NFC East: Alan Ball

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants could not have asked for a better first half in the NFC East title game. They have done everything they've wanted to do on offense and defense. They have come out fired up behind high-energy stars like Mathias Kiwanuka and Victor Cruz. And when they've made mistakes, the Dallas Cowboys have consistently failed to capitalize on them.

Eli Manning is 15-for-20 for 199 yards and two touchdowns in the game so far. Ahmad Bradshaw has 46 rush yards and two touchdowns -- one on the ground and one through the air. The Giants are rolling with a 21-0 lead and will get the ball back to start the second half.

The Giants have been picking on overmatched Dallas cornerback Terence Newman all night, and Newman has given them no reason to stop. Not that he's the only Cowboy who should be blamed for what's going on here tonight. Here is a list of costly Cowboys mistakes from the first half. It's not for the faint of heart:
  • Tony Romo overthrowing Dez Bryant on third down on the first series of the game after Bryant had gotten past Corey Webster and could have had a long gain.
  • Newman missing a tackle and allowing Bear Pascoe to hurdle him and convert a third down deep in Giants territory.
  • Newman getting smoked by Cruz for a 74-yard touchdown reception.
  • Alan Ball failing to corral a muffed punt that would have set the Cowboys up with good field position in Giants territory.
  • Abram Elam completely missing a one-on-one tackle and allowing Bradshaw to run in for a touchdown.
  • Gerald Sensabaugh failing to pick up a Brandon Jacobs fumble, which eventually bounced back into the hands of Manning.
  • Romo going past the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball to Bryant for what looked like a big third-down pickup deep in Giants' territory down 14-0 late in the second quarter.
  • Ball downing an excellent Chris Jones punt inside the 5-yard line after going out of bounds, leading to an illegal touching penalty and awarding the Giants the ball on the 20-yard line instead of inside the 5.
  • Henry Hynoski pulling a repeat of the Pascoe hurdle job on Newman on the play just before Bradshaw's short touchdown catch pushed the lead to 21-0 with 1:09 left in the half.

It all adds up to this: One team came to play and the other team looks as though it did not. The Giants have been creative and quick and effective with their pass rush, which has deprived the Cowboys of a chance to take advantage of the Giants' secondary or even really find out if Romo's hand is OK. The Giants have kept the Cowboys off of Manning, which continues a trend. The Cowboys didn't sack Manning in the game three weeks ago in Dallas, and haven't tonight. And the Giants have blocked fairly well in the run game when they've needed to.

The game is not decided or out of reach, but a different -- and much more focused -- Dallas team needs to come out of the halftime locker room, or next week's playoff game is going to be here and not in Arlington, Texas.

Observation deck: Cowboys-Chargers

August, 21, 2011
8/21/11
11:03
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Thoughts from the Cowboys' 20-7 preseason loss to the visiting Chargers.

Defense is what matters for the Dallas Cowboys. Defense is what killed them in 2010, and defense will determine whether or not they can rebound and return to playoff contention in 2011. And so, when you tune in to watch a Cowboys preseason game, you're going to watch the defense. And it is, as we mentioned in Camp Confidential, a work in progress.

New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's defense is based on multiple and varied looks. It's intended to confuse the opposing offense, but before it can do that, the players playing the defense must learn the scheme and develop trust and confidence in it. Since the lockout eliminated OTAs and minicamps, the Cowboys couldn't start practicing their roles in Ryan's new scheme until a couple of weeks ago, and the lack of experience in the new system has shown in both of their preseason games so far.

The best example was Randy McMichael's touchdown catch from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. The Cowboys' pass rush had Rivers cold and he looked as though he was about to throw the ball away. But because cornerback Alan Ball and safety Gerald Sensabaugh had both gone after the same receiver, McMichael was wide open. Rivers saw him and found him for the touchdown, and Ryan had something to say to Sensabaugh when he came off the field.

There were good things that happened, too. Barry Church had an excellent game, knocking down a touchdown pass in the first half and making a great open-field tackle in the third quarter. And Ryan lined top linebacker DeMarcus Ware in several different spots -- left side, right side, dropped him into pass coverage. As a coordinator, Ryan's never had a player as good as Ware, and he's going to have more and more fun with him as everybody gets comfortable in the new system and he can keep moving Ware (and others) all over the field into unexpected spots.

But the question is how soon that will be. Can this Cowboys team learn and become comfortable in this new system in just two more preseason games and three more weeks of practice? There are still communication issues in the secondary, and injured starting cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman haven't even played yet, so there's no way to even know if they'll be good enough to allow Ryan to do what he wants to do up front. Long way to go before the Cowboys' defense looks like a cohesive unit, and they don't have a lot of time.

