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Grading the Cowboys’ 26 - 24 win over the Lions

There was much to like and a few areas that need improvement

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference seven days makes! This time last week it was all doom and gloom following the Cowboys’ dismal showing on the road against Seattle. Today the Cowboys sit at 2-2 and the performance on the field Sunday looked a lot more like what fans were hoping to see going into the 2018 season.

If 2-2 doesn’t excite you much, consider the plight of the following teams:

All of those were teams expected to do better heading into the season. Also, consider that September is largely an extension of the preseason with teams rounding into form. All things considered, the Cowboys are in reasonably good shape with all the team’s original goals still within grasp. Let’s go to the grades.


The key objective was to simply win the game and that objective was met. More specifically, the offense desperately needed to break out of the stranglehold of anemic performances that had become the norm. Mission accomplished:

  • 26 points
  • 414 yards
  • 183 rushing yards
  • 6.4 yards per play
  • 231 passing yards
  • 119 passer rating

All of the above numbers represent season highs. The offense finally broke out and executed the scheme devised over the offseason with a heavy dose of Ezekiel Elliott and timely contributions from Dak Prescott.


Hey, if we’re going to place all the blame on the coaches when things go wrong let’s give them credit when things go right. Dallas was sloppy and unprepared against the Seahawks. Sunday, they were crisp and prepared against the Lions.

One (non)play really stood out in this regard. Late in the third quarter the Cowboys faced a 3rd-and-10 from the Lions 12-yard line while nursing a 13-10 lead. Prescott found an open Cole Beasley in the middle of the field for a nine-yard gain setting up a 4th-and-1 from the Lions’ three-yard line.

The Cowboys immediately rushed to the line of scrimmage and set up for a fourth down play. Now, the play didn’t come to fruition because the Lions called time out. But the execution showed the team was fully prepared and ready to immediately engage and go for it on what was, at that time, the most important play of the game. It forced a Lions’ time out and the team the lined up and executed the fourth down anyway.

This showed not only that Garrett and company had the team prepared for the situation but also that they were going to meet it aggressively and without doubt. This is a small thing but how many times have you seen quarterbacks looking to the sidelines wondering what to do or looking for guidance? None of that happened in this instance; the players had been coached up for this exact situation and knew exactly what to do. That’s a sign of good coaching.


Dak Prescott’s fall from rookie wonder-boy to third-year pin-cushion has been hard to watch. He desperately needed to put a good performance on the field and he did so. The final numbers, again, were not huge in terms of volume but were very efficient.

And efficient is what this team needs from Prescott. The following charts show Prescott’s numbers since the Kansas City game last year when his performance declined:

Clearly, two games stand out far above the others: the New York Giants game last year in week 15 and the game yesterday. So, we know Prescott can be the effective quarterback he was against Detroit. The question is whether, like the Giants game, this was an aberration or a sign of Prescott getting back to the quarterback we saw for the first 24 games of his career.


You simply can’t ask more from a running back than what Ezekiel Elliot gave the Cowboys yesterday. He ran 25 times and ran hard on every one of the plays. He was gouging the Lions defense from the beginning and stayed at it throughout the game. After another slow start to the season Elliot now has 426 rushing yards on the season and is averaging a very healthy 5.7 yards per attempt.

Yet it was two plays in the passing game that people will remember from this game. First, on a play that has yielded similar results in the past against Pittsburgh and San Francisco, Elliott took a well-executed screen pass 38 yards for a much needed touchdown with the Cowboys trailing in the first half.

The play is one the Cowboys excel at as it not only allows Elliott to show off his skills, but also showcases the athleticism of the Cowboys’ offensive line. Particularly impressive was watching backup center Joe Looney making multiple blocks on a forty-yard path of destruction from the line of scrimmage all the way to the end zone. An absolutely brilliant play that was executed to perfection.

Second, of course, was Elliott’s clutch catch to fuel the Cowboys’ final game-winning drive. The play featured Elliott lined up in the slot and matched up one-on-one against a linebacker. This is good scheming and the Cowboys’ took advantage as a perfect Prescott pass and terrific Elliott grab set the team up for victory.


After a fairly dismal performance last week, and a disconcerting performance over the first three weeks of the season, the Cowboys’ offensive line finally looked like the unit we expected going into the season.

In addition to gouging holes in the Lions’ defense throughout the game for Elliott to run through, the team also provided solid pass protection. Prescott had time to do what he does, and one of the of two sacks on the day was pretty much on him.

Perhaps more importantly, there were zero penalties. No holding calls, no false starts, no hands to the face....zilch, nada, zero.

All in all it was easily the groups best performance of the season and gives fans hopes that this unit can again become the elite unit we’ve become accustomed to watching.


