After weeks of seeing things go wrong for the Dallas Cowboys, it was certainly nice - and even a relief - to see things turn out so positively in the 27-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The biggest impact was that Dallas kept at least a slim hope for the playoffs alive. But a long road remains ahead. Meanwhile, there were some interesting, and for a change, positive things we learned from the game - and one big thing that still is up in the air.
Dak may be returning to his winning ways
Watching the game, especially from the point of Michael Gallup screen pass that led to the first touchdown, was like going through the standing stones back to 2016 and seeing that fourth-round draft pick surprise everyone. There was a lot of vintage Dak Prescott from then on. He still has his flaws, but for a little over a half, he showed us his strengths. Here is just one of the plays he made (on similar ones, he has failed too many times this season).
This was Dak Prescott's best play of the game. Steps up in the pocket and relievers a strike to Cole Beasley. pic.twitter.com/SopL8hsDRt— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 13, 2018
The difference here (as Cowboys blogger/writer Joey Ickes observed) is that he did not bail out when the pressure came, but climbed the pocket, which allowed him to keep his eyes downfield and see Cole Beasley coming open. In the first half of the season, far too often Prescott tried to escape the pass rush by escaping to the outside, often with a spin move. That reliance on his athleticism to get him out of trouble means that he had to take his eyes off the receivers, and things would generally break down before he could look their way again. If he can maintain this pocket discipline, things are going to be much better for the Cowboys.
I mentioned the screen play to Gallup earlier because that seemed to be a turning point in the game for Prescott. The team struggled a lot on third downs before the bye week, so this conversion on 3rd and 15 really gave them a boost, especially Prescott. His effectiveness was noticeably better after that.
Prescott still has certain limitations, but this game showed how he could still thrive if things are right. Which brings us to some other things that really helped in the game.
Zeke got fed
The game started out like so many for Ezekiel Elliott, with little room to run. His yards gained on his carries to start the game, in order, went for 1, 2, 1, 3, 5, 11 but wiped out by a penalty, 2, and 1. Little space to run, nothing really happening.
And then he burst up the middle, hurdled a defender, and only the turf monster stopped him from going right to the end zone.
As it was, he got 32 yards - and the dam was breached. He, of course, went on to amass 151 yards on the ground, averaging 7.9 yards a carry - despite that slow start.
This is why the Cowboys don’t want to give up on the running game too early, because Elliott and the offensive line do tend to wear down the defense. And once Dallas found the end zone, the long runs by Elliott just kept coming.
It was a fine example of how the air and ground games are interrelated, with one helping the other. When both your quarterback and running back are on, then the opponent has to pick their poison. Load up the box to try and stop the run, or drop back to cover the pass. If you can catch them guessing wrong on what you are doing, you will eat - just like Zeke did.
This wide receiver group is suddenly a whole lot better
Obviously, the promotion of Lance Lenoir from the practice squad was the key . . .
Oh, you say that Amari Cooper had something to do with this? OK, point conceded.
This might be my favorite Amari Cooper play pic.twitter.com/nRWZ9opQID— Patrick Conn (@DraftCowboys) November 12, 2018
Cooper has, in two games, proven he is a legit WR1, and his production projects out to a 1,000 yard season if he had a full 16 games with Dallas. And his presence is making things better for the rest of the receivers, at least based on the evidence of this game. Gallup, Cole Beasley, and Allen Hurns all had multiple receptions, and no drops. Hurns in particular looked much better, and even seemed to be running crisper routes himself. Funny how a good example and a little friendly competition in the room can work out, huh?
The Colombo era is off to a great start
Paul Alexander was replaced by Marc Colombo (and Hudson Houck) in an attempt to fix the malaise on the offensive line. And despite having Xavier Su’a-Filo replacing an injured Connor Williams, as well as Adam Redmond having to cover 13 snaps for a dinged-up Zack Martin, that is what happened in this game. The Elliott stat line speaks to the effectiveness of the run blocking, and although Prescott was sacked four times, they once again seemed to happen when he held the ball too long or, as on the opening play of the second half, the wrong play was called for the defense they faced as Michael Bennett did not bite at all on the bootleg and came in untouched to blast Prescott.
But after that, Dak seemed to have good protection on most of his pass plays, and it paid off as the Cowboys would go on to put together back to back 75-yard touchdown drives, both answering Philly tying the score.
Those two drives are worth looking a bit deeper at, because they show just how well the Cowboys offense was clicking. There were four third downs converted between the two, and Prescott had only one incomplete pass. Things were operating like a well-oiled machine when they needed it most. It takes all the parts, and they were all doing their job.
Let’s not forget the new sheriff on defense
According to #Cowboys coaches tape, rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch had 19 tackles vs #Eagles, most in single game by any Dallas player in history. Despite starting just four games, LVE leads team with 96 tackles - no rookie has ever finished season as #Cowboys tackle leader.— Ed Werder (@EdwerderRFA) November 13, 2018
Leighton Vander Esch was a divisive and controversial pick in the first round this year. Now, it is hard to find any fault for a rookie who is not only proving to be the most productive defender on the team, but by just about any standard is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. You can say that linebacker is a devalued position in the pass-centric league. But he is showing he is a lot more than just a run stopper.
That play set the tone for the first half, when Philadelphia could only muster three points. And he also provided a crucial stop with his tackle for a loss to set up the failed fourth down conversion late in the game.
It’s like he is a healthier clone of Sean Lee.
The weak spot for the defense
OK, it can’t all be unicorns and rainbows. After a very solid performance in the first half, the Dallas secondary started springing some leaks. Some of the yards surrendered may have been part of a move to softer coverage, but mostly it just looks like the Eagles got things figured out. Zach Ertz in particular was just catching everything, and getting nice yards while doing it.
In their defense, Chidobe Awuzie broke up two passes in the first half, including one that likely saved a touchdown, and Xavier Woods did even more, with three PBUs. Still, this has to tighten up if the Cowboys don’t want to bank on Prescott and Elliott having dominating performances for much of each game.
But the big question is still out there
That is: Have Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett finally figured out how to game plan and call the offense?
There is no question they had it right in this game. But as has been shown, part of that came from really good performances by Dak, Zeke, Amari, and, well, just about everyone on offense. Which takes us right back to the chicken-or-egg problem. How much has poor performance by the players hampered the play-calling, and how much of the poor performance is because the players were being put into bad situations by the OC?
It is going to take more than one game to give us any real indication of whether this is another outlier like the Jacksonville Jaguars game, or if the team is really finding a path forward. The way things worked against the Eagles speaks for itself, but Dallas has yet to show a shred of consistency from one game to the next. Now the team is headed back to Atlanta, where the Falcons did a number on Prescott last season that probably still wakes him up from nightmares of Adrian Clayborn coming nearly unhindered to throw him down again.
Prescott showed some resiliency in Philly, which is a positive. Now he and everyone else on the Cowboys, from the head coach on down, need to prove that it was not just a fluke.