NFC East: Reggie Bush

Camp preview: Dallas Cowboys

July, 17, 2014
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NFL Nation's Todd Archer examines the three biggest issues facing the Dallas Cowboys heading into training camp:

The health of Romo: Ever since he became the starter in 2006, how Tony Romo goes is how the Cowboys go. He is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year, but he was able to do much more this offseason than he did in 2013, when he had a cyst removed. The Cowboys kept Romo out of any competitive drills in the spring in order for him to be fully healthy by the time they got to training camp. Using last year's camp as a guide, Romo did not miss a day of work, and the Cowboys don't believe he will need to be eased into the full practice load this summer either. Because a big part of Romo's game is his ability to move and create in open space, however, they will be cautious if there even hints of more soreness than just the aches and pains of training camp. All offseason, the Cowboys have not expressed any worry about Romo, who turned 34 in April, being able to return to form. He will get his first chance to show it on the practice fields in Oxnard, California. If he can play at a high level -- he had 32 touchdown passes and 10 picks in 15 games last season -- then the Cowboys should be able to contend for a playoff spot in a division that is not as strong as it has been in the past.

Marinelli to the rescue: The Cowboys' defense was historically bad in 2013, and they enter this season without their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware), last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) and their best playmaker (Sean Lee). Rod Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator and will bring subtle changes in coverages, fronts and blitzes, but the core of the 4-3 scheme will remain the same as when that coaching duo was together at Tampa Bay. The Cowboys did not make any splash signings in free agency, but their most important was Henry Melton. If he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and play the way he did under Marinelli in Chicago, the Cowboys have a chance. Marinelli also plans to lean more on cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne in man coverage, but Carr and Claiborne have to play much better in 2014 than they did in 2013. There could be as many as seven new opening day starters on defense this season than in 2013, and it is up to Marinelli to make it work. He had more talent with the Bears when he was running their defense, but the players believe in what he is selling.

Plan of attack: From 2007 through 2012, Jason Garrett called every offensive play. In 2013, Bill Callahan was the playcaller, but he was forced to run Garrett's offense, and there were hiccups. Scott Linehan will be Romo's third playcaller in as many years, and he will have the autonomy Callahan did not have. The Cowboys are not changing schemes, but Linehan has brought on alterations to an offense that struggled on third down in 2013. Linehan leaned toward the pass in his time with the Detroit Lions, but he did have a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Bush last season. With the Cowboys, he has a better offensive line, better tight end (Jason Witten) and better running back (DeMarco Murray). The Cowboys aren't about to become a run-first team under Linehan, but they need to run more, especially when they have a lead in order to help end games, protect a defense filled with questions and protect Romo, who is coming off two back surgeries. Because Romo did not take any team or seven-on-seven snaps in the spring, they will need to play a little bit of catch-up in what each other likes and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't like in situational football. The Romo-Linehan relationship might be the most important the Cowboys have. They have to make it work.
IRVING, Texas – From 2009-13, Scott Linehan was the offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions and helped quarterback Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson put up some staggering numbers.

Linehan was hired this week as the Dallas Cowboys’ passing game coordinator and will call the plays in 2014. With the Cowboys, he will get to work with Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray.

ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer asked ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein for a little insight on Linehan.

Todd Archer: What type of playcaller are the Cowboys getting in Linehan?

Michael Rothstein: Linehan has some creativity to what he is able to do. He was really able to get both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell in open spaces using a variety of screens and dumpoffs throughout the season. Evidence of this is a middle screen the Lions scored on multiple times last season. He was criticized most often for either going empty or throwing in third-and-short situations despite having Reggie Bush and Joique Bell at his disposal. Sometimes the routes he devised with some of his playcalls led to receivers being too bunched up at points. But he has the ability to really draw up some good plays and he has experience with a quarterback-receiver combination like Tony Romo and Dez Bryant in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.

Archer: Cowboys fans have screamed at Garrett for not running the ball enough and now he has a guy who ran it less in Linehan. Did he not run the ball much because of who he had before Reggie Bush showed up?

Rothstein: I wasn't around before Bush, either, but he often said having Bush legitimized and gave credibility to their running game. There is truth to that, because Bush had a 1,000-yard season -- the first for a Detroit running back since 2004. If I had to guess, you'll still see an offense predicated on passing since the Romo-to-Bryant combination is a strong one, but as long as Linehan believes he has the line and running backs to be successful, he'll run it. But he'll definitely be a passing guy first.

Archer: How would you describe his relationship with Matthew Stafford? Obviously Tony Romo will have a lot of say here and I’m curious how he and Stafford worked.

Rothstein: Stafford really liked him and appeared to be disappointed in Linehan's firing when it happened last month. One of the bigger criticisms of the Jim Schwartz and Linehan tenure was that they were not critical enough with Stafford and didn't push him enough. Of course, he was a younger quarterback where Romo is a veteran, so he might not need that. I'd say Romo will be in a position where he will definitely have a lot of say and there will be an absolute comfort level needed there. My guess is the relationship will be similar for Linehan and Romo in Dallas.
IRVING, Texas -- With sources saying Scott Linehan will take over as the Dallas Cowboys' playcaller, his track record suggests the offense will be Tony Romo friendly.

