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Injuries, pass rush among concerns for Cowboys ahead of Week 2 home opener

Dallas welcomes the Atlanta Falcons to AT&T Stadium for the Cowboys home opener in Week 2 as Dak Prescott and gang look for the first win of the Mike McCarthy era.
Credit: AP Photo/Kyusung Gong
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, center, looks to pass during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif.

The Dallas Cowboys will make their 2020 AT&T Stadium debut on Sunday. Unfortunately for them, they will be limping into the game against the Atlanta Falcons for the Week 2 showdown.

The Cowboys are hurting on the injury front after losing two starters during the Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. In addition, wide receiver Amari Cooper has been dealing with a bruised foot that has kept him out of practices this week. While Cooper likely won’t miss out on Sunday’s game, he is listed as a game time decision for the Cowboys.

Blake Jarwin is done for the season. Leighton Vander Esch will miss several weeks. Sean Lee and La’el Collins remain out. Anthony Brown is listed as questionable. And the big news of the week has been the availability of Tyron Smith.

One of the few bright spots for the Cowboys when it comes to the injury report is the news that cornerback Jourdan Lewis has participated in practice and should be a go after missing Week 1.

Dallas would be loath to start the season 0-2 but the injuries could be a significant hurdle for them despite the home field advantage. With that in mind, here’s a look at three areas of concern for the Cowboys ahead of Sunday’s home opener:

Protection for Prescott

The offensive line was down a man last Sunday with right tackle Collins hitting the injured reserve list ahead of Week 1. The last second decision to start undrafted rookie Terence Steele left many scratching their heads. Expected starter Cameron Erving then went down with an injury himself later in the game during a special teams play.

Erving signed over the offseason from the Kansas City Chiefs and was expected to give the team depth. He is now out at least three weeks after being placed on the injured reserve. Would that it were as simple as finding a replacement for the replacement.

Throughout the week, starting left tackle Smith started showing up on the injury report with a neck issue. Smith being injured before a game against Atlanta is an episode we’ve seen before. Dallas is hoping for new programming and not a rerun.

That 2017 contest didn’t end well for the Cowboys as they lost 27-7 in Atlanta with Dak Prescott getting sacked eight times. Without Collins and/or Smith at tackle for this game, the pass protection feels foreboding for an offensive line that struggled a week ago. Regular, healthy starters Connor Williams, Joe Looney, and Zack Martin will have their work cut out for them.

There is the possibility for eventually moving guys around to fill needs along the line. Stephen Jones was asked on 105.3 The Fan about moving Williams out to offensive tackle where he played at the University of Texas.

"I think once you start to have injuries you look at all your options — obviously when we draft players they have flexibility to play multiple positions, that's important, whether it's a Zack Martin, whether it's a Connor Williams, whether it's a La'el Collins, who has been a guard and a tackle."

Pass rush prowess

Last week, the Cowboys were only able to bring Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff down for a sack once during the game. While sacks aren’t the only way to measure an effective pass rush, outside of newcomer Aldon Smith, the Cowboys didn’t have much of a presence on the defensive front.

Goff only felt pressure on 11.8% of his dropbacks during the game on Sunday Night. He felt pressure on four snaps, was knocked down twice, and sacked once. The Cowboys need to have a better plan to get to the quarterback this Sunday when they face Matt Ryan.

Against the Seahawks in their Week 1 matchup, the Falcons’ QB felt pressure on 19.6% of dropbacks. Ryan was sacked or knocked down nine times. The Cowboys need to take advantage of a better opportunity to get to the passer. The need to get to Ryan is especially true given the passing attack that the Dallas defense will be facing. The Falcons were able to throw for over 450 yards against the Seahawks with three 100-yard receivers.

Those big numbers came mostly because Atlanta was down big going into the fourth quarter, but it is still an area of concern for a Cowboys unit up front that didn’t create enough pressure in Week 1. To help the secondary, the Dallas defensive line needs to make life miserable for Ryan.

Linebackers depth

If there’s one area as thin as the offensive line for the Cowboys right now, it’s at linebacker. Dallas lost starting middle linebacker Vander Esch early against the Rams last Sunday night. The 2018 standout rookie suffered a fractured collarbone that will sideline him for 6-8 weeks.

Meanwhile, Lee started out the season on the injured reserve list and isn’t expected back for many more weeks. The Cowboys are now down two impact linebackers just two weeks into the season.

Luke Gifford was a preseason standout last year and showed some promise in training camp, but he was also questionable heading into last week and played zero snaps. Jaylon Smith ended up playing all 73 defensive snaps last week with Joe Thomas playing 50 snaps after replacing Vander Escher. Thomas will likely be your starting middle linebacker while Smith will remain the weakside linebacker.

Dallas needs better coverage from their linebackers after they were exposed over the middle against the Rams. With Lee a perpetual injury risk, the depth was already scarce as linebacker was likely the one group the Cowboys could ill afford an injury surge.

With injuries starting to pile up, there are concerns at major position groups for the Cowboys. With the home opener set for noon on Sunday, Dallas will have to count on their stars and depth to carry them through against Atlanta.

Do you think the Cowboys will be able to weather the injuries and pick up a win in Week 2? Share your predictions with Patrick on Twitter @PatSportsGuy.