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Grading the Cowboys 35-27 victory over the Lions

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Problems persist but the objective was met for the Cowboys against the Lions.

Dallas Cowboys v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Dallas traveled to the Motor City Sunday and did pretty much what they’ve done all season: beat an over-matched opponent leaving #CowboysNation uncomfortable and wondering just how good is this team?

Dak Prescott followed up a mammoth Sunday night passing game with another mammoth game, leading the Cowboys to 35 points, 444 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. All while never given better starting field position than the Cowboys’ own 31-yard line.

The team’s passing unit single-handedly won the game as the rushing game again couldn’t get untracked, the defense gave up too many plays while generating no turnovers and the special teams continued to be a complete mess.

Let’s go to the grades.

Overall: C+

The best thing to come out of Detroit is the Cowboys’ identity is now firmly established: they are a passing team that will win or lose on the arm of Dak Prescott. There’s really no debate at this point. Twice in the last seven days, the Cowboys offensive line and $90M running back couldn’t do anything. So without benefit of a running game all Prescott did was march his team up and down the field again and again. He had to because the defense and special teams don’t ever give the offense a short field via turnovers, returns or big plays of any kind.

Every unit of the passing game was outstanding Sunday. Prescott played marvelously. The offensive line often gave the QB time to read a book before picking out a receiver. The WR group repeatedly made big plays. The running backs added several high-leverage plays. The tight ends also contributed. This enabled the Cowboys to score on six of seven drives (four TDs, 2 FGs) spanning the first to fourth quarters.

But pretty much everything else was a mess. The running game looked just as anemic this week as last, with the backs combining for 57 yards on 18 carries. The defense was given multiple opportunities to put a stranglehold on the game and failed badly each time.

  • Given a 24-14 lead coming out of the half, the Lions marched 70 yards in 10 plays to make it an uncomfortably tight three-point game.
  • Given a 14-point lead with just under eight minutes remaining, the Lions marched 75 yards in five plays, using only 2:07 off the clock. The touchdown again making it a one-score game.

The final yardage numbers weren’t that bad (307 yards) but Dallas simply couldn’t get key stops when needed. They allowed the Lions to convert six of 13 third-down attempts (46%). Worse, they allowed Detroit to score touchdowns on all three red zone attempts. Thus, despite Dallas out-gaining the Lions by nearly 200 yards, the offense was forced to convert a late third down to avoid a nail-biting finish.

Special teams have been a problem ever since the arrival of special teams coach Keith O’Quinn and look like they will be until his departure.

Coaching: C

It feels like Jason Garrett finally recognized what must of us saw a week ago: beating your head against a brick wall by trying to “establish the run” is a losing strategy. So credit the head coach for realizing that putting the game on the arm of the team’s MVP-caliber quarterback was a winning strategy.

But we continue to see dysfunction:

  • The Cowboys burned four timeouts throughout the game when they weren’t ready for the snap.
  • The Cowboys were unable to snap the ball on consecutive plays early. A 12-men in the huddle penalty was followed by the team burning a timeout when Dak was trying to change the play and the play clock ran out.
  • The defense was repeatedly called for offsides. The worst came early in the fourth quarter, nursing a six-point lead. Detroit lined up to punt near midfield but switched into an offensive formation. It pretty clearly looked like they had no intention of running a play but hoped to force an offsides. Somehow that worked when Michael Bennett jumped into the neutral zone.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys run defense seems to have been decoded by the league. Teams understand that misdirection will put the Cowboys stunting, penetrating defensive lineman out of position to deal with interior runs, leaving the linebackers exposed to offensive lineman getting downfield. The Cowboys response has been... to keep stunting and penetrating. There’s no apparent effort to adapt or change (never Garrett’s strength).

We also have a defensive “strategy” where 300+ pound Antwaun Woods is asked to drop back into space and... do something?

Is there any scenario where Woods being in space ends successfully for the Cowboys? Why would you do this?

