Admit it. If you are a Dallas Cowboys fan, there was as much a sense of relief as anything following their impressive 40-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Had the Cowboys somehow managed to let that one slip through their fingers, the fanbase would have been in chaos. But now they have that badly needed win, and it was very convincing. Anytime you have a four score margin of victory in the NFL, you are doing something right.
We certainly hope that what we saw in the win was more representative of what this Cowboys team is than the past couple of games. So let’s dig into what we may have learned about them in the very satisfying win.
Jonathan Cooper is the best option at left guard.
It finally looks like the whole Chaz Green vs Jonathan Cooper discussion has finally been settled by the coaching staff, and the answer is what many observers thought it should have been all along. With Cooper in the game, the running attack was not just good - it put up the best rushing numbers in the NFL this season.
FYI: Cowboys’ 265 rushing yards is the most by an NFL team this year. The Jets had been No. 1, with 256 against Jacksonville. #cowboyswire— David Helman (@HelmanDC) October 23, 2017
You can say all you want about Ezekiel Elliott, who was simply outstanding in this game as he amassed the best total yards from scrimmage of his career. But as we have seen before this year, he has to have some help up front. Today he got it, and not just running the ball. That 72-yard screen play was blocked about as well as you’d want, getting him past the first down marker before he put on an incredible display of speed and agility to take it the rest of the way to the end zone.
Don’t overlook that Elliott wasn’t the only runner getting yards in chunks. Rod Smith had a 45-yard jaunt. Alfred Morris got 14 on one of his two carries. Dak Prescott picked up 13 on one play. And some guy named Cooper Rush had a 15-yard run.
Oh, and let’s not overlook the pass blocking. While Dak Prescott was often scrambling away from pressure, that seemed to be more because he was not seeing open receivers than a lack of time in the pocket. For the game, the 49ers were not credited with a sack (although the Cowboys did evade an intentional grounding call on Prescott due to offsetting penalties on the play).
That indicates that the real key in the game was the blocking of the offensive line. Getting Cooper settled in as the LG is a big reason it has at last come together. Based on reports before the game, Green is back to working as the swing tackle (and came in late to spell Tyron Smith and his back). Early in the season, the coaching staff seemed determined to give Green every chance to win the starting LG job, but now that is hopefully resolved with the right man in the job.
Things were better defensively - but there are still troubles in stopping the run.
In the end, the Cowboys were not hurt much by the 49ers running game, but that was mostly because they pretty much abandoned it as the game wore on (being down by as much as 37 points will do that to you). Still, there were too many times when Carlos Hyde or C.J. Beathard kept a drive alive with a run for a first down. Most disturbingly, there were several times when a clean tackle would have stopped them, but it didn’t.
Having Sean Lee certainly seemed to help, but there is still a good deal of improvement to be made. The decision to sit Benson Mayowa (240 lbs) and Damontre Moore (250) looked like it was made to get more snaps for Brian Price (303) and Richard Ash (333), who was just signed from the practice squad. They are more space-eating 1-techs, and that may have been what the team needed. Neither recorded a tackle, but it is worth noting that both were credited with a pass defended (which is usually a batted ball for D linemen). As a side note, Taco Charlton also had a pass defended.
While there is still a lot of work to do with the run defense, we should all be very happy about what has happened with the pass rush. The Cowboys added five more sacks to their total for the season, including one each from Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving, who are living up to their billing as the best rushers the team has. They are on a pace to have 56 sacks this season - a total turnaround from the past few years. Lawrence is now half a sack off the lead in the NFL, but he has one less game played than the leader, Calais Campbell.
But the most positive development for the defense was the two forced fumbles (the third was on special teams) that Dallas actually manged to recover, and both those fumbles were on sacks. Lawrence had the first, and Jaylon Smith, no longer having to carry the load at middle linebacker, got the other. There was also a near interception by Anthony Brown, but a questionable penalty wiped that off the board.
The Cooper Rush era has dawned.
Well, at backup quarterback, anyway. One of the real frustrations for fans was the way the coaching staff continued to cling to Kellen Moore as the QB2. During the preseason, UDFA rookie Cooper Rush outplayed Moore in every way possible. But he remained mired in the third spot, and had been inactive all season.
It is perhaps indicative of just how much that backup job means in Dallas that there was considerable excitement when the first reports emerged that Rush was going to be active instead of Moore for the game. And not only did that prove to be the case, Rush got to come in for the last couple of drives in the fourth quarter, allowing the team to protect Dak Prescott. Rush didn’t exactly stand out, but he didn’t embarrass himself, either.
What is important is that it is evidence that the coaching staff saw the same things that we did in the preseason. They just wanted to get Rush a little better prepared before giving him the chance to be the QB2. The promotion may not be permanent, if the team sees games where for one reason or another they would rather have Moore’s experience (if playing in losing efforts during meaningless games counts). But it does seem pretty inarguable that Rush is the backup of the future for Dallas. And the thought of having to rely on that backup QB seems a little less depressing with him.
Those are three lessons we learned in the game, although there are almost certainly other things to be gleaned. What did you see in the game? Jump into the comments and join the discussion.