The 2018 season hasn’t been particularly enjoyable for Cowboys fans. An anemic offense has left fans feeling somewhat helpless about the team’s fortunes. Adding to the gloom was a difficult challenge in week six, facing the league’s number one defense.
Naturally the Dallas offense came up with their highest scoring game in recent memory and combined with a very strong defensive performance for the team’s best, most complete effort of the season. The 40-7 victory returns the team to .500 on the season and sets up a suddenly important game next week against the NFC East-leading Washington Redskins.
Let’s go to the grades.
Honestly, there’s little to nitpick from Sunday’s outcome. The Dallas offense scored on all four first half possessions. Included were three consecutive touchdowns that gave the Cowboys a commanding 24-0 halftime lead. This was a significant accomplishment as the Dallas offense had yet to score three touchdowns in any previous game this season.
The Cowboys finished with 378 yards, ran for 206 yards, committed no turnovers, held the ball for for nearly 39 minutes and scored on eight of the team’s eleven possessions. Perhaps most importantly, Dallas converted seven third downs after averaging only 3.4 third-down conversions over the first five weeks of the season.
In short, the offense enjoyed a highly productive, high-scoring, error-free game. The defense, meanwhile, was absolutely stifling. Jacksonville averaged 3.9 plays and 16 yards per possession. Only three of the Jaguars’ 12 drives went farther than 14 yards. The Jaguars had zero red zone opportunities. That’s remarkable.
The defense also generated two turnovers for the second consecutive week while also recording three sacks (the team is on pace to record 46 sacks for the season). The only real complaint was allowing the Jaguars a glimmer of hope by allowing yet another deep touchdown pass after halftime. Other than that one 82-yard drive the defense was dominant.
Jason Garrett silenced the critics calling for his removal for at least one week. The team’s all-around great performance should buy Garrett at least a one week reprieve from the proverbial hot-seat. The team came out prepared and ready to play; they were crisp and disciplined throughout.
Similarly, Scott Linehan should receive kudos for an electric game-plan where the play-calling was an indisputable strength after being a constant target of criticism throughout the season. Truth be told execution probably had more to do with the success of the play-calling than any change in Linehan’s philosophy. No matter, this week the plays worked so Linehan’s a genius (for this week).
This is exactly how Dak Prescott can thrive in the NFL. He’ll never be a high-volume passer but he can be an effective, efficient contributor to a capable offensive performance.
Prescott is best when he’s making plays with his legs and he did that repeatedly Sunday. His 82 yards rushing is the second-highest ever for a Cowboys quarterback. He ran for a touchdown and repeatedly made first downs and big plays with both designed runs and scrambles.
If you give Dak room to run, he'll make you pay for it. pic.twitter.com/0LdIhPsGoW— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 14, 2018
Prescott also had arguably his best day of the season throwing the ball. He was more confident and accurate than we’ve seen since the early part of his career. Prescott has two solid games in his last three contests which is a significant development considering his downward trend since mid-2017.
Dak did enjoy some good fortune. He fumbled on both of the team’s first two possessions and both times had the ball bounce right back to him.
Dak learns sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. pic.twitter.com/6OC5mlrpgy— mike fisher ✭ (@fishsports) October 14, 2018
Combined with his fortuitous recovery of a fumble last week against Houston and that’s three consecutive times Prescott has relinquished the ball and then been able to immediately retrieve it. That’s not likely to continue.
There’s has been some criticism of Prescott for not seeing a wide open Ezekiel Elliott for a touchdown on the team’s first drive. However, Elliott didn’t break open until Prescott was under pressure.
Romo with a good eye on that Dak run. Breaks down how it shoulda been a TD.— Saad Yousuf (@SaadYousuf126) October 14, 2018
Look at Zeke streaking WIDE OPEN for a touchdown across the field to the right pylon pic.twitter.com/gTEmyvC3KF
Prescott, under pressure, saw an open lane and used it to run for a first down (while fumbling and retrieving the ball on the way). You can’t tell Prescott to make plays with his legs when they’re available - and then criticize him for doing so.
RUNNING BACKS: A
Ezekiel Elliott continues to amaze. He finished with “only” 106 yards on 24 carries but ran tough the entire day, making the most of every run. Jacksonville clearly set out to stop Elliott and force Prescott to beat them. Running lanes were small and Elliott frequently had nowhere to run. The team continued to give him the ball and he made enough plays to keep Jacksonville honest throughout. He did break one run for 21 yards, caught a single pass for an 11-yard first down and effectively finished the game with his 15-yard touchdown run.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
Sunday’s match-up was supposed to be a monumental challenge for the Cowboys struggling offensive line. Yet they had, by far, their best week of the year. While they didn’t open gaping holes for Ezekiel Elliott they did enough to allow Dallas to stick with the run game. More importantly, they gave Prescott time throughout the game against the Jaguars fierce pass rush.
