The well-known saying that you learn more from failure than success may have something to do with the way the Dallas Cowboys came out and took over the game in their win against the New York Giants. Their season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers had revealed a lot of issues for them, and based on the results, they took those to heart and came up with solutions to many of them. Though it was a very satisfying victory, there are still some new lessons we learned about the team.
This defense is for real.
That is the biggest takeaway, and it builds on the first game, as the Cowboys have only allowed their opponents to score 16 and 13 points through two weeks. The longest run they have allowed so far was 29 yards by Cam Newton in a game where no other play went for more than 19, and against the Giants, they let Eli Manning complete one long pass of 37 yards to Cody Latimer, but no other play gained more than 18. They completely shut down the New York running game, holding Saquon Barkley to just 28 yards and the team to only 35.
Oh, did I mention that they have nine sacks already, which led the league until the Chicago Bears went off against Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football? Coincidentally, the Seahawks are the Cowboys’ next opponent, and the pass rushers have to be pretty excited about facing another offensive line having some real struggles protecting their quarterback.
With their offense still a work in progress (more on that in a bit), Dallas needs the defense to help keep the team in games. They have done exactly that in the first two contests. The fact they didn’t get a win in week one is not the defense’s fault.
Kris Richard’s influence is all over the D, too.
Five of the six sacks of Eli Manning had something unusual about them, at least for the Cowboys. They came off blitzes. On three of them, a blitzer got home, and in the other two, the blitz freed up a lineman to drop Manning. They were varied as well.
That is not a Rod Marinelli defense. No, that is just one aspect of the defense that has new defensive assistant Kris Richard’s fingerprints all over it. The simply suffocating play of the defensive backs is another. Heck, linebackers dropping in coverage are doing great, and on one play against the Giants, Taco Charlton dropped back and looked pretty danged good doing it. Marinelli is still the defensive coordinator, and his pass-rushing philosophy still plays a major role, but the theory that Richard is the heir apparent at some point, probably soon, just looks more and more valid.
Dak took a major step forward, but still has a ways to go.
Dak Prescott looked a lot more like his 2016 self than he did the second half of last season. The long touchdown throw to Tavon Austin plus the 14-play, clock-eating fourth quarter drive to put the game just out of reach for the Giants were a reminder of what he can do.
The lack of scoring between the two touchdowns was a reminder that he still has a lot to work on. Things really stalled out after the fourth play of Dallas’ second possession. There were some throws that were off target as Prescott’s footwork faltered. He is capable of running the offense very well, but when his mechanics and protection break down, things grind to a halt.
This is only his third season. He is growing as a QB, and while he may never be a top five passer, his running ability plus the accuracy he was showing in the second game on many of his throws can put him into the upper half of NFL quarterbacks, and probably in the conversation to be top ten. He may become much more as he learns and matures, but it is what he can do this season that is the focus. Based on how much he cleaned up this week, the outlook is positive, especially when he is not facing a top-level pass rush.
The offensive line made some major strides as well.
No sacks of Prescott and some better running lanes for Ezekiel Elliott, at least at crucial times, was also encouraging. All the offensive linemen seemed to have a good game, with rookie Connor Williams looking the most improved. And they should only get better, as well. Even if Travis Frederick does not come back for a while. The offensive line has been the foundation for everything Dallas does on offense and it was good to see it shored up.
Scott Linehan upped his game as well - plus got some better execution.
It’s a chicken and egg thing. For an offense to work, it has to have good plays called at the right time, and then the players have to actually complete their assignments. Neither element worked very well against the Panthers, but both came together in the second game, particularly in the opening quarter, when the team works off a scripted sequence. And we saw more things that we have not seen a lot of from the Cowboys, including getting Tavon Austin a bit more involved. He only touched the ball three times in the game, and maybe that needs to be dialed up a bit - because he led all receivers, and added 15 yards on his sole rushing play. When your biggest all-purpose offensive weapon is getting double-digit gains every time he touches the ball, yeah, let’s have him touch it a few more times.
Which does illustrate that Linehan, too, still has a lot of room for improvement. But here’s the thing, and it applies to all facets of the offense. Success can breed success, built off of improvement week to week. Better play from the offensive line inspires better execution from the skill players, and gives the coordinator more tools he feels confident in employing.
But we are still waiting on the wide receivers and tight ends to step up.
On the flip side of things, the Cowboys only had one big play with nothing else over 19 yards - and the next five longest plays were all runs. So they still need to develop more weapons downfield. Part of that depends on the plays being called, and despite taking a couple of other shots deep, Linehan didn’t seem eager to go back to that well. There is still no one at WR or TE that looks to be inspiring much concern from opposing defensive coordinators, who still are focusing on stopping Ezekiel Elliott, and now Prescott as well when he runs on read-options. The receivers are going to have to be very consistent in giving Prescott targets, and someone besides Austin needs to do something of impact. Dallas had a shot when Rico Gathers got open in the end zone, but that was one of Prescott’s inaccurate passes. Maybe having Gathers active was a good sign and he will be worked in as time goes on. But these receivers need to get open and then do something once they get the ball - plus Dak needs to do a better job in delivering it on time and on target. The running game came alive against New York, and now the passing game needs to join it.
It was mostly positive last game, but don’t think all the problems are solved. The good news is that the Seahawks did not look good at all in their defeat by the Bears, and have some things in common with the Giants, such as a highly questionable offensive line, not much in the way of a running game, a quarterback who may not be what he once was, and a defense that isn’t either. Nonetheless, the Cowboys need to keep improving. There are lessons to be learned in victory as well as defeat. Time to put the latest to good use.