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Grading the Cowboys big season-opening win over the Giants

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It’s a report card the Cowboys will be happy to take home

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The NFL’s opening week has (mostly) come and gone and 14 teams are already wondering what went wrong. Your Dallas Cowboys aren’t one of them because just about everything went right for the Cowboys in the team’s 35-17 dismantling of the New York Giants.

Overall: A

Offensively there was lots to like; let’s count the good things:

  • 35 points scored despite taking the foot off the gas with ten minutes remaining
  • Nearly 500 yards of offense
  • A huge day for Dak Prescott in terms of both volume (400+ yards, 4 touchdowns) and efficiency (perfect quarterback rating)
  • Zero sacks allowed; zero turnovers committed

Perhaps most impressively, all this was accomplished despite an anemic rushing game. The defense, by comparison, wasn’t nearly as dominant but made the plays they needed to. Dallas surrendered 470 yards (including 151 on the ground) but gave up only 10 points before a garbage-time touchdown. Dallas did generate two turnovers but recorded only a single sack on the day.

Add it all up and it was as impressive of a performance as any rational Cowboys fan could have hoped for.

Coaching: A+

Much was written and speculated about the impact new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore would have on the Cowboys stale, predictable offense. Well, it’s only one game, but Moore’s schemes and aggressive approach resulted in a huge day for the offense. In fact, after the team’s first series stalled the Cowboys ripped off five consecutive long touchdown drives:

That is ruthless efficiency; scoring touchdowns on five consecutive drives from an average distance of 83 yards. We saw several things that had been missing from the Cowboys’ offense the last several years:

  • Downfield attack. Prescott hit passes of 62, 45, 36, 28, 25, 23 and 18. While there was some yards after catch involved, most of these plays featured deep passes.
  • A heavy pass-run ratio. While the Cowboys ended up with 30 rushing attempts many came on the team’s last few drives when they were running the clock out. Dallas threw the ball twice as many times (26) as they ran it (13) in the first half.
  • Scheme creating wide open opportunities. Three of Dak Prescott’s four touchdown passes were delivered to wide open receivers, something we saw very little of in 2017-2018. The Giants were repeatedly confused and lost track of receivers, giving Prescott and the Cowboys easy gains.
  • Lots of different personnel packages and motion. We saw everything from empty backfields to three tight-end sets. The personnel groups didn’t dictate the play-calls as Dallas ran out of spread formations and threw from jumbo packages. All of which is to say Kellen Moore managed to exceed the outsized expectations heaped upon him by Cowboys fans.

Perhaps most importantly, we saw the team convert both of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was an area where the team struggled mightily in 2018 and the lack of creativity in the red zone is probably the main reason Scott Linehan is no longer the offensive coordinator. The team’s second touchdown on the day featured misdirection that allowed the not-so-swift Jason Witten to get wide open for an easy score.

NFL analyst Bucky Brooks liked what he saw.

Jason Garret also deserves credit for having the team in shape and ready to play (something you can’t take for granted in the modern NFL). And, as noted, the defense made enough plays to keep the Giants off the scoreboard most of the night despite surrendering lots of yards; Dallas holding the Giants to 3-of-14 on third- and fourth-down attempts was the difference-maker.

Quarterback: A+

Dak is going to want to play the Giants every game because the two best games of his career have both come against New York. After finishing the 2018 season with a four touchdown, 387 yard day Dak began the 2019 season with a four touchdown, 405 yard effort Sunday. Most impressive was the fact those numbers came on only 32 attempts, meaning Dak threw for 12.7 yards per attempt and sports a 12.5% touchdown percentage.

Dak was simply sensational throughout. He had two drops by Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott or his numbers would have been better. He also added two first down runs in short-yardage situations.

The Giants are a bad team and, in particular, they have a bad defense. But no defense is going to stop plays like this, where Dak delivers a perfect ball for the team’s third touchdown:

Running back: C+

The Cowboys running game never really got untracked. They netted only 89 yards on 30 attempts for an anemic 3.0 yards per attempt. The team’s longest run of the game was only 10 yards. Normally this would mean a long, dreadful day for the Cowboys as the passing game simply hasn’t been good enough to succeed without a good running game the last few years.

