Todd Archer, ESPN Staff Writer 358d

Anthony Hitchens' return should affect Jaylon Smith's snap count

FRISCO, Texas -- Since the Dallas Cowboys did not lose their second game in 2016 until December, many are wondering if the 2017 Cowboys are staring at 8-8 even with 12 games to play.

It might be a tad early to wonder that, but there are signs that the Cowboys’ start looks a lot like their 8-8 finishes from 2011-13.

There’s other wonders. Five of them actually.

Away we go:

** Jaylon Smith played every snap of Sunday’s loss to the Rams. He was forced to do so because Sean Lee was out with a hamstring strain. Smith’s comeback from a serious knee injury has been almost miraculous, but I wonder if his time as an every-down linebacker needs to come to an end. Anthony Hitchens is closing in on a return from a knee injury suffered in the preseason. Truth be told, Hitchens probably was the Cowboys’ best defender in the preseason. He is a three-down linebacker and instinctive. Smith has exceeded expectations in what he has done in the first month, but the Rams isolated him in coverage and he was unable to shed blocks well enough in the run game. That doesn’t mean Smith won’t be a big playmaker down the road, but he doesn’t look to be moving great. Hitchens’ return will help this defense.

** Raise your hand if you put a “W” next to the Rams game when the schedule came out in the spring. So did I. The Rams are improved and Sean McVay is doing an excellent job with his offense, but that was a game the Cowboys should have won. And now I wonder where the Cowboys steal a game down the road. Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers will be difficult because of Aaron Rodgers even if his offense is beat up. Do the Cowboys beat the Kansas City Chiefs? At the Atlanta Falcons? Hey, Buffalo won there Sunday. At Oakland? Against Seattle? The Cowboys have to win the games “they’re supposed to win,” whatever that means in a league that is so tightly contested, but now they have to win a game “they’re not supposed to win.”

** Not only are Cole Beasley’s catches way down compared to last year, but in the last two weeks so are his snaps. And I wonder why. As much as Ezekiel Elliott is the key to the Cowboys’ offense, Beasley and Jason Witten are big reasons why the Cowboys move the chains and neither has been involved much the last two games. Beasley had 23 catches in the first four games last year. He has 11 through the first four games this year. After playing in 109 of the 145 snaps in the first two games, he has played in 56 of 118 snaps in the last two. That’s a huge drop off in play-time percentage. As much as people want to make of the Dak Prescott-to-Dez Bryant connection, the lack of success of the Prescott-to-Beasley connection is hurting this offense.

** I wonder if we started to see the rotation of safeties with Kavon Frazier getting more defensive snaps against the Rams. He took a series from Byron Jones and Jeff Heath in both halves. I’m not so sure the move was made because of what Frazier had done defensively or what Jones and Heath had not done in the first three games. The Cowboys went with a rotation at safety at times in 2015 when J.J. Wilcox struggled. It’s not been the best of starts for Jones or Heath. Jones had a strong spring and summer, but he has not been able to make the impact plays on the back end through the first month of the season. Heath took a bad angle on Todd Gurley’s touchdown catch and things have not gone great for him either.

** If the Cowboys want to add David Irving to the active roster to play Sunday against Green Bay, they would need to release a player, but they have a one-game exemption for Irving, who is coming off a suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy. If the Cowboys do make the move, I wonder if they would release cornerback Bene Benwikere? In order for the Cowboys to give the Cincinnati Bengals their sixth-round pick in 2019 to complete the trade, Benwikere will have to be on their 46-man roster for two more games. With Nolan Carroll and Chidobe Awuzie getting healthy, the Cowboys don’t necessarily need a sixth cornerback.

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