It’s safe to say most Cowboys fans weren’t overly-excited prior to Sunday’s contest against the Rams. Quite a few probably feel much differently following a complete and thorough destruction of the team from Los Angeles. Dallas finally combined efficient, explosive play with a bare minimum of the errors and miscues that have plagued the team throughout 2019. The end result gives us a glimmer of optimism in an otherwise dark season. Let’s go to the grades:
There was much to like and little to dislike Sunday afternoon. The offense put up a monster day, scoring on eight different drives, putting up 44 points and 475 yards while committing zero turnovers and allowing no sacks. The defense limited the Rams to only 21 points and 289 yards. Those numbers are inflated, however, by two touchdowns and 100+ garbage-time yards. The run defense, helped by the return of Antwuan Woods, snuffed a Rams run game that thoroughly dominated the Cowboys less than a year ago.
Even the special teams looked better, with new kicker Kai Forbath converting all eight of his kicking opportunities and Tavon Austin looking like he could actually return a punt for positive yards.
It was without question the best, most complete effort since the Cowboys’ high-quality effort earlier this season against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The 2006 Indianapolis Colts are remembered for winning Super Bowl XLI. What many forget is the team entered the playoffs in disarray with fans and the NFL media thinking the team was doomed. This was because after starting 9-0 the Colts had lost four of their final seven games and their run defense was terrible. They had surrendered more than 100 yards in all sixteen games, had allowed an average of 173 rushing yards per game and had allowed an average of 212 rushing yards over the final four games of the regular season.
Their reward was a wild card round playoff game against a Kansas City Chiefs team led by the league’s top rusher, Larry Johnson. With fans and the media mercilessly criticizing the team’s inability to fix the run defense it was assumed yet another Peyton Manning season was headed to a disappointing ending.
Head coach Tony Dungy addressed his team at the beginning of the week and delivered this message (paraphrased):
We aren’t going to change anything. We’re simply going to do what we do better.
The Colts then went out and held Johnson to 32 yards rushing, the Chiefs to 42 rushing yards total en route to a dominating 23-8 victory. They then held the Ravens to 83 rushing yards, the Patriots to 92 and the Chicago Bears to only 111. Those were, by far, the four lowest rushing totals allowed by the Colts. The team had done exactly what Dungy said they would; having changed nothing they performed in a manner that seemed impossible based upon their entire regular season.
I’m reminded of that when I watched Jason Garrett’s team yesterday. There was little reason to think the run defense would shut down the Rams or the team would play virtually error-free football or would miss only one tackle. Garrett is much like Dungy in that he’s consistent in words and actions. He’s almost robotic and it can be infuriating at times. But I imagine Garrett’s steadfast belief in his system, his players and his team was a reassuring message for the players. So, credit where credit is due.
Garrett was able to reverse a ship that was foundering on rocks that could easily have caused the Cowboys to sink. That’s no easy feat. Now we’ll find out if he can keep that ship sailing at peak form.
Kellen Moore had an offense working on all cylinders. Remember when we used to see other team’s using rub routes to generate explosive plays and wonder why can’t the Cowboys’ do that? Wonder no more:
Not sure if it was simply the return of Antwuan Woods on the interior, but the Cowboys run defense looked markedly improved and the coaches deserve credit for that as well.
Dak Prescott’s final numbers were efficient and impressive, if less voluminous than we’ve grown accustomed to this season. He finished with 15 completions on only 23 attempts for 212 yards, two touchdowns and a 124 passer rating.
But Dak was a bit wild, especially early in the game. Even one of his touchdowns was a bad throw where he was bailed out by a terrific Jason Witten catch.
He did, however, orchestrate an efficient offense that racked up points and yards at will. Dallas scored four straight touchdowns in the first half and scored on eight of nine drives between an opening punt and a final kneel down to end the game. The first three touchdown drives were truly impressive and the fourth converted a rare possession starting in opponent’s territory into a score:
Dak’s best play of the game came when he managed to avoid an unblocked blitzer (he was great at eluding defenders throughout) and hitting a wide open Tavon Austin for a 59-yard touchdown.
The big play had been missing from the Cowboys’ offense since early in the season. The last time the Cowboys had scored from as much as 40 yards out was Blake Jarwin’s 40-yard score against the Giants way back on November 4th.
