Opposition Research: Machota On Cowboys

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Photo courtesy of USA Today

In this installment of Opposition Research, we spoke with Dallas Morning News Cowboys beat writer Jon Machota to get a better feel for the state of the ‘Boys heading into Sunday’s matchup at the Linc.

What are the Cowboys’ strengths and weaknesses?

“Their strengths are Tony Romo, Jason Witten, a talented offensive line, a much improved defensive line, good linebackers and a good kicker. Romo is the most important piece. He won’t have Dez Bryant for a while, but he has enough weapons to win games. Witten, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar all do different things in the passing game and Romo has been very good at getting them the ball in the right place at the right time. Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden aren’t DeMarco Murray, but behind this offensive line they don’t have to be. They’re good enough to take advantage of defenses if they don’t respect Dallas’ run game. Defensively, Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jeremy Mincey and Jack Crawford will generate most of the pass rush Sunday. Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens give Dallas a good linebacking group, especially in nickel defense, which they run often.

The biggest weakness right now is not having Dez Bryant, Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory and Rolando McClain. The Cowboys running game can be solid, but it takes a major hit when the safety doesn’t have to worry about doubling Bryant. Their run defense wasn’t great against New York, especially late in the game when the Giants were trying to run out the clock, so that’s an area of concern as well.”

We know about Dez, but what other players are injured that could impact the game?

“Starting left guard Ron Leary is listed as doubtful for Sunday. He’s been Dallas’ starter there the last two seasons. If he can’t go, they’ll start either veteran Mackenzy Bernadeau or rookie La’el Collins. Gregory won’t be playing Sunday because of a high ankle sprain. That’s a major loss because he’s been the Cowboys’ best pass rusher throughout preseason and Week 1. He had three QB pressures against Eli Manning.”

How will the Cowboys’ offense change without Dez, and who will take on his role?

“It will be a committee approach. Williams becomes the No. 1 guy on the outside. Devin Street steps into the other outside spot and Beasley will play in the slot. All three will get chances to make plays. Romo also likes throwing to his running backs and all three (Dunbar, Randle and McFadden) have pretty good hands. Witten will likely be Romo’s favorite target. That’s where Romo looked often on the final two drives against the Giants, including both TD passes. Also keep an eye on Gavin Escobar. He was a second-round pick in 2013 and could be the guy who gets some of the Dez’s redzone targets. Escobar caught Romo’s first TD pass last week.”

What matchup do you think will decide the game?

“The Eagles’ running game vs. the Cowboys’ run defense. If Murray ends up with nine yards on eight carries, the Cowboys will be in great shape. With that said, everything changes if either team has problems taking care of the ball. The Cowboys outplayed New York most of the way last week but turned the ball over three times and didn’t force one turnover. It doesn’t matter what either team does, if Dallas turns it over three times and doesn’t force a turnover, the Eagles will win easy.”

Who do you think will win and why?

“I think the Eagles win because I have some questions about this Cowboys run defense. I think they’ll get better as the season goes along, but right now I see Murray, Mathews and Sproles being able to find space and control the clock a bit. Also, I think it’ll take the Cowboys some time to adjust to life without Bryant. I think it will be a close game throughout, but I don’t know if the Cowboys will be able to stop the Eagles late if they’re trying to run out the clock.”