[+] EnlargeScott Linehan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesScott Linehan has been the Lions' offensive coordinator for the past five years, but can he get the Dallas run game going?
For the past five years Linehan was the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator. In the last three seasons, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown for 14,655 yards and 90 touchdowns with 52 interceptions.

From 2011-13, Calvin Johnson caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns. So that would appear to be good news for Dez Bryant.

But what about the running game?

Linehan has been an offensive coordinator/head coach from 2002-2013, except for the final 12 games of the 2008 season when he was fired as head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

Using the 11 seasons as a backdrop, Linehan has had a top-10 ranked rush offense just twice and those were in his first two years with the Minnesota Vikings in 2002 and 2003. A Linehan-led running game has not finished better than 12th in the NFL since. With the Lions he had running games ranked Nos. 24, 23, 29, 23 and 17.

The Cowboys have been at their best offensively when DeMarco Murray has been involved.

Linehan is not averse to the run.

In 2002, Michael Bennett ran for 1,296 yards for the Vikings. A year later Minnesota had four different players with at least 400 yards rushing. In 2005 with the Miami Dolphins, where he worked with Jason Garrett for the first time, Ronnie Brown ran for 907 yards and Ricky Williams had 743 yards.

In his first year with the Rams, Steven Jackson, the runner so many Cowboys fans wanted them to take in 2004, ran for 1,528 yards. He had 1,002 yards in 2007.

With the Lions, he had to make due with Kevin Smith, Jahvid Best, whose career was cut short by injuries and Mikel Leshoure. Last season, Reggie Bush ran for 1,006 yards. Joique Bell ran for 650 yards.

In Murray, Linehan will inherit a back coming off the best year of his career and an offensive line that finished the year on a high note.

It's up to him to use the running game.

Halftime thoughts: Go figure this

December, 22, 2013
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DETROIT -- They lost their top wide receiver to injury last week and are down to fourth-stringers on the offensive line. So of course, the New York Giants look as good as they've looked on offense at any point so far this year. They're showing good run/pass balance, using the run game and moving quarterback Eli Manning around to keep him away from pressure. They're moving the ball, they're 5-for-8 on third downs, they haven't turned it over and they didn't give up a sack until there were 27 seconds left in the half. They hold a 13-3 lead over the Lions at halftime.

Doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, considering they have been one of the worst offenses in the league and are playing this game severely shorthanded. When the inactives were announced 90 minutes prior to kickoff, right guard David Diehl was on the list. He was replaced in the starting lineup by untested 2012 fourth-round pick Brandon Mosley, who lasted only one series before breaking his hand and being replaced by Dallas Reynolds. So that's the third different starter they've had at right guard since Chris Snee's season-ending injury.

But somehow, the protection is holding up. Cruz's replacement, Jerrel Jernigan, is playing tough downfield against a depleted Detroit secondary and Manning is getting just enough time to find him and Hakeem Nicks. The Lions have turned the ball over twice on a Reggie Bush fumble and a Matthew Stafford interception. The Giants cashed in the first of those with a Manning-to-Jernigan touchdown pass, and cashed in the second with a 52-yard Josh Brown field goal.

The Lions obviously have a lot of problems right now. After a brutal home loss to the Ravens on "Monday Night Football," they have spent the first half of this game shooting themselves in the foot. They have squandered an opportunity to win the NFC North with division-rival quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having missed significant time due to injuries. And while the Lions desperately need this game (and help) to keep their postseason hopes alive, New York is the team that looks as though it's playing for something. Detroit also is missing starting cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Chris Houston and saw backup cornerback Bill Bentley and starting safety Louis Delmas head to the locker room with head and elbow injuries, respectively, that leave them questionable to return. So there's reason to believe the Giants can keep the offense coming in the second half if they can keep protecting Manning with their banged-up line. Detroit is also missing many of the playmakers who could generate turnovers in the secondary, so there remains a chance that the Giants could go turnover-free for the first time this season.

W2W4: Giants at Lions

December, 21, 2013
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Because the schedule says so, the 5-9 New York Giants travel this weekend to Detroit to play the 7-7 Lions in a 4:05 pm ET game Sunday. Here are a couple of things to watch for in the game:

Restricting Reggie. There's been so much talk this week about how the Giants plan to cover wide receiver Calvin Johnson and very little about their plan of attack versus dynamic Detroit running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. The Giants have been fairly stout against the run this year. They've only allowed two running backs to reach 100 rush yards in a game against them -- Carolina's DeAngelo Williams in Week 3 and San Diego's Ryan Mathews in Week 14. But both Bush and Bell are factors in the passing game, too, and the Giants have been susceptible to that all year. Last week, for instance, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch rushed for just 47 yards but caught six passes for 73 more. Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte are among the other top running backs who succeeded as receivers against the Giants in spite of struggling against them as runners. So the Giants must be on the lookout for Bush and Bell when they escape the backfield on Matthew Stafford dropbacks.

Containing Calvin: That said, the big-play threat remains the 6-foot-5 Johnson, who is coming off two straight disappointing games and is liable to post huge numbers at any time. The Giants say they're not planning to put 6-foot cornerback Prince Amukamara on Johnson exclusively, instead splitting the field with their corners as they prefer to do. That means 5-foot-8 Trumaine McBride will see Johnson some of the time, and that's a matchup on which Stafford is likely to pick liberally.

