NFC East Roundup: Gut Check Time For Cowboys’ Defense

Also: Could Kirk Cousins get the franchise tag once again in 2017?

Sean Lee. (USA TODAY Sports)

Sean Lee. (USA TODAY Sports)

Let’s take a spin around the NFC East and check in with what’s going on with the other three teams in the division.

We’ll begin with the two teams that played Thanksgiving Day, the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. The Cowboys improved to 10-1 on the season with a 31-26 win over the Redskins. Dak Prescott threw for 195 yards and a touchdown to Terrance Williams, while Ezekiel Elliott ran for 97 yards and two scores. Dez Bryant caught five balls for 72 yards to lead all Cowboy receivers.

Even at 10-1, a weak spot is starting to show in the Cowboys’ defense. The team didn’t record a sack in the game on 53 pass attempts, haven’t had a takeaway in four straight games, and allowed three fourth quarter touchdowns. It’s a concern the team needs to look at, writes Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News.

“We got to clean some things up,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “You play to win the game … but we know our standards on the defense, and lately we haven’t been playing to our standards.

“It’s gut-check time to look ourselves in the mirror, don’t look at our record, just look at our performance and how we’ve been playing. We want to get takeaways and get back to being physical and aggressive on defense.”

Dallas gave up a season-high seven passing plays of 20-plus yards, upping the total to 16 over the last three games. Rookie cornerback Anthony Brown was burned on a 67-yard scoring pass from [Kirk] Cousins to DeSean Jackson in the fourth quarter, cutting Dallas’ lead to 24-19 with 9:22 left.

“Just the wrong coverage,” Brown said. “I sat down. I had no business sitting down on the type of defense we were in. He got behind me. Once he gets moving, it’s over, because he’s fast too. The whole play is on me. That’s not even in my character. … I was so disgusted with myself.”

Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News notes that Prescott’s stiff-arm, which he uses with his right throwing arm, is one of the best things about the rookie quarterback.

Prescott had become a headache for opposing defensive coordinators because of his ability to run either when a play breaks down or by design.

Prescott’s 18-yard run Thursday was off of a read-option play. He faked a handoff to Elliott coming right and then bolted to the left side for the big gain. Prescott had a big smile across his face as he came back to the huddle.

“I’m a quarterback that can use my feet,” Prescott said. “But my first objective is to pass and get the ball in other guys’ hands. The defense, they get paid, too. They cover things. That’s when I’ve got to use my feet and help this offense.”

“Dak is an extremely great runner,” Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant said. “He first off is a quarterback. He only does it when he needs it. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about him. He don’t need it because he’s a real quarterback. The guy is amazing. He’s an amazing talent. He’s got a lot of gifts.”

The Cowboys play on a second straight Thursday this week. They’re in Minnesota to take on the Vikings.

Meanwhile, the Redskins’ late surge in the fourth quarter wasn’t enough to get them the win. Kirk Cousins threw for 449 yards and three touchdowns, while rookie running back Robert Kelley ran for only 37 yards on 14 carries. DeSean Jackson made four catches for 118 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown, and Jordan Reed caught two touchdowns on 95 yards receiving after suffering a Grade 3 shoulder separation before halftime.

Even though Cousins had an outstanding day, the team struggled on defense, as well as inside the red-zone, including two missed field goals by Dustin Hopkins. The Washington Post’s Mike Jones says the loss shouldn’t be blamed on Cousins.

Poor play-calling and miscommunication inside the 20-yard line against Dallas led to a 2-for-5 red-zone showing. The Redskins also threw an interception on a two-point conversion attempt. Place kicker Dustin Hopkins missed field goal attempts from 43 and 55 yards, costing his team six points. The Redskins’ defense allowed 163 rushing yards on 30 attempts and whiffed on three third-and-long opportunities. An inability to provide adequate resistance on two 75-yard scoring drives assisted the Cowboys, too, in their 10th straight victory.

“He threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. In a typical day, that’s enough, but today it wasn’t,” [Jay] Gruden said of Cousins. “We’ve got to do better in the red zone early in games. We had some opportunities down there. But overall, I thought Kirk had another really good day.”

