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Grading the first place Cowboys 31 - 23 victory of the Redskins

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We’re handing out report cards for the Cowboys win over Washington.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Your NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys defeated the Washington Redskins for the eighth time in nine Thanksgiving games, winning 31-23 in a game loaded with big plays on both sides of the ball. The offense started off hot, looked inept in the middle then exploded in the third quarter. The defense was strong early but then wilted (again) late to make the game closer than it should have been. But they also recorded three turnovers which played a big role in the final results. Finally, the referees made up for their bogus “moving the ball” penalty in the previous Redskins contest by swallowing their whistle late when the Cowboys looked guilty of penalties on two big plays.

It all adds up to the team’s third consecutive victory and some serious momentum as they enter the season’s homestretch.

OVERALL: B

There was much to like Thursday:

  • An offense that put up more than 30 points, generated 400 yards and nearly six yards per play and held the ball for 33 minutes.
  • Amari Cooper having the biggest game by a Cowboys’ receiver since Dez Bryant in 2012.
  • Ezekiel Elliott with 144 all-purpose yards, his third consecutive big game.
  • Dak Prescott with 289 yards passing, two TD passes and a big-time scramble for a touchdown.
  • A defense that recorded three turnovers - all on interceptions - as well as three sacks.

But it wasn’t all roses and champagne. The team struggled on both sides of the ball for significant portions of the game.

  • The defense surrendered 330 yards and 23 points to what, essentially, was the Redskins backup offense. Washington was without their starting QB, both starting OGs, starting OT, starting receiver, starting RB and starting third-down back.
  • Most alarming was, for the third game in a row, the defense wilted in the fourth quarter. After being given a 18-point lead and knowing the Redskins were in desperation comeback mode, the Redskins basically ran amok on the Cowboys’ defense. The Redskins went for 116 yards on 21 plays from that point forward, marching for a touchdown and a field goal. Only an interception (on a play where the Cowboys got away with a defensive holding infraction) stopped the Redskins.
  • The Dallas offense marched smartly for a game-opening 75-yard touchdown drive. But over the team’s next six drives they managed only a field goal and five punts. They looked very much like the ineffective unit we’ve seen for the last year.
  • Dak Prescott was dreadful throughout this period. He was sacked four times, showed poor pocket awareness and missed wildly on several throws. The offensive line was getting dominated by the Redskins’ young, talented and dynamic front four.
  • The offense couldn’t gain six inches in the fourth quarter on a play that would have finished the game.
  • Special teams had a long day, twice allowing the Redskins long returns to set them up for short touchdown drives.

This team isn’t good enough that we can concern ourselves with style points. A win is a win is a win. Dallas is now 6-5 and will next face the seemingly unbeatable New Orleans Saints. That’s a much stiffer challenge and we should learn a bit more about this enigmatic team then.

COACHING: B

Nothing really stood out from a coaching perspective. Dallas did what it does on both offense and defense. The only time Garrett faced a difficult decision he chose to go for it on fourth-and-inches from the Redskins’ 32-yard line. This seemed like a no-brainer to me but there were those who thought a field goal or punt would have been the better decision. It’s not often when Jason Garrett is questioned about being too aggressive.

QUARTERBACK: B

The final numbers were terrific: 289 yards passing on only 31 attempts along with two touchdowns, no interceptions, 9.3 YPA, a 122 passer rating and a 5-yard touchdown run for the ages.

Dak also finally threw a ball down the middle of the field more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. All that did was result in a 90-yard touchdown hookup with Amari Cooper. This came after Prescott and Cooper had connected on a 40-yard touchdown pass the previous possession. Later, though, Prescott underthrew Michael Gallup on a deep ball that should have been another long touchdown.

The third quarter outburst was unexpected because after that opening scoring drive Prescott looked bad - very bad. He was under pressure much of the time but showed poor pocket awareness, contributing to his four sacks. He seemed flummoxed because he then started missing wildly with some of his passes. When the Cowboys fell behind 13-10 with nine minutes remaining in the third quarter it was hard to believe Dak was going to finish with his final numbers.

But he did. And this is who Dak is: he’ll look good, he’ll look bad. But he’s a fierce competitor and has accumulated 28 wins in 43 starts in the NFL.

RUNNING BACK: A+

I gave Ezekiel Elliott an A+ last week but a number of BTB readers rightly pointed out his fumble against the Falcons should have dinged his grade a bit. No such issues this week. Elliott impresses week after week after week. He’s an elite running back in the prime of his career. He’s proving it every single game.

Elliott toted the ball 26 times for 121 yards. He added 22 yards on five catches to finish with 143 yards. Zeke’s numbers the last three weeks are astronomical:

Zeke is averaging 28 touches, 177 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game, with a hefty 5.8 yards per rushing attempt and 6.3 yards per touch. Elite.

Thursday was no different. Zeke ran hard and made the most of his opportunities. He’s not racking up these numbers on a few big plays either; he churning out solid gains play after play, possession after possession. Plus he gave us this:

Enjoy this Cowboys fans; we’re watching an all-time great creating his own legacy.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B-

Remember last season when the offense fell apart when Tyron Smith went down with an injury? Well, this was your starting offensive line Thursday:

  • Cameron Fleming
  • Xavier Su’a-Filo
  • Joe Looney
  • Zack Martin
  • La’el Collins

That’s three starters missing (although I’m skeptical Connor Williams is really the “starter” any more). No Tyron Smith, no Travis Frederick and no Williams. At times Thursday the unit looked like a bunch of backups. After the team’s opening drive the Washington DL pretty much dominated. The Cowboys’ couldn’t run the ball and when they tried to pass Dak Prescott found himself under constant pressure.