This was a massive improvement over last week when the Texans’ athletic defensive front gave the Dallas OL trouble throughout the game.
TIGHT ENDS: B
Nothing the tight ends did really stood out Sunday. Geoff Swaim did contribute another big gain off the team’s patented drive-opening bootleg. Blake Jarwin added a nice block on Prescott’s touchdown run. Rico Gathers got loose for a 14-yard catch on his only target. Frankly, anything the tight ends can contribute is gravy and as long as they’re not making mistakes and making plays when given the opportunity it’s all good.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B+
Cole Beasley claimed he was open recently and proved it against the Jaguars. Pretty much every Cowboys’ drive featured Beasley either converting a key third-down catch or finishing the drive with a touchdown. He ended up with nine catches on eleven targets for 101 yards and two touchdowns. It was the Cowboys’ first 100-yard day for a wide-out since Terrance Williams went for 141 yards last year against Kansas City.
DID ANYBODY HAVE TWO ORDERS OF SAUCE pic.twitter.com/ZoHuJs1PQw— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) October 14, 2018
Michael Gallup also made a key contribution with a clutch 27-yard, third-down catch on the team’s first drive. He had an apparent touchdown catch on the same drive that was (correctly) ruled out of bounds. Gallup is the only Cowboys’ receiver to show any ability to get up in the air and win contested balls.
Allen Hurns had zero catches on five targets to continue his disappointing season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
The Cowboys stifled the Jaguars throughout the game and any time that happens the defensive line is doing a good job. Jacksonville ran for only 65 yards. Bortles was sacked three times and rarely had much time to throw. It wasn’t a dominant performance but it was a highly effective performance.
Remarkably, Demarcus Lawrence wasn’t the key instigator, instead being a component of a strong team performance. The return of both Maliek Collins and David Irving was felt immediately as Irving made an impact on his first play.
Randy Gregory, finally, had more plays than penalties and had his best game of the season.
Randy Gregory: 2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 3 QB Hits, and no penalties.— One Cool Customer (@OCC44) October 14, 2018
This was the first time we’ve seen Lawrence, Gregory, Irving and Collins together, and their combined effectiveness should provide optimism for the future. Taco Charlton also had a nice play, sniffing out a mis-direction screen for a TFL.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch again combined for a strong sideline-to-sideline performance. The young dynamic duo recorded 19 tackles, including 13 solo. Smith forced a fumble that led to a turnover. There weren’t a lot of eye-popping plays but instead a workmanlike effort that contributed to a stifling defensive performance.
It will be interesting how the team will handle the return of Sean Lee and if they come up with more three LBer sets to get all three on the field. Smith and LVE have been that good.
Honestly, the secondary wasn’t stressed too much. When they were, however, they were up to the challenge. Byron Jones had another strong game. Jourdan Lewis made a nice play to recover the fumble caused by Jaylon Smith. And of course Jeff Heath did another Jeff Heath thing, snagging a pass that banged off Byron “hands of stone” Jones and returning it to the Jaguars’ four-yard line.
RT if Jeff Heath is the GOAT pic.twitter.com/t77EWx5U5X— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) October 14, 2018
The only real blemish for the defense was the Jaguars’ lone touchdown, a 44-yard touchdown pass from Bortles to Dede Westbrook. Vander Esch was beaten on the play but asking a linebacker to cover a wideout 30 yards down the field seems unrealistic. Not sure if Heath was supposed to help or what. The one area the Cowboys’ defense has been exposed is on long pass plays as they’ve given up numerous big plays the last four weeks and it again reared its head on the team’s one breakdown Sunday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Anyone missing Dan Bailey? No? No one? Brett Maher is having one of the best seasons of any kicker in the NFL. He’s now 15-of-16 on field goals for the season and hasn’t missed any extra points. Twenty-six times he’s been asked to kick the ball through NFL uprights and 25 times he’s converted. Sunday he made three kicks from 46 yards or more, including a 55-yarder that was the second longest in team history. His chart on the season:
As you can see Maher is now 3-for-3 on kicks of 50+ yards. Every kick seemingly goes right down the middle. It’s only six games, but the Cowboys’ decision to move on from Dan Bailey and forward with the Brett Maher era looks like a wise decision.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the Cowboys’ may have changed their entire season Sunday. Prior to the team’s week six performance it was looking like this team was headed towards a losing season. Both the head coach and the quarterback looked like they might not be here next season. But now, seven days later, the Cowboys prepare for a showdown against the division-leading Washington Redskins for first place in the NFC East.
While anything can happen, and both the coach and the quarterback could still be looking for work after the season, things look much more interesting now than just a week ago.
Let’s embrace this Cowboys fans and enjoy the ride we’re now on.