Sunday’s performance was the continuation of Cousins’s upward trend. In the past four games, he has thrown for more than 400 yards twice, with multiple touchdown passes in all four. During the stretch, all told, Cousins has averaged 386 passing yards per game while completing 71 percent of his passes, throwing for 10 touchdowns and just one interception.

“He played awesome, again,” said tight end Jordan Reed, who caught 10 of Cousins’s passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns . “I think he’s showing he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and he’s been showing it the whole year.”

Playing on a franchise tag this season, Kirk Cousins could get the one-year tag yet again in 2017, pens JP Finlay of CSN Mid-Atlantic.

Why would Washington use the franchise tag again? There is much speculation involved in the conversation, but the thought is the ‘Skins might hesitate to offer the nine-figure deal it will likely take to sign Cousins long-term.

The rough parameters for a long-term deal for Cousins – who broke numerous franchise passing records last season and is on pace to shatter them again this year – would be a five-year deal worth at least $110 million, likely more around $120 million.

The real issue between Washington and Cousins’ camp will be guaranteed money, and that’s one sticking point that could lead to another franchise tag next season.

No quarterback has ever played in back-to-back seasons on a franchise deal, one reason for optimism that Bruce Allen and Scot McCloughan will get a deal done with their quarterback. While the use of an unprecedented third franchise tag in 2018 is doable within the confines of the NFLPA labor contract, it seems unlikely, as that contract would jump to $35 million fully guaranteed for one season.

The Redskins travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals this upcoming Sunday.

And finally to the Giants, who defeated the Cleveland Browns on the road yesterday afternoon, 27-13. Eli Manning threw for 194 yards and three touchdowns, while Rashad Jennings ran for 55 yards on 15 attempts. Odell Beckham Jr. made six catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns, while Dwayne Harris made the other TD grab. Jason Pierre-Paul returned a fumble 43 yards for a big score in the fourth quarter.

Even though the Giants earned their first six-game winning streak in eight years, the team was very disappointed in their performance. Paul Schwartz from the New York Post has more from inside the New York locker room.

“We have so much more, we can do so much better and it’s just a matter of us putting it all together and doing it,’’ center Weston Richburg said. “I don’t think there’s anybody in here who is pleased where we’re at performance-wise. The good thing is we’re 8-3 so there’s really important football coming up so we need to get to work and make sure we come out and play a complete game.’’

By winning their sixth straight game — their longest run since a seven-game winning streak in 2008 — the Giants remained in possession of second place in the NFC East, trailing the Cowboys (10-1) and ahead of the Redskins (6-4-1) and Eagles (5-5). This completed the soft section of the schedule as their last five games, starting with the Steelers this weekend in Pittsburgh, are all against opponents with postseason aspirations.

“I feel like we haven’t put it together yet, we haven’t played a four-quarter, all three phases of the game playing collectively together,’’ linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “Everybody knows we played a winless team. Let’s not take anything away from them, they got good players. And they played really hard and gave us a good fight. We got some really tough games heading down the stretch, this week, away at Pittsburgh, not to take anything away from this win or this team but everything’s in front of us.’’

The offense came in averaging only 20.4 points a game and managed to squeeze out only three touchdowns — the Giants’ fourth touchdown was a Jason Pierre-Paul fumble return — against the Browns, who at 0-12 are in sight of joining the Lions of 2008 as the only team to ever complete an NFL season with a record of 0-16. Once again, there was no semblance of a consistent running game and Manning never truly got into a throwing rhythm against a defense that specializes in making opposing quarterbacks comfortable.

Jason Pierre-Paul was a huge factor on defense in the Giants’ win yesterday, even though he didn’t practice all week until Saturday, pens Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News.

“He’s balling,” linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. “He’s playing lights-out, JPP football. I’m so happy for him. He’s come through so much. He’s come from so far away to where he’s at now.”

Pierre-Paul, who played eight games with a club over his injured right hand last season, improbably seems to be matching the highest levels of his play pre-hand injury now in 2016.

“I’m not proving anything,” Pierre-Paul said. “I told ya’ll last year when I came in, I already won (by getting back on the field). It was just for me, the mental part and learning how to use my hand and put my hand down, knowing when to shoot it. Other than that, I don’t have anything to prove.”

“I’m a great football player,” he added. “I’m just blessed.”

The Giants hope to extend their winning streak to seven games on Sunday as they travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers.