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Spagnola: Offensive Backbone Of These Cowboys Must Show Some Spine

FRISCO, Texas – Let’s simplify this matter of playing the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night at AT&T Stadium.

         First, we know those Eagles are an NFL-best 8-1.

         We know they are second in the league with a 31.4 scoring average.

         We know quarterback Carson Wentz is balling out, leading the Eagles’ fourth-ranked offense while putting up the NFL’s third best QB rating of 104.1 on the strength of a league-high 23 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.

         Ask Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett about the second-year quarterback, and he gushes with platitudes.

         We also know Cowboys Pro Bowl linebacker Sean Lee, their sole Pro Bowler on the defense, is not going to get back from a strained hamstring suffered late in the first quarter of last Sunday’s 27-7 loss to Atlanta in time for Sunday’s game.

         We know only too well that the Cowboys are 5-1 with him this season and 0-3 without, and now they must play one of the two best offenses the Cowboys will ever face this season.

         So in the process of commonsense deductive reasoning, you’d have to agree the Eagles are going to score some points against a Cowboys defense having given up 27 points in that loss to what had been a struggling Atlanta offense, and maybe a lot more.

          So we must conclude that for the Cowboys to win Sunday night and move to 6-4 with the Chargers calling four days later on Thanksgiving Day, to stay within shouting distance of the NFC East first-place Eagles, they are going to have to score. And maybe score a lot to honor the 1992 Super Bowl XXVII championship team from 25 years ago that is being recognized at halftime.

         You know, score like they did without Lee against the Rams, 30 points.

         Like they did without Lee against the Packers, 31 points.

         And unlike they did against the Falcons, a measly seven points – *seven *now.

         Look, you know the last time the Cowboys won a game scoring seven points? Try 2009, eight years ago, 7-6 over Washington, having lost all 11 games since when scoring no more than seven points. And why don’t you try guessing how many other games the Cowboys have won in their 58-season history when scoring no more than seven points.

         That would be only one more, occurring in 1970. That’s right, 47 years ago, 5-0 over Detroit in the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs to reach their first NFC Championship Game.

         Catching my drift?

         OK, I get it. No Ezekiel Elliott, the guy still the NFL’s third-leading rusher and second in scoring, yet having played one less game than those ahead of him. But just because he’s not available doesn’t mean the Cowboys have to lose six consecutive games during his suspension. Sure, Alfred Morris, Rod Smith and Darren McFadden aren’t Zeke. But they are good enough, and as I’ve said previously, they aren’t coming out of the tunnel in sets of metal crutches.

         Dak still is Dak. Dez is still Dez. Same for T-Will, Witt, Beas and Butler.

         So to me, this will come down to the offensive line playing with some semblance of itself. Why, there might be some at this point who think they know, but we really won’t know until early Sunday evening if Pro Bowl offensive tackle Tyron Smith will be able to line up on the left side. Gosh knows they need him, though he hasn’t practiced all week. Yet he is still listed officially as “questionable.” Maybe it should be “hopeful.”

         But other teams lose offensive linemen. Hey, see Philadelphia. They are playing without their left tackle, Jason Peters, and haven’t missed a beat. I mean, they list second-year player Halapoutivaati Vaitai – better known as “Big V,” from across town in Haltom City, Texas, and TCU – as the starter.

         If Tyron can play, great. If he can’t, the Cowboys just can’t allow one position to implode an offense that had scored at least 28 points in six consecutive games, and actually enough points in those games Lee initially missed to win if the defense had done a halfway decent job. Oh, and had the Cowboys not given points away by muffing a punt at their own 18-yard line against the Rams or having a dropped pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Packers in the five- and four-point losses.

         Now then, how do they compensate if indeed Tyron is unable to play?

         Well, from the looks of things, taking Tyron’s place will be either seventh-year veteran Byron Bell, who last started during the 2015 season for Tennessee, all 16 games at left tackle, or Chaz Green, who appeared to be gripped with frustration in that Atlanta game when he gave up four of Adrian Clayborn’s six sacks and the Falcons’ eight in his first start at tackle since Games 3 and 4 of last year. Come on, eight sacks. So others had a hand in this debacle up front, too.

          Sure, the Cowboys struggled to run the ball early, having just 43 yards rushing, 35 and a touchdown belonging to Prescott in the first half, yet they only trailed 10-7 at halftime. And guess what, the Falcons only had 41 yards rushing and a touchdown themselves.

         But despite getting sacked four times in that half and hit another five times, plus having to deal with five Cowboys penalties, Prescott still managed an 85.4 QB rating, completing five of 10 passes for 100 yards. And what did Atlanta’s Matt Ryan do that first half? He completed 11 of 17 for 94 yards, one interception and a 54.5 QB rating.

Dak can do this if the Cowboys can just keep him upright, bottom line.

“I take ownership, just like the players do. It’s not just the guy on the left side or any of that stuff,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of the Cowboys problems protecting Dak in Atlanta. “It’s a combination of how we’re calling it, how we’re executing at other positions. We look at it as a learning experience for all of us.

“This was not us. We’ll make some adjustments and move forward.”

The first adjustment apparently will be giving Bell a chance to start if Tyron can’t. Green, though, still would be the backup swing tackle. Fine, but the Cowboys must be prepared to help out just in case, and maybe on a more regular basis than they did for Green last Sunday. It was almost as if the coaching staff just knew Green was going to come around. He never did.

Plus, there are so many different ways to help out if problems arise over there, more so than just saying, well, let’s put a tight end on that side every time. Chipping with the running back and even a fullback comes to mind. Motioning a tight end or wide receiver over to that side. Shorter routes, quicker passes, too.

Because sometimes you just have to pass the ball to open up the running game, and maybe now especially without Zeke. The Eagles do come in with the No. 1 rushing defense (total yards), but you know what, since they’ve enjoyed so many huge leads they have faced only 166 rushing attempts, by far the fewest in the league.

Well, as Jason Garrett always says, “Let’s go play.”

It’s just, man, one week it’s Kansas City, with the top-ranked rusher and QB in the league at the time. Next week it’s defending NFC champion Atlanta. Next, now comes the blasted Eagles, best record in the NFL. It don’t come easy in this NFL, you know it don’t come easy.

But no matter how the Cowboys cobble together some offense or who they are forced to do it with, they just have to score against this rambunctious Eagles defense.

That’s right, score, even if it comes to taking chances. Because while it’s bad enough playing without Lee, and we’ve seen evidence of that, teams being able to put up big numbers against the Lee-less Cowboys defense, these Eagles are scoring beaucoup points, putting up at least 26 in eight of their nine games. The one they didn’t, they scored just 20 against Kansas City and lost, their only one of the season.

So, yep, pretty simple figuring this one out.

Points will matter.

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