Stopping Suh: Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley headline a fearsome Detroit defensive line that has to be licking its chops knowing that Giants quarterback Eli Manning already has absorbed 36 sacks this season. The Giants could be without guard David Diehl, who is listed as doubtful for the game due to a knee injury. That would mean backups James Brewer and Brandon Mosley at the guard spots against one of the best interior pass rushes in the league. Gadzooks.

Jernigan's chance: With slot receiver Victor Cruz out for the rest of the season following knee surgery and fellow wideout Hakeem Nicks appearing to play at half-speed all season, Jerrel Jernigan could play a significant role in the passing game Sunday. He replaces Cruz in the slot, and he showed the coaching staff something Sunday when he had to go in after Cruz got hurt. Head coach Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride both lauded Jernigan's toughness against Seattle's physical secondary, and he's likely to find the matchups more favorable this week in Detroit. If Manning has to unload the ball quickly, as it appears he will due to the protection issues, Jernigan could see a lot of targets and has a chance to make his case to be on next year's team with a big performance.

Big Blue Morning: Cruz's season is over

December, 20, 2013
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Your daily morning check-in on news and notes about and of interest to the New York Giants.

The news of the day: The Giants announced Thursday that wide receiver Victor Cruz had gone to see Dr. James Andrews to have his left knee checked out and that Andrews performed a surgical procedure on the knee. It was called an "arthroscopic debridement," which as I understand it means a cleaning up of loose cartilage or bone in the knee. So that's much better news for Cruz than if he'd had to have a ligament repaired, and there's no reason to think he won't be able to participate in the offseason program or be ready for the start of 2014. But obviously, since he just had his knee operated on 10 days before the final game, he's out for the rest of this season. Cruz was the only player on the Giants' offense having any kind of a respectable season, and there's good reason to believe that, as a result of this news, the final two games will be even more unwatchable than the first 14 were.

Behind enemy lines: It seems all we've been talking about with Giants defensive players this week is Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. But they have a pretty good running back, too, in Reggie Bush, who's about to crack 1,000 rushing yards and is a serious threat in the passing game as well. The Giants have been good at limiting even the best running backs between the tackles, but they have been susceptible to running backs as receivers on the outside. But the Lions have their own problems. Bush himself says the team for which he plays lacks discipline. And Jeff Chadiha writes that it's time for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to show more in the big spots.

Around the division: If the Cowboys lose early Sunday, the Eagles could clinch the NFC East with a victory Sunday night against the Bears. If the Cowboys win Sunday, or if the Eagles lose Sunday night, then the NFC East will come down to one Week 17 game for the third year in a row -- Philadelphia at Dallas this time. Regardless, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy says he wants to carry the offense in this game. The way the Bears have defended the run this season, that sounds like a good plan.

Around the league: I think expanding the NFL playoffs is a terrible idea, because there are enough bad games as it is and not enough really good teams to fill a 12-team playoff field. But others disagree, and we asked around.

Cowboys run D to be tested too

November, 23, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have offered up little resistance with their pass defense. They are allowing 313 yards per game through the air, worst in the league.

Eli Manning started it all off with 450 yards passing in the season opener with four touchdown passes. He was intercepted three times, but he has had his way with the Cowboys at times in his career.

But part of the Giants’ resurgence lately has not been with Manning leading the way. It’s been with a ball control offense. On a conference call Wednesday Giants coach Tom Coughlin made note of how much the Giants have run the ball in their four-game winning streak: 31, 32, 38 and 24 times.

“That’s what they used to do, run the ball and then play-action to pass it,” defensive tackle Nick Hayden said. “They’re just trying to get back to it and being balanced instead of just throwing the ball the whole time.”

It’s not that the Giants have run it great. They are averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry, but Andre Brown, Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis can be bruising backs. The Cowboys have faced mostly shiftier backs in LeSean McCoy, Reggie Bush and Jamaal Charles.

“Just harder to bring down guys and they can break a lot of tackles,” Hayden said. “We’ve got to be more physical.”

And as bad as the pass defense has been, the Cowboys allowed the New Orleans Saints to rush for 242 yards in their last game.

“We just got the details, be where we’re supposed to be at when we’re supposed to be there,” defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. “We’ve been playing with a lot of guys, just here and there filling guys in. We’ve been banged up, but I’m not the guy to make excuses. We’ve got to do better. We just have to go out here and concentrate on it and take it one step at a time and we’ll be OK.”
DETROIT -- It's not getting any better.

The confidence level, while still there from the people inside the locker room, seems to be waning on the outside.

The Dallas Cowboys defense did it again on Sunday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonCalvin Johnson was just seven yards shy of the NFL record for most receiving yards in a game.
It gave up a franchise-record 329 receiving yards to Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, but with the game on the line, the defense failed to make the plays necessary to win.

The Cowboys lost to the Lions, 31-30, at Ford Field because of the defense's inability to get enough pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford, hold down the running game and of course make a play on the last drive of the game.

"We got to finish games and we didn’t finish it on defense," defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. "We had a chance to win it on defense with a minute left and they came up with a big play and it's on the defense."

