The Dallas Cowboys needed a win against the Detroit Lions badly. And in a sense, win badly was what they did in hanging on to escape, 35-27. It was their first one-score margin of victory of the season.
It really shouldn’t have been this close, if you look at the stats. The Cowboys had 509 yards of total offense, including 434 through the air. That is really the story of what went right, because this game was won in that one aspect, the Cowboys’ passing game. Dak Prescott was once again on fire. This was despite Amari Cooper being somewhat limited in this game, both in his capability to perform on the field and being off the field for a lot of plays. This game, that hardly slowed things down, as both Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb stepped up, big time. Gallup had over 100 yards before halftime and finished with 148, and Cobb joined him in the third quarter as well as getting a touchdown on his way to 115 total. The coaching staff also showed that they at least have a clue about what they can do with Tony Pollard, as he scored the first Dallas touchdown and got their first lead of the game on a 21-yard reception where he stepped right out of an ankle tackle. They used a little shovel pass to him a couple of other times as well, with good results. He even got the ball for the two point conversion in the fourth quarter to push the lead to 14 points.
The staff really needs to work on getting Blake Jarwin involved more as well. He only had two catches for 38 yards, but his 23 yard catch-and-run inside the two minute warning was crucial to getting out of this with the win. It set up the victory formation as the Lions ran out of time outs.
In a game where the running game was never a real asset, it fell on the arm of Prescott and the hands of his receivers. Even Ezekiel Elliott had his biggest play of the game on a screen pass where Prescott was under a ton of pressure and Elliott had to make a superb shoetop catch before he sprinted 17 yards to paydirt. He would be held to only 45 yards on 16 carries, but there is a positive buried in that. The staff didn’t show any concern about establishing the run in this game, and that is encouraging in showing some development in their thinking.
It certainly appeared that the defensive plan for the Lions was to stop the run and limit Cooper, and they really did a good job in both. It was just a case of Dallas having more to throw at them than they could handle - although it got far to close.
As important as the win was, it still showed some warts - ones that they will have a much harder time overcoming next week against the New England Patriots if they can’t be cleared up. And those need to be discussed.
The Cowboys came into the game talking about how they had to avoid another slow start. Not letting the Lions have hope from the very beginning was a priority.
So two snaps into the game, Ezekiel Elliott lost the ball, setting Detroit up at the Dallas 28. It only took four plays for Jeff Driskel to lead them to a touchdown. The Cowboys were in a hole just two minutes and 27 seconds into the game.
Against a better team, it could have been enough to hang another loss on a team that can certainly not afford it. The Lions have some significant deficiencies, including of course having Jeff Driskel in at quarterback for the injured Matthew Stafford. Despite having a pretty clear talent advantage, Dallas had to keep fighting against a team that capitalized on mistakes and field position to make this a much closer game than it really should have been.
It clarified something about the Cowboys this season. For many plays, probably a majority overall, they are the most talented team on the field. But most games, there are at least 25% of the plays or so where Dallas makes mistakes. The Elliott fumble was the most glaring example, but there was also the multiple times in the punt game, both ways, where their special teams were just bad. That gave the Lions that good field position. Add in some defensive plays where things either broke down or there was just some terrible tackling, and the team that should have been dominated was able to stay in things and apply pressure. Too often the Cowboys’ defense should have gotten off the field, but let Driskel convert third-and-long. They let former Cowboy Bo Scarbrough and J.D. McKissic make too many plays, and Driskel also used his legs to keep things alive at times. He was good at avoiding sacks, and there were times he probably could have run for good yardage and his decision to throw the ball away was probably not what he should have chosen. The way the Lions marched down the field after Dallas had finally opened up the lead in the fourth quarter was disturbing as well, although more than one Dallas defender was hurt and missed plays. Still, they knew that Detroit had to score a touchdown to get back in it with only half the fourth quarter remaining, and didn’t stop them.
Once again, Dallas also had too many drives stall in the red zone. While those represent a failure of execution, it also goes back to that field position issue. When you have to drive the length of the field every single possession, it is harder to punch it into the end zone.
There were also some troubling injuries late in the game, although there is no word on their severity. DeMarcus Lawrence, Anthony Brown, and Xavier Woods all had to be attended to, but the biggest concern is that La’el Collins went down and grabbed his knee with 5:36 left to play. That forced Cameron Fleming in, not what the team wanted to see given his own recent injury problems.
Again, it really shouldn’t have come down to having to get one more first down inside the two minute warning, or stopping a two point conversion. But the win keeps playoff hopes alive for the Cowboys. That is the one unquestionably good aspect of it.