Running backs: A+
You couldn’t ask more of two running backs. Ezekiel Elliott had perhaps his best game of 2019, seemingly gaining five plus yards every time he touched the ball. He ran through and over the Rams defense play after play, repeatedly breaking tackles and generally imposing his will.
Here Zeke closes out the team’s epic 97-yard drive that effectively stole the Rams’ soul:
Elliott would add 43 yards on four catches and showed that, if necessary, he’s also the team’s best blocking fullback:
IDK about y'all but I can watch Zeke as a lead block all day. His cut blocks in space are outstanding. pic.twitter.com/kNJuhkm4vx— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 16, 2019
Elliott would end up with 160 yards and two touchdowns on 26 touches. And yet he might not have been the best Cowboys’ running back on the field.
Tony Pollard continued a highly impressive rookie campaign with a signature performance that featured multiple highlight-reel plays. First he turned a negative play into 33 yards by embarrassing the Rams defenders:
He then capped the Cowboys’ scoring by again breaking multiple tackles en route to a career-long 44-yard touchdown return:
Pollard would finish with 131 rushing yards on only 12 carries and chip in another 12 receiving yards. He now has 395 rushing yards on 70 carries (5.6 yards per attempt) for the season. Those are nice numbers from your “third-down receiving back”.
The combined numbers for Zeke and Pollard are mind-numbing:
Elliott and Pollard combined for 303 yards and three touchdowns. If the Dallas run game can play like this the offense is going to score 30+ points every game and enable Dallas to compete against any team in the league.
Offensive line: A+
The Cowboys offensive line simply hasn’t been good enough this season. They’ve done well protecting Prescott but the run game has been anemic during the team’s downfall the last month. Dallas has averaged barely 80 rushing yards per game recently:
The franchise has invested enormous resources (both draft capital and salary cap spending) on an offensive line (and running game) that has repeatedly failed when called upon (think fourth down versus the Jets, the end-of-game failures against the Vikings, etc.). Well, Sunday this unit met and exceeded expectations.
The Cowboys front five simply outclassed a Rams defensive line featuring Aaron Donald. Cowboys runners rarely were hit behind the line of scrimmage and often enjoyed clear creases allowing them get to the second level.
Dak Prescott enjoyed yet another game without being sacked and frequently had more than enough time in the pocket. This was as complete and effective as we’ve seen this offensive line perform in a long while. Dallas will need that to continue if they have any designs on continued success.
Xavier Sua-Fila deserves special mention for holding up well against Aaron Donald, who finished with only three tackles, one tackle for loss and zero sacks or hits on the quarterback.
Tight ends: B+
The final numbers were not all that noteworthy for the Jason Witten/Blake Jarwin Combo (pretty sure they’re a future jazz-fusion outfit when their playing careers conclude). The two combined for six catches on eight targets for 76 yards and a touchdown.
But both contributed big-time plays at clutch moments. First, Jason Witten dialed the clock back and contributed one of the five best catches of his Hall of Fame career:
First, Witten getting open downfield is a rare sight these days. Second, what should have been an easy throw for Dak was behind Witten, forcing the 38-year-old to make an adjustment. Third, the situation was key: 3rd-and-10 in the red zone of a tie game.
The Cowboys offense has really struggled in the red zone lately, so this play was arguably the biggest of the day. Witten’s reminder of what he can do helped quiet a lot of (ahem) chirping from many in #CowboysNation:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an NFL skill position player with less speed or athleticism as 2019 Jason Witten.— Michael Strawn (@LifeInCharts) December 15, 2019
Frankly it’s painful to watch.
Remember that epic 97-yard drive we mentioned earlier? Yeah, that would have been a 3-and-out from deep in Dallas territory were it not for Blake Jarwin:
Jarwin seems to contribute two or three of these each game. Seems like opponents can’t cover him and he’s able to stress defenses up the seam and on the boundary. It’s worth wondering what kind of numbers he’d have in an attack that chose to utilize him more.
Wide receivers: B
The Cowboys top three receivers ended up with the following numbers:
- Targets: 7
- Catches: 3
- Yards: 22 yards
- Touchdowns: 0
If you had told me that’s what Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb ended up with I’d have assumed the Cowboys got whitewashed and perhaps shut out.
