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Four lessons learned from the Cowboys’ 35-27 win over the Lions

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It was another strange one for the Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys took care of business against the Detroit Lions, if in a less decisive way than we might have hoped. Combined with the New England Patriots also getting a close win over the Philadelphia Eagles later in the day, it puts Dallas once again in sole possession of the NFC East lead. Of course, the Cowboys have to go play those same Patriots their next game, so they can hardly rest easy.

Still, there are some things we learned about the Cowboys.

Turns out they don’t need to establish the run

For the first time since the opening game of the season, the coaching staff made what appeared to be an unequivocal decision that the offense was going to be pass-first. And it was from the very first, as Dak Prescott threw on the first play from scrimmage. Perhaps the Ezekiel Elliott fumble on the very next play helped solidify the decision. This was a game where the run never really got much traction - and Jason Garrett and Kellen Moore didn’t care one little bit.

Instead, the run was just used enough to keep the defense worried about it. The Lions appeared to have an emphasis on stopping Elliott. Unlike in past games (like just a week ago), there was no attempt to batter through. There were only 24 rushing attempts in the game for the Cowboys, and at least some of those were on scrambles by Prescott. By game’s end, and including the kneel downs to run out the clock, Dallas only had 75 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Prescott had another phenomenal day through the air, amassing 444 yards and three touchdowns. Despite occasional issues on the offensive line, where Xavier Su’a-Filo started for Connor Williams and Cameron Fleming had to come in late because La’el Collins was hurt, Prescott was only sacked once.

You can’t really talk about how good the passing attack was without mentioning the games Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb had. With Amari Cooper not 100% as he continues to fight through injuries, Gallup and Cobb were simply outstanding, combining for 263 yards and a touchdown. The team needed them to step up, and both answered the call beautifully.

We can only hope this is not just a one-game deal. Playing outdoors in Foxboro this weekend may make going back to handing the ball off tempting. They need to resist that and stick with what is working best, at least until it doesn’t.

I don’t know if this from Babe Laufenberg is true. If it is, however, this could be fun down the stretch.

Unfortunately, the offense has to be outstanding, because the defense and special teams are not

The defense and special teams came perilously close to wasting Prescott’s stellar job once again. The defense was mostly inconsistent, with some really good plays at times, but far too many bad ones. They let Jeff Driskel march his team down the field with ease more than once. One thing they had been doing well was defending the red zone, but the Lions were perfect there, scoring touchdowns all three times they got inside the 20. Turnovers were once again absent.

The one thing that was fairly good this game was the pass rush. They did notch three sacks, and put decent pressure on Driskel. Still, they were just not getting enough stops, and that last scoring drive surrendered was nerve-wracking as well as frustrating.

The special teams were once again just plain bad, outside of Brett Maher being perfect on his admittedly short field goal attempts. I have been pointing to the poor field position the Cowboys have had to contend with in the majority of their games, and this was another example. Their average position to start drives was their own 20. The best starting spot came when Tony Pollard misjudged a kickoff in the fourth quarter and had to return it out of necessity. He got 24 yards out of it, to the 31-yard line, and it was a small miracle plus some superb elusiveness that he got that much. There has been almost no return yardage for Dallas receiving kickoffs or punts all season.

Meanwhile, the Lions had an average starting field position of their own 29. It was aided by that Elliott fumble, of course, but they also had a 32-yard punt return and got 29 on a kickoff. The Cowboys just keep losing this part of the game. It needs to stop, and they don’t seem to have a clue how to do that.

They have started to figure out Tony Pollard

Pollard only had six touches with the offense all game, but they were quite productive, yielding 12 yards rushing and 44 receiving, including his 21-yard touchdown. He was on the field for the entire drive leading up to that score. He was motioned out of the slot for a couple of his plays, so they were moving him around.

He is a really talented rookie with a broad skill set, and this was the most efficient use of him we have seen to date. It was overdue.

Opposing defenses should actually have a harder time with Pollard on the field, because what he does is far less predictable than with Elliott. However, this game also saw Elliott score on a reception, so maybe the coaches are getting a handle on that, too.

It is not a full “lesson learned”, but I want to add a mention of Blake Jarwin, because he had one very big play at the end.

Note the time, and down/distance. Dallas needed a first down to be able to just run out the clock, and in a game where they were having so much trouble stopping the opponent, that was huge. It was also quite a vote of confidence in both passer and receiver. Prescott and Jarwin delivered. Maybe it is time to start giving the latter a few more of Jason Witten’s reps.

It is also worth noting that they went with a pass, with all the extra risk, in a situation where once they would have just handed the ball to Elliott and punted it back if necessary. Maybe things really are changing.

They still have no clue about fixing the slow starts

I know I wasn’t the only one having New York Jets flashbacks when Elliott lost that fumble. Less than two and a half minutes into the game, and the Cowboys were in a hole holding the shovel they had used to dig it.

How do you coach around this? I don’t think you can, because almost all these bad beginnings go back to execution rather than play-calling or the game plan. It is really on the players, and given how it has involved so many on both sides of the ball, I don’t even have a suggestion about what to do.

Given that the Cowboys put up over 500 yards of offense and scored on six drives during the game, they obviously had a good plan of attack. It just blew up in their face. If they stake, say, the Patriots to that kind of a lead early, it may be too much to overcome.

They need to fix this. I doubt any of us has much faith they will, though.