Well, that was refreshing. After three weeks of concern and worry, only somewhat alleviated by a win over the New York Giants in the middle, the Dallas Cowboys finally put together a nearly complete game offensively in defeating the Detroit Lions 26-24. And we learned some lessons.
The panic may have been just a wee bit overblown.
Doubt was certainly reasonable. But for many, things were descending to a point of giving up on the season. All that was left was for the team to tank for as high a draft spot as possible, since one of the biggest needs was a new franchise quarterback, to play for the new head coach and offensive coordinator that would come in next season.
A lot of people will still maintain that the repeated statements from Jerry Jones that he has complete faith in his current coaches and QB are just standard Jerryspeak, meant to divert and dissemble, but after this game, maybe it is more justified than we want to admit.
Dak can still get ‘er done.
Dak Prescott is not going to be putting up 400 yards. But this was a performance that could have been lifted right from his 13-3 rookie regular season. He was solid, didn’t put the ball at much risk, and directed drives when he needed to, especially the game-winning one.
Most importantly, he did “cut it loose”. He completed two deep passes, a 37-yard connection with Michael Gallup and that crucial 34-yard completion to Ezekiel Elliott that got Brett Maher in very comfortable range for the winning field goal. Those were mostly air yards, and both were good passes. The questions have lingered about just whether he was able to make those kinds of throws, or just lacked the confidence to take the shots. In this game, he did it, and that is what the team needs going forward. Because the offense doesn’t have to rely solely on the quarterback.
Zeke is one of the premier threats in the entire NFL.
These numbers for Elliott are going to be talked about a lot. 152 yards on the ground, which of course made him the leading rusher for the game and puts him on pace for 1,704 yards for the season. And his 88 receiving yards also made him Dak’s best target for the day.
The first three weeks had us wondering if the coaching staff was just going to squander the obvious value Zeke could have in the passing game. But against the Lions, it was all done the right way. The screen pass for a touchdown and that long pass at the end showed how to use him in different types of plays, and there was a less spectacular, but still important, reception when Prescott got him the ball so he had space to work, and he turned it into a nice five yards after the catch. Most always expected Elliott to have a big year. The question now seems to be just how big it can get.
The line looked sharp again.
Prescott was only sacked three times, and one of those was him running out of bounds just shy of the line of scrimmage. Another sack was wiped out by a roughing call, with a defensive holding call on the play as well. And there was the beautiful blocking in the run game and on that screen play (Joe Looney can motor as he blocked one defender then stayed ahead of Zeke to make sure he got in). If they can put together performances like this the rest of the way, good things are likely to happen.
They said they were going to reduce the receiver rotation, and they meant it.
The receiver targets make for an interesting set of numbers. Elliott was targeted four times (and caught all of them). And there were four other players who each had five balls thrown their way: Cole Beasley, Geoff Swaim, Allen Hurns, and Michael Gallup. There were only three other passes the entire game for Dallas, and they were aimed at three different players.
That sure looks like a viable blueprint going forward. Gallup may emerge as a deep threat relying more on his ability to go up and get the ball (sounds familiar). Beasley and Hurns are both being used as possession receivers. And Swaim is becoming more and more reliable at catching the ball, demonstrating some nice ability to make something happen after the catch on his 31-yard play early in the game. Add in Elliott, and suddenly the receiving corps looks a lot more workable.
Still things for the offense to work on, though.
Despite the many good things, the red zone efficiency just wasn’t there, as the Cowboys had to settle three times for Brett Maher field goals when they could have gotten touchdowns. And it took a fourth-down conversion to get the one TD they did score from inside the red zone. That definitely needs some work.
Third downs in general are still a bit of a problem, as they only succeeded on five of twelve. But Chris Jones only had two punts the entire game, so the problems are mostly tied to that red zone issue. If Dallas gets a handle on that, they could be very dangerous indeed.
The defense, however, has some issues cropping up.
There were two issues especially. The secondary flat out struggled at times. Byron Jones saw almost nothing come his way, as the Lions elected to go at Chidobe Awuzie, and they unfortunately made that work for them. Anthony Brown made some significant mistakes, Jourdan Lewis just flat fell down on a play, and the safeties were out of place and taking bad angles at times, plus Jeff Heath left with a shoulder injury.
The second issues was something outside of the Cowboys’ control, at least for the most part. Matthew Stafford was making some stupid good throws. Awuzie gave up a lot of completions when his coverage could not have been better, but the ball arrived at a precise spot where the receiver could gather it and Awuzie couldn’t reach it to break the pass up. Stafford completed 80% of his passes, and frankly was the better passer in the game.
But it wasn’t all bad. The defense did hold the Lions under 100 yards on the ground, and DeMarcus Lawrence was just ridiculous, tallying three sacks of Stafford and leading the team in tackles with eight. Meanwhile, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch held down things quite well in the absence of Sean Lee, with Smith even helping Lawrence on one sack by forcing Stafford to pull the ball down as he blitzed. The defense wasn’t great, especially when the Lions almost effortlessly scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. But they did just enough.
Finally, we may have really wronged Scott Linehan the past few weeks.
The game plan was good. It is hard to find much of anything to fault the offensive coordinator this week.
And that hurts for so many. The loathing of Linehan has become one of those things Dallas fans are just supposed to share in. But if you want to blame him for the different problems the offense had in the first three games, then you can either give him credit for fixing most of them, or just take your hypocritical self out of here. It really was another demonstration of the way execution by the players and the coaching are interdependent. The Cowboys started hitting on some plays, which made it easier for Linehan to pull some tricks out of his playbook, which make the players more confident, and round and round it went.
If you want an example of just how he was able to throw some of those “wrinkles” onto the field, look at the touchdown pass to Swaim. The Cowboys came out in what looked like a 23 package, two backs and three tight ends. That is always a running play, especially from the one-yard line. But instead, Linehan called a play action pass and Dak hit Swaim for six.
That was hardly the only example.
Loved this play design from #Cowboys. The jet-sweep action causes the LBs to flow one way, giving the OL great angles to get their blocks in space, before throwing the screen to the other. pic.twitter.com/tpaE36CZSi— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 1, 2018
Two new offensive wrinkles in 4th Q helped Cowboys beat Detroit 1) I will call it “post-corner” to Beasley for 19 yards that led to FG (23-17) Then inside fade from slot to Zeke for 34 yards that set up the GW FG. Lions had never seen either play.— Babe Laufenberg (@BabeLaufenberg) October 1, 2018
Maybe Linehan thought he was coaching for his professional life. But it may be more likely that things just finally started to click after a lot of change in the offseason and a rough start to the season.
The team still has to duplicate the success of this game for it to matter. But for now, Linehan may not be the disaster that so many claim.