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Cowboys camp report: Improvement on pass defense, health on offense key

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Once the Dallas Cowboys were loaded with playmakers. Now, they're not. In fact, there's a chance they open the season next week without their three best receivers, wideouts Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.

No, I don't think it happens, either -- Austin and Bryant look as if they'll be ready -- but, still, it points to a hole in the offensive fabric of a team that could have ... maybe should have ... won the NFC East a year ago, but failed when it lost four of its last five games.

These Cowboys are supposed to be better because these Cowboys seem to have shored up leaks in the league's 23rd-ranked pass defense. Nevertheless, there are still questions that must be addressed -- and let's start with the offense.

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Where is the wide receiver to replace Laurent Robinson? How complete will a revamped offensive line be? Can the club keep DeMarco Murray healthy? And what happens if it can't? Can it keep Dez Bryant out of trouble? And what happens if it can't?

Then, of course, there's the usual Tony Romo question, and it has to do with consistency and winning big games -- both areas where he comes up short. If Dallas is to squeeze defending Super Bowl champion New York and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East, Romo must improve on a 12-18 record in starts from Dec. 1 on.

Having a healthy Murray is a bonus. But having someone to take Robinson's place would be nice, too. I have no doubt the Cowboys will score ... and maybe score in bunches. But I do wonder what happens if Austin's hamstring issues are a lingering problem, or what happens if Bryant is handicapped by knee problems.

"You've heard me talk about this before," coach Jason Garrett said. "We have a next-man-up philosophy. Injuries create opportunities, so backup players need to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities if they do get them."

But that's my point: What backups? Felix Jones? He hasn't lived up to his promise and lacks the explosion that was once there. Kevin Ogletree? In three years, he hasn't done much of anything. Dallas has a new offensive line to protect its quarterback, and that's smart. The old one wasn't so good. But it better have some luck to keep its playmakers on the field.

Because if they're not, the Cowboys are doomed.

Team Objectives

Improve the pass defense. The Cowboys would have won the NFC East if they protected second-half leads vs. Detroit ... and Arizona ... and the Giants ... and New England ... Anyway, I think you get the idea. They blew games they should have won. Their pass defense stunk, and blame it on the secondary or blame it on the pass rush, I don't care. I just know that opponents took advantage of the Cowboys when they could, with quarterbacks throwing for 12.35 yards per completion -- the third most against an NFC defense -- and Dallas allowing the second most yards in franchise history (only 1983 was worse). The Cowboys acquired Brandon Carr and drafted Morris Claiborne to help on the back end, and the results this summer were encouraging. They shut down Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers and Sam Bradford, holding them to no touchdowns and three interceptions. Performances like that have Cowboys fans confident that the secondary will be the team's biggest area of improvement. But pass defense isn't all about defensive backs. It starts up front, and the Cowboys must find someone other than DeMarcus Ware to pressure the pocket -- which is another way of saying it's time for Anthony Spencer to wake up.

Find a third wide receiver. The Cowboys have two threats on the outside, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and right now both are hurt. So the question is: Who steps in behind them? A year ago it was Laurent Robinson, and all he did was lead the team in touchdowns. But he's gone, and there is a line of candidates waiting to take his place. Kevin Ogletree looks like the frontrunner, though I wouldn't rule out a move similar to what happened last year when Dallas found Robinson after San Diego cut him loose. Look for rookie Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris to push for the position, too, though they're running behind Ogletree at the moment. With Austin still struggling with hamstring issues, finding another receiver is critical, and it's conceivable that Dallas plugs several guys into the position.

Bring stability to the offensive line. If you want to keep running back DeMarco Murray and quarterback Tony Romo on the field -- and Dallas must -- you better figure out how to protect them, which means the Cowboys must solve a line that last year was little more than ordinary. That's not exactly news to Dallas. It shook up its front five, switching the tackles and adding two new guards. The only guy who didn't move was center Phil Costa, but he has been hurt this summer with a lingering back issue. He's expected to play in the preseason finale, which is good for everyone involved with the club. The offensive line must start developing continuity, and I don't care if it happens sooner or later. I just care that it happens. So do Murray and Romo.

Somebody to Watch

WR Dez Bryant: The guy has a world of talent. He also carries a world of baggage. Nobody knows what happens with him this season -- whether the NFL steps in with a suspension after Bryant's arrest earlier this year -- but what the Cowboys know is that he needs constant supervision to stay on the tracks. Essentially, they must protect him from himself. So they and Bryant agreed to a set of strict rules to govern his off-the-field behavior, including no alcohol, no strip clubs, counseling and around-the-clock security. It's meant to keep Bryant's attention on the football field, where he excels and where he can have a significant impact on the Cowboys' future. If Dallas can keep him focused and healthy, it could have one of the NFL's most dangerous playmakers. Yeah, I know, he's not the greatest route runner, but he's doing better on that score and seemed to gain a rapport this summer with quarterback Tony Romo. The Cowboys must have him to survive the NFC East.

