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Giving out grades for the Cowboys rout of Washington

Grading the Cowboys’ bounce-back victory over Washington.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys faced their first true “must-win” game of the 2017 season and emerged with a decisive 38-14 victory. It was a sweet, soothing balm to Cowboys’ fans who had endured three consecutive 20+ point losses. The win keeps the team’s modest playoff hopes alive and provides some much-needed optimism going into a ten-day break before the final month of the season. Let’s look at the grades:

Overall: A

After the last three weeks a victory, any kind of victory, would have warranted an A grade. But there was much to like from this game:

  • 38 points scored; 16 more than in the last three games combined.
  • A return to dominant form for the offensive line.
  • A big-play defense that came up with sacks and turnovers in bunches against a battered Redskins’ offensive line.
  • Special teams scored a TD for the first time in 43 games.
  • Zero turnovers committed after averaging 2.66 over the last three games.

There were also some things not to like but on this night we’re going to focus on the good and leave the bad for another post.

Coaching: B+

There were some who argued the faltering Cowboys should just throw caution to the wind and put the kids into the secondary, and start finding out what they could offer. But I don’t think anyone saw Kavon Frazier getting snaps at Byron Jones’ expense. But head coach Jason Garrett embraced the need for change and called for wholesale changes in the secondary. Chidobie Awuzie and Kavon Frazier saw extended playing time while Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis saw diminished roles.

It worked for the most part, as the Cowboys held a patchwork Redskins’ offense to 56 yards rushing, 280 total yards and 14 points while generating four turnovers and four sacks. Offensively the team relied upon a simple, bruising running game that eventually wore the Redskins down and covered up for another less-than-stellar performance from Dak Prescott.

Most importantly the Cowboys played strong, spirited, disciplined football and looked a lot more like the squad that compiled a 5-3 record over the first half of the season and not the pathetic unit that got outscored 92 - 22 the last three weeks. Jason Garrett desperately needed a return to form to (somewhat) calm the barbarians at the gate calling for his head, with Thursday night’s performance he got at least a week reprieve.

Quarterback: C

First the good:

  • Dak Prescott committed zero turnovers after turning the ball over eight times the last three games. This is what we call improvement.
  • Dak Prescott threw two touchdown passes after throwing zero the last three games. This is also improvement.
  • Dak Prescott ran aggressively and effectively, showing a greater willingness to tuck the ball and run when he didn’t see anything available through the air.

Still, Prescott’s first half was completely awful outside of his touchdown pass to Jason Witten. His balls were wildly thrown and he looked out of sorts. He settled down and in the second half looked more like the player we’d seen prior to November of 2017. Still, he ended up with only 102 yards passing on 22 attempts for 4.6 yards per attempt. Those are not usually winning numbers. So, I give Prescott credit for avoiding mistakes and making the necessary plays in the red zone, but his play still isn’t remotely close to what he showed the first 25 games of his career.

Offensive line: A+

There’s no question which unit was the best on the field this night, the Cowboys’ offensive line dominated from beginning to end. Alfred Morris ran for 127 yards on 27 carries and the Cowboys ran for 182 yards overall. La’el Collins had perhaps his best game, neutralizing Ryan Kerrigan throughout the game. Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith had their best combined game since the 49’ers game when the team rushed for 265 yards.

They also eliminated the mistakes that had plagued this group the last month. Prescott was sacked only once and there were no debilitating holding calls or other penalties. An absolutely outstanding performance from this unit at a key time in the season.

Running backs: B

I like Alfred Morris. He played a good game Thursday night, toting the ball 27 times and running hard on every one of them. But let’s face it; those 127 yards came because there were wide, gaping holes in the Redskins’ defense all night long. Morris didn’t do anything particularly special beyond running hard. I’m pretty sure had Ezekiel Elliott been taking the ball he would have had another 50+ yards. Give Morris credit for doing exactly what was asked of him but the running yards on this night are credited to the dominant performance of the offensive line. I was happy to see him rewarded with a 4th quarter touchdown. Morris has been playing hard since Elliott’s suspension with little reward.

Rod Smith also did what was asked of him and got his second touchdown in as many games. It’s pretty amazing to see his transformation from bottom-of-the-roster linebacker/special teamer to his current backup RB role. I’m pretty sure his ability to play special teams and be an all-around running back makes him the leading candidate to be Elliott’s primary backup in 2018.

