If Cowboys are going to make a playoff run, these five need to step up their game

Cowboys who need to step up their game

09/19/2012 11:38 PM

04/18/2013 7:29 PM

IRVING -- Running back Felix Jones has replaced the departed Marion Barber and Roy Williams as the whipping boy of the media and fans for what's wrong with the Dallas Cowboys when things don't go as expected.

Certainly, through two games the criticisms of Jones are not without merit -- considering his lost fumble that set the tone in the 27-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and otherwise lethargic play.

It has resulted in a controversial back and forth between coach Jason Garrett and owner Jerry Jones, who seemingly undermined his coach when he said there would be no change in the running back's role one day after Garrett said he would consider other options.

Garrett said he has no issue with either Jones. He is in concert with the owner, and the former first-round pick will keep his job as the primary kick returner because of his history of success, but other options will be ready.

"The lines of communication are open," Garrett said. "We've never had any issues that way regarding personnel or really any kind of decision we have to make as an organization."

Surely, Jones needs to play better, but he is not alone on the list of Cowboys who need to step up their play if they are to realize their dream of making the playoffs and finally making a deep run after 17 years of mediocre-to-bad play since the franchise's last Super Bowl title in 1995.

1RB Felix Jones

Jones has been a lightning rod since failing the conditioning test at the start of training camp, blamed partly on him missing the off-season because of shoulder surgery. He has yet to regain the coveted burst that makes him dangerous as a returner and a change-of-pace option out of the backfield. Owner Jerry Jones bristled when asked whether the running back is in danger of being cut. Garrett's limited use of him in the offense is quite telling. He has one carry for 1 yard and just four receptions in two games. If the Cowboys are not going to use him on offense, he needs to play a big role on special teams. He is averaging a career-low 21.3 yards per return. He has one fumble and has shown questionable decision-making in bringing out kicks from 8 yards deep in the end zone. If he gets replaced on returns and doesn't have a bigger role in the offense, then there would be no reason to keep him active and, thus, on the roster.

2TE Jason Witten

Witten has been one of the team's most productive players over the past decade and likely is a future Hall of Famer. He has been to the Pro Bowl seven times and could break Michael Irvin's club record for receptions this year. Witten hasn't been himself through the first two games largely because he is still dealing with a lacerated spleen he injured in the preseason. He has been medically cleared to play, but he is not yet 100 percent. That has showed on the field, where Witten has six catches for 68 yards through two games. He shockingly leads the NFL with four dropped passes. Witten averaged only three drops a season over the past four seasons. He also misplayed a deep ball against Seattle that he could have caught. He has been limited by the injury, but he is not using it as an excuse, admitting he needs to play better.

3WR Dez Bryant

Bryant is not just the most physically gifted player on the Cowboys, but there aren't many in the NFL with his combination of size, speed and athleticism. The problem with Bryant is that he has yet to put it all together. He has one 100-yard receiving game since being a first-round pick in 2010. That's the same number as Kevin Ogletree. This was supposed to be the year that Bryant figured it out because he finally knew the playbook and had a full off-season for the first time in his career. Through two games, he has seven catches for 102 yards, two drops and a fumble. Most notably, according to Garrett, he struggled against physical, man-to-man coverage in Sunday's loss to the Seahawks when Bryant had three catches for 17 yards. He will see more of that type of coverage until he proves he can consistently win those matchups -- which, considering his own physicality, is surprisingly a concern.

4LT Tyron Smith

Smith was moved to the left side after spending his rookie year on the right because of his potential as a future Pro Bowler at the position. He has the talent, athleticism and work ethic to be great and plays with great effort as witnessed when he ran down Giants linebacker Michael Boley after an interception, preventing a touchdown. But Smith has been a mixed bag so far at left tackle. The Cowboys got the season-opening win against the New York Giants despite Smith being abused repeatedly by defensive end Jason Pierre Paul -- a matchup in which he must hold his own over the next decade. He also leads the NFL with four false start penalties. His penalty against Seattle killed a potential scoring drive in the third quarter.

5NT Jay Ratliff

Ratliff is on this list by default considering he has missed the first two games with a high ankle sprain and is questionable for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the combination of Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore has been solid, they have not been dynamic. Ratliff is a four-time Pro Bowler for a reason. He is the only true mismatch the Cowboys have on the defensive line because of his quickness. He also plays with relentless effort and passion. For the defense to truly reach its full potential, it needs Ratliff back on the field and playing to that potential.

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