Honestly, they weren’t that good as Cobb had another drop and none seemed to do much. But, then again, they had only seven targets and simply weren’t needed. The Dallas offense was, literally, running amok on the Rams.
Defensive line: A
On the one hand, this unit didn’t generate any sacks, recorded zero forced fumbles or recovered fumbles and zero passes broken up. That doesn’t sound so good. But they absolutely shut the Rams’ potent run game down; Todd Gurley finished with only 20 yards rushing on 11 attempts. The Rams netted only 22 rushing yards total.
That’s a complete reversal from last January’s embarrassing rushing effort when the Rams ran for 280 yards. The return of Antwuan Woods seemed to help immensely as he clogged up the interior and allowed the Cowboys linebackers to fill their gaps.
And while the defensive line recorded no sacks they did put constant pressure on Goff and made his life difficult:
Perhaps no unit has disappointed - or been more heavily criticized - than the Cowboys’ linebacking crew. The “effort” we witnessed ten days ago in Chicago was flat out embarrassing as they stumbled around like drunken sailors, getting beat every way imaginable.
So it was a happy surprise to see Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Justin March-Lillard put on a sure-tackling clinic. Sean Lee joined Jason Witten in turning the clock back and contributing a performance as good as any in his career. In fact, this was the first game he’s ever recorded both an interception and a sack.
The interception looked like vintage Lee as he not only snatched the ball out of the air but weaved his way through the Rams defense, nearly returning the ball for a touchdown. Then, on a rare Cowboys’ blitz, Lee was the beneficiary as the Cowboys just overwhelmed the Rams’ pass protection:
Jaylon Smith would contribute five tackles and we saw none of the misguided missile, head-scratching angles or pathetic tackling we’ve seen from Smith recently. March-Lillard finished with six tackles and played better than could have been hoped for when Joe Thomas went down early with an injury.
Injuries are testing this unit’s depth and they came through with flying colors Sunday.
Okay, Jared Goff was bad Sunday. He was erratic early, then more erratic late after injuring his hand. But let’s give this secondary credit for making plays when called upon. You had this nice fourth-down breakup by Chidobie Awuzie to thwart one Rams’ drive:
Super impressive coverage from Chidobe Awuzie on 4th down versus Brandin Cooks. Patience at LOS puts him in position to disrupt Cooks' release, stack & cut off the vertical route from a condensed split. Great position maintenance as well to play the right leverage. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/ZrRiXHSnm6— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 16, 2019
He even managed to get his head around on the ball. Byron Jones had a typical Byron Jones game where he was rarely targeted. But it was Jourdan Lewis again making plays that really stood out. Here he is recording his fourth sack on the season:
Lewis would finish with six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hit and a pass broken up. He’s the only play-maker in the secondary and seems to make plays every week.
Special teams: B
In retrospect, it seems obvious now that Brett Maher was holding this team back. When the Cowboys hoist the Super Bowl trophy in February we’ll look back on the decision to jettison the erratic kicker as the key to the season’s turnaround.
Okay, all kidding aside it was nice to see a Dallas Cowboys kicker hitting the ball firmly and accurately over and over. Kai Forbath has bounced around a lot and his resume is somewhat wanting. But Sunday he lined up eight times to try to kick the ball through the goalposts and each time he succeeded.
In doing so, he now has more successful kicks between 40 and 50 yards (two) than Brett Maher had all season. Of course, he also kicked the ball out of bounds twice on kickoffs which seems impossible. But we’ll happily trade kicks out of bounds to missed field goals.
Tavon Austin actually looked kind of dangerous on a couple punts. And “looking kind of dangerous” is a significant upgrade over what we’ve seen most of the year, so, again, we’ll take it.
Where has this been? While it’s great the Cowboys finally played well it only makes us beg the question of why they’ve failed to play this way through virtually all of 2019? And is it a sign of things to come? Or just a momentary blip that will carry zero significance if the team returns to their unmotivated, sloppy, error-filled ways next week in Philadelphia?
But for one day, we get to feel good about all things Cowboys, including this:
It’s onto Philadelphia next week. And despite playing well below expectations for three full months the Cowboys’ still have an opportunity to make something magical happen in 2019.