Here are some other things I saw in the loss to San Diego:

1. The first-team offensive line looked good. Especially rookie right tackle Tyron Smith, who is big and strong and athletic and just looks like a nightmare to try and get past. They've been working with Smith on his footwork, specifically the alignment of his left foot, and it's a matter of him getting comfortable with the new foot position and trusting it. He looked better and protecting the outside Sunday night than he had in the first game. Fellow rookie Bill Nagy got the start at left guard and handled himself well, but he gets overpowered by stronger defensive linemen, as rookie David Arkin did a bit last week. If everyone's healthy (including starting center Andre Gurode), I still think either Montrae Holland or Phil Costa starts at left guard three weeks from now in New York. But Nagy and Arkin will still get opportunities in the meantime to show what they can do, and there are plenty of reasons to like both -- for the near future, if not immediately. You can always build strength.

2. I don't have anything, really, to say on Tony Romo. Yes, his interception was terrible -- terrible decision, terrible throw, terrible all the way around. But from the Twitter reaction you'd have thought it was his 700th consecutive pass attempt that resulted in an interception. His touchdown pass was a very good throw, and while it seems clear that those who don't like Romo will always be looking for reasons to point and shout, "See? Told ya!", he has offered no reason to worry and remains very low on the Cowboys' list of concerns.

3. Lonyae Miller and Phillip Tanner. With Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray injured, the younger running backs on the Cowboys roster have had a chance to show their stuff. Miller looked good early, and the block he threw against the blitz early in the third quarter will show up on his personal highlight film. But his fumble will not, and fumbles can kill a fringe guy's chances of making the team. Tanner struggled in pass protection last week, but he looks like a better runner than Miller does. I don't think any defenders let up on the play after he lost his helmet on the touchdown that got called back, so on tape that's going to show up as a tough touchdown run. Difficult call, if it comes down to two of these guys for one spot, or if they're looking to see whether or not one can unseat Choice.

4. Oh, and the starting running back. Felix Jones, for the second week in a row... wow. Fast, tough and resilient. Guy is moving up those fantasy draft boards, I guarantee. He's running like he means it. His teammates like the spark he brings. He's seeing the field and his lanes from the backfield, and he's working for extra yards against a very good defense in a game that doesn't count. Everything you'd want to see out of Jones when presented with a chance to be the every-down guy, he's showing. My only concern? He's taking a lot of hits, and hasn't exactly shown himself to be Mr. Durable in the past. If he can hold up, he's got a chance to bring something special.

5. The No. 3 receiver issue. If it's Kevin Ogletree's job to lose, he didn't do anything to lose it Sunday. He looked very speedy and very determined, and we didn't see any of the Dwayne Harris magic we saw last year. Manuel Johnson was the down-the-roster receiver who made the strongest second-half impression with Stephen McGee under center. Which is probably another reason for Ogletree to feel good about things.

6. No blood in the kicking battle. Neither Dan Bailey nor David Buehler got a field goal attempt, and I'm not sure I get why neither got one in the final minute. Is it more important right now for the Cowboys to see these guys kick or see if their third-team offense can get in on fourth-and-goal? I guess you could say a 20-yard field goal would be a poor indicator anyway, but still. Why not put one of the kickers in a real game situation if you can?

7. Finally, I'm a little bit surprised by the choice of James Spader for "The Office." My hope is that it allows the very funny people that populate the rest of the cast to shine now that they don't all have to orbit Steve Carell.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If you watched the Dallas Cowboys' preseason opener last week, you saw some issues in the secondary. Communication issues. Confusion. Couple of mistakes that looked as though they were the result of people not knowing exactly where they were supposed to be in certain situations. Much of this can be attributed to the absence of starting cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman. But some can be attributed to the fact that, at that point, they'd only had five or six practices with newly signed safety Abram Elam.

"He's the quarterback of the secondary back there, and we didn't have him for the first five days of practice because of the rules," Cowboys player personnel director Stephen Jones told me Thursday. "But man, when he got in there, it did wonders. You can really see what a difference it makes, having a guy back there who can answer questions. Because there's a lot when it comes to learning [defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's] scheme. And to have a guy out there who can help guys out and quarterback them is real important."

That was part of the appeal of Elam as a free-agent signing for the Cowboys -- not only his talent at a position of need, but the fact that he can "speak Rob Ryan" to players unfamiliar with Ryan's complex scheme. Elam and defensive end Kenyon Coleman both played in Cleveland the past two years when Ryan was defensive coordinator there.

"I think it's big, because I'm familiar with what he's looking for and familiar with the system," Elam said Friday after the Cowboys' morning walk-through. "So when guys have questions about what we used to do and how we do certain things, I can elaborate on that for him. I guess I have a nice comfort with the system and an understanding of what's going on, so I can be more detailed to some of the guys."

Because of that, the longer the defense practices with Elam at safety, the better the communication and results are likely to be in the secondary. And while it will help once Jenkins (who's out at least one more preseason game) and Newman (who's out for the entire preseason) are back and healthy, you're likely to see a difference Sunday night against the Chargers, even with backups Orlando Scandrick and Alan Ball getting the starts in their place.

"I think we all are learning together," Elam said. "We're learning the system as well as learning each other, how to play with each other. And I think, the more all of us can grasp the scheme and communicate it, it'll make us better as a secondary."

