We will soon see whether the Dallas Cowboys will remain a contender for the NFC East title. Well, to be honest, they may not ever fall out of the race even if their own record deteriorates, because the rest of the division seems just as dysfunctional at times. But win or lose, this is also a time that is going to show us a lot about the team and what we may see in the future. It starts with the trip to play the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
The Vikings are a good matchup for us to find out about the Cowboys, as they are not a total disaster but also not a matchup that will be easy to win. Here are some topics where we can watch and learn.
Can Dallas find some consistency?
The loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers before the bye was the best overall effort from the team of the season. Keeping it close enough to still have even a chance to win at the end against the only undefeated team in the NFL was a major step forward from whatever they were doing in most of the games before that. Any hope of winning this Sunday depends on keeping some positive trends going. And that includes all three phases of the game.
Offense: While the unexpectedly strong performance of Garrett Gilbert hogged the spotlight, leading to a mini-QB controversy, the bigger story might be that the offensive line was providing decent pass protection and still opening some holes for the running game. Gilbert only was sacked twice. That is admittedly partly due to his mobility, but he also had time on many plays. Meanwhile, the ground game had a solid 144 yards against a pretty good defense. Both are testaments to how Joe Philbin has somehow managed to coach up the patchwork, ever-shifting offensive line, and to how they are playing hard despite some very vocal criticism, particularly of Terence Steele, who is after all a UDFA rookie forced into starting by the rash of injuries.
Based on the talk coming out of practices, it looks like Andy Dalton will get the start now that he is apparently clear of both the concussion and COVID protocols. He has a tremendous advantage in experience, so if the line can give him some time, he needs to do something good with it.
There are weapons around him. At the moment, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb are both on track to have 1,000 yards receiving on the season, and Ezekiel Elliott is on schedule to eclipse that mark on the ground, if just barely. Michael Gallup is a bit behind, but should easily get over 800 receiving. If Dalton can just utilize them, plus Tony Pollard, Dalton Schultz, and Cedrick Wilson, this offense has the firepower to get wins. They just have to get in the end zone more often. A lot more often.
A related question is just how long a leash the staff will give Dalton. If he falters, there is always the option of going back to Gilbert. That is not without peril, but it still is available.
Defense. The biggest concern this week is probably stopping, or at least slowing, Dalvin Cook, who leads the league with 119 yards per game rushing. That may actually be within the grasp of the defense now, as they just shut down the Steelers on the ground. The big change may be the play of defensive tackle Neville Gallimore. He seems to have really solidified the middle of the line, raising the question of whether the staff made a mistake in not bringing him along quicker. In any case, if he can continue to play and improve the way he has since getting more time on the field, the Cowboys also are benefiting from the return of both Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee from injury. Jaylon Smith is still a concern, and we can only hope Mike Nolan is either able to get him playing better, or find a way to work around his frequent misreads and strange decisions.
Help may be coming in the secondary as well with Chidobe Awuzie on track to return from his stint on IR. Justin Jefferson has emerged as the biggest threat of the Minnesota receiving corps, and Adam Thielen is always dangerous. If the secondary can keep them in check, then they give the team a real chance.
Special teams. The word special was finally appropriate against Pittsburgh. They produced not one, but two big returns, the trick play punt return involving Cedrick Wilson and aspiring thespian C.J. Goodwin, and the dynamic kickoff return by Rico Dowdle. Dallas was unable to totally capitalize off those plays, but that was not the fault of John Fassel’s charges. Meanwhile, Greg Zuerlein continues to validate keeping him as the placekicker. If this unit can put in another good performance, it can go a long way to keeping the Cowboys in the game.
How will they come out of the bye?
Under the previous regime, Dallas did not always do well after a bye week. This is a test of Mike McCarthy’s leadership. The team has gotten healthier, which is always an objective during the bye week. Now he has to keep them from coming out flat.
The new coaching staff has had some rocky moments in the first half of the season. The defense looked lost, and the offense clearly felt the impact of the key injuries. Reports emerged about the players having a lack of confidence in the staff. The last game before the bye may have signaled a turning of the corner. How the Cowboys play this Sunday will be strong evidence if that was a mirage or not, and how the players are really responding.
Will we see more from the younger players?
The rookies have been a big boost for the team. Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Tyler Biadasz, and now Gallimore have all come in and made strong contributions, although not without some rookie struggles, particularly from Diggs. Now he and Biadasz are unfortunately out with injuries, but hopefully will both return later.
Still, it raises the question, why we have seen almost nothing from Reggie Robinson II and Bradlee Anae? This may be a bit of a concern. With the need for answers in the secondary, the unwillingness of the coaching staff to give Robinson a shot may indicate that they are not seeing what they want to in practice. Anae may just be the victim of the team having more experienced and better players on the edge. We may not see them much if the team does start winning some games. If not, then maybe the coaches will finally give them a shot to find out what they have.
Maybe, however, they will give both some opportunities even if the Cowboys continue to be within range of winning the dismal NFC East. It could be worth it either way.
Some of these questions will at least start to be answered on Sunday. They may also may take a few more games to really be settled. Now we just have to watch and see.