JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2018 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars’ opponent.
Up this week:
ESPN NFL Nation Cowboys reporter Todd Archer on the Cowboys’ matchup with the Jaguars Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Question: The Cowboys are 2-3 after an overtime loss to the Houston Texans Sunday and still very much in a tight NFC East chase. How do the Cowboys feel about themselves after five games?
Answer: They can’t feel good about themselves because they just can’t do anything offensively. Everything’s a struggle; they can’t throw the ball consistently. As a result, teams stack up and load up on [running back Ezekiel] Elliott. They feel good about where they are defensively and the talent over there, but that leaves them in close games that they end up losing because the offense just can’t score. It’s such a different dynamic from [quarterback Tony [Romo], [tight end Jason] Witten and [wide receiver] Dez [Bryant] and Elliott in 2016 … it’s such a different way that they’re trying to win games now. They could put up 30 points a week; now, they can’t get 30 points in three weeks.
Q: Elliott obviously is as good as there is. Are the offensive struggles a matter of quarterback Dak Prescott struggling … the receivers … anything in particular?
A: I hate to give the generic “it’s everything,” but it really is everything. Dak has not played well enough consistently. The receivers don’t make contested catches when they need to make them. Then the offensive line – for all the talk of being so great – has not protected as well, so that’s an issue. They miss [Pro Bowl center] Travis Frederick. Although Joe Looney has played well enough, you’re talking about a Pro Bowl center (Frederick); if you add him there next to a rookie guard (Connor Williams), next to a Pro Bowl left tackle (Tyron Smith), next to a right guard (Zack Martin) and a solid right tackle (La’el Collins) you’re feeling a lot better about things. The line has not been consistent in its run-blocking, and it has been one guy here and there – and in the pass protection, it has been one guy here or there every other play, too. It has been breakdowns everywhere on this offense. As a result, you’re 2-3 and you’re on the never-ending 8-8 train.
Q: The offensive-line struggles are surprising, because people consider this one of the NFL’s best lines.
A: Frederick isn’t playing. He has Guillen-Barre syndrome (an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system), and he’s not going to play this year. They miss him. Tyron Smith has been fine, but he hasn’t been dominating. The rookie left guard (Williams) has had good moments, but he has had rookie moments, too. Looney has been good, but he’s not a Top 5 guy like Frederick. Martin has been fine, but I think at times he’s trying to make up for other people’s mistakes and trying to do too much. Collins has had moments where he has been beat as well, but last week against [Houston Texans defensive end J.J.] Watt he did pretty good at times. That’s the confounding thing. At times they look really good and you think, “OK, that’s what they were in 2016.” Then there are times where it’s just like, “How did they not pick that up? Why did they do that?” It has been an up-and-down deal, and that has kind of been their M.O. really since the midway point of last year. They have just been far too inconsistent up front.
Q: It sounds as if the struggles on offense are overshadowing what seems to be a pretty good defense.
A: The one thing they don’t do [defensively] is take the ball away. They have one interception and it came on the last drive of regulation for the Texans [Sunday]. They were the only team that didn’t have a pick through the first four-plus games of the season. They forced four takeaways through the first five games. If you want to be an elite defense – like the one people talk about Jacksonville having – you take the ball away. These guys don’t take it away. They do a good job in the red zone. They can rush the passer with [defensive end] Demarcus Lawrence. They’re doing better without [linebacker] Sean Lee than they have in the past with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch filling in there. They have a really good defense, but it’s not on that elite level until they start taking the ball away.
Q: Final question on the defense: It looks like this team has a good pass rush, particularly if it’s leading.
A: They’ve been fairly consistent at affecting the quarterback. They only got [Texans quarterback Deshaun] Watson once, but he’s a run-around guy who can buy time; they hit him. Every pass rusher is helped by having a lead because they can just go, but I do think these guys have been able to generate pressure even without leads. Lawrence is one of the best guys who doesn’t get talked about nearly enough in this league as a pass rusher. [Defensive tackle] Tyrone Crawford is an underrated player. [Defensive end] Taco Charlton is playing better in his second season. They’re also bringing more guys [in the blitz], which is something [defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli has not really done. But [passing-game coordinator and secondary coach] Kris Richard has brought more of that style of play from Seattle, and they’re definitely affecting the quarterback pretty well.
Q: You’ve been around the Cowboys a long time. Is this a Dallas team that can get it going and make a run, or is there not enough there?
A: Right now I’d say there’s not enough there. They were 8-8 in [Head Coach] Jason Garrett’s first three years, and they’re shaping up as a win-one, lose-one team here in his eighth season. If you can’t score points in this league, you’re not going to win games. You score points out of the passing game and they can barely get to 200 yards passing in games. It’s mind-boggling how ineffective they are passing the ball in a league where everything is set up for the passing game to succeed. I don’t see this team being able to get on a run right now, because they’re in such a funk.