Neither Elliott or Tony Pollard seemed to have much running room but neither did much with what they were given either. Elliott did finish the scoring off with the team’s lone rushing score:

Wide Receivers: A+

One year ago the Cowboys started the season with the worst collection of receivers in the NFL. Now, they seem to have one of the best and it showed throughout Sunday. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb were simply unstoppable, combining for 333 yards and two touchdowns on only 21 targets:

Michael Gallup, in particular, seemed to make play after play; averaging 22+ yards per target to catch 158 yards worth of passes. An early deep completion on a play where Dak and Gallup often missed last year gave us an indication of what was to come.

Randall Cobb found the end zone, but it was his extra effort to get a first down that set up the Cowboy’s second touchdown:

Again, the Giants do not represent a significant test but opponents are going to have their hands full with this trio of receivers.

Tight ends: A

While the tight end group didn’t generate as many big plays as the receiver group they still chipped in plenty. Venerable Jason Witten, returning to the field for the first time since 2017, had three catches for 15 yards while Blake Jarwin added three more catches for 39 yards. Both, however, caught touchdown passes. Jarwin now has four touchdowns in his last two games against the Giants (and zero against everyone else).

Watching Jarwin run down the seam and grabbing touchdown passes is a welcome sight as we rarely saw tight ends ever running down the seam the last few years.

Offensive line: A-

On the one hand, the Cowboys offensive line could never open any holes to free the running backs. On the other hand, Dak Prescott had enough time to do his taxes on most pass plays. Prescott wasn’t sacked the entire game and rarely had any pressure whatsoever. This is a huge improvement over 2018 when the Cowboys were in the bottom third of the league in pass protection.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone looked healthy. Zack Martin showed no lingering effects from the back issues that sidelined him most of the pre-season. Tyron Smith started and finished the game and controlled the edge. And Travis Frederick was barely mentioned, which is exactly what you want from your All Pro center returning after a year out of the game.

All in all, a very positive game for this well-pedigreed, high-compensated group.

Defensive line: B

This group didn’t have a huge game, recording only a single sack, no tackles for loss, no pass break ups. The biggest highlight cam when Demarcus Lawrence sacked Eli Manning on a fourth down play, resulting in a fumble which Lawrence recovered.

They did combine to hit Manning six times and, as noted, proved very stout on third and fourth downs. But the Giants ran for more than 150 yards rushing on only 17 attempts for an ugly 8.9 yards per attempt. Not a bad day but there’s room for improvement for this group.

Linebackers: B

A pretty quiet day for this group. Leighton Vander Esch did record 10 tackles and a forced fumble, but most of those tackles seemed to be downfield, not at the line of scrimmage. In addition, LVE bit badly on a play-action fake allowing the Giants an easy touchdown to take an early lead.

Jaylon Smith added six tackles but none were particularly noteworthy. As noted, the Giants were able to run the ball and move the ball throughout the game. Similar to the defensive line, solid but with room for improvement.

Secondary: B

Again, this group did okay, but wasn’t excellent. On the plus side, none were beaten for touchdowns as the Cowboys stiffened in the red zone. But they did allow the Giants to pass for 319 yards (7.1 yards per attempt) although a lot of those yards came in late-game, garbage situations.

Jourdan Lewis started for Byron Jones and came up with a key pass break up to end a Giants’ scoring threat:

It was a solid but not spectacular day for the secondary.

Special teams: B

Honestly, there weren’t many noteworthy special teams plays for either side. Brett Maher converted all five extra points but didn’t try any field goals. There weren’t any punt or kickoff return opportunities and the kick coverage seemed adequate. A ho-hum day for this group.

Summary:

Dallas faces an easy schedule early in the season and they would need to win these early games if they have any hope for a successful season. Well, consider mission accomplished through week one. Many have suggested the Cowboys would have to be much improved in 2019, believing the team enjoyed unsustainable luck in one-score games last season.

Well, one way to avoid those one-score situations is to win with a double-digit margin. Dallas led 35-10 at one point and the game really didn’t feel like a contest once the defense stopped the Giants on fourth down with an 11-point lead early in the third quarter.

The offense was basically unstoppable and looked every bit the talented, dynamic group we hoped to see. The defense wasn’t as good but made plays when it mattered. Dallas, playing at home, was supposed to beat the Giants and they did so in convincing fashion.

We can enjoy NFL football for at least one week.