The Dallas Cowboys had another strong outing overall in beating Washington 31-21. There were certainly some warts, but overall this is not just a good win. It tells us that this edition of the Cowboys may be a very good team indeed. And that is not just based on the old eye test. The numbers bear it out.
The Cowboys amassed 474 total yards of offense, which is just 20 less than the total for week 1. The sample size is still small, of course, but they have shown they can maintain the high level of performance from one game to the next. Similarly, their 31 points were only four less than against the New York Giants. In both games they mounted five scoring drives. What they have to do is continue to produce, which just gets harder over the length of the season. But it is still extremely encouraging to see them maintain that high level for two games. The team has tended to have up and down weeks in the past. If that is leveled out at the higher end of the spectrum, this could be one of the most dangerous attacks in the league.
It is another bit of evidence for confidence in Kellen Moore, as well. Once again, he put together some excellent play calling and had his players in a position to succeed. Once his quarterback got on track, things were humming.
There was also some defensive consistency. In both games so far, they have allowed only three scoring drives for the opponent. It doesn’t take very advanced math to figure out that you usually win when you have two more scores than the other guys, especially if 90% of your scores are touchdowns. They have also been remarkably good on stopping their opponents on third down, allowing just four conversions on twenty attempts for the first two games combined, a very effective 20%. The total yards were also much better than last week, at only 255. It is not a great stat to use for any analytics, but when you almost double up the other team, you still tend to win more than you lose.
And there is some important context in the timing of the scores allowed, because in both games, the Cowboys had a three score lead or better in the fourth quarter. The team went into a prevent mindset, which may irritate us as fans, but is a pretty effective way to get out of the game with a win. Dallas was arguably more in command of these games than the final scores indicated. And they still got out of Washington with a two score win, which is the best way to avoid the unsustainable nature of one-score victories.
One thing that was buried in the numbers was that the Cowboys had four drives when they held the lead, while Washington only had one. When you are building the margin in your favor on those kinds of drives, good things tend to result.
Consistency, part 2
It is time to admit it, world. Dak Prescott is nudging his way into the picture as one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. His play in these first two games is on another level. The only criticism is that he has started a bit slowly in both games, but once he found his groove, he was basically unstoppable. His performance in this game was simply amazing, completing his last eighteen passes in a row. It was a big part in Dallas going 7 for 11 on third down attempts, which is another very favorable number.
The numbers were not as eye-popping as last week, but 26/30 for 269 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception can win a lot of football games. The accuracy implied by that 86.7% completion rate is arguably the most important thing about how Prescott’s game has changed.
The success of this offense will be determined by Prescott’s performance, no matter what anyone may say about it being centered on Ezekiel Elliott. So far, everything is great. Against Washington, Prescott even became a significant part of the running game. He had 69 yards on five carries, including 42 on a zone-read keeper that was a textbook example of how to use an athletic quarterback. That gave him a total of 338 yards of offense.
One other bit of consistency: Amari Cooper, Jason Witten, and Elliott all scored their second touchdown of the year.
Speaking of the running game
This was about as balanced an attack as you will see in the NFL. Dallas had 213 yards on the ground to go with the 269 by air. There were some times when they chose to run on first down that may have caused the analytics fans to grit their teeth, but overall, the run game was effective. The long run by Prescott skewed the average, but Elliott had some nice runs and would up with 111 yards rushing, plus nine yards on two catches. He did pad things a bit with his last carry for 27, when the Washington defenders were pretty much in get this over and go home mode, but it still counts.
This was also a workload much closer to what we are used to seeing from Elliott, with 23 carries. Overall, this was how you make the running game a positive contributor to the offense.
Using all the weapons
26 completions is not really a lot in the pass-happy NFL, but Prescott and Moore really spread the ball around. Eight different receivers had a catch, led once again by Michael Gallup with six. He has become the most reliable target for his quarterback so far. Cobb had five, all for nine yards or less. Cooper was four for 44 yards. The trio of wide receivers was effective if not splashy.
And they may be more of a quartet now, as Devin Smith showed up in a big way. He had three catches for a team-best 74 yards, including that 51-yard bomb to get the first touchdown on the board for the Cowboys. We have been told how much speed he has. It wasn’t a lie.
Tight ends and running backs have become a smaller part of the passing game this year, and that is a very good thing. Only Witten is seeing any real number of targets, and mostly for possession purposes. And as his touchdown showed, he is still very good at what he does.
Some bad ones
The Cowboys lost the turnover battle, which is usually a bad sign. But they kept it to just one, and overcame it. The Cowboys could have had a couple of interceptions, as Case Keenum was not as accurate as Prescott. That certainly needs to improve, fast.
Penalties were a major blemish on this win. The Cowboys were flagged eight times for 67 yards, including the one that wiped out a Tony Pollard touchdown run. That also has to be improved. Washington had its own struggles in this area, fortunately, and Dallas got a lot of help from a couple on their second touchdown drive.
The splash plays on offense were down from the first game, with only four going for more than 20. They did have six others that netted between 15 and 18 yards.
Adding it all up
I’m going to pound this nail again. This is starting to look like the nature of the team. Go out, string together scoring drives, move the ball almost at will for long stretches, and come away with a double-digit win. The opposition has not been tremendous, but you have to play who is on the schedule.
Now, with the loss by the Philadelphia Eagles to the Atlanta Falcons, that was more about who made the most mistakes than anything else, the Cowboys sit in sole possession of the lead for the NFC East only two games in. We really couldn’t have hoped for more than that. If they can maintain the offensive production while getting things cleaned up on defense, this is a very dangerous football team. And they have a golden opportunity to keep the momentum (real or not) going as they face a Miami Dolphins team doing an M1A1 Abrams level of tanking this Sunday. Add in that there aren’t just a whole bunch of dominant looking teams in the NFC, and things are off to a tremendous start in Dallas.