Dallas Cowboys

Four Cowboys who must step up as Dallas looks to beat Redskins

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Matt Cassel (16) flies backward after being hit by Carolina Panthers defensive back Colin Jones (42) on a throw in the second half on Thanksgiving. Cassel says his comfort level is better going into his fifth start of the season.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Matt Cassel (16) flies backward after being hit by Carolina Panthers defensive back Colin Jones (42) on a throw in the second half on Thanksgiving. Cassel says his comfort level is better going into his fifth start of the season.

Somehow, some way the Dallas Cowboys have stayed in the NFC East hunt by playing losing football.

They have lost eight of nine games, and are without their starting quarterback the rest of the regular season. Yet the division is so bad that a team that has looked as lifeless as the Cowboys during long stretches of the season still has life.

The Cowboys (3-8) are two games back with five to play, and can begin gaining ground in the division on national television Monday night against the division-leading Washington Redskins (5-6).

The second-place New York Giants (5-7) lost to the New York Jets on Sunday, lifting the Cowboys’ long-shot hopes.

“Being in the hunt allows you to have a little bit of energy because most years when you’re 3-8, you’re not in the hunt,” tight end Jason Witten said. “More than anything else, our focus has been on how do we play better and the urgency that that comes with.”

Keeping their playoff dreams alive for another week is now the focus for a Cowboys team that entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations. And, as Witten said, it’s no secret on what they must do to get things going in the right direction.

The offense has to find a way to win with backup quarterback Matt Cassel. The defense has to create more takeaways and more impact plays. And it’d be a bonus if the special teams could impact the game in a positive way.

As linebacker Sean Lee put it succinctly, “It’s time to play winning football.”

Who must step up

QB Matt Cassel: Nobody who watched Cassel play in recent years should have expected him to be the team’s savior when Romo went down the first time. But Cassel underwhelmed more than expected in a four-game stint, going winless and throwing more interceptions than touchdowns in the games he started. More time in Scott Linehan’s offense, however, should equate to better play from Cassel this time around — at least in theory.

WR Dez Bryant: Bryant is in the midst of arguably the worst three-game stretch in his career. He has been held to 45, 45 and 26 receiving yards the past three weeks, including hauling in only two of eight targets against the Carolina Panthers on Thanksgiving. Maybe with extra rest and a full week of practice Bryant will go back to being more himself on the field. As an added bonus, Bryant declared himself the healthiest he’s been since undergoing surgery on his right foot after the season opener.

Said Bryant: “I’m always ready. I just got to take advantage of every opportunity. If it comes my way, I’m going to make the most of it.”

DE Greg Hardy: The controversial defensive end made a splash early by registering four sacks in his first four games with the Cowboys. But he has only a half-sack over the past three games, and was credited with just an assisted tackle against the Panthers. If Hardy doesn’t step up and the Cowboys fall out of contention, the team could part ways with him before the season is over. For now, though, he remains a critical piece of their defense.

Said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli on what Hardy must do to get going: “It’s constant work on our fundamentals and pad level. [Carolina] had some chipping on him and some sliding, but that’s part of the deal. Still got to win. Just the basic fundamentals day to day.”

DE Randy Gregory: He started the season as a rookie defensive of the year candidate, but a high ankle sprain early has derailed his effectiveness to date. Gregory has yet to record a sack, but has four quarterback pressures the past three weeks. Gregory should get plenty of opportunities down the stretch, as the Cowboys try to determine exactly what they have in Gregory.

Said Marinelli: “I’ve liked his practices the last couple of weeks. You don’t play well until you practice really well. … I saw some signs last week of some more ‘spurt’ to him and hustle and effort, and just keep doing that, it’s going to show.”

Rest of the defense: There’s been much talk of the Cowboys’ inability to create takeaways, and for good reason. It’s the most telling statistic between winning and losing in the NFL. But the defense knows it must step up and win the turnover battle should they stay in the playoff hunt.

Said Lee: “We have to find a way to make more plays. Get around the ball more, get closer to the football, more plays on the ball. I think we’ve done a better job with our hustle and our effort and that’s gotten better. But now it’s time to make more plays on the football across every unit. … If we can get it to where we’re always plus-2 in turnover ratio, I think we’ll have a great shot in all these games.”

Coaching staff: It’s hard to win in the NFL without your starting quarterback, which is a big reason why coach Jason Garrett and the rest of his assistants have gotten a pass so far this season. And the Cowboys have been competitive in most of the games they’ve lost. At some point, though, when does it fall on the coaching staff for not finding a way to win with a backup quarterback since 2010? Or going seven of 11 games without a takeaway?

The coaching staff has to shoulder some of the blame for the Cowboys’ struggles without Romo, although Garrett is steadfast in his belief to keep the message the same. Garrett likes to tell the same sermon, just in different ways.

Said Garrett: “You try to emphasize [the same message] as a coaching staff to your players. You try to live it as a coaching staff. But you try to get it across to your players individually and try to get it across to your football team, so whether it’s harder or easier really is irrelevant. It’s come to work every day, being your best and putting your best out there in everything you do. We think if everybody does that collectively that’s what collectively gives us the best chance to have success with the opportunity we do have.”

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

Cowboys at Redskins

7:30 tonight

TV/Radio: ESPN, WFAA/8, KRLD/105.3 FM, KMVK/107.5 FM (Sp.)

Line: WAS by 4

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