NFC East: tavon austin

Double Coverage: Rams at Cowboys

September, 19, 2013
Romo-BradfordUSA TODAY SportsLike Tony Romo in Dallas, QB Sam Bradford has become the clear leader in St. Louis.
The Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams will meet for the second time in three seasons at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys won convincingly, 34-7, in 2011, but this Rams team is different. ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer bring you their Double Coverage preview.

Archer: It's always about the quarterback here with the Cowboys and Tony Romo, but I'm curious about Sam Bradford. Where is he in his development and is there any doubt he is their answer at the game's most important spot?

Wagoner: The Rams have made every effort to turn this into Bradford's team, and, through two weeks, it's absolutely become that. Bradford has had two strong statistical weeks to start the season, led a comeback win against Arizona in the opener and nearly did it again last week in Atlanta. He's clearly more comfortable in his second season with the same offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer and surrounded by better skill position players such as tight end Jared Cook and receiver Tavon Austin. Bradford is showing signs of having the breakthrough season many have long expected. For the Rams' part, there's no doubt he's the guy moving forward and the decision-makers have repeatedly and publicly said as much.

Speaking of quarterbacks and committing, the Cowboys made their move to lock up Romo already. How has he responded to that financial vote of confidence?

Archer: I think it goes beyond the financial commitment, although we’d all like to be guaranteed $55 million at some point in our lives. The bigger vote of confidence came from Jerry Jones wanting him in on the game planning with the coaches. Romo has more say now than he has ever had as the starting quarterback. It’s his offense in a lot of respects. The Cowboys are doing more no-huddle work than ever before, and that’s where Romo has complete control. Now there could be some drawbacks, too, because they’re not running the ball. The Cowboys talked about running the ball more and better in 2013 than they did in 2012, and they have 39 carries for 124 yards in two games. Romo has dropped back to pass nearly 100 times in two games. There is even more of a burden on him now, and he’s already had to do so many things here lately to win games.

One guy I can’t wait to see Sunday is Austin. Everybody had him pegged for greatness this summer, and he’s coming off his first two-touchdown game. How have the Rams tailored their offense for him?

Wagoner: Well, it's been a bit of a mixed bag for Austin so far. Yes, he had a couple of touchdowns last week, but he also had some issues with drops. The Rams have used him as a receiver, lined him up at running back and used him as the primary punt returner, and those will all be ways they'll continue to use him moving forward. Through two weeks, they haven't been able to get him out in space where he can operate at his best. That's why he has yet to hit any of the big plays many are expecting from him. On the flip side, he's been better in short areas moving the chains than expected. His first touchdown catch against Atlanta was particularly encouraging because he showed a knack for being able to make a tough grab in a congested area.

Not to keep piggybacking off your questions, but let's talk a little about Dallas' most exciting wideout, Dez Bryant. Clearly he's not too banged up given his performance last week, but what is his status? The Rams have really struggled against the pass the first two weeks and Bryant could have a monster game if he's up to full strength.

Archer: He should be fine, but this is something that has cropped up the past couple of seasons. He missed a handful of plays against the Chiefs because of back spasms, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as last year’s finale at Washington, where he could barely move. I think it’s a matter of keeping loose for him because they say it’s not a structural issue. He is just a nightmare matchup because he can overpower corners in man-to-man. The Chiefs' Brandon Flowers wasn’t in bad position on a couple of those plays, but Bryant just ripped the ball away from him. And the best pass Romo threw to Bryant all day was the one the receiver dropped on what would’ve been a big gain. Unfortunately for the Rams corners, I think he’ll be fine for this one.

The Cowboys haven’t been able to run the ball early in the season and the Rams look to be pretty good against the run (but maybe that’s because the pass defense has been shaky). How good is the front seven?

Wagoner: Yeah, it's hard to get a read on just how good the Rams' run defense is right now because they've played pretty anemic run teams in the first two weeks. I do think they'll be pretty good in that regard over the course of the season, but let's see how they do when they face the likes of San Francisco, Seattle and Houston. The front four is the strength of this team as a whole, and the linebackers are solid, too. The front four generates a pass rush on a consistent basis. Ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn have been as good as ever so far this season.

