When looking back on the 2017 Dallas Cowboys season, Sunday’s 33-19 victory over the Washington Redskins will count as much as any other victory, and victory is always the objective when going into a division rival’s stadium. Nevertheless, I imagine coaches, players and fans alike exhaled a sigh of relief when Byron Jones finally sealed the game with under a minute remaining with a pick-six. Playing against a preseason-caliber Redskins’ roster the Cowboys were inefficient on offense, committed penalty after penalty, turned the ball over once and allowed the Redskins enough plays to turn what should have been a gimme into another nail-biter. Let’s look at some numbers that tell the story:
86 Yards - length of Orlando Scandrick’s return of a blocked field goal attempt
Orlando Scandrick picked up a blocked field goal on his own 10-yard line, headed right, reversed direction, then sped up the sidelines for 86 yards for the single biggest play not only of the game but the entire Cowboys’ season so far.
After taking an early 7-3 lead, the Dallas defense had given up a 75-yard touchdown drive, a 38-yard field goal drive and a 55-yard drive, allowing 13 points with the Redskins lined up to take a 16-7 lead. With just over three minutes remaining in the first half and the Redskins set to receive the second half kick-off, the Cowboys’ prospects were looking bleak. Dallas was looking at the very real possibility of a fourth loss in the team’s last six games. Then Tyrone Crawford blocked Nick Rose’s 36-yard attempt, Orlando Scandrick made a terrific return, Ezekiel Elliot scored a go-ahead touchdown two plays later and order was restored. Dallas would not relinquish the lead the rest of the game.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Crawford’s block and Scandrick’s return. It’s the kind of game-changing defensive/special teams play that has been missing from this team for the last several years. Considering the offense never again got untracked after an early 75-yard touchdown drive and the defense struggled at times to contain the Redskins’ passing attack, I doubt Dallas wins this game without this play.
29 - games since a Cowboys’ special teams or defensive score
Scandrick almost scored on his return, reaching Washington’s 5-yard line. Had he returned the ball all the way to the end zone he would have broken a string of 29 straight games without the Dallas special teams or defensive units scoring a touchdown. No kickoff returns, no punt returns, no interception or fumble recoveries by the Cowboys have resulted in a touchdown since November 22nd, 2015.
That’s when Rolando McClain picked off a Ryan Tannehill pass and returned it 12-yards for a touchdown. Special teams and defensive touchdowns are relatively random events and no team can plan on getting points from those units. But going 29 straight games without such a score is an extremely long time. These are game-changing plays that can negate a dozen or more positive plays.
The long wait finally ended with 21 seconds remaining when Byron Jones at last scored a defensive touchdown, returning a Kirk Cousins interception 21 yards. Jones was an unlikely candidate to break the streak. He has exactly one interception in his career despite starting 39 games and playing virtually every defensive snap since entering the league in 2015. He’s also notorious for possessing hands of stone. Yet there he was racing into the end zone, breaking the long defensive scoring drought and finishing off the Redskins by doing so.
7 - Combined number of sacks and turnovers caused by the Dallas defense
It’s no secret the Dallas defense has not been great in 2017 but it has consistently generated pressure on the quarterback, recording 21 sacks in the team’s first six games. Many believed those numbers could rise significantly as the Cowboys faced a Redskins’ offensive line decimated by injuries. Two Redskins offensive linemen were playing their very first game, others weren’t at full strength.
And the Cowboys did get pressure on Cousins, with four sacks and eight quarterback hits. One of the sacks led to a Cousins’ fumble and David Irving’s tipped pass resulted in Byron Jones’ late, game-clinching interception and touchdown return. Add a fumble caused by Keith Smith on special teams and the Dallas defense has recorded six turnovers in the last two games.
This is a major turnaround from the three-game stretch against Arizona, Los Angeles and Green Bay when the team didn’t record a single turnover. The Dallas defense is never going to dominate. Good offenses, especially those with quality quarterbacks, will move the ball on this team. Thus, they have to be opportunistic and take advantage of fumbles, batted balls and quarterback’s throwing under duress. This happened against both San Francisco and Washington and is a very good development.