Overdue mailbag: Nicks vs. Jackson

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
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Wow. With all this traveling and reporting and stuff that's been going on since the lockout ended, I realized this morning that it had been way too long since I'd check the mailbag. So here you go.

John from Silver Spring asks which receiver I'd rather have on my team, Hakeem Nicks of the Giants or DeSean Jackson of the Eagles?

Dan Graziano: I think it's a fascinating question, John, and I'm betting most people would answer Jackson because there's almost no one in the league who's better or more explosive with the ball in his hands. Add in what he brings in the return game, and you have a special, difference-making player. I do think it's a closer call than most initial reactions might indicate, however. Nicks is three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, which makes him likely to be more durable and helps him be more physical against defenders. Nicks is a craftsman -- a film-room rat who works hard on things like creating space and locating the ball before the defender does. He's able to be a downfield threat, a red zone threat, an end-zone bruiser -- basically a more versatile wide receiver than Jackson is. So while I believe I would take Jackson this year if I were trying to win a Super Bowl, if your question is which guy I'd rather have for the long term, I believe Nicks is the better bet.


Weber Chen from Pasadena asks if I believe the Cowboys' secondary will be better with Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator.

DG: Yes, Weber, I do think the Dallas secondary will be better this year. And if it is, I'm sure Ryan will receive much of the credit for it. But I think much of the prediction has to do with the idea that Mike Jenkins can play a lot better than he did in 2010 and that Abe Elam is a major upgrade at safety over Alan Ball, who was miscast there and has returned to a backup cornerback role. Elam played for Ryan in Cleveland and could be a major help to other players on the defense as they get used to Ryan's scheme. So I think there have been enough changes there that they can bounce back.


Patrick from Richmond, Va., thinks the Giants are overrated at No. 11 in our ESPN Power Rankings and that they'll finish "at the bottom of the NFC East" this year. He wants to know if I agree.

DG: I do think 11 is a bit high for a team with as many question marks as the Giants have. They need to jell on the offensive line, figure out what the receiving corps and tight ends look like, and they have depth issues in some key spots. I may not have ranked them that high if I'd been one of the voters. But I have a hard time seeing at team that still has Eli Manning, Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs, Justin Tuck, Hakeem Nicks, Mathias Kiwanuka, Osi Umenyiora, Terrell Thomas, Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips finish at the bottom of the division.


Richard from Navrre, Fla., asked me to handicap the Redskins' running back situation between Tim Hightower and Ryan Torain, and why Roy Helu wasn't mentioned as a potential starter. Richard's question arrived before Washington's preseason opener Friday night.

DG: I spoke with Mike Shanahan in his office in Ashburn the day after the Hightower trade, and he was fired up. Loves the guy as a runner, loves him as a receiver, loves him in pass protection. I got the definite sense that he believed Hightower was better than what he already had on the roster, and assuming Hightower can overcome the fumbling issues he had in Arizona, I think he gets first crack at the job. Torain's not a factor right now because of the broken hand, but if he recovers from that I would not be surprised to see him get a preseason game in which he got the bulk of the carries. I also expect to see Helu have such a game here soon. Evan Royster got a lot of carries Friday night, and Shanahan likes to try and give running backs "whole games" or something close to it in the preseason so they can establish rhythm. He thinks it's more fair to evaluate based on that. But while all of these guys are in the mix for carries, I'm betting on Hightower to get first shot at the starter's job in Washington.


Michael from Chadds Ford, Pa., is worried about the Eagles' run defense, fearing the defensive line is built to be aggressive against the pass, the linebacker corps is weak and the safeties are young.

DG: Those are all legitimate concerns, Michael, and that's why a lot of eyes this preseason are on the defensive tackles and rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews, who looks as if he really is going to be the starter there. But I don't get the sense that the aggressive line play is designed only to combat the pass. I believe Jim Washburn wants his linemen in the backfield quickly to attack whoever has the ball -- whether it's a running back or a quarterback -- and I don't get the sense they're ignoring run defense with this new line-centered scheme. I think Jamar Chaney at strongside linebacker is going to be an asset because of his speed, and his experience as the middle linebacker last year should help him react to what he sees as the play develops. And don't underestimate the idea that the Eagles plan to score a lot of points, which means opponents might have to pass to catch up. Anyway, I agree it's worth watching, but I don't think they're without a plan to stop the run.

Keep the questions coming. I promise I'll work harder to keep up with them.
Even before the draft, there was a very strong argument that the weakest area of the Cowboys’ roster was the secondary. Dallas’ pass defense was among the worst in the league last year -- but it wasn’t from a lack of quality pass-rushers. The draft is ancient history and the first wave (more like a tsunami) of free agency is just about behind us. But is Dallas vastly improved on the back end of its defense? Not even close.