The Cowboys clung to a 30-24 lead with 62 seconds left when Stafford took over. The big play was a 40-yard strike to wide receiver Kris Durham, who ran past cornerback Orlando Scandrick with 33 seconds remaining.

The next play, Johnson caught a 22-yard pass at the goal line before cornerback Brandon Carr knocked him down as the clock wound down.

"It's very frustrating," cornerback Morris Claiborne said. "Brandon had tremendous coverage on his guy and he was still able to use his physical nature, his long arms and his big body to come up with some of those catches."

Stafford decided against faking a spike and dove into the end zone with 12 seconds to play for the final score.

"We had a shot at the end of the game," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "We can't give them that."

This was one of those games where the defense did everything Kiffin's 4-3 is supposed to do. It forced four turnovers and still lost. Kiffin's defense mixed up man and zone coverage on Johnson. It picked up one sack, Hatcher's in the fourth, but failed to ruffle Stafford. Kiffin's defense also gave up 24 fourth quarter points.

Defensively the Cowboys have failed this team in 2013:

  • At least six receivers have caught at least 100 yards in a game.
  • According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Cowboys are the first NFL team to allow four quarterbacks to throw for at least 400 yards in a single-season.

Guess what?

Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Robert Griffin III and maybe Jay Cutler (if he returns from a groin injury) are looming in the winter months.

At the end of this contest with the Lions, the Cowboys had three rookies on the field in the secondary in B.W. Webb, Jeff Heath and Jakar Hamilton due to injuries.

Three main defensive players are out with injuries. End DeMarcus Ware (thigh) was doing more work on the sidelines watching and trying to calm Dez Bryant than playing. End Anthony Spencer is home recovering from microfracture surgery and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff is getting ready to work out for other teams.

The no-name defense is left in its place and given the salary cap space, less than $2 million, trading for a veteran isn't going to happen.

"It's the NFL, you’re here," Scandrick said. "You get in the game you're expected to make plays. They don’t really care if you got a backup."

Kiffin has to take the blame here. While Johnson is hard to cover and beat up the Cowboys' secondary, the front four has to knock down the quarterback. The front seven can't allow 143 rushing yards. Reggie Bush became another running back to take control of the passing attack from the backfield with his eight catches for 30 yards.

You could point to the draft and the injuries and ineffective play for the reasons why the Cowboys lost on Sunday afternoon.

The bottom line is these players aren't good enough.

"We did a good job of getting turnovers but we struggled to stop them in the second half," said linebacker Sean Lee, who had two interceptions. "A lot of area to improve. We started the game strong but we didn’t finish strong. We let them score and we let them handle the ball and at the end of the game we have a great shot to win. We give up a bunch of big passes and that’s unacceptable."

Monte Kiffin praises Reggie Bush

October, 26, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush missed Friday's practice as a precaution for a leg injury.

This season, Bush leads the team with 426 rushing yards and is second in receiving yards at 305.

Bush
Bush
Bush presents a problem for Sunday's opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, because of his dual-threat abilities to catch passes out of the backfield and run off the edge.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had positive things to say about Bush.

"There’s no doubt about it. There’s no doubt. I remember when he was in that No. 25 jersey," Kiffin said of Bush's time at New Orleans. "He’s 21 now. Same guy. Whew! He’s fast. Catches screens and hits the hole fast. It does. He catches the ball out of the backfield and he never comes off the field. On third downs he’s still in there catching the ball, blocking. There’s no doubt: Their offense is good to start with, but he just gives an added dimension to it. You have to be careful loading the box and all those type of things."

The Cowboys will have linebackers Bruce Carter and maybe Sean Lee cover Bush out of the backfield for Sunday's game. Making open field tackles against a man who can beat you in space is vital to the Cowboys' success.

The Cowboys are also shorthanded with the loss of safety J.J. Wilcox, who is expected to miss the game with a sprained knee.

While the Cowboys are concerned with the deep-threat ability of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, taking on Bush could pose problems. The Cowboys have had problems with shorter running backs in the past, San Diego's Danny Woodhead scored two touchdowns against the Cowboys, but Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy was held in check.

It will be interesting to see how the team attacks Bush with all his speed.
Tony Romo and Matthew StaffordGetty ImagesBoth Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford have seen needed improvements in certain aspects of their games this season.

It is a matchup between two potential playoff teams and two of the best wide receivers in the game, Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.

But the Dallas-Detroit game on Sunday has other twists, too. For the Lions, Sunday is a chance to grab back some momentum from a strong start to the season. For the Cowboys, it could be a chance to widen their lead on their NFC East opponents.

Dallas NFL Nation reporter Todd Archer and Detroit NFL Nation reporter Michael Rothstein break down what you might see Sunday afternoon.

Rothstein: Let's start here -- last week in Detroit there was a lot of discussion of A.J. Green and Johnson as two of the best receivers in the league. Now it is Bryant and Johnson this week. What is it that Bryant does that should really concern Detroit's cornerbacks, who let Green go for 155 yards Sunday?

Archer: Bryant can go get the ball. He is virtually impossible to defend in the red zone (and sometimes he'll push off too), but cornerbacks just don't have a chance on him. He's a better route runner now than he was last year and the Cowboys are using him on more varied routes. When he came into the league he would make the spectacular play but couldn't make the boring play consistently. Now he's doing both. But his No. 1 attribute is his physical style. He will fight for the ball and fight for yardage. He's special in that regard.