Wide receivers/tight ends: B

Let’s face it, none of these guys really got many opportunities. Dak simply couldn’t deliver the ball most of the night and there were only 22 passes thrown total. Dez Bryant had his best game in a while, snagging five balls on seven targets for 61 yards. He also added his first signature “Dez moment” in a while. Those are modest numbers but more efficient than the Dak/Dez connection has been most of the 2017 season. Bryant’s first touchdown catch in six weeks gives him 72 for his career and makes him the Dallas Cowboys all-time receiving touchdown leader, breaking Bob Hayes’ 42-year-old record. (I’m still stunned that no Cowboys receiver has more than 72 touchdowns).

Otherwise the others had very few opportunities. Dez had one drop on a moderately difficult “back-knee fade” from Prescott early in the game but otherwise the group was solid if unspectacular.

Defensive line: B

Normally, when you sack the opposing quarterback four times, cause an interception on a deflection and hold the opponent to 56 yards rushing your defensive line gets an A+ grade. But the Cowboys weren't facing the Redskins’ starting offensive line, they weren’t facing the Redskins’ primary backups either. They were facing a patchwork group of has-beens, never-weres and nobodies off the street. The defensive line should dominate against such a group.

I’d give them an A grade if it weren’t for the fact that twice in the game they allowed Kirk Cousins to dice the defense apart with long drives. In both cases the Cowboys had just gone ahead by 17 points and looked poised to put the game away. Instead they allowed the Redskins to drive 75 and 87 yards for touchdowns that brought Washington to within 10 points. Yes, a blatant double hold on Tyrone Crawford was ignored on the key play of one of those drives. Still, there were times when that patchwork group neutralized the Cowboys pass rush and that’s why I don’t give the unit a higher grade.

Still, they sacked Cousins four times. They also tipped a pass that was intercepted. They stifled the Redskins’ rushing game. Demarcus Lawrence got two sacks to regain the league lead after tallying only one over the last two games; he also caused a fumble. David Irving again looked like David Irving and had another “oh wow” sack of Cousins.

Linebackers: B

Anthony Hitchens tallied 15 tackles and has really come on the last few weeks. Jaylon Smith continues his development from a player to be attacked to a player able to contribute. We didn’t see the big plays from shallow crossing patterns that have vexed the team in the past. Smith is showing better instincts and starting to make some (me) think maybe he’s really going to fulfill that once-limitless potential.

Secondary: A

I’m not going to pretend there weren’t some issues. Everyone seemed to miss a tackle at one point or another. And at times Cousins found wide open receivers as Phillip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan did the last few weeks. But we also saw plays being made. Jeff Heath made a key red-zone interception when the Cowboys desperately needed any kind of play. Chidobie Awuzie convinced me in two quarters he’s the best cover corner the team has, showing skills we haven’t seen in any cornerback in years. He ended up with three passes defensed and to my knowledge didn’t give up a single catch. Anthony Brown made an interception! Let me repeat that... Anthony Brown intercepted the ball!

Garrett was shuffling and moving the secondary guys around so much I have no idea who was playing where. I don’t care. The old group was a mess and any change would have been welcome. I’m still befuddled why Jourdan Lewis seemed to have been benched when he’s been the best corner on the team while Jeff Heath continues to get seemingly every snap while being a target for every opponent.

I’m not going to question a lot of it right now. It worked pretty well for one night and considering where the Cowboys were going into the game I’ll take that.

Special teams: A

Ryan Switzer has been a disappointment this season. He’s contributed almost nothing offensively and as a returner hasn’t been the spark that was hoped for. His fumble against the Los Angeles Rams was a key play in that defeat and he’s made a number of head-scratching gaffes by not catching punts and contributing little in the return game. Only his kickoff returns were creating any positive contributions.

Boy has he come on in the last few weeks. His electrifying 87-yard punt return for a touchdown was the key play of the night, turning a tenuous 10-0 lead into a commanding 17-0 lead. That was the Cowboys first special teams score since blocking a punt against the Eagles in week 2 of the 2015 season. It was also the team’s first points off a punt or kickoff since Bryan McCann went 97 yards for a touchdown against Detroit in week 11 of the 2010 season. This came after Switzer had kickoff returns of 33 and 32 yards against the Chargers. In short, Switzer is finally giving the Cowboys the special teams ace they anticipated when they spent a fourth-round draft pick on him.

Rookies: A

Just a bonus grade for the contributions from the team’s rookies. In addition to Ryan Switzer making the play of the game, Taco Charlton notched his second sack on the season. Chidobie Awuzie had a dominant performance, Xavier Woods played an integral role and even the demoted Jourdan Lewis saw time on the field. Overall it was, without question, the best game of the team’s thus-far disappointing rookie class.

The 2017 season has been a major disappointment to #CowboysNation thus far but for one night on the last day of November things were as they were supposed to be. Let’s enjoy it.

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