Opposite Sideline: Cowboys full of question marks
The lowdown on the Green Bay Packers' next opponent from a beat writer who covers the team.
The Green Bay Packers head to Dallas on Sunday to take on a Cowboys team that is smarting from a tough loss to the upstart Los Angeles Rams last week. With memories of last year’s divisional playoff loss still fresh in their minds, Cowboys fans are already labeling this game as a “must win” for Dallas.
To get the scoop on where this Cowboys team stands, we spoke with beat writer Jon Mochota of the Dallas Morning News. You can see our conversation in the video above and read his answers to more of our questions in the text below.
1. With the uncertainty surrounding the start of Ezekiel Elliot's suspension, will the Cowboys need to almost have two game plans? Or do things not change that much regardless of who is at running back for Dallas?
The front office, coaching staff and players have maintained since training camp that they will not change the game plan with or without Ezekiel Elliott. If that’s true, Darren McFadden, who has been inactive through the first four weeks, would have to take over as the lead back. Alfred Morris has been active all four games but he’s had very limited opportunities. He doesn’t offer as much as Elliott or McFadden in the passing game. When Morris is in there you know there’s a good chance it’s a running play.
Morris did have a 70-yard run last week against the Rams, which is longer than any run Elliott has had since he was drafted. The running game would still have a chance to be among the league’s best without Elliott, but nowhere near as explosive. And without the possibility of those explosive plays, there’d be even more pressure on Dak Prescott to win through the air. Not exactly the best recipe for the way this team has been constructed.
2. The Cowboys' offensive line has been the strength of the offense the last few years but, at least through the first four games, it seems to be played below its usually lofty standards. Is that a fair characterization and if so, what has led to that slippage of play?
That is very fair. The group hasn’t been close to as effective as last year’s starting five. The loss of Doug Free to retirement and Ron Leary to free agency has obviously hurt. Free was the veteran leader of that position group. Leary was a quality experienced starter. Their replacements, La’el Collins at right tackle and Chaz Green at left guard, have the talent. Collins would’ve been drafted in the first round and Green was picked in the third. But the cohesiveness with two new pieces just hasn’t been there yet.
It also doesn’t help that All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith’s name popped up on the injury report this week because of his back. He has played through back problems throughout his career, so it's clearly not something new. But not what you want to see, especially this early in the season. This team goes as the offensive line goes. If they figure it out and stay healthy, the Cowboys will be back in the playoffs. If not, they could be a .500 team.
3. The Rams' comeback win was fueled by their ability to run the ball against a Cowboys defense that was missing linebacker Sean Lee. How much of a difference does he make for Dallas and will he be back on the field Sunday afternoon against the Packers?
It makes a huge difference. He’s the quarterback on that side of the ball. Not only is he their top defender, he makes all the calls and adjustments on the field. Miscommunication issues played a significant role against the Rams. Lee’s absence also puts Jaylon Smith on the field more. And while Smith has shocked most with his ability to return after that severe knee injury and not be on a snap count, he’s clearly not all the way back to the player he was at Notre Dame. He still has limitations in the passing game and a player like Aaron Rodgers will have plenty of opportunities to test Smith in the middle of the field if Lee isn’t available.
In regards to the chances of Lee playing, I’d say 50 percent. He didn’t practice Wednesday and with how cautious they usually are with hamstring injuries, I could see the Cowboys keeping him out another week. It appears that Anthony Hitchens is ready to return from the knee injury he suffered in their final preseason game, so that could also factor into the decision to sit Lee another week.