It is getting to the time of the season when we really start to get a sense of what NFL teams really are. For the Dallas Cowboys, it looks all good after the 28-14 beatdown of the Cincinnati Bengals. There really wasn’t anything negative to take away from one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, and certainly a far better game than anything from 2015. Here are some things that really stood out.
The offensive line has their mojo back.
It all starts with the big ‘uns up front, and they had one of their best performances. As was noted in the Twitterverse, this is the first time the starting line from 2014 was back together this season, and it looked like the good old days out there. Ezekiel Elliott feasted on the holes, and Dak Prescott enjoyed excellent protection on most of his passing plays. Remember, this was supposed to be their greatest test of the season against a top defensive front seven. There is no question who won the day, even over in Bengals country. (Hat tip to OCC for pointing this article out.)
It didn’t matter who was doing the running for the Cowboys. Elliott, Alfred Morris, Dak Prescott, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett. Their holes were the size of New Zealand. The Cowboys' offensive line pushed around the members of Cincinnati’s front seven like they were sofas in the living room.
The Dallas offense is designed to be run-first, and with the way the lanes are being opened up for Elliott and Morris, they are having no issues there. They lead the league in most of the rushing categories, and the ground game really didn’t hit its stride until the third game of the season. Now it is all coming together. The NFL intelligentsia is now saying that they will face their biggest challenge against the Green Bay Packers (deja vu all over again), but after last Sunday’s performance, the Cowboys look up to the challenge. And Bob Sturm made this cogent observation about that (prior to the Sunday night game against the Giants).
FWIW, They have played 3 teams that don't even try to run and the Vikings. https://t.co/SA1YzJ1MPM— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) October 10, 2016
So let’s see how the Cowboys fare in a strength versus strength matchup.
The dynamic duo continues to improve.
Prescott just keeps showing more and more. His performance was marred only by his fumble, but in the first half, the team was unstoppable with him at quarterback. Had he and Jason Witten managed to connect on a third down pass that just glanced off the tight end’s fingertips, Dallas would probably have added at least three more points to the halftime lead. Plus let’s not forget that rookie mark for most consecutive passes without an interception to start his career. Meanwhile, Elliott has been on a scary curve. His per carry average has gone up steadily in each game, and he posted a superb 8.9 YPC number against the Bengals. They have already set an NFL record for rookies by combining for over 1,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing in their first five games. And we don’t know what the ceiling is for either.
The depth is there to overcome injuries.
The Great Debacle of 2015 was attributed to the rash of injuries to key players, but it was the failure to have adequate backups in place, particularly at quarterback, that really doomed Dallas. Things could not be more different, and that is by design.
Garrett says offseason focus was on building a team that can handle the injuries that came in 2015.— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) October 10, 2016
Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Orlando Scandrick all sat out the game on Sunday, and the Cowboys were still dominant. Next man up is a lot more meaningful when the next man is actually pretty good at his position.
The pass rush can get the job done - when the conditions are right.
A lot was made about the return of DeMarcus Lawrence, and although he only had 17 snaps on the field, things certainly looked much, much better across the defensive line. But his return was not the real factor here, I believe. Look at the situation when the Cowboys got their first sack of the game.
3:34 remaining in the first half, 2nd and 9, Dallas up 21-0. Andy Dalton sacked by Cedric Thornton for a loss of six yards. The Bengals were already in a deep hole that was just going to get deeper on the first offensive play of the second half by Dallas. That is when the pass rushers can pin their ears back and focus on getting to the quarterback. They know the opponent has to pass and the running game is not going to really hurt them, letting the linebackers and secondary worry about cleaning that up. The Cowboys had not really been in a game with such an overwhelming lead before. In those situations, the pass rush has to take advantage, and the Cowboys did to the tune of four sacks and unrelenting pressure on Dalton the rest of the game.
Rod Marinelli used a seven man rotation along the line, and he got what he was looking for. This is not to say that the Cowboys suddenly have a truly top-level pass rush - but they now have what appears to be an adequate one. That is something that was worrisome before the last game. While it still is something to keep an eye on the remainder of the season, the outlook is certainly far less grim than it was.
Now the Cowboys sit atop their division and are feeling more confident than ever before about their chances. This team is playing as just that, a team that can have faith in everyone on the field to do their job and put a full effort on the field. So far it has led to as many wins in five games as they mustered all last year.
This is fun. Here’s hoping it continues.