The Cowboys have had Brandon Carr follow Demaryius Thomas, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson the past three games. I'm sure they'll do the same with Calvin Johnson. When teams have matched up with Johnson like that, how has or hasn't it worked?

Rothstein: There haven't been too many teams that have single-covered Johnson -- at least not for extended periods of the game. The closest would have been against Arizona in Week 2, but the Cardinals have Patrick Peterson and Johnson had six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against him. Really, the only thing that has slowed Johnson this season was a knee issue that kept him out of the loss to Green Bay and limited him against Cleveland a week later. Not surprisingly, Johnson still draws a ton of attention with a safety rolling to him over the top.

What that has done is opened up the offense underneath for Reggie Bush and, to an extent, Joique Bell. When both are healthy and playing well, the Lions have had a pretty strong offensive threat from deep threats to short bursts. How does Dallas plan on dealing with that, especially considering DeMarcus Ware's questionable status?

Archer: Running backs and tight ends have hurt the Cowboys in the passing game this year. The safeties have been only OK but are coming off a pretty good game at Philadelphia against LeSean McCoy, who's as shifty or more than Bush. The Cowboys had their best tackling game last season against the Eagles. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter have played better here lately and will be largely responsible for the backs, but safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox will be a presence too. Losing Ware would be a big blow to a defense that has to get pressure on Matthew Stafford. The Cowboys have been rolling in new guys pretty much every week across the defensive line, and added Marvin Austin this week to help at tackle.

Speaking about the defensive line allows me to talk about Rod Marinelli. He has been nothing but great here with those no-name guys, but what's the feeling of him up there considering that 0-16 season?

Rothstein: That was before my time -- I was still covering the Charlie Weis Notre Dame years when Marinelli was in Detroit -- but I can say I have not heard anything about that season in my short time here and most of the current team arrived in 2009 or later.

But the 0-16 season contributes to the typical angst the Lions fan base has over any success the team has -- as in waiting for the bottom to drop out. But most of this team is so new, there isn't much of that feeling. Plus, as injured receiver Nate Burleson said earlier this year, when you go to play in Detroit, you know there are going to be questions about losing streaks to be broken and demons to be exorcised.

Since we're chatting a little bit about defense, Tony Romo is being sacked on 6 percent of his attempts, so is Dallas' line doing a good job protecting him or are these more coverage sacks? What's going on with the protections?

Archer: The line has improved a lot from recent years, especially in pass protection. They revamped their interior line with Travis Frederick, their first-round pick at center, Ronald Leary at left guard and Brian Waters, who did not play last season, at right guard. Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free are performing better than they did a year ago. Romo has taken a number of coverage sacks this year, and he's also elusive for a guy who does not appear to be the most athletic. He has terrific vision and a quick release that can bail him out of trouble. As strange as it sounds, I think Romo also has seen the value of taking a sack and not forcing a throw.

Let's stick with the quarterback play. Stafford is a Dallas kid, so we know his background. He likes to throw it around, but like Romo, his interceptions are down. Is he just being more careful with the ball or has the attack changed a little?

Rothstein: Having Reggie Bush in the offense has allowed Stafford to throw the ball shorter more often and as an old coach I used to cover once said, "Short passes are happy passes." They are also more likely to be completed passes. Here's something to consider with Stafford as well. His numbers could be much better, but his receivers have dropped 6.9 percent of his passes. Hold on to even half those and he's completing around 65 percent of his passes this season. He also has gotten much better at throwing the ball away instead of forcing passes. That's been a big change. There is an accuracy component to it as well, but he isn't taking nearly as many downfield chances.

Speaking of semi-homecomings, you mentioned Carr earlier. Does this game mean more to him because he is coming home as he grew up and played his college ball in Michigan? And second thing on that, has Dallas changed a lot from last season or can a guy like Kevin Ogletree help this week?

Archer: I'm sure it does but Carr will attempt to downplay it. He still carries that Grand Valley State/fifth-round pick chip on his shoulder even if the Cowboys gave him a $50 million deal last year as a free agent. He has done a terrific job here the past three weeks as we talked about earlier. Jason Garrett even went out of his way to praise Carr's work on special teams, so you can see the Flint in him hasn't left. As for the Ogletree angle, he had a hard enough time with the offense that I don't think he would help with the defense. The Cowboys have a completely different scheme from Rob Ryan's 3-4 to Monte Kiffin's 4-3. Ogletree will know some personnel, but the corners are playing a little different than they did a year ago so I don't think it will matter much.

I haven't asked about the Lions defense yet. Just by looking at the numbers they seem to be pretty good situationally: third down, red zone. Is that the wrong read here?

Rothstein: The defense is kind of a little bit of everywhere. Great on third down over the first month of the season -- not as much over the past three weeks. Perhaps a corollary here is the defensive line not getting quite as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks the past three weeks as it did during the first month of the season. Red zone defense has been pretty good. Overall, it is a decent Lions defense. DeAndre Levy is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season at linebacker and the defensive line and safeties have been good. Cornerback has been a bit up-and-down, though.