The starting cornerbacks, Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins, were particularly poor in 2010. And the starting free safety, Alan Ball, was miserable in coverage. Gerald Sensabaugh, the starter at strong safety, had the best year of anyone in this secondary. But he really isn’t a great cover man, which shows how bad things were a year ago for the Cowboys. Dallas wisely kept him near the line of scrimmage. It also re-signed Sensabaugh, who was up for free agency. In the draft, the Cowboys only used one selection for secondary help, a fifth-round pick on Josh Thomas from the University of Buffalo. Thomas is considered a project.

[+] EnlargeAbram Elam
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesThe Cowboys on Wednesday signed safety Abram Elam to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
Needless to say, this isn’t a good situation for the Cowboys. They are going to move Ball back to cornerback, where he belongs. And I believe Jenkins is a better player than what he showed last year. Their nickelback, Orlando Scandrick, could be poised to get more playing time. But in the end, I see Scandrick as best suited for his current role. Dallas does have two youngsters who could step up in their second NFL seasons in Bryan McCann and particularly Akwasi Owusu-Ansah. But neither of these two did anything to speak of in Year 1.

Are there free agents available who could help the cause? There are several intriguing safeties who have yet to be signed, and every one of them would be massive upgrades from what Ball did at free safety a year ago. On Wednesday, Dallas signed safety Abram Elam. He is a smart player with decent range. He isn’t afraid to insert himself or throw his body around. He is certainly an upgrade over what the Cowboys were playing with as a last layer of defense in 2010. But I still question if that is enough to really compete in their secondary -- especially with the rigors of the season and once injuries occur. The Cowboys should also look at free agents Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Deon Grant at free safety; all are unsigned as of this morning.

I commend the Cowboys for keeping many of their own free agents and addressing their offensive line situation, especially since they were in a real bind financially. But their secondary is a huge problem.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.
Welcome to part five in our very popular (at least here on the NFC East blog) position-by-position look at four-year unrestricted free agency and its possible impact on NFC East teams. (We're really going to have to figure out a catchier name ...)

We'll look now at the safety position. The Redskins managed to address safety pre-lockout by signing O.J. Atogwe. And while the Giants are likely to lose Deon Grant, they appear set at the position with Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle and aren't as likely to use three safeties as much this year after taking cornerback Prince Amukamara in the first round of the draft. But the other two teams in the division could be looking for safety help, although to different degrees.

NFC East teams in need

[+] EnlargeDawan Landry
Denny Medley/US PresswireDawan Landry could be high on the wish list for both the Cowboys and the Eagles.
Cowboys: Even if they do bring back Gerald Sensabaugh, they'll need to find a safety to replace Alan Ball, who's slated to move back to his backup cornerback role. And if Sensabaugh finds employment elsewhere, Dallas will need to find two safeties on the market. The need at this position could be the biggest factor that prevents the Cowboys from signing star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. If they got him, they'd have to fix safety on the cheap.

Eagles: In spite of his popularity among fans and in the locker room, veteran strong safety Quintin Mikell appears to be out in Philadelphia. Philly is planning to go with second-year man Nate Allen at the free safety spot and could, theoretically, start Kurt Coleman at the other. But since neither seems like a sure thing, it's probably a good idea for the Eagles to at least look around for free-agent help.

UPDATE, 3:40 pm: As our first commenter points out below, rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett should have been mentioned here. I'd add him to the "not a sure thing" group with Coleman and Allen, since I don't think they view him as a starter in 2011. But the presence of Jarrett and Allen along with Coleman could, indeed, lessen the Eagles' desire to commit long-term to a free-agent safety.

Top five potential unrestricted free-agent safeties

1. Eric Weddle. The total package. Hits hard, tackles, plays the run well and is capable of making the big interception and running it back. The Chargers will make keeping him a priority, and if he hits the open market he's likely in line for a very big contract. Probably too rich for the Eagles' blood, but he'd qualify as a big splash for the Cowboys if they aren't in on Nnamdi.

2. Dawan Landry. Playing opposite Ed Reed in Baltimore, Landry has been overshadowed. But he's improved every year in his coverage ability and has always been strong against the run. The Ravens are likely to let him go. Could be great in Philly or with the Cowboys, who could easily slide Sensabaugh to free safety if Landry came in to play the strong safety spot.

3. Danieal Manning. He turned down an extension offer from the Bears just before the lockout, and as one of the players who was caught in the restricted free-agent trap imposed by last season's uncapped rules, he's looking for a pay day. Might appeal to the Eagles for his ability to handle kick-return duties as well as start at safety.

4. Michael Huff. Came up with four sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles for the Raiders in 2010. He's going to draw enough interest that the Raiders won't be able to keep him. Multiple reports have indicated he's high on the Cowboys' wish list.

5. Mikell. There's also been some talk in Dallas of pouncing on Mikell, should the Eagles let him go, as a means of getting over on a division rival. But Mikell, while older than anyone else on this list, could bring a leadership element to Dallas that the team could use as it works to recover from its disappointing 2010 season.

