WELCOME BACK: Linebacker attack. The Cowboys rarely blitz; instead, their front four executes a variety of slants, stunts and twists. Most 4--3 teams save these tactics for third-and-long, but Dallas uses them on running downs too, attacking a gap and forcing the running back to redirect. To make this scheme work you need linebackers who can finish plays, which is why the Cowboys have invested in that position. This year All-Pro SEAN LEE and a healthy JAYLON SMITH will be joined by the team's No. 1 pick in '18, LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH of Boise State.
Here's how critical Lee is to Dallas: In the 40 games that the inside 'backer has played over the last three years, the Cowboys have allowed an average of 20.6 points and 327.9 yards. In the nine games he has missed because of various injuries, they have given up 27.5 points and 380.6 yards.
The Cowboys are deficient at wide receiver. Entering training camp, they have featured six to eight contributors who, while capable, would be third or fourth options on most teams. This means coach JASON GARRETT and coordinator SCOTT LINEHAN must change their offense and get rid of the spread formations that were built to emphasize departed veterans Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. With receivers who cannot win on their own in space, Dallas must use the running game to set up the pass.
The good news is, running is what the Cowboys are great at. They have the NFL's best offensive line and an explosive, deceptive runner in EZEKIEL ELLIOTT. Factor in quarterback DAK PRESCOTT'S mobility, and it's an almost unbeatable combination. Prescott's rollouts, both real and fake, can tame a defense's backside pursuit.
Prescott has what few mobile QBs possess: the poise and toughness to stay in the pocket and deliver with defenders closing in. That's crucial for long-term development. But Prescott is not an aggressive anticipation passer like most of the league's top pocket QBs. His skills, though, are exceptional for play-action, bootlegs and rollouts—tactics that pair well with a strong running game.
2017 RECORD 9W 7L
SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 8W 8L
5th TITANS [Monday]
22nd REDSKINS [Thursday]
29th SAINTS [Thursday]
DEMARCUS LAWRENCE is one of football's best all-around defenders. If MALIEK COLLINS recovers from his offseason foot injury and DAVID IRVING comes back strong from a four-game substance-abuse suspension, Dallas will have quite a D-line trio.