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Cowboys News & Notes: Offense Rolling, But Defense A Concern Against Washington

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Dallas is hoping Dak and Zeke can keep the formula cooking along to get their tenth win in a row.

Thanksgiving and the Cowboys - what more can you ask for?
Thanksgiving and the Cowboys - what more can you ask for?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! It's time to stuff yourself and then settle in for that greatest of all holiday traditions, the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game. The Dallas fan base has a lot to be thankful for with the 9-1 start to the season. All of us at BTB hope you all have a great day and get to celebrate another win as Washington comes to AT&T Stadium. Here is the news you need to get prepped for all the action.

Dak Prescott is making decisions like a veteran, and that’s why the Cowboys are great - SBNation.com

Getting praise from fans is one thing. Here, Geoff Schwartz, a veteran offensive lineman, shows that even those who dislike Dallas are impressed by what Dak Prescott has done.

I grew up hating the Cowboys because my dad raised me right. I was a 49ers fan and they had yearly duals [sic] with the Cowboys for the NFC. That hatred continued when I spent two seasons playing for the Giants.

That being said, I can't help but respect the Cowboys' current style of football: Dominant offensive line and run game; smart, smooth, and efficient pass game. Their defense doesn't have a game wrecker, but every defender buys into the scheme and finds ways to make plays. I love watching Dallas play each week.

This past Sunday against the Ravens, the Cowboys offense battled the NFL's second-best overall defense by DVOA, and best run defense allowing a tad over 70 yards a game. Strength on strength. This matchup was awesome to watch. It was physical. It was a chess match. And in the end, the Cowboys wore down the Ravens with a beastly second half that featured a 10-play touchdown drive, a 13-play touchdown drive, and a 13-play field goal drive that sealed the game.

There's nothing better as an offensive lineman than to break the will of a defense on a game-winning drive. You can physically see the will leave your opponents' eyes. It's the greatest.

Early last week, Tony Romo formally ceded his decade-long starting job because of the excellent play of Dak Prescott. He has seen the growth Dak has made during the season, and it was on full display Sunday. The Cowboys are allowing him to make more checks as the weeks go on. They may seem simple, and sometimes they are, but trust me, not all young QBs can make them, and not all staffs trust their quarterbacks to do the job.

Dallas Cowboys 2016 draft: Looking back | The MMQB with Peter King

Peter King takes a long look at how the Cowboys stuck with their plan to draft Ezekiel Elliott, and then kinda were forced into "settling" for Dak Prescott. Both seem to have worked out. Here is his conclusion on taking Elliott.

Dallas, last season, held the ball for 30:59, on average, in games. That was 11th in the league in time of possession. This season, with Elliott, the Cowboys are first in time of possession, at 33:27 per game ... a full two-and-a-half minutes more than last year. Foes averaged 10.9 possessions per game last year. They are averaging 9.9 possessions this year.

So Elliott has helped keep Dallas's defense off the field for a full possession per game and for 2.5 per game. We don't say this often in the football media business about the football decisions of Jerral Wayne Jones, but it should be said now: Through 10 games of the 2016 season, Jerry Jones made a smart move by picking Ezekiel Elliott—who leads the NFL with an average of 139.4 scrimmage yards per game—over any defensive player on the board.

Ezekiel Elliott is not same RB Washington saw in Week 2 - ESPN

You may have forgotten, but Elliott had his worst game of the year in the first meeting with Washington - but he didn't take long to get things fixed.

He started figuring it out against Washington with 21 carries for 83 yards but the two fumbles derailed him. He'd never been much of a fumbler in college, but it doesn't take much to get a reputation in the NFL.

"You just focus on locking the elbow and keeping your wrist above your elbow," Elliott said. "It's just mentally focus on keeping that ball tight. It's my job to take care of the ball."

Elliott kept grinding in practice, studying video and working with running backs coach Gary Brown.

Against the Chicago Bears in front of a national television audience in Week 3, he looked just like the player who dominated college football the past two seasons at Ohio State.

Elliott exceeding lofty expectations for NFL-leading Cowboys - Yahoo

The Cowboys drafted Elliott with the plan to put a huge load on him in making their run-first, grind-the-opponent-down approach work. So far, he has been everything they expected, and more.

'I think it's just him being himself and not letting the pressure or anything get to him,'' backup running back Alfred Morris said. ''Even the first couple of weeks, it started a little rough for him. He didn't let that bother him.''

Morris can't help but mention Prescott when describing Elliott's success because he went through the same thing four years ago with Robert Griffin III in Washington. The standout combo of Griffin and Morris helped the Redskins reach the playoffs.

''It's been fun to watch, especially him and Dak,'' Morris said. ''I know I keep throwing Dak in there, but they're so good together. It's pretty cool to see and I'm just sitting back and kind of admiring, like, man, just keep it up, keep it up, keep it up.''

Sturm: How Cowboys' D has taken a step back -- and why isn't David Irving playing more snaps? | SportsDay

While the Dallas offense is on a very hot streak, the defense is not. Bob Sturm looks at some issues that need to be addressed if the Cowboys are to keep the win streak alive.

They now are sliding back in takeaways again. At the moment, they are tied for 23rd in takeaways with 10. There are just six defenses that have taken the ball away fewer times than the Cowboys and they don't have a takeaway since the Philadelphia game. Interception rate is now all the way down to 30th.

Sacks also are regressing. After an uptick for many weeks, the past two weeks again have been rather quiet, which finds them tied for 19th and sliding back to the bottom third of the league again. Sacks per pass attempt is down to 24th.

Opponents' yards per game is holding strong, but opponents' yards per play is not. At 23rd, they are exactly the same as a Washington defense that is widely regarded as poor but does not have the benefit of being protected by its offense.