The second half was significantly better. The OL held up just well enough to allow Dak to make some plays and there were more holes for Elliott to run through. The only real disappointment was the fourth down short-yardage failure.

The coaching staff and front office were rightly blamed in 2017 for not having capable backups on the offensive line. Well, this year they got it right. Looney, XSF and Fleming have been about as good as could be hoped of backups at a position where many teams can’t find capable starters.

TIGHT ENDS: B

Blake Jarwin: two catches for 25 yards. Zero penalties. Still nothing from Dalton Schultz or Rico Gathers. I’m still baffled why the coaches continue to use so many tight end heavy personnel packages when they don’t have real talent at the position with Geoff Swaim out. But this group made a couple plays and didn’t have any obvious errors.

WIDE RECEIVERS: A

This is all Amari Cooper. The fourth-year receiver blew up the game with back-to-back long touchdown passes. Both were of the catch-and-run variety and showed that if Dak trusts Cooper and delivers the ball good things will happen.

The first touchdown came at a key juncture of the game. Dallas had punted on five of six possessions and the offense seemed stuck in the mud. The 7-0 lead had evaporated into a three-point deficit. Then this happened.

Cooper took a simple in-route on an RPO to the house after the corner fell down and the safety over-committed. (I honestly don’t get the play design. Most RPOs have a slant from a wide-out lined up inside - but this worked so we won’t question the play).

Then Cooper electrified a Thanksgiving television audience with the longest pass reception in the NFL this year (and longest play from scrimmage by a Cowboy since Demarco Murray ran 91 yards against the St. Louis Rams in 2011):

This was an example of a big-time play-maker making a big-time play. The play is notable not only for Cooper’s exploits, but the fact Dak Prescott actually threw a deep ball down the middle of the field. By my unofficial tally that’s the first time that’s happened this season. Cooper’s final numbers (eight catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns on nine targets) was the biggest day for a Cowboys’ receiver since Dez Bryant went for 224 yards against the New Orleans Saints in 2011.

Here’s how special Cooper was on the 90-yarder:

The rest of the receiving group didn’t do much. Gallup caught only two balls on six targets. As mentioned, Prescott underthrew him when he got past his defender, but Gallup still could have made a play on the ball or at least forced the defender into a pass interference call. Allen Hurns and Cole Beasley combined for only two catches on three targets for a measly 12 yards.

It was the Amari Cooper show Thursday.

DEFENSIVE LINE: B-

Yes, the Cowboys recorded three sacks. And yes, DeMarcus Lawrence continued his All-Pro-caliber play with a highlight reel interception:

And yes, the group was undermanned with David Irving and Taco Charlton out. But this Redskins offensive group just isn’t very talented. As noted, they’re basically playing backups across the entire group except left tackle. So it was frustrating to watch Colt McCoy sit back and march the team seemingly at will after the Cowboys went up 31-13 in the fourth quarter.

The Dallas defensive line looked gassed at that point. And it’s possible the lack of depth came into play as each of the four starters were forced to play virtually every snap. Still, the Cowboys have seen this happen over and over during the team’s three-game winning streak.

Here’s opponent’s final drives over that span:

Summarizing:

  • Philadelphia: twice given a seven-point lead they allowed consecutive long touchdown drives. They then allowed long drives that ended on a successful fourth down defense and the clock running out.
  • Atlanta: given a late 10-point lead they allowed two long drives, tying the game (and needed a clutch play from LVE to avoid giving up 14 points).
  • Washington: given an 18-point lead gave up ten points and a lot of yards. In fact, two bad non-calls helped the defense out immensely. The first was a blatant defensive holding on Xavier Woods interception.

Then Woods was clearly guilty of hitting a defenseless player in the head on a third down stop that forced a field goal.

In short, the defense has fallen apart at the end of the last three games and only big leads and some offensive production have secured the wins.

LINEBACKERS: B

There weren’t any eye-popping plays this week but good, solid tackling from Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. The dynamic duo finished with a sack, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and 15 tackles. Smith was tasked with spying Colt McCoy and performed tremendously, negating McCoy’s ability to scramble and make big plays out of broken plays.

Dallas struggled, however, with the Redskins’ tight end throughout the day. Damien Wilson was beaten like a mule on the Redskins first touchdown, an easy 53-yard pitch-and-catch from McCoy to Vernon Davis.

SECONDARY: A

Jeff Heath recorded eight tackles (including two for loss), a forced fumble and a pass defensed.

Anthony Brown recorded an interception, a sack, a pass defensed and four tackles.

Xavier Woods had an interception, three passes defensed, and four tackles.

Chidobie Awuzie finished with two passes defensed and four tackles.

It was a play-making day for the young secondary. Admittedly, the Redskins don’t have a legitimate starting wide receiver and had a backup quarterback throwing behind a makeshift offensive line.

But this group played well, finishing with a combined:

  • Two interceptions
  • One sack
  • One forced fumble
  • Seven passes defensed
  • 20 tackles

You can’t choose your opponents and when facing a poor Redskins’ offense this group excelled.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D

On the one hand Brett Maher made all his kicks (one field goal and four extra points). And Chris Jones looked more like Chris Jones, averaging nearly 50 yards per punt. But the return coverage teams had two major breakdowns, allowing a punt return of 28 yards and kickoff return of 44 yards.

Both returns came with Dallas seemingly in control of the game and both led to Washington touchdowns.

SUMMARY:

I wrote earlier this week that this version of the Cowboys is a mediocre team. But that doesn’t mean it can’t do great things. All wins count and the Cowboys have racked up three in a row. What they looked like won’t be remembered if this team is playing in January.

There’s still (lots) of room for improvement. But there’s also legitimate reason to be optimistic about the team’s prospects. It almost makes you want to dance.