IRVING, Texas – One team’s got one of the league’s most reliable tight ends and two receivers who can make spectacular plays, leading their team to the No. 8 passing offense this season. This team also possesses a decent passing defense but struggles running the football, ranking 24th in that category.
The other team’s got one of the league’s most reliable tight ends and two receivers who can make spectacular plays, helping their team to the No. 3 passing offense this season. This team also possesses the No. 3 passing defense but struggles running the football, ranking 28th in that category.
Deciding which team is 7-0 and which team is 3-4 might not be so simple.
The first is the Atlanta Falcons, who’ve found a way to win every single game despite a mediocre rushing attack. The second is the Dallas Cowboys, who’ve used their outside weapons well at times but continue to be set back by mental mistakes.
“We’re a different style offense than they are,” said head coach Jason Garrett. “Certainly, you aspire to have some of the success they’ve had moving the ball. They’ve made some plays. They’ve minimized the bad plays. That’s something we all aspire around the league to do.”
Two crucial differences exist between these two teams, and neither has anything to do with rushing or passing offense totals. Atlanta’s unbeaten team boasts a plus-10 in turnover ratio, while the Dallas Cowboys are at minus-11. That amounts to exactly three turnovers better per game than the Cowboys.
Secondly, the Falcons have 24 penalties through seven games, averaging a little more than three per game. Among the recurring issues this Cowboys team faces is its penalty problem, pushing the team back, specifically when it gets near the red zone. Dallas has more than twice as many penalties this season as the Falcons, with 55 through seven games, averaging nearly eight per game.
“It’s something that was emphasized since the day we got here as a coaching staff,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith. “I believe if you’re one of the fewest penalized teams in the league, you’re going to have a chance to succeed.”
Smith holds every player accountable for every penalty made, making abundantly clear who was guilty of each penalty and when the penalty occurred, placing a different weight for each penalty. By playing sound football, they’ve been able to mask the areas they don’t excel at, including running the football, averaging 95 yards per game on the ground, and stopping the run, allowing 136.4 yards rushing per game.
“I think they’ve blended the things they’ve done really well for a few years, with some of the new ideas, and it’s been a real good blend for them,” Garrett said. “It’s very effective week in and week out.”
Though Falcons receiver Roddy White teased the notion earlier this year, Smith said the Cowboys’ receiving corps is as good as any in the league. The lack of success goes back to the costly turnovers, penalties and untimely mistakes from players up and down the Cowboys’ roster.
The Falcons have made up for their inconsistencies by holding onto the football, getting the football back to their offense, not committing penalties, and, thus, not halting drives, allowing them to reach the end zone. The Cowboys haven’t been able to do that, and now find themselves with a 2-2 road record and 1-2 record at home.
“In this league, you’ve got to win at home,” Smith said. “There’s a formula that makes you relevant at the end of the season if you can take care of business in your own building, and that’s something we’ve talked about from the very beginning.”
After two consecutive games with mistakes as a punt returner, Cowboys’ receiver Dez Bryant said those duties will fall to others Sunday against Atlanta.
Asked today if he was still a punter returner, Bryant said: “I don’t think so. But I promise you, man, I’m going to bet back in their ear. I’m going to get in their ear about that.”
Bryant, who has the team’s longest punt return of the season (44 yards), said he “wasn’t disappointed at all” when coaches told him they would continue to go with others in that role. Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley replaced Bryant in that role last week against New York after Bryant fumbled a punt one week after being scolded by coaches for using poor judgment during a return against Carolina.
“I was very understanding,” Bryant said. “But like I said, I’m going to get back in coach’s ear. I think it will be hard for him to tell me ‘no.’ I’m going to continue to keep working at it. It’s not hard for me to catch a punt. I just need to feel it in and stop looking up field and think before catching the rock. That should be my first objective, to catch the ball and then go make a play.”
Mike Jenkins was the subject of trade rumors during the off-season after his agent requested a trade, but the trade deadline came and went Thursday, and Jenkins still is on the Dallas Cowboys’ roster. Dallas never considered trading the cornerback despite having Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as starters and Orlando Scandrick as their nickel back.
"We need him," executive vice president Stephen Jones said Thursday. "We need corners in case something happens. We’ve only got four corners."
Jenkins said Thursday he kept his mind off the trade deadline.
"I figured if it was going to happen, I would have heard something by now," Jenkins said. "So I just tried to stay focused on the week, learning what I needed to learn for this week and just going on with the Cowboys."
Jenkins has been a team player despite his reduced role on the defense, and he said he was not disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to go somewhere to start.
"I’m happy," Jenkins said. "The situation, I’m past that right now. I’m just happy that they’re playing me. I’m getting to play. I can’t complain. Coaches are communicating. I’m not left out of anything. So I’m pretty set. I’m good. I’m in a happy spot."
Jenkins missed the off-season work, training camp, the preseason and the season opener while recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery. Since then, he has played only 85 of a possible 352 defensive plays, including but six snaps against Baltimore and one against Carolina. He also has played 22 special teams plays.
Jenkins has been targeted eight times, allowing only three receptions for 82 yards and no touchdowns, according to STATS, Inc.
"I feel like I’ve played pretty good," Jenkins said. "As far as the situation going in, I’ve been put in all around the field, just playing safety. I feel like I’m doing pretty good. I also feel like I can do a lot better, because I missed out from the preseason, and I just came straight into the season. I know there’s a lot of room for improvement."
Jenkins’ versatility should help him in contract negotiations next spring. He is in the final year of his rookie contract after the Cowboys made him the 25th overall pick in 2008, and he likely will seek a place where he can compete for the starting job. He has 47 career starts.
"Hopefully, a lot of guys see that I’m flexible," Jenkins said. "They can move me around. I can play anything. I think I have enough film as far as a corner standpoint. I just want people to know they can also move me around like the Charles Woodsons, put me in situations like that, and I can guard anybody on the field. So hopefully that helps me out in the future."
The Dallas Cowboys had only two changes to their injury report from Wednesday. Receiver Dwayne Harris (neck) was added to the report as a limited participant, and Jason Hatcher (shin) had a full practice after being limited Wednesday.
But Dez Bryant (hip), DeMarco Murray (foot) and Dan Connor (neck) still are among those who did not practice. Murray is expected to miss a third consecutive game, and Bryant said he expects to play.
Running back Felix Jones again was limited with a bruised knee.
Center Phil Costa (ankle), safety Matt Johnson (hamstring), defensive lineman Sean Lissemore (ankle) and receiver Kevin Ogletree (hamstring) also missed Thursday’s practice. Ogletree said he is scheduled to undergo an MRI on his injured right hamstring later Thursday, but he is not concerned.
Costa still is wearing a walking boot.
Editors Note: Keep up with the Dallas Cowboys (and upcoming opponents) injury and practice status right here, on The Boys Are Back. Click HERE or use find the “Injury Update” page at the top or right side of this blog.