My final question to you sticks with this theme. We touched on the Dallas offensive line earlier, but how do the Cowboys deal with Ndamukong Suh? He is a guy who can change games on his own.

Archer: This is part of the reason why the Cowboys wanted Frederick, Waters and Leary. They're stout players. The Cowboys have not had much power in the middle and it has hurt the running game as well as pass protection. Suh, obviously, offers a different challenge. Waters has the strength necessary but he does not move like he did a few years ago. The Cowboys will give him some help but not all the time. And I think Romo can help out the line as well by getting rid of the ball quickly. The Cowboys only take a handful of downfield shots a game, relying mostly on underneath stuff to work their way down the field.

The Lions are 4-3 like the Cowboys and this is a huge game for both when you start thinking about December and playoff chases. You touched on this earlier, but is the town ready to get behind the Lions, especially because the Tigers aren't in the World Series and it's still early in the Red Wings' season?

Rothstein: I think there is some of that, for sure, and I think there is the hope among the fan base that this year’s Lions team is for real. But as I mentioned earlier, there is going to be that sense of dread -- which is why a win for Detroit on Sunday would really go a long way to bolster that fan base confidence. And probably to maintain the confidence in the locker room as well.

.

Five Wonders: Run D to be tested more

October, 15, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys head to Philadelphia this week with first place in the NFC East on the line, but I really wonder how good the Cowboys really are.

What’s funny is how people say the division is awful and the Cowboys should run away with it. I wonder why. It’s not as though the Cowboys’ roster is filled with so much more talent than the rest of the division.

If the Cowboys don’t win the NFC East, the storyline is set for those who want to believe they underachieved again; not that they might be just as poor as the division's other three teams.

Anyway, let’s get to wondering in this week’s Five Wonders:

• I wonder if I got a little carried away with the defensive redemption angle from Sunday’s win against the Washington Redskins. When measured against the performances against the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos, it was better. A lot better. But the defense still allowed 433 yards, gave up 216 rushing yards, including 77 on nine carries from Robert Griffin III. Their work on Alfred Morris was OK until the 45-yard touchdown run. But with Eagles running back LeSean McCoy coming up Sunday and games against Reggie Bush, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte, as well as rematches with McCoy and the Morris-Griffin tandem, the run defense will have to improve. McCoy leads the NFL with 630 yards rushing and runs like he is part of a video game.

[+] EnlargeTerrance Williams
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsRookie wide receiver Terrance Williams has 18 receptions for 309 yards and two touchdowns through six games for the Dallas Cowboys.
• I wonder if those all wondering if the Cowboys should have picked Sharrif Floyd in the first round understand that it likely would have meant they would not have Terrance Williams on the roster. This isn’t to excuse the Cowboys for not looking to the defensive line in the draft, but two players like Travis Frederick and Williams is a lot better than one player like Floyd. That’s my gripe with the team on the first-round moves they made for Tyron Smith and Morris Claiborne in 2011 and ’12. Smith is playing much better this year and appears to have taken to the left tackle spot, but the Cowboys passed on a chance to pick up two picks from Jacksonville in a trade. They traded up to get Claiborne with the sixth pick in 2012, giving up their second rounder to do so. Frederick has played better than most thought he would and Williams has developed quickly. Since his fumble vs. San Diego he has turned it on and earned Tony Romo’s trust.

• It’s way too early to even think about the Pro Bowl, but while some of the normal names on the roster will get kicked around for the all-star game, like Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant, I wonder if Dwayne Harris works his way into the mix. The Cowboys have not sent a non-kicking/punting special teamer to the Pro Bowl since Jim Schwantz in 1996. Harris is proving to be a dynamic punt returner. It’s more than just his 86-yarder for a touchdown against the Redskins. He gets positive yards almost every time and his decision-making has improved. Although fielding a punt at his 5 might be a little dubious, but it speaks to his confidence level. In his last 16 games, he has 10 punt returns of at least 20 yards. He is averaging a ridiculous 23.6 yards per punt return and 34.7 yards per kick return. The sample size is small, but Harris is making a name for himself.

• I wonder if people forget there is a salary cap in the NFL. When the Cowboys cut Will Allen last week I was inundated with those asking if the team is setting up a trade for Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who is playing this year on the franchise tag. With roughly $2 million of cap space, the Cowboys are not in position to make a splash trade without a long-term commitment that they just can’t afford to make with other players inching toward free agency. They would have a hard time adding a substantial veteran free agent as well because of the cap. There are ways to move some money around, like re-working Doug Free’s deal, for instance, but they would be setting themselves up for a tighter cap in 2014 and possibly beyond. The best the Cowboys can hope for is internal improvement along the defensive line as they better understand what Rod Marinelli wants.

• I wonder how it is possible Dez Bryant has as many games averaging less than 10 yards per catch as he does averaging at least 13.5 yards per catch. Against the Redskins, Bryant caught five passes for 36 yards. In the opener against the Giants, he averaged 5.5 yards per catch. Against the St. Louis Rams he averaged 9.5 yards per catch. It’s proof that if teams want to take a receiver away, they can do it. It might also be proof the Cowboys are not always willing to take shots down the field, even to Bryant, who can outmuscle just about any defensive back in the game. The Cowboys have done a better job moving Bryant around this year, but they have to get the ball to him in space more.