Predictions that mean nothing: Cowboys sign Huff, Eagles look further down the list (Abe Elam? Atari Bigby? Roman Harper? There are lots of options.) as they pursue Asomugha for cornerback and address front-seven needs on defense.
In light of the word that the proposed new NFL labor deal would make players with four years of service time into unrestricted free agents, there has been some support in the comments for a free-agent rundown as it pertains to our little division here. We're going to do it position-by-position, over the next couple of days, and because the biggest-name guy in the field is a cornerback, we're going to start with cornerbacks.

NFC East teams in need

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNnamdi Asomugha is the big prize in this year's free-agent class.
Cowboys: Dallas plans to move Alan Ball, who flopped as a safety, back to the cornerback position, where they already have Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman as starters. Assuming all of those guys are on the team, the Cowboys could decide to stand pat and focus their energies on upgrading at safety. But one of the starters may have to be cut to create cap room, and if that happens, expect the Cowboys to be big-game hunters on the corner market.

Eagles: They need another corner to play opposite Asante Samuel, and they've said they plan to be aggressive in free agency. That could mean playing at the top end of this pool, but even if they don't land the big fish, expect Philadelphia to come up with someone on this list.

Redskins: Carlos Rogers wants out and the team seems inclined to grant him his wish. But while Redskins fans may be sick of Rogers, he's not a bad player and he will need to be replaced.

Top five potential unrestricted free-agent cornerbacks

1. Nnamdi Asomugha. The prize of the offseason free-agent market. Probably the second-best corner in the league behind Darrelle Revis. Asomugha will draw interest from all three of the above-named NFC East teams plus plenty of teams (Baltimore? Houston?) outside the division. Whoever does sign him will use a lot of cap space to do it, which is why, as much as Dallas might want him, he might make more sense in Philly.

2. Johnathan Joseph. Some talk that the Bengals will make him their franchise player, but if they don't, the 27-year-old rising star stands to ride Asomugha's coattails to a big payday somewhere outside of skimpy-spending Cincinnati. A fine fallback for the Eagles or Redskins. Cowboys? Sure, but my hunch is, if they don't get Nnamdi, they spend elsewhere and either keep the corners they have or go further down this list for a replacement.

3. Antonio Cromartie. Remains to be seen if the Jets will keep him (or if they'll pursue Asomugha as well!). Cromartie comes with plenty of baggage, as his attitude and effort were in serious question at the end of his time in San Diego. Doubt he'd fit in a place like Dallas or Washington, where peace and quiet are going to be important to the short-term and long-term plans.

4. Chris Carr. He's said he'd like to return to Baltimore and that he'd be willing to play some safety in order to do that. Lots of turnover is expected in the Ravens' secondary, and depending on how other things shake out, Carr could be a surprise entry onto the market and a nice fit in Philadelphia or Washington, neither of which is too far from Baltimore. His fellow Baltimore corner, Josh Wilson, would be an intriguing name on the market as well.

5. Ike Taylor. Known more as a physical corner than a traditional cover type such as Asomugha, Taylor is a perfect fit right where he is, in Pittsburgh. But there have been rumblings lately that he's seeking a big payday, and Washington seems like it could use an infusion of toughness and a championship-seasoned veteran presence on defense.

Predictions that mean nothing: Asomugha to the Eagles, Taylor to the Redskins, Cowboys stand pat at corner and spend on safety.
Blogging the Boys has a thoughtful analysis of the Cowboys' safety situation, which I think might be the most important part of their offseason now that they spent their first-round pick on a tackle. Dallas will continue, justifiably, to figure into the Nnamdi Asomugha speculation, and they might well sign him. But safety is a more pressing concern than cornerback, and if they do find themselves in a position to prioritize one over the other, I believe they should and probably will fix safety first.

Dave Halprin believes, per the above-highlighted link, that the best course of action is to move Alan Ball back into his backup cornerback role, re-sign Gerald Sensabaugh and pursue a free agent safety such as Oakland's Michael Huff, Philadelphia's Quintin Mikell, Cleveland's Abram Elam or San Diego's Eric Weddle. The field of available safeties looks fairly crowded, and Dave makes the point that re-signing Sensabaugh would help widen the field of safety targets for the Cowboys because Sensabaugh can play either free or strong safety. Bringing him back would mean they wouldn't have to look specifically for one or the other and could sign (a) the player they like the best (b) at the price they want, leaving funds available for other pursuits such as Nnamdi.

This is vital stuff for the Cowboys if they intend to return to their 2009 levels on defense. They were wretched defensively in 2010 and, without oversimplifying, they need to bring in some people who can make some stops. Sure, they still need to address needs on both lines, but building from the back forward on defense isn't a bad strategy for a team that let people go down the field at will on them for much of last season. As exciting and helpful as Asomugha would be, I don't get the sense that Cowboys fans would be too disappointed if the first thing the team did after the lockout was sign a safety.

NFC East links: DeSean wants Asomugha

May, 13, 2011
5/13/11
10:58
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Dallas Cowboys

Former Cowboys running back Ron Springs, 54, died Thursday of a heart attack. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones commented on Springs' passing.