Expectations have to be tempered for this group considering the pedigree of the four. And there’s nothing eye-popping about the numbers: three catches on six targets for 39 yards and a touchdown. But the reality is that anything the team gets from this group is pretty much gravy.

Geoff Swaim contributed two huge plays: a 31-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter when the Cowboys desperately needed anyone to make a play on offense and a well-designed, easy touchdown catch in the third quarter following the successful fourth-down attempt near the Lions’ goal line.

But perhaps the biggest play made by any tight end this season was Blake Jarwin’s alert recovery of Elliott’s goal-line fumble. Jarwin has been virtually invisible and many are wondering what the coaching staff sees in him. Those wonders won’t go away due to a fumble recovery but it’s nice for Jarwin to finally contribute something positive.


A wide receiver group combining to catch nine passes for 128 yards and no touchdowns normally isn’t something to get excited about. However, the production from this group has been so anemic that virtually anything warrants excitement.

Michael Gallup’s outstanding 45-yard catch in the first quarter set the tone for a much more aggressive offense than we’ve witnessed prior to Sunday’s game. Cole Beasley again came up with a number of key catches. But Tavon Austin dropped a touchdown pass and Gallup failed to take advantage of a couple opportunities.

Baby steps here; this group has to provide more moving forward.


On the one hand Demarcus Lawrence has proven that 2017 was no fluke. He notched three sacks on the day, giving him five-and-half on the season and 20 in his last 20 games played. He also added eight tackles and looks very much like the All Pro he was last year.

Beyond that, however, the defensive line struggled. No one else was able to get pressure on Lions’ quarterback Matt Stafford who threw for 307 yards and two long touchdowns. In addition, the Lions ran for 96 yards.

Taco Charlton. Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong, Antauwn Woods and Daniel Ross combined for seven tackles, zero sacks, two tackles for loss and zero quarterback hits. Tyrone Crawford, who’s been the best defensive lineman not named Lawrence didn’t make the stat sheet in any way. In short, an almost complete whiff from every lineman other than Lawrence.

This is very disturbing. The defensive line was supposed to be a major strength of this team but it’s beginning to look like fool’s gold. Randy Gregory, in particular, has been a major disappointment. He was expected to combine with Lawrence to provide a devastating 1-2 pass rush threat that we haven’t seen in years.

Instead, despite all the scouting accolades for his “bend” and “lean” and “athleticism” it’s been almost impossible to notice that Gregory is even on the field. He has more penalties on the season than combined tackles and sacks and that’s not very good.


Normally, the absence of Sean Lee has meant a complete breakdown in the Cowboys’ defense. But that hasn’t been true in 2018 due to the presence of Leighton Vander Esch. LVE combined with Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson to record 12 solo tackles and 17 total tackles.

Smith again looked good rushing the passer, collapsing the pocket and giving Lawrence the opportunity to record one of his three sacks. LVE also showed a couple times the athleticism that should allow him to thrive in the league for years to come.

Smith still gets caught up in the wash too many times and takes some less-that-ideal angles. But we’re not seeing the plays where opponents isolate him against a back and strike for big plays. Yes, the defense gave up too much Sunday but it wasn’t because of the linebacker play.


Poor Chidobie Awuzie. He covered his assignment very well Sunday. However, Golden Tate and the other Lions’ receivers made catch after catch on Awuzie throughout the day. Many were “wow” plays where you just tip your hat to the opponent because they completed impossible to defend plays. If Awuzie continues to provide the glue-like coverage he did Sunday he’ll be an outstanding corner in the NFL.

The one area he needs to improve is ball awareness. If he can make that jump to where he’s competing with the receiver while also playing suffocating coverage he’ll be among the best in the league.

As for the rest of the was a horrible day all around:

  • Anthony Brown surrendered a ridiculous, long touchdown where he seemed more concerned with the quarterback than his assigned receiver. He allowed a couple other throws as well where he provided too much of a cushion.
  • Jourdan Lewis graphically displayed why he has been demoted, looking foolish on another long touchdown pass. His descent from (arguably) the best cornerback on the team last year to borderline roster spot continues.
  • Jeff Heath had a horrific game reminiscent of his early years in the league. Golden Tate made him look foolish with the simplest of head fakes to complete his first touchdown pass. Heath then whiffed on a number of tackles and was out of position on several plays. His bad day was finished by getting run over by Lions’ running back Kerryon Johnson on an 8-yard touchdown that brought back memories of Adrian Peterson doing the same thing to Heath many years ago.

The secondary looked no better than the porous, helpless unit that has been used and abused by quality passing attacks for years. If any negatives came out of this game it was the all-around poor play of the secondary. This Dallas defense has been vulnerable to potent passing attacks for years and nothing they showed Sunday indicates anything has really changed.

Nevertheless, this was a much-needed win and we should focus on the positive and not dwell on the negative, at least for one week.

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