It’s hard not to feel optimistic about the Dallas Cowboys’ chances as they host the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday afternoon. They are the hottest team in the NFC with their four-game winning streak (the only team in the league with a longer one is the Houston Texans, so something is going right in the Lone Star State). Their defense just had of the best performances of any team this season in the 13-10 stunner over the New Orleans Saints. Amari Cooper has given a real boost to the offense. Ezekiel Elliott is in a two-man race with Todd Gurley for the rushing crown, with only 25 yards separating them. And Dallas is enjoying a ten day “mini-bye” after playing on Thursday, while the Eagles lost a day of rest after participating in the Monday night game this week.
So of course it is time to start worrying. This is a divisional game and strange things are known to happen in those. It is one of the fiercest rivalries in the league. Philadelphia is getting desperate to try and claw their way into the playoffs to avoid becoming one of the rare defending Super Bowl champions to miss the postseason in their title defense. And the Cowboys still have some big old warts to overcome.
Join me in a bit of nail-biting as we look at some of the major areas of concern for Dallas.
The health of the offensive line is an ongoing problem.
It has been rough up front when the Cowboys have the ball. They lost Travis Frederick, almost certainly for the year now, when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. That has forced Joe Looney to start at center the entire season. Rookie Connor Williams had to miss games with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery, but is now available again. Xavier Su’a-Filo filled in for Williams at first, but struggled with his own ankle problem in the Saints win. Zack Martin has been fighting through his own knee issues for several weeks. And Tyron Smith is still trying to get back on the field from a neck problem, with Cameron Fleming stepping into the left tackle spot in Smith’s absence.
Put that all together this past Thursday, and it resulted in Dak Prescott being sacked seven times. The Cowboys now lead the league in sacks allowed with 45. The patchwork nature of the line may also have played a part in Elliott being held to 3.3 yards per carry, and that would have been worse if Zeke was not the warrior with the ball he is.
The team is hoping to get Smith back on the field, but it is not certain. They also have to decide if they want to ride with Su’a-Filo again or plug in Williams, who has had his own issues. And they need to keep from having more injuries. The Eagles, while pretty much middle-of-the-pack defensively this season, knocked out both of Washington’s guards on Monday night. Of course, they were fill-ins for previously injured starters. That is not a comfortable thing to contemplate for the Cowboys.
It was an epic defensive job - but can they keep that level of performance up?
We all hope so, but that was a phenomenal level of play against New Orleans. It wasn’t just the stars, either. Every player on defense seemed to make plays all game long. You couldn’t shut down that offense any other way.
A let-down has to be considered. Part of the formula for success last Thursday was that they followed the plan laid out by DeMarcus Lawrence, and hit the Saints in the mouth right out of the gate and choked them out the rest of the way. If the Eagles get some early success against them, they can build some confidence and maybe get rolling a little. It certainly seemed that Dallas’ defenders got an early boost from the two three-and-outs they imposed on Drew Brees and company in the first quarter, and then their confidence just shot through the roof when they stopped them with no points after New Orleans had a first and goal at the seven-yard line. They must not let the Philly offense gain similar confidence early on.
There was really only one thing that the Cowboys defense did wrong last game, and that was to accumulate too many penalties. Randy Gregory in particular became a flag magnet, and it could have spelled disaster in a game where the score was so close.
Philadelphia is not going to be confused with the Saints, but Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, Golden Tate, and Zach Ertz are capable of putting up yards and points. Their offensive line is pretty good, too. Dallas can’t overlook what they are capable of doing when they get things right, and can’t depend on them making mistakes. And they just can’t realistically expect to have back-to-back games where the defense is nearly perfect, even if this is against a team that, on paper, is not nearly the same level of opponent as the last.
No, the defense needs to approach this game just like they did the Saints match-up. They need to go in with determination, play hard and fast, and prove that last game was in no way a fluke, but a sign of what is to come.
They gotta have points.
The Cowboys out-gained the Saints rather impressively and certainly controlled the clock with several time-eating drives - but once again, left far too many points on the field. While they were once again quite good at converting third downs, managing a 50% rate, their red zone efficiency, to put it in technical terms, sucked big time. One for five on touchdowns, a paltry 20%. Sacks and a Dak Prescott fumble killed three of the drives, although the kneel-downs to win the game at the end also counts as a failed red zone drive. But even throwing that out, they would only be at 25%, which just doesn’t cut it.
They were moving the ball well despite the Saints slowing Zeke down. And Prescott was doing very well when he was not going to the ground. The most exciting thing to see was that Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup combined for 151 yards receiving - but even though Dak only missed four throws all game, one would have been a touchdown for Gallup if only the ball had been better placed.
Settling for field goals is not good enough. Coming away with nothing due to a turnover is worse. And speaking of that . . .
They have to quit putting the ball on the ground.
Prescott still is doing a good job of protecting the ball - when he throws it. He only has five interceptions all year, and none since the start of the winning streak.
But fumbling is an issue. A big issue. Dak has put the ball on the ground 11 times this season, and it has gotten worse over time. He’s had four just since the start of the win streak. Some of them can be partially attributed to how he is getting banged around by pass rushers, but we have also seen him just drop the ball on more than one occasion.
And he is not alone. Zeke has had four fumbles this season, and Amari Cooper of course lost one in the Saints game, despite the ball being right there between his hands with him all but lying on top of it. It was amazing that the Cowboys won that game despite being minus one on turnovers and surrendering those seven sacks and only getting in the end zone once. Fumbles have been the big concern for turnovers, and they just have to hang onto that rock. Philly is still too good a team to let them have short fields and the lift a takeaway always brings.