In his analysis of Cowboys safety Alan Ball, Bob Sturm of the Dallas Morning News writes that Ball "has some use on this team as corner and safety depth, but to ask him to go from a 7th round special teams contributor to a full-time free safety in the NFL is a rather dubious stretch."

New York Giants

Justin Tuck returned to his home state of Alabama on Thursday to help residents who have been impacted by the recent tornadoes.

The final day of the Eli Manning's minicamp drew five players for Thursday's hour-long session.

Philadelphia Eagles

Juan Castillo wants the Eagles to have a simpler defense.

Wide receiver DeSean Jackson told a radio station Thursday that he is going to make a recruiting pitch to free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Washington Redskins

Donovan McNabb's agent, Fletcher Smith, issued a statement and called Bernard Hopkins' comments about McNabb dangerous, ill-informed and irresponsible.

Mike Jones of the Washington Post analyzes the Redskins' special teams.

Breaking down the safeties: Dallas

April, 28, 2011
4/28/11
1:00
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Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson examines the safeties of each NFC East team. Today: Dallas Cowboys

In 2010, this awful group of safeties couldn’t support the cornerbacks or consistently make big plays in any phase of the game. Dallas was horrible in the secondary, but especially bad at safety.

Compounding matters, Gerald Sensabaugh is scheduled to become a free agent. He is a slightly above-average starter, but Sensabaugh might have the advantage in negotiations. The Cowboys might be reluctant to employ two new starters at safety while also potentially breaking in a new cornerback in a new defensive scheme under Rob Ryan.

Alan Ball started by default at free safety and was one of the worst starting safeties in the game. He needs to be replaced. Being undersized and a liability in coverage is a rough combination. But he is still young and could have value as a depth player and on special teams.

Depth was a real problem last season -- Dallas used players like Barry Church and Danny McCray, who are really just special teamers. When Church did see the field, he did not impress.

This is a very weak safety draft, but the Cowboys might consider UCLA’s Rahim Moore with their second-round pick. Free agency is the best option for Dallas to fill this gaping hole. Options who should be very attractive to the Cowboys include Eric Weddle, Michael Huff and Deon Grant. Help is really needed here.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Cowboys' biggest weakness: safety

March, 14, 2011
3/14/11
12:00
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Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson examines the biggest weakness of each NFC East team and offers some potential solutions.

I would love to see the effects of Dallas' acquiring a free safety with a ton of range and capable of making big plays behind the Cowboys’ pass rush. A player like that could make up for some problems at the cornerback position.

[+] EnlargeMichael Huff
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMichael Huff could be a good fit in the Cowboys' secondary.
Last year, Alan Ball was the starter at free safety. He failed to make an impact but could provide valuable depth. Gerald Sensabaugh is up for free agency, and it would be smart to bring him back for stability while trying to upgrade the starting spot opposite him where Ball played.

There isn’t much else on the roster to be excited about. Dallas’ safeties gave the corners little to no support in 2010. There isn’t a safety worth taking with the Cowboys’ first-round pick, but Dallas does have the 40th overall selection. At that spot, they could land the top safety in this draft class, UCLA’s Rahim Moore. Or maybe they have to move up a handful of spots at a minimal price to get Moore. But Moore really can’t be considered a huge difference-maker, especially in the short term.

Dallas is built to win now. Going the veteran route at safety could be the best option. In fact, it shocked me that Dallas wasn’t more proactive to land Oshiomogho Atogwe, who was quickly scooped up by division rival Washington. But there are other veterans who could make sense to upgrade this area of weakness. The Eagles’ Quintin Mikell is the best safety on the market. He isn’t a true free safety in the mold I described above, but signing him would do damage to a division rival while also very much upgrading the safety position overall. But the fit I like best is Oakland’s Michael Huff, who came on in a big way last year after the Raiders finally put him more in deep patrol instead of keeping him close to the line of scrimmage. Huff was a safety/cornerback tweener coming out of the University of Texas and could be just want the doctor ordered in Big D.

The other guy who would be a home run and an excellent fit for Dallas is San Diego’s Eric Weddle. Weddle can do it all. He excels near the line of scrimmage, but I see him as being best off the ball and in deep patrol. Rob Ryan would love the versatility of this Pro Bowl-caliber safety. Weddle is also younger than Huff. Two other less expensive options would be the Jets' Brodney Pool and Chicago’s Danieal Manning. Both would be upgrades.

The Cowboys do have some options, but there are more teams in the league with free safety needs than needs at strong safety. The draft is very light at the position this year, so this pool of free agents could dry up quickly.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

NFC East links: Vick to sign tender

March, 2, 2011
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Dallas Cowboys

ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins takes a look at one of the deepest position groups in the upcoming draft: the defensive line.

The team signed linebacker Isaiah Greenhouse to its reserve/future list Tuesday.

The Cowboys offered tenders to four players Tuesday: Defensive ends Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher, safety Alan Ball, and left tackle Doug Free. Watkins weighs in on what it all means.

