We are already a quarter of the way through the 2018 season (man, where does the time go?) and the Dallas Cowboys currently sit with a record of 2-2. Things have started a bit sluggish for this team as the offense hadn’t scored more than 20 points in a game until Sunday’s performance against the Detroit Lions. Fans were starting to get a bit worried, but a 400+ yards performance led by star running back Ezekiel Elliott made sure the team would have enough offense to pull out the win. Despite a strong showing last game, the state of this Cowboys offense is still a little uncertain as to what to expect going forward.
On the other side of the ball, things started out fantastic. It was like the defense was picking up where they left of last year. Dallas won four of their final five games last year and a lot of that had to do with the great performance of their defense. The Cowboys defense held opposing offenses to less than 300 yards in all but one of those games, with the only exception being when the New York Giants put up 330 yards when they were trying to play catchup during their 30-10 loss to Dallas win Week 14. The Cowboys started 2018 strong with three-straight under 300 yard performances. But just as the offense showed up last Sunday, the defense let up. Matthew Stafford and the Lions churned out 382 yards against the Cowboys and a lot of that came from big plays.
So, what do we have in this 2018 Cowboys team? Are they a middling team that should finish somewhere around .500 or is this a team that can be a Super Bowl contender? It’s tough to get a read on what we have exactly, but here are some things we should keep in mind as we progress through the season.
Is Dak Prescott the guy?
That’s the question people had coming into the season after a disappointing second half in 2017 put a damper on his 2016 rookie showing. Everyone awaits anxiously as we look to see if the Cowboys have their quarterback of the future or if it’s back to the drawing board.
After three-straight games of not eclipsing 170 yards in passing, it was starting to look a little bleak, but thankfully Dak started airing it out last week and the offense started clicking again. There seems to be a night and day difference in how the Cowboys offense performs when Prescott takes shots down the fields. Every time Dak averages over seven yards per attempt, the Cowboys win. Every time. They are a perfect 19-0 in those games.
Prescott appeared to have figured some things out against Detroit, but has he turned a corner or was that game just an anomaly? Cowboys fans will be on pins and needles waiting for this answer because as Dak goes, the Cowboys goes. It’s a good sign that the offense played better, but we need a larger sample size before we can start getting excited again. Of course, if he starts stringing together more strong performances, things will certainly get interesting.
Ezekiel Elliott is awesome
What else is there really to say here? The Cowboys will lean heavily on their star running back throughout the season. Look for them to give Rod Smith more touches to preserve some of the wear and tear on Zeke. After just one rushing attempt over the first three games, Smith got six on Sunday and he looked pretty good in relief duty. The Cowboys will give Elliott some breathers and hope to not miss a beat when Rod’s getting his chances.
Zeke showed he’s good enough to put this team on his shoulders. He’s super competitive and does not like to lose. You better believe he’s going to do everything in his power to keep this team winning football games and as he showed on Sunday - that can be a lot.
The wide receiver group is still sorting things out
On the surface, this looks like a position group in turmoil. The Cowboys don’t have a single player on team averaging more than four catches a game.
While this doesn’t paint a very flattering picture for the Cowboys receiver situation, this is a work-in-progress group that has shown promise. Prescott and Cole Beasley have a good rapport and although he’s not getting a high volume of catches, his yardage totals are respectable. He should continue to be a reliable target for Dak.
Rookie Michael Gallup only has five catches on the year, which is surprising, but Prescott did connect with him on a 30+ reception last game. If Prescott gives him a chance, Gallup can be a bigger contributor on this offense.
Every time Tavon Austin touches the ball good things happen, but the Cowboys aren’t giving him much of a shot. He gets one rush a game, but usually makes it count as he’s averaging over 10 yards per carry so far this season. Most of his damage comes as a pass catcher as he is the only Cowboys receiver to catch a touchdown pass.
But don’t let the volume numbers fool you. It’s not like the receivers are out there not getting open or dropping passes. It’s more a matter of Dak trusting them enough to make the throws. And so far, his guys aren’t letting him down.
"The Cowboys receivers are trash"— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) October 4, 2018
False. The numbers don't lie.
The only thing they are lacking...is opportunity. pic.twitter.com/2sT3oNtITy
The Cowboys will figure out what things work and what don’t. Dallas doesn’t need a receiver who can catch 100 balls or have 1,000+ yards receiving to ignite a reliable passing game because they can still be effective as a group. With each new game, Dak will get more comfortable throwing to newcomers Gallup, Allen Hurns, and Deonte Thompson. Things should get better.
