The emotions have swung wildly for fans of the Dallas Cowboys so far this year. In the dumps after the first game, up almost as much after a relatively easy win, back down to the depths as the offense struggled again, and then a big rebound after a close and exciting win. The important thing there is the way the team has performed so differently from game to game. That has to be straightened out. If not, this has all the signs of another disappointing year with an 8-8 record and no playoffs.
The game against the Houston Texans is the first chance to try and establish some consistency. There are opportunities there, and both areas to improve and good things that have to be maintained. It is easy to just say the team has to be better at things. To be more specific, here are some of the key areas they must focus on, and how things seem to be trending.
Dak Prescott has had his issues finding his game and his rhythm so far, but the Lions game was a major step in the right direction. He finally looked more decisive and was delivering a lot of throws on target. Most importantly, he went deep again with some major success. The team cannot afford any regression from him. He has to build on last Sunday.
Hand in hand with Prescott’s play has been that of the almost completely revamped wide receiver and tight end units. This is an area where the trend is also up, and must continue on that line.
We may have underestimated just how much work needed to be done here. Remember, Prescott has exactly one receiver who has seen a lot of snaps and that he has completed a lot of passes to in the past, Cole Beasley. He also has one tight end that he had a small handful of throws to, Geoff Swaim. The rest are all either new faces for him or players who he had no real work with in actual games. They were much better last game than in the first three. The mere accumulation of reps on the field with this corps should yield continued, and badly needed, improvement.
The offensive line
Another place where the growing pains should have been anticipated. 40% of the starters this year are new, namely rookie Connor Williams and Joe Looney, filling in for the still ailing Travis Frederick. The fact they line up shoulder-to-shoulder just compounds the issue. This was another place where things seemed to be clicking in the last game, at least to a greater extent than in the earlier contests. There is nowhere on a football team where continuity has more impact than the O line, and that is finally developing.
Ezekiel Elliott didn’t just have his best game of the season against the Lions. He had his career-best performance in total yards from scrimmage, and finally was a key factor in the passing game. It looks like he finally has that horrid taste from last season’s suspension out of his mouth. The ground game for the Cowboys is arguably more important to their offense than for any other team in the league. Now Zeke looks set to really bring it to opposing defenses.
The game plan and play calling
It wasn’t just the players that had their best day offensively. Scott Linehan clearly had his best day at the office as well. His work and execution on the field go hand-in-hand, and that’s all we’ll say about that particular argument. Now he has seen what works (he had plenty of examples of what didn’t earlier in the season). As long as he doesn’t succumb to a serious bout of amnesia, he should keep things going, as well.
Third down and red zone efficiency
It ain’t all beer and skittles for the offense. (No, I am really not sure what that actually means, but I still love to throw it in.) They are still struggling in keeping drives alive and scoring touchdowns instead of field goals when they get close to the end zone. We’ll go ahead and give the lion’s share of the responsibility for fixing this to Linehan. He isn’t home free unless he does get it solved.
The pass rush
DeMarcus Lawrence has been a monster. The rest of the rushmen not so much. The Texans have been letting Watson get sacked and banged around a lot, so this is a great chance for the rest of the defensive line to live up to the promise we all felt they had coming into this year. But we thought that was the same thing they faced against the Seattle Seahawks, and you remember how that turned out. They can’t let Watson off the hook the way they did Russell Wilson. Time for the rest of the pass rushers to get back into things.
Surviving without the General
Diehards will still argue that the Cowboys could have used their first-round pick better than they did. But right now, the selection of Leighton Vander Esch is paying absolutely huge dividends, with Sean Lee once again out due to injury. LVE, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and the rest of the linebackers had no real letdown without Lee on the field, a vast difference from what happened last year. They have to continue to play like that. And all indications are that they will.
While the pass rush was somewhat disappointing last game, the performance of the defensive backs was downright disturbing. The question of just how much of that was Matthew Stafford just dropping dime after dime in there remains. But the only really successful DB was Byron Jones, who Stafford dodged like a man behind on his alimony ducks his ex-wife. Chidobe Awuzie gave up way too many big plays despite often having really tight coverage. while Anthony Brown and the safeties all had their moments of “doh!” This has to tighten up significantly against a Texans passing game that is pretty potent itself.
That is going to be a real test for Kris Richard. We have high hopes for him, and he really needs to fulfill them.
That new place kicker
Brett Maher had his first real test of his Cowboys career, and passed with game-winning flying colors. Hopefully, they won’t need him to save the day too often, since those close games tend toward a 50-50 outcome over time. The team really needs to score touchdowns instead of settling for a shot at three anyway. However, when they do need Maher to put it between the uprights, he has to keep coming through.
There are the areas where Dallas must establish some consistency if they are to string some wins together this season. The outlook for most of them is good, but nothing is guaranteed. The closest at the moment is that running game, which could be on its way to being absolutely scary for opponents. But the rest of the areas here could go either way. Success the rest of the way depends on keeping things on an upward trend line across the board. That schedule does not look easier in any way after the Texans game.