As the Dallas Cowboys continue to chug along through OTAs, the team has a lot on its plate that still needs to be sorted out in 2014. How will they replace linebacker Sean Lee? Is Anthony Spencer going to be healthy? How will the offense respond to new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan?
The Cowboys have a number of issues they need to correct by the time the season begins, the majority of them on the defensive side of the ball. The Cowboys have a good offense but not a truly elite one that can continually make up for a defense that’s allowing 28 points per game.
With that said, let’s take a look at the five biggest issues facing the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.
1. Pass-Rushing Question Marks
If there’s one aspect of the team that’s going to be the most strongly correlated with their 2014 success (or failure), it’s probably the pass rush. If the Cowboys can find a way to put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing often, they should be in a position to at least fight for a playoff spot. If they can’t get pressure on a consistent basis—which most probably believe will be the case—they’re going to be in major trouble.
That’s true for every team, but the Cowboys front seven is really up in the air right now. Outside of defensive tackle Henry Melton, linebacker Bruce Carter and (probably) defensive end George Selvie, we don’t know for sure who will be starting along the line and at linebacker for Dallas.
My guess is that the front four is going to be better than most are expecting. Melton was a really big signing, rookie Demarcus Lawrence should be able to add around seven or so sacks on the outside and Tyrone Crawford is the Cowboys’ X-factor.
2. The Fragility of the Offense
Think about what would happen to the Bears offense if wide receiver Brandon Marshall were to get injured. It would hurt, of course, but they’d plug Alshon Jeffery in as the No. 1 wide receiver to try to soften the blow.
Now think about what would happen if Dez Bryant were to get injured. Who becomes the No. 1? Terrance Williams, presumably, and that’s a problem. Further, we’d have to see a player like Dwayne Harris (or a rookie) come in as a starter on the outside.
Simply put, the Cowboys have a really fragile offensive system right now because they’re so reliant on Bryant to make plays, especially with tight end Jason Witten’s demise. He's arguably as valuable to Dallas as any wide receiver is to their offense, outside of perhaps Calvin Johnson.
3. Underrated Problems at Cornerback
Cornerback isn’t normally mentioned as a position of great need, but it’s on the verge of becoming one. Orlando Scandrick was really good in 2013, allowing just 6.4 yards-per-attempt according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were both poor.
The main problem with the Cowboys’ cornerbacks is a lack of size. Carr is 6’0” and 206 pounds, and he’s the team’s biggest cornerback by a lot. Claiborne is 5’11” and 190 pounds, and Scandrick is 5’10” and 195 pounds. If I were an opposing offensive coordinator, I would use that size advantage all day in the red zone, allowing my big receivers to box out the undersized Cowboys cornerbacks. I have a feeling the Cowboys will have one of the league's worst red zone defenses this year, and that will be a major component of it.
The play of the Cowboys defensive backs will again be strongly linked to that of the defensive line. The biggest predictor of Carr’s success this year, for example, could be that of Lawrence and Selvie.
4. Inability to Cover Tight Ends/Running Backs
When the Cowboys lost Sean Lee for the year, they lost a decent coverage man and a great run defender. Even before the Lee injury, though, the Cowboys were probably going to face some problems in coverage from their linebackers. Now, they’re in a really bad spot.
Linebacker Bruce Carter struggled in coverage at times last year, but I actually think he’ll be okay in 2014. Last year, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) tracked him as allowing 6.67 yards per attempt in coverage, which is decent, but 47.8 percent of all the yards he allowed through the air were in the first four games.
Whoever else starts for Dallas, however, is likely going to get picked on by opposing offensive coordinators. Whether it’s Justin Durant or Kyle Wilber, there are some potential holes in the linebacker corps that might get exploited. That’s particularly true against the Philadelphia Eagles with LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles at running back, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek at tight end and the most innovative offensive mind in the NFL in Chip Kelly.
5. QB Tony Romo’s Health
Pretty much every team needs their starting quarterback to stay healthy to have a productive season, but not every team has a 34-year-old quarterback who has had a lot of back problems in the recent past.
For what it’s worth, Romo had this to say to David of Helman DallasCowboys.com:
I think earlier on, right after surgery, you kind of go through that mode of getting healthy—kind of having to not do too much right away. But now I’m to a point where you can push it and kind of go, and I feel like at this point I could play in a game if I had to. ...
Obviously you wouldn’t want to right yet, just to let it completely scar up and heal in all the areas that you want. But in the next couple weeks I think I’ll be 100 percent.
Injuries are difficult to predict, but Romo saying he’s 100 percent now isn’t the same as if he said it when he was 27 years old. If the quarterback who has missed 14 career games during his career gets injured or isn’t close to 100 percent, the Cowboys are in trouble.