did get together yesterday and do some stuff like that. Nobody was around, just the players running it, but I think it was a really good step for our team.”

The players kept the times and had to have been on the honor system. What’s unclear, however, is if those who didn’t run the test Monday will run it Wednesday in Oxnard before practices begin Thursday. Could peer pressure play a part in those who did not attend the Valley Ranch workout lead to them running it?

Safety Barry Church said it was a “camaraderie thing.”

“I feel like it’s showing the players are trying to make this team our own and go out there and have our own type of identity as a team and combine together to see what we can get accomplished here this upcoming season,” Church said.

In the past, the Cowboys have used the test as a barometer for a player’s readiness for practice. If a player was unable to complete the test, he started the year on the physically unable to perform or non-football injury list. Garrett has attempted to alter some of the training exercises to potentially combat the number of injuries the team has suffered the last two years.

“When the players get together and do something like that I think that it shows there’s a level of maturity,” Frederick said. “There’s a level of work and a level of expectations by the older guys, the guys that held it. When you go out and do something like that, that is really showing the team is ready to step forward and is a mature team. Coach says 'There’s no conditioning test,' we could easily just not do it. Everybody is like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s great. We don’t have to do it.’ But are you going to be ready? Are you ready to work? Are you ready to come out and practice as hard as we need to practice to make ourselves into the caliber of team we want to be?”

Garrett enters his biggest season -- again

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Jason GarrettAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherJason Garrett enters his fourth full season as Dallas' coach searching for his first playoff appearance.
IRVING, Texas -- This is the biggest year of Jason Garrett's coaching career with the Dallas Cowboys.

That's after 2013 was the biggest. And 2012. And probably 2011, even if it was his first full year as a head coach and the offseason was shortened because of a lockout. This is Dallas, after all, where winning is a birthright, even if those fans born after Jan. 28, 1996, have never seen their team make a conference title game.

But now we mean it. This year -- 2014 -- is the biggest in Garrett’s coaching career.

Basically we mean it because there are no more options for Garrett. He is not under contract for 2015 with the Cowboys. He is in a contract year the way Dez Bryant, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray are.

The good news for Garrett is that the outside expectations have never been lower in his run as the Cowboys’ head coach. The offseason predictions, which are often ludicrous anyway, have the Cowboys tumbling from 8-8 to 5-11 or worse.

The bad news is that he has a defense that has a ton of questions at every level. Pick a defensive lineman and there is a question. Pick a linebacker and there is a question. Pick a defensive back not named Barry Church or Orlando Scandrick and there is a question.

On offense things look much better, provided quarterback Tony Romo is able to come back from back surgery to play at a high level. To some that might be a huge "if" considering Romo’s age (34), but the general feeling is that everything will be fine with the quarterback, who had 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 starts in 2013. Add Bryant, Jason Witten, Murray and an offensive line that should be this franchise’s best since 2007 and you can see the offense putting up yards and points this season.

That is where Garrett has to hang his hat if he wants to be the Cowboys’ head coach or another team’s head coach in 2015. And he can’t really hang his hat in the room, because he won’t be in the room as much as he has been.

One of Garrett's themes of 2013 was that he was entering what was the biggest year of his coaching career and unable to do what he does best -- run the offense -- because Jerry Jones gave those duties to Bill Callahan. Garrett won’t be running the offense in 2014 either, but neither will Callahan. Garrett at least has his guy, Scott Linehan, running it this season. So that is a slight bonus for Garrett.

The better news for Garrett is that if he makes the playoffs, he can control his future.

Looking objectively at what he has done since taking over as the full-time coach, there have been positive signs and mistakes that have cost the Cowboys games. The general direction of the team is better than it was when he took over. Troy Aikman said this offseason that if Garrett is not back in 2015, then the next coach will benefit from the foundation Garrett put down.