And, of course, we had yet another slow start. After talking all week about the need to come out and play well from the opening kick-off this is what the Cowboys did on their first 11 plays:

Cowboys possession:

  • Incomplete pass
  • Fumble

Lions possession:

  • 2-yard run
  • 5-yard completion
  • 11-yard pass
  • 5-yard run
  • 5-yard touchdown run

Cowboys possession

  • Botched KO return that leaves Dallas starting at own 14-yard line
  • 1-yard run
  • Incomplete pass
  • Incomplete pass

For those counting, that’s 11 straight unsuccessful plays to start a game against a woefully over-matched opponent. It just keeps happening, over and over and over and there’s no explanation. When something is broken it is up to the leadership to fix it and Garrett seems to have no clue.

Quarterback: A+

Jerry Jones was ridiculed when earlier this year he claimed Dak Prescott was as good as any quarterback (or something to that effect). Turns out he might very well be correct. Prescott has evolved into a prototype NFL quarterback. He’s big and strong. He can make every throw, including on the run. He makes plays with his legs, both designed runs and scrambling. He’s a quintessential leader. He’s unbelievably tough, never missing a play.

Had the Cowboys given Dak $30M per year in the off-season they would have gotten a bargain. If Prescott continues playing at his current level, $40M doesn’t seem that unlikely. Prescott just picked up where he left off last Sunday night, making play after play after play. The accolades, accomplishments and kudos keep pouring in:

Add Prescott’s 455-yard effort last year against Philadelphia in week 13 and his 387-yard effort in week 17 and he’s passed for 387+ yards in five of his last 14 games. This after topping 300-yards only three times in his first 43 regular season games.

He’s playing as well as anyone in the NFL. I don’t think many of us saw this coming.

Running backs: B-

On the one hand, these are Ezekiel Eliott’s yards, by rush, the last two weeks:

The overall results are pretty sobering:

When your $90M back, in the prime of his career, running behind three All-Pro offensive lineman (and a fourth who looks to be on his was to All-Pro honors) can’t do better than that, there’s a problem. Bob Sturm pointed out last week that Zeke isn’t running into stacked boxes:

Brian Baldinger had a piece last week where he looked at Elliott in detail and came away unimpressed. Add the fact Elliott’s second-play fumble led directly to a Lions’ touchdown and put the Cowboys in a hole and well, it’s fair to ask what the heck is going on with the Cowboys’ star running back?

On the other hand, Zeke also did this:

That’s an outstanding catch and run. And it wasn’t some stat-builder with the game already decided. Dallas was facing 3rd-and-8 and needed to at least convert to keep the drive alive. Zeke made a fantastic catch and then looked like his old self running in space. Zeke would also add a short touchdown run, so his two touchdowns helped to make up for the overall poor play.

Elliott was on the field for all but one play last Sunday night against the Vikings and Tony Pollard had one touch. The Cowboys brain-trust finally decided to get Pollard more involved and were rewarded. The rookie finished with 56 combined yards on six touches. He found the end-zone twice, once for a touchdown and once on a two-point conversion.

The coaches have to figure out a way to get Pollard involved more, especially if Zeke and the rest of the ground game is struggling.

Wide receivers: A+

This group just continues to impress. The numbers from the last two weeks are mind-boggling:

Amari Cooper was clearly hindered by injuries Sunday and the Cowboys used him sparingly. No problem, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb stepped up to combine for 263 yards and a touchdown on 13 catches. Cobb has really come on strong the last couple weeks, finding the end zone again after getting his first touchdown the previous Sunday:

But it’s Michael Gallup who is truly emerging as a star. With Cooper clearly hampered the Cowboys needed the second-year wide-out to step up and boy did he. Prescott targeted him 13 times and Gallup made catch after catch. He also made another huge highlight play:

He did this while playing on the one-year anniversary of his brother’s untimely death. Gallup has 678 yards on 42 catches and 69 targets to go along with three touchdowns in 2019. That’s while missing two games due to injury. His per game totals pro-rated over a full 16-game schedule:

  • 84 catches
  • 1,356 yards
  • 6 touchdowns

That’s unbelievable production for a second-year receiver. The Cowboys hit a home-run with this third-round pick.

Offensive line: B-

The good: Prescott faced little pressure virtually the entire game. He often had time to simply stand in the pocket and scan across the field, back and forth. The Lions have an anemic pass rush for the most part and it showed as the Cowboys offensive line controlled them throughout the game.

Tyron Smith, in particular, deserves recognition for shutting down Trey Flowers, the Lions’ lone pass-rushing threat. Flowers’ name was was almost never called and he was eventually forced to the sidelines.