Position Battles

Third wide receiver: A year ago it was Laurent Robinson, and the guy was so good that he led the team in TD catches with 11. But Robinson parlayed that season into a free-agent deal with Jacksonville, leaving the Cowboys with ... what? Well, that's the question. For the moment, Kevin Ogletree looks like the frontrunner at the position, but there's a feeling that he, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley may play the role together. Ogletree is the most experienced, but he hasn't done much in three years at Dallas. In fact, he hasn't produced a single touchdown. There is, of course, always the possibility that Dallas finds its No. 3 in the same place that it found Robinson -- on the waiver wire -- but until then better make Ogletree the favorite. Predicted winner: Ogletree.

Long snapper: Maybe this is one you don't care about, but it's the most fiercely contested under-the-radar battle going on in camp. Veteran L.P. Ladouceur has been doing the job for years and doing it well, but he's feeling the heat from Charley Hughlett. Ladouceur is reliable and almost never makes mistakes, but the Cowboys want him challenged for economic reasons -- and they gave Hughlett all the snaps in the first preseason game, while splitting them in the two others. Say what you want about the importance of the position, but when you're a club that finished one game out of first and was involved in six games decided by three points and three contests that went into overtime, I would want to make sure my special teams don't screw up. Predicted winner: Ladouceur. It's really too close to call, and while cutting Ladouceur loose might free some money to acquire another player, it's not worth risking special-teams snafus.

Inside linebacker: Dallas spent its second-round pick on Bruce Carter a year ago to groom him as a starter opposite Sean Lee, but he looked lost and struggled with injuries as a rookie. So the club went out and invested in former Carolina linebacker Dan Connor for the same position, a move that was supposed to launch a fierce competition at the position -- only, it really hasn't. Carter has made great strides and been consistently good in practices, while Connor looks more like a role player. The Cowboys have faith in both, but Carter has taken more snaps with the first team and looks to be the starter. Nevertheless, the Cowboys feel they have a reliable backup if Carter struggles at the position. Predicted winner: Carter, though both will see considerable time on the field.

Injury Roundup

  WR Miles Austin is still sidelined with a hamstring problem that kept him out of preseason games and goes back to last season when he missed six starts.

  WR Dez Bryant has patellar tendinitis, and while that's not good, he can play through it. He suffered the injury in workouts in San Diego last week and will not play in the preseason finale.

  TE Jason Witten has a slightly lacerated spleen suffered in the preseason opener at Oakland. He is iffy for the Sept. 5 regular-season opener vs. the Giants.

  DT tackle Jay Ratliff is sidelined with a high ankle sprain that could keep him out of the lineup an estimated 2-4 weeks. He was hurt last weekend against St. Louis, but coach Jason Garrett wouldn't rule him out of the opener, saying Ratliff has a "chance to possibly play" in the game.

  C Phil Costa has been out with back problems suffered earlier this month, but is expected to return to play Wednesday in the preseason finale.

  LB DeMarcus Ware is recovering from a strained hamstring but is expected to play in the season opener.

  OL Kevin Kowalski has a nagging ankle injury that will keep him on PUP through the first six regular-season games.

  CB Mike Jenkins, currently on the PUP list, hasn't played at all this summer because of a shoulder injury he intends to have re-examined within the next week.

The Last Word

Give Dallas this: The Cowboys identified their weakness from 2011 and wasted no time addressing it. I'm talking about a pass defense that was blown to smithereens (twice, no less) by the New York Giants. If you're trying to catch the Giants, you better plug the holes they exploit, and the Cowboys tried.

Adding Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne are bold steps in that direction, and so far, so good. In fact, the Cowboys this summer haven't allowed a touchdown to any of their three opposing first-team offenses, including an Oakland team that failed to score anything on them the entire evening.

Then there was last weekend's defeat of St. Louis, where Claiborne knocked down a Sam Bradford pass intended for Steve Smith on fourth-and-goal at the Dallas 5. OK, I know what you're thinking: So what? Well, so that's the sort of play that sabotaged the Cowboys down the stretch a year ago, and it might be the sort of play that portends change in this season's fortunes.

"I think," linebacker Sean Lee said of Claiborne, "it's just a matter of time before he becomes a really, really good player."

The Cowboys can't wait, and I mean it. After a disappointing 8-8 finish, Garrett is on the clock. Owner Jerry Jones hasn't said anything about Garrett's job security, but he doesn't have to. Garrett knows he must win and win now. He had the Cowboys in position to reach the playoffs a year ago and blew it. That can't happen again. Garrett must prove he's the right man for the job, and improving his defense might be just the ticket to get there.

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