Swaim is holding things down at tight end
If you asked Cowboys fan who would be the team’s most impactful tight ends, you probably would get some different answers, but Geoff Swaim probably wasn’t atop the list. He’s the team’s best blocking tight end, but now he’s starting to etch himself a role in the passing game. After just nine catches over his first three years in the league, Swaim has caught eight passes in just his last two games alone, including his first ever career touchdown. Dak is getting more and more comfortable with no. 87 with each new game.
Who knows what the future holds with Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz (who has been inactive the last three games), but right now Swaim seems to be doing just fine.
Offensive line is starting to gel
Things started off rocky for the Cowboys offensive line. First, there was the terrible news of Travis Frederick being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. Then, the tackles, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, had all kinds of struggles in the season debut. The offensive line looked like it was heading for destruction.
But things have improved quite a bit in recent weeks. Joe Looney has been a blessing in disguise after filling in as the teams new starting center. Zack Martin continues to play at a high level because that’s just what he does. And now, rookie Connor Williams is starting to play like that second-round steal we all believed the Cowboys got when they selected him.
As long as this group can stay healthy, this unit is only going to get stronger and the Cowboys offense should have the opportunity to make plays.
DeMarcus and who else?
Remember when we debated whether or not it would be wise to invest long-term in DeMarcus Lawrence after just one season of production? Well, there’s not much of a debate now because Lawrence is proving he is one of the league’s best pass rusher. He currently leads the league in sacks and the way he is performing, he is showing no signs of slowing down. Tank is on his way to another double-digit sack season and this one will land him a long-term deal.
While it’s great that Lawrence has presented himself as the real deal, many of us were totally expecting him to have a partner in crime elsewhere on the line. Randy Gregory hasn’t done a whole lot. Taco Charlton looked good in preseason action, but he’s just been so-so so far. The Cowboys have five different defensive linemen who have recorded sacks, but the other guys not named Lawrence all just have one apiece - Charlton, Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, and Antwaun Woods. The Cowboys need more guys to step up and be disruptive on the defensive line.
The good news is David Irving is back and we all know he can bring disruption in a hurry. Collins has also been dealing with a knee injury, but hopefully he can get back and help the group as well. There are still some players who can cause some damage, but so far it’s been mostly Tank.
Insurance policy already paying out
How smart did the Cowboys look when they drafted that no-named Anthony Hitchens in the fourth round of 2014 as a backup to Sean Lee only to turn around and throw him into action his rookie season? He played in all 16 games that season as Lee blew his knee out in OTA’s.
Since that injury, Lee was able to string together a couple healthy seasons, but now he’s having trouble staying healthy again. He missed six games last year and the defense really struggled when he wasn’t on the field, losing five of those games. In three of those losses, the defense would surrender at least 160 rushing yards in the game. It was a mess.
The Cowboys hedged their bets this past April by selecting the athletic linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with their first-round pick. And it looks like a good move as Lee is on the shelf again. In just his first career start, LVE wasted no time making PFF’s team of the week from Sunday.
Lock down corner
The Cowboys still have some things to sort out in the secondary as DB’s no. 3-6 are shaky with a couple of them being liabilities. I have no explanation why second-year corner Jourdan Lewis has fallen so far after such a solid rookie season where he started many games at outside corner. He was very reliable last year, but now he can’t seem to do anything right.
Lewis has struggled and Anthony Brown has been hit and miss, but two guys that have delivered so far are starting outside corners Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie. Despite giving up a good chunk of yards, the coverage from Awuzie has been really good. There have been a handful of plays where Awuzie had his guy smothered, but the ball just arrived at the perfect spot.
Opposing offenses haven’t had the same luck when it comes to targeting Byron Jones. He has been flat-out awesome so far this season. For starters, quarterbacks are just avoiding him all-together, seldom throwing his way. And when they do, it usually doesn’t produce positive results.
Pro Football Focus grades him at 90.6 which is the highest grade of any cornerback in the league this season, making their NFL 2018 first-quarter All-Pro Team.
The Cowboys have gone from a defense with just one All-Pro level player (Sean Lee) to possibly two star players (Lawrence and Jones), who both just so happen to play two of the most important positions on defense. And when you factor in the rising potential of Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, the linebacker position looks to be in good shape to.
Many fans had a tough time accepting the release of fan-favorite kicker Dan Bailey. After all, he had the second highest field goal percentage all-time, trailing only the Raven’s Justin Tucker. Bailey was so reliable for so long.
But he’s gone now and fans are slowly starting to warm up to the Cowboys new kicker Brett Maher. While we might have been a little on edge at first considering he’s only kicked field goals in the CFL prior to this season, he’s slowly earning our trust. After missing his first NFL kick, he’s now made eight straight field goals.
That’s one way to get that field goal percentage rising.
Maher hit four field goals against the Lions, including the game winner. It was good enough to help him win NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. That’s an award Dan Bailey has won three times in his career, but his last one came back in 2015.