Fred Davis, Kai Forbath inactive

September, 22, 2013
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LANDOVER, Md. -- Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis is among their seven inactives for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, along with place-kicker Kai Forbath.

Davis injured his ankle late in the week and was added to the injury list Saturday morning. Davis tested his ankle Sunday morning and could be seen walking with a slight limp at times. He will be replaced in the starting lineup by Logan Paulsen, but rookie Jordan Reed will see considerable action. Reed replaced Davis in many sets in last week's loss at Green Bay, playing 21 second-half snaps to Davis' five. Davis said he only made one or two missed assignments, but that number likely does not mesh with what the coaches would say. He also dropped a pass. Meanwhile, Reed is still learning, but makes tough catches -- he made Robert Griffin III look good last week by grabbing a pass that was far behind him in the end zone, a catch few tight ends could make.

Forbath was unable to kick Saturday, a good sign that he would be inactive Sunday. John Potter will handle the kicking chores. Nothing has changed since last week: Potter has a strong leg but is inconsistent on field goals even in practice.

The Redskins other inactives: quarterback Rex Grossman, defensive lineman Chris Baker, guard Josh LeRibeus, running back Evan Royster and safety Jose Gumbs. Baker is a surprise, but it's not as if he's played well in the first two games as a backup in the nickel package.

Detroit will be without running back Reggie Bush, which is good news for a defense that needs a break. He provides the Lions' offense with another threat to go with receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions did a good job getting Bush the ball in the open field. Joique Bell will replace Bush in the lineup.

Redskins game day: Ten thoughts

September, 22, 2013
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1. It does sound as if the Redskins will have Robert Griffin III run this week. The coaches keep saying they had some runs called in the first two games, but did not get to them. I’ve heard differently from others in the building. Regardless, there’s a better chance of it happening Sunday. From what I’ve heard, there’s a sense in Detroit that the Redskins are dangerous offensively because, at some point, they will get it going. Oh, the Lions absolutely expect Griffin to run more.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsWill Redskins QB Robert Griffin III be a factor running the football against the Lions?
2. The Redskins anticipate a lot of screens Sunday, regardless if Reggie Bush plays or not. The Lions love running screens and run a greater variety than most teams do. They’ll also throw some designed routes for Bush, who was used as a decoy on one screen to fellow back Joique Bell last week. In fact, no quarterback has more yards passing to a running back than Detroit’s Matthew Stafford with 253.

3. Also, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Stafford’s average pass has traveled only 5.1 yards downfield, the shortest of any quarterback. A year ago, his average pass traveled 8.5 yards downfield -- the league average was 8.4 yards. This doesn’t mean the Lions won’t throw downfield, not with Calvin Johnson on their team. But they do throw a lot of short passes, particularly slants. The Redskins had better tackle well. This is not an impossible offense to shut down, but it can be dangerous. Hustling to the ball is a must.

4. One byproduct of the Redskins’ early lopsided scores is the inability to use a lot of play-action passes, an area where they excelled last season. Through two games, Griffin has completed just 6-of-16 passes that travel at least 15 yards downfield -- that’s 37.5 percent, which pales to last year’s league-best 55.7 percent. But 73 percent of those passes last year were off play-action compared to just 25 percent in two games.

5. The Redskins have an ordinary passing game without play-action, but it’s lethal when they can use it because of the chaos they create. The zone-read play-action pass gets linebackers completely out of their lanes and creates excellent opportunities for yards after the catch. The Redskins also can generate those types of situations off stretch zone play-action. The difference in play fakes out of the stretch zone or zone read can be worth as much as half a second over basic play-action. More play-action would enable a quarterback still working on his timing and rhythm to have more early success.

6. The importance of Sunday’s game, based on history: Only three of the 115 teams that started 0-3 since 1990 have reached the postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information. A win? Suddenly it’s not so bad as 24 percent of 1-2 teams have gone on to reach the playoffs.

7. ESPN NFL Insider Louis Riddick is not high, at all, on rookie defensive backs David Amerson and Bacarri Rambo. One of his complaints about Amerson (both players actually) was that he didn’t compete enough (a complaint other NFL coaches had about him before the draft). And one of Riddick’s examples was the block Amerson could not shed on a James Starks run outside. It wasn’t Riddick’s only issue. But Redskins defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said competing was not the problem.

“No, he actually chose the wrong way to go,” Morris said. “You have to be smart enough to use your help and go outside. He started to shed to the inside of that block. You can’t shed inside unless you can make [the play]. He made a bad decision and it had nothing to do with his competitive edge. He’s great at that.”

8. Teams have hurt the Redskins by blitzing Griffin at a 42 percent rate this season (compared to 21 percent last season). The Lions will blitz, but it’s not a huge part of their defense. Against Arizona, when they did send an extra rusher more often than not it came off the edge. They play a lot of wide-9 technique -- and will use stunt and games up front. The Redskins’ interior linemen have struggled against big, physical defensive tackles. They have to stop quick penetration -- another reason play-action becomes a must.