The Rams haven't given up a sack in the first two games and four in a row dating back to last season. How are the Cowboys adjusting to a new defensive scheme and what kind of challenges do they pose in regard to the pass rush? And how are they using DeMarcus Ware?

Archer: Last week against the Chiefs, the Cowboys used Ware on both sides in part so he could go against rookie tackle Eric Fisher. He had two sacks in the game and was a constant source of pressure on quarterback Alex Smith. I wonder if the Cowboys continue to do that this week with Rams tackle Rodger Saffold looking like he will miss the game with an injury. Ware has predominantly lined up against the left tackle for his career, but with George Selvie showing he can play both sides and Anthony Spencer rounding into shape after missing so much time with a knee injury, I think the smart thing is to move Ware around.

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What would be the ideal first-round scenario for each NFC East team in next week's NFL draft?

Dallas Cowboys

Because of the perceived lack of top-level skill-position talent in this year's draft, a lot of the mock drafts and projections have the top offensive linemen going off the board early. Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock Insider, for example, has six offensive linemen going in the top 12 picks, which means well before the Cowboys pick at 18 and probably too early for them to make a sensible trade-up to grab someone like Alabama guard Chance Warmack or North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper. This would be unfortunate and far from ideal for the Cowboys, but history offers hope. The last time six of the first 17 picks in the draft were offensive linemen was 1966, when there were only 15 teams in the league. Only three times since then -- 1977, 1985 and 2008 -- have as many as five offensive linemen been picked in the top 17. The Cowboys probably can't expect any of the top three tackles to fall to them, but their ideal first-round situation would be for Warmack, Cooper or even Alabama tackle D.J. Fluker to fall to 18 and allow them to shore up their most significant area of short-term and long-term need. If only one of those guys is still available by 14, the Cowboys should look into trading up to get him.

New York Giants

The Giants live for value in the first round, so their ideal scenario is that someone who's very high (say, top-10) on their draft board falls to them at No. 19. It happened two years ago, when they were picking in the exact same spot and were stunned to find cornerback Prince Amukamara still there. It could happen again, especially if the Cowboys get their aforementioned wish and those offensive linemen drop into the second half of the first round. Although the Giants haven't picked an offensive lineman in the first round since 1999, the value on someone like Warmack or Fluker, if either is still there at 19, might be too good to pass up. It's easy to look at linebacker as a glaring need and project someone like Alec Ogletree here, but the Giants haven't taken a first-round linebacker since 1984, and it's unlikely they have a first-round grade assigned to any linebacker in the draft. The Giants' ideal scenario is not to draft for need but to wait and hope some highly talented prospect at one of their premium positions (Tavon Austin? Kenny Vaccaro? Dee Milliner?) drops into their laps.

Philadelphia Eagles

Sitting at No. 4 in the first round, the Eagles probably would be excited to see one of the draft's top two tackles -- Eric Fisher or Luke Joeckel -- available to them at that spot. Drafting one of those players would allow the Eagles to move Todd Herremans inside from right tackle to right guard, play the rookie at right tackle and groom him to replace Jason Peters eventually at left tackle. It's an immediate-need pick and a future building-block pick all wrapped up in one package. The Eagles also probably would be happy to take a defensive lineman like Star Lotulelei or a pass-rusher like Dion Jordan here, but in my opinion the tackle scenario is more ideal given their situation. I also think part of their ideal situation would include a drop for West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, which would allow them to trade back into the first round to take him somewhere in the 20s, as Kiper suggested in his recent "Grade A" draft post Insider.

Washington Redskins

As a result of last year's trade for quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Redskins don't have a first-round draft pick and don't pick until 19th in the second round, so a trade-up into the first is unlikely. Their ideal first-round scenario is that the teams picking in the first round believe they can wait on safety and cornerback, and that some of the top players at those positions of significant need are still there by the time Washington starts picking at 51.