New York Giants

Ahmad Bradshaw, Barry Cofield, Kevin Boss, Steve Smith and Dave Tollefson received second-round tenders from the Giants Tuesday. Mathias Kiwanuka reportedly received a first-round qualifying offer.

Center Shaun O'Hara said he wouldn't want the NFL's owners and the NFLPA to reach an agreement on a new CBA this week because "that would be a bad deal for us."

Philadelphia Eagles

Michael Vick will sign his franchise tender from the Eagles on Wednesday, which will be worth more than $16 million next season.

Brandon Graham said at least two of his Eagles teammates have asked him for substantial loans to get through the lockout.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins have released linebacker Andre Carter and guard Derrick Dockery.

The team appears prepared to bring back Albert Haynesworth for another season.

Cowboys regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 18
Preseason Power Ranking: 4

[+] EnlargeMike Jenkins
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIMike Jenkins finished the season with only one interception.
Biggest surprise: A defense that had been the backbone of the team in 2009 collapsed in 2010. Players eventually quit on coach Wade Phillips, causing him to be fired after a 1-7 start. The Cowboys' defense gave up a staggering amount of passing touchdowns and it often cratered late in games. Players such as outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who took major steps forward in 2009, reverted to their old ways. It was surprising early in the season that Roy Williams was one of the most productive offensive players, but he faded once Tony Romo suffered what turned out to be a season-ending shoulder injury.

Biggest disappointment: The season was such a disaster that it's hard to pinpoint one player, but for clarity sake, let's go with cornerback Mike Jenkins. He appeared to be on the verge of stardom following a breakout season in 2009, but he was burned repeatedly in 2010 and then he shied away from contact on a Green Bay touchdown in a 45-7 loss on national TV. Jenkins was expected to become one of the Cowboys' best players on defense, but he had an awful season and probably deserved to be benched at one point.

Biggest need: The Cowboys need to overhaul the offensive line. Marc Colombo was exposed at right tackle by quick defensive ends and right guard Leonard Davis is no longer a dominant player. Left tackle Doug Free is the only offensive lineman who had a solid season. You could see the Cowboys attempting to change out as many as three spots along the line. Dallas needs to bring in talent via the draft or free agency. The Cowboys also need help at safety. There's no reason for Alan Ball to start in 2011 based on how he performed. And it's time to start figuring out who will replace Terence Newman at cornerback. Orlando Scandrick actually had a decent season, but I'm not sure he's ready to take over for Newman full-time.

Team MVP: Jason Witten. Once Tony Romo suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, tight end Witten stepped up his game and became a big-time weapon for Jon Kitna. DeMarcus Ware had a lot of sacks, but he disappeared in too many games. I think Witten was a huge part of the Cowboys finishing the second half of the season 5-3.

Worst moment: You have to go all the way back to the last play of the first half against the Washington Redskins in Week 1. The Cowboys simply needed to kneel and head to the locker room, but Garrett called a short passing play that fans will never forget. Tashard Choice caught the pass, but he fumbled while fighting for extra yardage. DeAngelo Hall raced the other direction to score a touchdown. On a night when Donovan McNabb and the Skins' offense couldn't do much, it was exactly what the Redskins needed.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 3, 2010
12/03/10
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13.

[+] EnlargeDoug Free
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireDoug Free will have his hands full with Colts DE Dwight Freeney.
Cowboys left tackle Doug Free needs to have his best game of the season. Most left tackles need some help against Colts All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney, but I don't think Free will have that luxury. Right tackle Marc Colombo will need a lot of help against Robert Mathis on the other side. I actually think Free's up to the task. He'll have to get out of his stance quickly and get an immediate punch with his arms to force Freeney to re-start. As most of you know, Freeney will try to get to the outside and turn the corner on Free. He's been the Cowboys' best offensive lineman this season and I think he'll have a strong performance against Freeney. Is that a stone-cold lock of a prediction? Absolutely not.

It's time for the Giants to actually do something with their opening possession. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride spent a lot of time this week talking about how he likes to get a feel for defenses on the first series of games. The Giants finally scored on their first possession against the Jaguars, but it was only a field goal. The Eagles scored on their first three possessions against the Texans, but the Giants almost always wait until the second half to get going. They've been dominated in the second quarter. The defense has given up 82 points, and the offense hasn't always responded in the first half. With a beat-up team like the Redskins, you can't let them hang around. Just look at what almost happened to the Eagles on Thursday night. Gilbride needs to spend less time setting things up and more time dictating the action. I realize it's tough without Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith in the lineup, but the Giants have enough weapons to get things done, as they showed in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars. Maybe they can get Kevin Boss going a little bit earlier in this game.

