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Dallas Cowboys hot topic: Is the offense really fixed?

There is still a lot to do, but the trend seems to be good. Now to see if it continues.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys
Will Zeke have his first big game this week?
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The convincing win over the New York Giants has the Dallas Cowboys and their fans feeling a lot better about the season. Dallas is tied for the NFC East lead at 1-1. Now they’ll try to get another win as they travel to play an 0-2 Seattle Seahawks team coming off a Monday Night Football loss to the Chicago Bears. The defense is playing extremely well, but the offense remains very much a work in progress. There were encouraging signs last game - but the question remains: Is the offense good enough to keep winning and get to the playoffs?

That depends on whether the things that improved so much from the opening loss don’t show regression, and also on fixing the things that still are a problem. The improvements were the play of the offensive line, which kept Dak Prescott from being sacked and got the running game going to the tune of 138 yards and a touchdown; much better play from Prescott who did not turn the ball over and was very effective in the first and fourth quarters; and the way they stretched the field and got the Giants to not crowd the box by hitting on that 64-yard touchdown bomb to Tavon Austin.

On the negative side, Ezekiel Elliott is not yet performing like the dominant running back they need him to be; there was that stretch of failed drives and not converting third downs in the second and third quarters; and too many missed opportunities, especially when Prescott got sloppy with his footwork and reads.

So is the offense on an upward trajectory, or are they too inconsistent to come out of the Pacific Northwest with a W? The answer to that is crucial.

We won’t know until the game is played, and some uncertainty will linger unless, and until, they put together a string of better performances. What we can do is look at the things the team did and the trends, as well as the larger questions still remaining.

20 points was enough for a win against a New York team that was struggling against a defense that was strong at all three levels. The Cowboys got after Eli Manning for six sacks, shut down the ground game, and limited the dangerous Giants receiving corps from doing any damage until it was too late and the Cowboys seemed to go into something of a prevent D. But they will need more.

There are many signs that things are going to get better, though. One big one, that Michael Sisemore and I discussed on this week’s Brews and the Boys podcast, which will be up soon, is that Dallas is still working through the issues caused by the lack of preseason work for their starting offense. Due largely to the health issues affecting Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, plus the extreme caution taken with Tyron Smith due to his own injury history, the starting offensive line for the regular season never had a chance to work together in the preseason. Elliott was held out for similar precautionary reasons, and with the line a patchwork affair, Prescott was also very limited in the first two preseason games and held out completely in the last two. So in effect, the first game against the Carolina Panthers saw them working through things that should have been done before the first actual game. And the second game was in some ways more like the dress rehearsal that normally comes in the third week of the preseason. The defense did not suffer from the same kinds of problems, being mostly healthy and not needing the fine-tuned teamwork and timing that the offense does. It came out strong, and just got better. But the offense is still getting things down. If there is more improvement this week (although it will certainly not be as dramatic), then things could turn out very well.

The play-calling of Scott Linehan is also a very heated subject of discussion, but he showed that he could still get it done when the execution is there. That first quick-strike drive was a thing of beauty, and the second drive was looking very good until it stalled at the end and the Cowboys had to settle for a Brett Maher field goal. (Maher also quieted some worries with his perfect performance on the night.) After throwing unsuccessful deep shots in the third series, things got a bit sloppy and Linehan dialed back on attacking downfield. That was partly a function of just how well the defense was bottling up the Giants. There was no reason to go with high-risk, high-reward deep shots as the lead stayed at a two-score margin until just seconds before the end of the game.

Then Linehan found his rhythm again, and so did Prescott and Elliott. Specifically, they returned to something much like the formula of 2016, putting together a 14-play touchdown drive that leaned on the running of both Dak and Zeke, and short, efficient passing to help burn 8:23 off the clock and leave New York without enough time to overcome their 17-point deficit. You can’t expect to put together too many of those in a game, and the Cowboys did it when they needed it to ice the game away.

There is also a historical trend with Elliott that is worth noting. In his first two seasons, he did not hit his stride until the third game. In 2016, he had 51 and 83 yards in the first two weeks before putting up 140 against the Chicago Bears and in 2017, he opened with a respectable 104 yards before having his career-low of eight yards in the disaster against the Denver Broncos. He never really got fully on track with the shadow of his suspension hanging over him, but for the rest of the season, he was at least consistent enough to finish the year with the highest per-game rushing average in the league.

If he does finally start stringing together games that are at or near 100 yards, then the Cowboys can stay in their comfort zone when they need to, relying on the ground game to move the ball, stay on schedule on early downs, control the clock, and keep the pressure off Prescott so he is less liable to make mistakes.

But they still need Linehan to keep that long ball in his arsenal. We saw just how it affected things last week. And that means he really needs to keep ratcheting up the use of Tavon Austin. After his touchdown, he only got the ball two more times - and delivered a 15-yard run and a 15-yard catch-and-run. For one game, at least, he was the weapon that the team promised he could be. Now it is time to get him out of the holster more often. He was only on the field for 18 plays. That needs to go up some, too, around 25, and he needs to get the ball in his hands five or six times. That will keep defenses having to account for him every time he takes the field, and that opens things up for everyone else on the offense.

There is not question Linehan called a vastly superior game than in week 1, abetted by the way his players delivered. Now he has to keep on track and properly utilize his weapons.

That brings us to the one area that has not yet come through, the receiving corps. No tight end caught a pass as Elliott was the only non-wide receiver to get receptions. And outside of Austin, none of the wide receivers exactly lit things up. Chemistry still needs to develop between Prescott and the guys running the patterns. Prescott also has to keep grinding on his fundamentals and mechanics when he throws. He was very effective on play-action, so Linehan has to keep that a strong part of the mix, along with those read-options that Prescott used to gash the Giants repeatedly on the ground.

And there was one tantalizing but failed play to note, involving that human lightning rod, Rico Gathers. He got wide open in the end zone on Dallas’ first drive of the second half, but Prescott just flat missed him on what should have been an easy touchdown. It was just a hint of what Gathers might become, and Linehan needs to go back to that well to see just how it will work.

The issues with the receiving corps and how Prescott can use them goes back to that first point about lack of preseason work. Things are hopefully still developing there, and will get better as they get more plays under their collective belt. If it does, this offense could be good enough to get back to the playoffs, especially with a defense that looks like the best the Cowboys have seen in years.

We are going to have to wait, most of us with bated breath, to find out the answer. If this offense is indeed getting more problems fixed as they go along, this could be an exciting season that extends into January.

We won’t talk about February just yet. One step at a time.

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