The Cowboys' run defense may actually be poor. Per play, they are 21st in the league. But per game, they are third. The reason? No team in the NFL has faced fewer run plays than the Cowboys. They have faced 199 runs all season -- the next best is 224. Nobody runs against the Cowboys. Especially after halftime. Why? Because in the second half, you are passing to get back in the game. And overall, you are running the fewer plays.

Jason Garrett: We’ve got to cash in on takeaway opportunities | The Star-Telegram

The Cowboys have been having a lot of "close but no cigar" moments on getting takeaways, and Jason Garrett knows that needs to change.

"We've got to cash in on them," Garrett said. "Taking the ball away is such a critical part of playing good defense. At times this year, we've done a good job of that. Other times we have not. We just have to continue to focus on it. We know the impact it makes in the game."

The Cowboys have only 10 takeaways (four interceptions, six fumbles) so far, which is tied for 23rd in the league. Nine of those takeaways came in the first six games, too.

It's a number that they know must increase down the stretch. In their 12-4 season in 2014, the Cowboys were second in the league in takeaways with 31.

The hidden crack that could crumble the dominant Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl bid - The Washington Post

You may not agree with everything Pro Football Focus comes up with, but their evaluation of the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks seems dead on.

Pro Football Focus grades every NFL player on every snap, and when isolating only players' pass-rush grades (their ability to beat blocks to disrupt a QB's dropback, which also factors in how long a QB has to hold the ball and how quickly the defender can apply pressure), the Cowboys rank second-to-last in the NFL.

They also rank second-to-last in pass-rush pressure percentage, affecting opposing QBs with a sack, hit or hurry on just 24.3 percent of dropbacks. That's well below the NFL average pressure rate of 33.4 percent. (The Colts are the only team worse than the Cowboys in each of the categories.)

This is no small concern in a league that skews as heavily towards the passing game as the NFL currently does. And it doesn't even fully capture the depth of the team's struggles in their front seven.

Kirk Cousins is playing the best football of his career - ESPN

Dak Prescott is the big story in Dallas this season, but this week they are facing another quarterback  who is having a stellar year in Kirk Cousins.

He put up big numbers in the second half of last season, but the last five games have been the best stretch he's played. He's doing a terrific job going through his progressions -- he found his fourth option (DeSean Jackson) for a touchdown Sunday night -- and of being accurate down the field. He's completing 47.4 percent of his throws for 20 or more air yards (fourth in the NFL) in the last five weeks. And he's thrown 10 touchdowns to two interceptions. Cousins has gotten better at handling protection calls and identifying blitzers and who might be free. He'll never wow anyone with his skill, but when he plays smart and is accurate he's dangerous. Cousins has thrown 17 touchdowns to seven interceptions this season and already has thrown for 3,091 yards.

Tony Romo’s trade value may not be worth as much as you think - SBNation.com

There is a widespread belief that Tony Romo will not be with the Cowboys now that they have their quarterback of the future (and right now) in Prescott, but don't get your hopes up for getting a high draft pick for him.

General managers around the league project that the Cowboys could get "some sort of mid to late-round conditional pick" for Romo, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortenson.

Mortenson and Schefter also reported that, because of the close relationship Romo has with the Jones family, it's likely they would work together to help Romo land with the team that is the best fit for him. Wherever Romo lands, that team would know that he wants to be there, which gives them the upper hand in negotiating with Romo and the Cowboys.

Romo has only started all 16 games in four of his nine seasons in the NFL, and that will be something teams take into consideration when determining what they would surrender to bring in the veteran quarterback.

Pay Cut: How Tony Romo and Cowboys can avoid divorce in 2017 | Cowboys Wire

But what if Romo, after some reflection, decided he would prefer to stay in Dallas despite everything. Our old friend and pay cap master KD Drummond looks at how that just might work.

Say Dallas reduced Romo's base salary to $9 million. They then turn the other $5 million into NLTBE incentives, paying him $625,000 for each game he starts beyond six starts, maxing out at 14 games. If Romo starts 14 games or more, that means he gets the exact salary he would've without the change.

Yet, Dallas would have that $5 million to play with at the start of free agency, the same they would have if they released him.

This can even be taken a stretch further. What if the Cowboys turned some of Romo's remaining base salary into a restructure bonus, they could reap even more cap space and still have Romo in the fold.

The possibilities are vast, but they would all depend on Romo's willingness to stay in Dallas and that would be contingent on the team getting him to believe although they didn't give him a chance to compete for his job during the season, he'd get the opportunity to do so during the off-season. Who knows, maybe after the pain of the situation subsides, Romo is somehow able to reconcile with the idea of being a backup if he didn't win the competition.

NFL panic index, Week 12: The Cowboys will go to the Super Bowl and lose - SBNation.com

This raises the question, would this still be seen as a good season if the Cowboys get to the Super Bowl but don't bring home the Lombardi Trophy? However, going on history does not always give all the answers.

You don't have to be a Dallas fan to admit that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have revitalized the Cowboys with their dazzling MVP-like play and infectious energy. This year, the Cowboys are having fun and they're fun to watch. In fact, they remind us a lot of last year's Panthers, who entertained all the way to Super Bowl 50, only to lay an egg.

Panic index: Don't write history before it happens. Just like polls, patterns like this are cool to talk about, but meaningless if they don't come true.

Dallas Cowboys: Redskins RB: 'I know nobody here likes the Dallas Cowgirls' | SportsDay

Finally, the Dallas-Washington rivalry is one of the most storied in the NFL, and there is nothing like some fresh, hot bulletin board material to help rekindle things.

However, Washington running back Robert Kelley couldn't help himself. Asked Tuesday for his initial thoughts on the rivalry, the rookie responded: "Oh, I already know. I know nobody here likes the Dallas Cowgirls."

Follow me @TomRyleBTB