David Irving, by the way, has five sacks in three games since returning from suspension. Tyrone Crawford added his fourth sack of the season in addition to making the key field goal block. And of course Demarcus Lawrence notched another sack, giving him 10.5 on the season. With Lawrence already at double-digits and Irving halfway there the Cowboys could have two lineman with 10+ sacks. Crawford is on pace for 8+ as well. There’s no doubt this is the best, most disruptive pass rushing unit the Cowboys have had in years.
150 - Ezekiel Elliott rushing yards
On a day when Dak Prescott would throw for less than 150 yards and when every other Cowboy ran for less than 20 yards combined, Ezekiel Elliott provided almost all of the Cowboys’ offense. He ran 33 times and despite a long run of only 14 yards set a season-high with 150 yards on the ground, adding two touchdowns. He also converted a key fourth-down conversion. A dubious holding penalty denied him of another 26 yards and a third touchdown.
Elliott now has 690 yards on the ground and is on pace for over 1,575 yards and 18 touchdowns. Excluding the Denver game Elliott has averaged 124 yards rushing per game and has tallied nearly 400 yards total offense the last two weeks. In short, Zeke is eating and the Cowboys are back to their dominant rushing ways. We’ll ignore the legal issues looming over both he and the team for now and just enjoy these performances while they last.
5- Number of offensive holding penalties committed by Dallas
The Dallas offense never really got untracked Sunday primarily because penalties repeatedly derailed drives. Combined, the five penalties stopped four drives. Tyron Smith was called twice, including an iffy call that negated what would have been Ezekiel Elliott’s third touchdown run of the game. Jason Witten, La’el Collins and Jonathan Cooper were also flagged. On a day when the rushing game provided the only reliable means of moving the ball, these holding penalties potentially could have cost the Cowboys a victory.
39 and 30 - Average starting position for Dallas and Washington
The Dallas offense was blessed with outstanding field position throughout the game. Three times the Cowboys started drives inside Washington territory; five times they started at their own 37 or better. These advantageous starting positions resulted in 13 of the team’s 26 offensive points despite the team netting only 25 yards on the three drives.
Washington, meanwhile, started one drive at the Cowboys’ 29 but otherwise were generally starting inside their own 23. While Dallas was scoring points off short fields the Redskins were repeatedly facing long fields.
The 9-yard difference between starting positions represents 99 yards of field position over each team’s 11 possessions. Add the 107 return yards from Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones and the Cowboys enjoyed a 200+ advantage in “hidden” yards.
3 - Number of bewildering return plays by Ryan Switzer
Switzer was drafted in the fourth round for a number of reasons: he provided insurance against an injury to Cole Beasley, he could be utilized in dual slot and jet formations but most importantly he was supposed to upgrade the Cowboys’ anemic return game since Dwayne Harris departed.
Things have not worked out as planned. Switzer had a good punt return against Arizona in week three but otherwise has looked uncomfortable, especially on punt returns. Sunday against Washington he had a bad day. First, he let a punt bounce in front of him, adding more than 10 yards to the net punt yardage. This forced the Cowboys to start a late-1st-half drive inside their 10 instead of near their 25.
Then he misjudged another punt and allowed it to go over his head, again costing the team yards and forcing the offense to start deep in their own territory. Yes, conditions were bad but catching the ball is a minimum requirement for returning punts in the NFL.
Finally, on a truly bewildering play, Switzer tentatively ran a kickoff back then gave himself up around the 15-yard line. On the play he acted like he had been instructed to give himself up but also seemed to get an earful from the coaching staff. Who’s to blame? Who knows, but it looked odd and made no sense at the time.
Switzer did finally make a contribution offensively with a pretty key third-down catch that moved the chains and led to a Dallas field goal. With Cole Beasley apparently in the concussion protocol Switzer may have an opportunity to make some offensive plays in the weeks ahead.
Still, Switzer has been extremely disappointing in the return game, where he was most expected to contribute. Returners learn in peewee leagues that rule one is to catch the ball and Switzer has too often struggled with rule #1 (recall his costly fumble against the Rams). He’ll need to improve and do so quickly.