Identifying the Dallas Cowboys' 5 Biggest Flaws Ahead of 2014 Season
A record of 8-8 just won't cut it anymore for the Dallas Cowboys. It is time for them to get over the hump and into the playoffs.
However, like any team, the Cowboys have flaws they will have to cover up. Teams that make the playoffs or even the Super Bowl are not without defects; they just do a better job masking them than other teams.
If a team has a poor right tackle, then it will put a tight end next to him and have a running back help the tackle do his job, thus hiding his inefficiencies. If a cornerback doesn't have elite speed, then a team could put a safety over the top of him to hide that fact.
Now let's take a look at the flaws the Cowboys will have to cover up if they hope to get into the playoffs in 2014.
The criteria I used for this ranking was how likely the flaw is to deter the Cowboys from making the playoffs and how easy it would be to fix or cover it up.
5. Lack of Commitment to the Running Game
One of the major flaws the Cowboys had in 2013 was their lack of commitment to running the ball even though they were very successful when they did.
The Cowboys tied for seventh in yards per carry but were 31st in attempts per game, according to NFL.com, which is a problem.
When a team doesn't commit to the running game, it causes a great deal of problems. For the Cowboys, it likely led to their terrible third-down efficiency, as they tied for 25th in third-down conversion percentage, per NFL.com. When you don't run the ball on first and second down, it leads to a large quantity of 3rd-and-longs, which are exponentially harder to convert.
Whether this lack of dedication to running the ball is because of Jason Garrett's play-calling or Tony Romo checking out of plays is up for debate. The fact of the matter is that the Cowboys need to stay faithful to the running game throughout the upcoming season.
The more a team runs the ball, the more time it takes off the clock. Thus, if the Cowboys are effective running the ball, then their woeful defense won't be on the field as much. That will in turn make the defense better just because the opposing offense won't have as many opportunities to score.
However, since it is such an easy fix (just call more run plays), it is not higher on the list.
4. Backup Quarterback
An obvious flaw in the Cowboys has to do with Romo getting injured and being out for any significant amount of time. Romo is so crucial to everything the Cowboys do on offense.
At the moment, the backup quarterback slot is held by former Cleveland Brown Brandon Weeden, which is subject to change if Kyle Orton decides he wants actually play this upcoming year. Weeden has not shown that he is able to lead an NFL team to any modicum of success thus far in his career. How much of that is due to his own inefficiencies or being a part of a pedestrian team such as the Browns? Who knows?
I think most people would agree that if Romo were to get hurt, then the Cowboys' playoff chances would be slim to none. Could Weeden hold down the fort for a game or two? Sure, but any significant time would severely hurt the Cowboys.
For a team to be able to win without good or even great quarterback play, it is necessary that the defense plays at a high level. That is something you cannot expect the Cowboys to have at the moment.
While the Cowboys are not likely to make the playoffs if Romo is injured, the fact that he has to get injured for this flaw to be relevant is the reason it is not higher on this list.
All indications are that Romo will be 100 percent by training camp. Also, with the Cowboys strengthening their offensive line further with Zack Martin, it looks as though Romo will spend even less time on his back, which are all great indicators of Romo having a healthy 2014 season.
3. Strong Safety
One of the many flaws of the Cowboys defense is its lack of a proven player at strong safety.
A strong safety in Rod Marinelli's scheme is different than what a strong safety is normally identified as. The strong safety is actually the safety who has more coverage responsibilities, while the free safety is the one who is supposed to be the more physical run-stopping player.
Last year, the Cowboys played Jeff Heath and J.J. Wilcox at strong safety for the large majority of the defensive snaps. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Heath and Wilcox combined for a grade of minus-7.5 for the 2013 season.
This is troubling because the strong safety is relied on to play a large amount of plays as the last line of defense. The strong safety often has to defend against long pass plays, and if he messes up, it is likely to be a huge play for the opposing offense.
With the belief that the Cowboys will play more single-high safety coverage this season, it makes it even more important to get adequate play from the strong safety.
The biggest question about the strong safety position right now is who will be the starter come Week 1? Wilcox is the front-runner right now. However, Jakar Hamilton recently had an outstanding practice this offseason, per The Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota and DallasCowboys.com's Rowan Kavner, while Matt Johnson is always the wild card if he can stay healthy.
For the Cowboys to have a serious shot at the playoffs, their defense needs to improve its strong safety play dramatically.
The reason strong safety isn't higher on this list is because there are players on the roster who have the potential to play adequately enough. Other positions don't have that luxury at the moment.
2. "Mike" Linebacker
Going into this offseason, "Mike" linebacker was one of the strengths on the team. Sean Lee was one of the best MLBs in the NFL and one of the only bright spots on the Cowboys defense. However, Lee tore his ACL, and that totally changed everything.
Now the Cowboys have an unproven rookie in Anthony Hitchens and multiple players who don't have significant experience at MLB in Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman.
The MLB position requires a lot of physical prowess but also intellection capabilities. As the MLB, a player is basically the quarterback of the defense. He must call the plays and make any pre-snap adjustments or calls. So obviously, players who haven't been full-time MLBs are going to have a steeper learning curve than someone who has always played MLB.
This has to be troubling for the Cowboys, especially because they weren't expected to be a very good defense even with Lee. Without Lee, the Cowboys face an even higher mountain to climb.
It will be up to Durant, Hitchens or Holloman to prove that he has the mental and physical capabilities to play MLB at a high level.
If none of them do, the Cowboys defense will be terrible once again and likely the reason the Cowboys don't make the playoffs. However, it is possible to minimize the effect of subpar MLB play with excellent play from the "Will" linebacker and defensive line.
If the WLB and defensive line are effective, then it takes a great deal of pressure off the MLB.
1. Pass Rush
The biggest flaw on the 2014 Dallas Cowboys is their lack of a proven pass rush. In 2013, the Cowboys were ranked 25th in sacks, per NFL.com. This puts an extra strain on the linebackers and secondary in coverage. If the quarterback has more time to throw, then he has a high probability of completing a pass. That is a big reason why the Cowboys ranked 30th against the pass, per NFL.com.
An effective pass rush is the key to any great defense. Quarterbacks often get rattled by constant pressure, which makes the secondary's and linebackers' jobs easier in coverage.
Now, this season the Cowboys lost two of their most proven pass-rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, who accounted for 17 of their 34 sacks in 2013. Therefore, it would appear that the pass rush is a huge flaw for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys have tried to replace Hatcher and Ware by signing Henry Melton and drafting DeMarcus Lawrence. It is not likely that Lawrence and Melton play up to the level of Hatcher and Ware, at least this year.
So how are the Cowboys going to get any consistent pass rush?
Cowboys assistant director of player personnel Will McClay has the answer. McClay told 105.3 The Fan (via Blogging The Boys):
And for the scheme to work that we're using now – it's very evident when you go back to the Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers of old, Seattle Seahawks now – you've got to have depth. It's all in how you put the pieces together to build that depth of the seven-, eight-man line that you'll need in a rotation during the season if you're going to play fast and do the things that we do.
So the Cowboys will be relying on their defensive line as a whole to get constant pressure and not just a couple of players as in years past.
However, the question remains whether the Cowboys have the players on the roster right now who can pressure the quarterback on a consistent basis.
If not, the Cowboys defense will have another awful year.