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Scout's Notebook: Blocking Breakdowns, Anthony Hitchens' Great Effort; More

*FRISCO, Texas – *It was a rough outing for the Cowboys at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here are my first impressions from Sunday’s lost to Atlanta.

• Chaz Green will shoulder much of the blame for this loss. His inability to handle Adrian Clayborn was not expected. In preparation for this game, Green took all the snaps at practice and from a mental standpoint was ready to go, but physically he wasn’t. If there was a defensive lineman that I was worried about in this matchup -- it sure wasn’t Clayborn or Brooks Reed against Green, but La’el Collins working against Vic Beasley. As poor as Green was, without studying the tape I have a feeling that Collins was just as good, which once again is a positive sign. If Tyron Smith is unable to go this week against the Eagles, I would expect that we would hear about both Green and Byron Bell splitting snaps during practice, and by Saturday have a starter at left tackle.

• I was excited to see the start that Anthony Brown got off to with the contested ball that ended up as an Xavier Woods interception. To be honest, Brown has had his share of struggles and for him to get that early play on the ball was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, that would be his best play all day. Brown continues to have problems with his technique and has become a penalty machine. Receivers have been able to take advantage of him in routes and quarterbacks have made him a primary target when they need a play, which has happened far too often this season. I would not be surprised to see Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie getting more snaps in practice if the situation for Brown doesn’t improve.

• Things had been going well for Jaylon Smith since Sean Lee returned to the lineup. The coaches asked him to play less snaps and that allowed him to become more comfortable with his role in the defense. With Lee once again out of the lineup, the coaching staff is going to have to come up with a plan to not have Smith play so many snaps. I am not sure the answer is Justin Durant, but instead I’d see what you have in Justin March-Lillard. He is a veteran player that, if you’re able to work him along with Anthony Hitchens and Smith, it just might save the Cowboys from having to expose Smith to so many plays like he had to play earlier in the season and against the Falcons.

• I wasn’t buying into the idea that everything was going to be okay without Ezekiel Elliott in the lineup. This is no disrespect to the other running backs on the roster, but they were going to miss all of those special qualities he brings – the tough running, the pass catching, but more importantly the pass protection. I am convinced that when Elliott plays, opponents have a difficult time preparing for him because he brings the offense balance. Opponents can’t just pin their ears back and rush because they have to respect the ball in his hands. The Cowboys have won games with Chaz Green starting at tackle, but let’s not forget that Elliott was right there with him. No balance with this offense and you see exactly what happens.

• Great effort by Anthony Hitchens to try and hold things together for the defense. Have to respect the way that he was flying around to the ball and bringing ball carriers down. It wasn’t easy for him to have to prepare all week at middle linebacker and then have to shift over to the weak side in order to fill in for Sean Lee, -- but he handled the assignment well. I will be interested to see, if Lee once again can’t go, how they play this with Hitchens, Smith and the other backup linebackers. Hitchens is the one guy who doesn’t need to be coming off the field anytime soon. 

• Give the Falcons’ secondary credit in the way that they played against these Cowboys receivers. If what Jason Garrett said in the postgame was true, and the ball was meant to get out of Dak Prescott’s hand quicker, then the coverage was outstanding. Just watching the game, I didn’t get the feeling that there were many open looks for Prescott, unlike last week against the Chiefs when no matter where he wanted to go with the ball, there was someone open on the other end. Film might tell a different story, but I have my doubts. 

• After playing well the previous weeks, I didn’t feel like this was one of Orlando Scandrick’s better games. It was surprising to see him miss tackles on key downs or just allow receivers free access on routes. That generally isn’t the way that he has been playing. He had been doing a good job of making those plays to get the defense off the field, but against the Falcons, for some reason it was a completely different story.

• I thought I saw a little jump in the return game from Ryan Switzer. I had been waiting for him to get some of those opportunities where he could show what he could do. I like when he is able to take the ball and go straight up the field. There is a burst to his game, and before the year’s out, I would not be surprised if he were to take one the distance. There is some skill there. All he needs is a small crease.

• I saw some flashes from Lewis Neal in this game when he was put in the lineup. He was able to penetrate a couple of different times and was credited with a quarterback hurry. I don’t think they want to take David Irving off the field much, but Neal might be someone to keep an eye on these next couple of weeks. He’s not the prototypical size for a defense tackle, but he if can continue to be disruptive inside, these coaches will find a way to put him on the field.

• It was the perfect call for the situation and a well-executed fake by punter Chris Jones, but Brice Butler had no business pushing off there. He had the element of surprise on his side. If he had just driven off the ball like he is covering, he’s going to get his man out of position to make the reception and keep the drive alive.

• It seems like a distant memory of how well Mike Nugent handled the kicking situation in driving rain during the Redskins game. Against the Falcons, there was no excuse for him to miss that 38-yard field goal. There was nothing difficult about it. The snap and hold were perfect, but he just pushed it. What made matters worse was it was the only opportunity that the offense had in the third quarter to make it a one-score game. If Nugent can get that kick home, it could have given his teammates a little boost, but instead it just opened the floodgates for the Falcons.         

• I just didn’t feel good about this game coming into it. It wasn’t the loss of Tyron Smith that bothered me, but more how the Falcons had played. They clearly weren’t the team that we saw make a Super Bowl run last season on both sides of the ball. They had struggled to score points and the defense wasn’t stopping opponents from running the ball. I just had a gut feeling that somehow they would play better as a team, and that with all the things the Cowboys were dealing with, no matter how great things were last week against the Chiefs, this was going to be a difficult game to win. As bleak as that loss was, I like their chances to bounce back this week against the Eagles. I’m going to watch this Falcons game and have a better idea for you what happened on Monday.

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