9. Morris on playing two rookies in the secondary: “There’s always growing pains with those guys, you know that.” The coaches have them, too, when it comes to asking the rookies to perform certain coverages. Like on the 15-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson last week in which Rambo had to rotate over from a single-high look. He hesitated for a split second and could not get there in time. But as Morris said they put him in a tough position (they were trying to trap quarterback Aaron Rodgers into a different throw; they failed). Eventually, Rambo will learn to cheat more on the coverage. “If he makes that one, he would have Ed Reed tendencies,” Morris said. Rambo still has a long way to go.

10. Corner E.J. Biggers said he’s continued to learn every position in the secondary. Will he go back to playing some safety? He wouldn’t say. But given the struggles in the secondary, would it be surprising to see the Redskins do what they did at the end of last season and rotate based on situations?

Four keys for Detroit vs. Washington

September, 21, 2013
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The great Detroit quest to end losing streaks continues Sunday in Landover, Md., where the Lions have not won in almost a century.

You read that right. A century.

Detroit has actually never beaten the Washington Redskins in Washington -- the Lions' last victory coming back in 1935 ,when the Redskins were playing in Boston, two-way play was still en vogue and Detroit had Dutch Clark as its All-Pro quarterback.

Only one Lion, kicker David Akers, was even alive when Clark died in 1978. Current quarterback Matthew Stafford wouldn’t be born for a decade.

“That game is going to be determined by the players on the field, how well they execute, who makes the fewest mistakes in the game, who makes the most plays, who wins the most matchups,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “That’s going to determine who wins, not what happened 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago or even last year or even last week. There’s an urgency to this week and we have to be up to that.

“We have to play well against their players, not Billy Kilmer. Sonny Jurgensen isn’t playing. We don’t have John Riggins back there or anybody else. We’ve got to play [Robert] Griffin, got to play [Alfred] Morris, we’ve got to play Pierre Garcon, [Ryan] Kerrigan, [Brian] Orakpo. There’s enough good players on the field for us to worry about those guys.”

Here are four keys for the Lions to pull that off:

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Darryl WebbCalvin Johnson should find room to roam against a Redskins defense that's been porous.
1. Stretch the field. Detroit hasn’t taken too many downfield chances yet with Stafford, but Washington’s defense is the worst in the NFL so far this season. With Calvin Johnson available as a large, talented target for Stafford, this could be the week where the Lions take a more vertical approach, especially if Reggie Bush ends up not playing. Bush is officially listed as questionable in the injury report, but practiced on a limited basis Friday.

2. Keep an eye on Robert Griffin III, but don’t oversell it. Sure, Griffin is a dynamic quarterback who, when healthy, can be a player who can make one cut and turn it into a 20-to-30-yard gain. But, after offseason knee surgery, Griffin hasn’t played like that this year. He’s looked just a tiny bit slower and has not run the ball nearly as much. But Detroit would be wise to still keep an eye on his ability to run, but also play Griffin more as a passer than as a dual-threat quarterback.

3. Avoid crushing penalties. The Lions have been penalized 19 times this season for 189 yards and those penalties have extended drives, turned over turnovers and wiped out touchdowns. One could argue, too, that the penalties cost Detroit a victory last week at Arizona. The Lions have a talented group on offense with perhaps the most dominant defensive line in the NFL. But if they can’t keep themselves from picking up devastating penalties at crucial points in the game, they’ll continue to be in unenviable situations in the fourth quarter. Against a struggling team like Washington, giving extra hope and plays on offense is a sure way to sap a squad’s confidence.

4. Catch the ball. Again, something fairly simple -- but it was a big reason why Detroit is not 2-0. The Lions lead the league in dropped passes, and those drops have killed drives and momentum for the Lions. Most of the drops have been on short, dump-off passes -- the kind of passes that go back to the first key, extending the field. If Detroit can be sure-handed in its short passing game, it’ll open up the field for Johnson and the tight ends making moves down the middle. Obviously, Bush’s health is a key component here, but between Joique Bell and Theo Riddick, they could have some approximation of a short screen game even if Bush is unable to play Sunday.

Injury report: Barry Cofield ditches club

September, 19, 2013
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ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield won’t need to wear a padded club to cover his fractured right hand during games.

He practiced without a club protecting his hand Thursday and coach Mike Shanahan said “he believes” Cofield won’t need it Sunday versus the Detroit Lions.

Cofield hasn’t had the hoped-for impact in the first two games, though not all of it can be attributed to the club on his hand. He has quick hands and got past the center Sunday against the Green Bay Packers with a swim move. But it was hard for him to grab onto ballcarriers.

Safety Brandon Meriweather (concussion) was limited. Defensive end Stephen Bowen (knee) was a new addition to the injury report after being limited in practice Thursday.

Place kicker Kai Forbath (groin) won’t kick until Friday or Saturday.

Defensive end Kedric Golston (abdomen) was limited.

For Detroit, running back Reggie Bush (knee) did not practice for a second consecutive day. If he can’t play it changes up how much the Redskins need to defend. He’s more dangerous in the open field than backup Joique Bell.

Safety Don Carey (hamstring), receiver Patrick Edwards (ankle), tackle Jason Fox (groin) and linebacker Ashlee Palmer (ankle) did not practice. Three players were limited: safety Louis Delmas (knee), defensive tackle Nick Fairley (shoulder) and guard Rob Sims (knee).

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