The bad: Very few running holes. The video guys will have to weigh in to determine if the Lions were selling out to stop the run or what. But it’s the second consecutive week this unit hasn’t been able to give the running backs much to work with.

Tight ends:

It’s become fairly predictable. Jason Witten is going to get the vast majority of the snaps and he’s going to contribute a handful of seven-yard catches. He’s not going to give you much after the catch and virtually nothing downfield.

Then Blake Jarwin will get a couple targets and make a couple big plays. Sunday, it was Jarwin who sealed the game when, needing a first down, Dak bootlegged on second down and tossed to a wide open Jarwin:

Jarwin now has 235 yards and three touchdowns on only 22 targets (10.7 yards per target, 13.6 TD%). He offers a true down-the-field threat and it’s hard not to wonder if Witten is somewhat of a progress-stopper at this point.

Defensive line: C

Jeff Driskell is a fourth-year quarterback making his seventh start. He did have one good game among his previous six starts but for the most part has looked the part of a 2nd/3rd QB, destined to bounce between teams as a backup. So naturally he put up a 109 passer rating on the Cowboys, throwing for 209 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions on 26 attempts. He added 51 yards rushing (leading rusher in the game) as he repeatedly made plays with his legs.

While the Cowboys eventually ended up recording three sacks, for the most most they were left grasping at air. They could not sustain pressure on the youngster and when they were able he usually escaped and made plays.

The interior of the line was again gashed in the run game, including on the game’s opening touchdown when Bo Scarbrough waltzed right up the middle for an easy score.

It’s hard to understand why the Cowboys can’t adapt. When you behave this way, you make it incredibly easy for the opposing offense:

Watch Armstrong mindlessly crash down inside, making it easy for Driskell to walk in for the score. The Cowboys lineman are constantly running themselves out of plays and opponents are repeatedly taking advantage of it.

They did manage this key sack late to stifle the final real Detroit threat:

Linebackers: C-

At one point Sunday Jaylon Smith did this:

On the very next play Leighton Vander Esch broke up a third-down pass attempt to end a Lions possession. For a brief moment we revisited 2018 when these two took the NFL by storm.

That was quickly forgotten.

Instead, the rest of the game featured much of what we’ve seen throughout 2019: missed tackles, poor angles and poor technique. The Lions recorded eight rushing first downs. Kris Richard can claim whatever he wants, neither one of these players is playing remotely close to their 2018 performances. Unless that changes, and soon, this defense will continue to struggle and get exposed.

Secondary: C-

Jeff Heath missed the game due to injury and many of us were excited about this because it meant we’d finally get a chance to see Darian Thompson and (perhaps) Donovan Wilson get a chance to show their abilities.

Well, be careful what you wish for, as they say. Thompson had what can charitably be described as “a very bad game”. He was routinely lost and beaten in coverage. You’ll find Thompson on the wrong end of pretty much every big Lions’ pass play:

Wilson got on the field a few times and, when he showed up, it wasn’t for anything good. In short, get well soon Jeff Heath.

Beyond that, Byron Jones was tested only a couple times and wasn’t beaten. Teams just don’t bother testing him much. Chidobie Awuzie looked better than he has most of the year; he made several plays late when the Cowboys needed them. Anthony Brown also had a good coverage play.

Special teams: D

The only thing keeping this from being an F is Brett Maher made both of his short field goal attempts. Beyond that things were bad. A long punt return gave the Lions a short field for their second touchdown. Tony Pollard botched a kick off, giving the Cowboys bad field position.

Every play is an adventure for this group and I honestly don’t understand why Keith O’Quinn is still the coach. Since his arrival in 2018 the special teams, especially the coverage units, have been bad. Coaching plays a bigger role in special teams than any other unit because there aren’t superstar players. O’Quinn is clearly not up to the task.

Summary:

The Cowboys don’t look like a quality football team. There are too many mistakes, too much sloppiness, too many big plays allowed by the defense and special teams. However, they control their destiny as they now head to Foxboro for a showdown against the Patriots. A win there would change the narrative substantially. But they’ll have to play much better than they’ve shown against a long list of over-matched opponents.

Still, it’s a victory, and that means it’s okay to dance: