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Colts vs Cowboys: Q&A with the enemy

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts will host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in a critical matchup that could determine whether the Colts are in the playoffs this year or watching from home. I reached out to David Halprin of Blogging the Boys in an effort to gain a better understanding of what the Colts will face on Sunday. Here’s what he had to say:

The Cowboys’ trade for Amari Cooper left me a bit skeptical about the value they got for him, but since that time, the offense seems to be transformed. How are Cowboys fans feeling about the trade at this stage and why is he such a difference maker for this offense?

Many fans (including me) thought the Cowboys gave up too much for Amari Cooper. Many fans (including me) now realize they were wrong. I guess in hindsight we might have been a little more appreciative of Cooper’s skills. He was a number four overall pick and he did have two good years to start his career. As things went bad in Oakland, so did Cooper’s numbers and reputation.

Since he’s come to Dallas, he’s been outstanding. As you said, he has transformed this offense. He’s made the passing game better, he’s made the running game better as a result of defenses having to worry about him, and he’s given Dak Prescott his confidence back.

So why is he such a difference-maker? The number one thing that pops out about Cooper is his route-running. He’s a technician, the precision in his routes, the way he sets corners up with stutter steps and subtle fakes is amazing. He creates his own separation. Once he catches it, he’s dangerous. He’s been taking plays to the house creating quick-strike scores. When he’s not doing that, he’s been a third-down conversion machine. It’s been fun to watch.

We’ve heard lots about rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s emergence as a great player in the Dallas defense. How has the rest of the rookie class looked for the Cowboys?

So far it’s been a pretty good draft. You mentioned Vander Esch, who looks like he’s on his way to stardom. Second-round pick Connor Williams has been okay as a starting guard. He’s athletic and is best when they pull him in the run game. He’s not bad in the run game but has struggled in pass blocking where he just doesn’t seem strong enough yet. He gets pushed back on bull rushes far too often. He may or may not play this game depending in Zack Martin. A year in the Cowboys offseason strength program should help him immensely.

Third-round pick Michael Gallup is developing nicely as a wide receiver. He has provided a downfield threat and is starting to see his numbers go up. He can be a weapon. In the fourth round, the Cowboys picked up DE Dorance Armstrong and TE Dalton Schultz. Both have potential, but have yet to be consistent and produce during games much, although Schultz is starting to see some more action. They are getting contributions of various amounts from those top five picks so that’s not bad.

What is this team’s biggest strength? What is its biggest weakness?

Right now this team’s biggest strength is its defense. More specific, the scoring defense. It’s hard to run against the Cowboys who are very athletic and aggressive, and they have the two linebackers who can go sideline-to-sideline. Teams eventually try to pass and the Cowboys secondary is getting better as the year progresses. Byron Jones has become an outstanding corner and they usually don’t give up a lot of big plays. The defense has been the consistent rock.

The weakness is the ability to put points on the board when they have the opportunity. The Cowboys are failing too often in the red zone and settling for field goals. It’s a problem that has been going on recently, with Amari Cooper being the guy that bails them out. They need to start taking advantage in the red zone because kicking field goals too often is a recipe for losing.

If you are the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator and have to create a game plan to eliminate either WR T.Y. Hilton or TE Eric Ebron, which guy would you rather shut down and how would you go about it?

One big issue the Cowboys have had on defense this year has been covering tight ends. Teams have done a good job of picking up first downs and making big plays with the tight end. Last week against Zach Ertz they decided to rotate corner Byron Jones onto him on some key third downs. If Ebron is hurting them in the game they could employ this tactic. Or they could use Jones on Hilton and bracket Ebron. They’ve done a good job of mixing things up this year in coverage and not always lining up the same way, so you could see multiple implementations of those things throughout the game.

What do you see as the best-case scenario for this Cowboys team down the stretch? Are they a legitimate contender or do they still need pieces to get there?

They are a legitimate contender as long as Dak Prescott can be efficient and hold onto the ball. Prescott has been trending up since the arrival of Cooper, but he still turns the ball over too much (mostly fumbles) and he can hold the ball a little long in the pocket leading to sacks. Sometimes it’s the protection and they are picking up a lot of holding calls, but Prescott could also help them out more. If Prescott is functioning well in the passing game, then the Cowboys offense should have enough firepower to complement an emerging defense that is playing at an elite level.