The Redskins have to unleash the pass-rush on Eli Manning early in this game. If Washington can bring some pressure up the middle and get in Manning's face, it will cause problems. Mario Manningham's really the only wide receiver he has faith in, and I think DeAngelo Hall has a chance to lock him down. But if Manningham gets the ball on a quick screen, the Redskins have to run everyone to the ball. Manningham has deceptive speed and he's good at making defenders miss. This is also a game where the Skins have to get back to creating takeaways. They were on a torrid pace early in the season, but things have tailed off. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo has to be thinking about the strip because Manning has some ball-security issues at times.

The Cowboys' safeties will be under a lot of pressure against the Colts. Peyton Manning looks for Pierre Garcon on a lot of vertical routes, but Reggie Wayne will look to get loose across the middle. It's important for Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh to be more disciplined than ever. The Colts are looking for a safety to take one false step. If that happens, they're ready to pounce. And I had a chance to watch tight end Jacob Tamme in person against the Eagles. He doesn't have the speed of Dallas Clark, but he's a sure-handed receiver who can break tackles if the Cowboys aren't careful. Manning's like most quarterbacks in that he hates having anyone in his face. If nose tackle Jay Ratliff and defensive end Stephen Bowen can collapse the pocket in the pass rush, I think they can cause some mistakes. Manning took way too many hits against the San Diego Chargers. In Sunday's game, the Cowboys need to use a similar approach. If you allow Manning to find a rhythm, it could be a long day. But without any semblance of a running game, it makes him a little bit easier to defend.

Can McNabb continue his dominance of the Giants? McNabb is 11-7 lifetime against the Giants, but he was wearing a different uniform all those years. He's won four consecutive games over the Giants while throwing to quality receivers such as DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Jeremy Maclin (in '09). I think McNabb has a comfort level against the Giants' personnel, but defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has changed things up. I think he'll throw a lot of different looks at McNabb, and I'd look for him to send Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle on some safety blitzes early in this game. If the Skins can block it up, McNabb will have a chance to make plays downfield. He needs Santana Moss to come up big for him, but I think Terrell Thomas will be ready for the challenge at cornerback. Without a running game, McNabb's a sitting duck. Maybe "sitting" isn't fair because of his mobility, but you get the picture. The Giants will try to make the Skins one-dimensional early in this game.

Monday Afternoon Blitz Package

November, 15, 2010
11/15/10
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I'll be in Landover, Md., tonight for Redskins-Eagles on "Monday Night Football," but let's take a look at the fallout from the Cowboys' 33-20 road win over the Giants:

Cowboys
  • Interim head coach Jason Garrett had a great day Sunday. He showed that attention to detail and discipline can create change in a short time period. But all the credibility he gained Sunday could come crashing down if the Cowboys lose to Detroit next weekend. There's no way you can trust these players after a 1-7 start, but I do think they were begging for structure and discipline. Garrett and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni delivered the goods.
  • Former SMU Mustang Bryan McCann made the play of the day when he picked off an Eli Manning pass and returned it 101 yards for a touchdown. For reasons that we may never know, Hakeem Nicks quit on a slant route. McCann caught the ball and then was off to the races. The Cowboys were sick when they released McCann after training camp and he was signed by the Baltimore Ravens. They'd hoped to sneak him through to the practice squad. But Ravens scouting guru Eric DeCosta had been tracking McCann throughout the preseason. The Ravens ended up releasing McCann, and I'm sure they were regretting it while watching highlights of Sunday's game.
  • In his private meeting with the team Wednesday, Garrett grabbed his players' attention by saying, "The ball. The ball. The ball." Garrett was referring to how reducing turnovers on offense and causing them on defense could change the course of the season. And it looks like his players took him seriously. Jon Kitna's only interception came when he tried to let Dez Bryant make a play in the end zone. One of the broadcasters called a "killer interception," but I didn't see it that way.
  • Pasqualoni's decision to play a lot more zone coverage had a huge impact on Sunday's game. Giants coach Tom Coughlin admitted as much afterward. The Cowboys still gave up some big plays, but they also had an opportunity to make more plays on the ball. Alan Ball's interception pretty much sealed the game.
Giants
  • I don't think Sunday's loss exposed fatal flaws for the Giants. They just came out flat against an inspired team. It's human nature to watch the Cowboys quit on their former head coach and think that sort of performance will continue. Even without starting receiver Steve Smith and two starting offensive linemen, the offense still moved the ball. If I had a vote in the ESPN.com Power Rankings, I wouldn't overreact to this loss at all.
  • Ahmad Bradshaw is one of the best young running backs in the league, but he's going to have to commit to securing the football. He's very susceptible to the strip because he forgets about the fundamentals when he's fighting for yards. The Cowboys were well aware of that trait and the Giants were fortunate to get the ball back after that fumble in the first half.
  • I would seriously think about cutting punter Matt Dodge today. He continues to put his team in awful situations with outright shanks. It's time to let him clear his head and start elsewhere. A poor punt could get you beat in the playoffs. General manager Jerry Reese should bring in a veteran immediately.
  • It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Perry Fewell responds to this game. He was outschemed and his players were burned by the aging Kitna. Fewell received a lot of praise during the five-game winning streak. Now he'll see the other side.

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