There aren’t many people outside of Valley Ranch giving the Cowboys a chance to compete in the NFC East in 2014. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the division last season and had the worst defense in the league. If they are a tick better on defense this season, can’t they contend? When did the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Washington Redskins become such juggernauts?

If the Cowboys made the playoffs, would Garrett become a hot commodity again? Would teams look at the big picture of the mess he inherited, how he kept the team competitive in a retooling if not rebuilding mode and how he worked with owner and general manager Jerry Jones, and view Garrett differently than he is viewed now?

Perhaps, and that would put him in a position of leverage.

Garrett will not address his future no matter how many times he is asked. He gives the same answer about keeping his focus on being the best coach he can be each and every day. Jones has been patient with Garrett and he doesn’t mind that the coach is in a lame-duck status. Jones wants to see the Cowboys reap the rewards of working through some of Garrett’s missteps made because of inexperience in his first three seasons.

This week Jones will be sitting next to Garrett and will be asked about the coach’s long-term status. He will profess faith in Garrett, extoll what he has done in his first three seasons and talk about the potential payoff coming in 2014.

If it doesn’t come this season, then all bets are off.

That is why this year -- 2014 -- is the biggest year of Garrett’s coaching career.

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
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IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster

RUNNING BACKS (4)


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.

TIGHT ENDS (3)


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.

LINEBACKER (7)

Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.

CORNERBACK (5)


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.

SAFETY (5)

Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.

SPECIALISTS (3)


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.

Church chimes in on D's question marks

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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Safety Barry Church is as close as it comes to a sure thing on a Dallas Cowboys’ defense that has a whole bunch of question marks.

What does Church expect from some of the most prominent question marks around him? He provided his answers during a Tuesday appearance on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM.

Church
 On J.J. Wilcox: “Just an explosive playmaker. Those are the words that come to my mind when I think of him. This whole offseason, he was all over the place -- getting interceptions, locking up tight ends -- so I feel like he’s going to be a big playmaker for us on the back end. I’m excited to see what he can bring to the table this season.”

On Bruce Carter: “Definitely with the loss of Sean Lee, it’s time for him to step up and be that focal point of the defense, and I feel like he’ll be able to do that. He’s making a lot of the checks out there. He’s the head of the huddle for the defense, so I feel like this offseason really generated a lot of confidence for him, and I feel like going into the season that’s going to work for him. He’s going to get better and better as the season progresses.”

On Morris Claiborne: “To me, he’s had the best offseason out of anybody in our secondary and anybody on our defense. He’s turned his body around. He’s completely focused. Before, I would have to give him the check for the defense a couple of times. Now, I’m just like, ‘Boom, here’s the call,’ and he’s ready to roll. ... Now you’re starting to see some of the productivity he can bring to our defense.”

On Brandon Carr: “I expect him to live up to that contract, and I know he will. He’s been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Me and him especially have working on our footwork drills, man-to-man drills and lifting together and running together. I feel like he’s got just a whole new focus going into this season. He wants to, like he said earlier in one of his interviews, take over the league. I feel like he can be one of those top-3 corners in the NFL. I feel like he’ll show everybody this year. I definitely have the faith in him to live up to that contract, and I know he will.”

On DeMarcus Lawrence: “Definitely, it’ll take some time. DeMarcus Ware, he’s a one-of-a-kind guy. It’s definitely going to take more than one year to replace a guy like that, but DeMarcus Lawrence has got the talent. He’s been out there working against one of the best offensive tackles in the game in Tyron Smith every day in practice. He’s taken a couple of lumps from him, but he’s definitely won some of those battles, too. That definitely shows me that he has the talent, and he has the will to do it. We’ve just got to see what he can do when the pads come on, but I definitely see a productive guy in DeMarcus Lawrence.”

Filling out Cowboys' roster: Safeties

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
1:30
PM ET
Constructing a 53-man roster is a difficult process, piecing together 10 positions groups and matching up present needs with future production of older and younger players. This week we take a look at constructing the Dallas Cowboys' roster.

Safeties

On the roster: Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Matt Johnson, Jakar Hamilton, Ahmad Dixon, Ryan Smith

Locks: Church, Wilcox, Heath

Virtual lock: Hamilton

Need help: Smith, Johnson, Dixon

How many fit? This is a thin group with only three locks and five spots open. And it’s possible the Cowboys go with four safeties, but they kept five last year and they don’t appear to have a hybrid corner/safety on the roster at this point.

Adding a veteran during camp or by the time the final cuts come around is a possibility.

Church
Church is the only truly known commodity. He is one of the most stable defensive players they have and has developed into something of a leader as well. The Cowboys want Wilcox to be the guy, but that doesn’t mean he will end up being the guy. He has much to learn after playing the spot only for a year at Georgia Southern and having his development slowed last year after the death of his mother and a knee injury. Heath will be a special-teams stalwart. He was forced to play too much last year, but he has fans throughout the building who believe he can grow into the job.

Of the remaining safeties, Hamilton had the best spring. He was a disappointment last year after he was one of their priority college free agents. He was not disciplined enough but was better in the OTAs and minicamp. Johnson’s lack of health has kept him off the field for the last two seasons, and he has run out of options. He did little in the spring because of a hamstring injury. He has to show he can stay healthy and make plays. The coaches say he did it in the limited work he has had over two seasons, but the Cowboys can be only so patient.

Dixon was drafted with the idea that he would be a special-teams ace as a rookie with the ability to grow. He is aggressive. He will attack. When the pads come on that should fit his game more. Smith is an intriguing undrafted prospect. He opened some eyes with his work in the spring and ability to cover some ground. Will he be aggressive when the pads come on? If he wants to build on a good first impression then he better.

The series:

Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs

Barry Church to enter new role for Cowboys

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
11:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- A year ago, Barry Church was something of a question mark.

He was coming off a torn Achilles and played in parts of only three games in 2012.

This year, the safety might be the Dallas Cowboys' most established defender.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church
AP Photo/James D SmithMore will be asked of Barry Church this season.
Anthony Spencer is the most tenured, but he might not play until the seventh game of the season. Orlando Scandrick has the most Dallas experience among the defensive backs, but he will be pushed for a starting job by Morris Claiborne. Bruce Carter has more career starts, but the linebacker is enigmatic to say the least.

That leaves Church, who led the Cowboys with 147 tackles from his safety spot. He also had five tackles for loss, an interception, six pass deflections, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.

“You never want to get too complacent or take things for granted,” Church said. “I feel like I have a role on this team now, especially at the safety crew because I’m one of the oldest guys out there in the secondary, me and Orlando and Brandon Carr. It’s a different role coming in being one of the old guys.”

Church came to the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2010. He worked his way up from special-teamer to sub-package player to a starter.

This year he figures to add another role: leader.

With Sean Lee out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Cowboys are in need of a defensive leader. Church deferred to Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher last year, but now the younger players (as well as his peers) will look to him.

The coaches have asked him to be more vocal.

“I pretty much know the defense front and back, so the more I can communicate to the other guys and get people lined up, the better. I definitely feel like I can do it. I could’ve done it last year, but Sean was the designated leader and the vocal captain, so you roll with him. He was the guy. He proved himself. I was coming off an injury and had to re-prove myself.”

Church is a player coach Jason Garrett often cites as an example to younger players trying to figure it out.

“He loves to play,” Garrett said. “People respond to him. And he does a lot of positive things. He’s around the ball a lot. He makes a lot of plays. So he has that way about him where people kind of gravitate toward him because of his personality and because of his play. Just needs to play more and keep doing that. In regards to the absence of Sean, he absolutely needs to step up as a leader. Your best players need to do that. When you play a position like safety, you’re a big communicator back there with everybody else in the secondary. So being strong with his [voice] and being strong with his mannerisms and getting everybody squared away, I think that’s a big part of what his job is.”

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