When the Dallas Cowboys win a game, we hope to learn some good things about them. The exciting, come-from-behind win over the Minnesota Vikings certainly was a case of that. Here are six lessons we learned, and for the most part, they are fun.
Like it or not, this team is playoffs or bust
This is one that hits home. I was one of many who was completely convinced that there was no hope this season after Dak Prescott was lost. Added to the rest of the lengthy injury list, the obstacles just seemed far too great for the Cowboys to have any chance of making the playoffs. A high draft pick seemed inevitable.
That completely misestimated just how bad the rest of the NFC East would be. Now Dallas is, against all reason, tied in the win column with the rest of the division, and only trails the Philadelphia Eagles because they have a tie. Importantly, the Cowboys have what appears to be the easiest schedule over the final six games. The Eagles and the New York Giants face a bunch of playoff contending teams, and the fighting Washington Football Team has the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks still to contend with. All still have one game left against Dallas as well, with the fighting Team coming up on Thursday. The only team with a winning record ahead for the Cowboys is the Baltimore Ravens, who will be coming off a matchup with the Steelers.
If the Cowboys can build on what they accomplished against the Vikings, then the division and a playoff berth are not just within their grasp, they may not be the favorite to get there.
Andy Dalton was not the wrong call
Notice that this is not saying he was absolutely the right one, although that is probable. Many of us were of the opinion that Garrett Gilbert had earned the start with his performance against the Steelers prior to the bye. We even were concerned that Dalton could cost the Cowboys the Vikings game.
Well, he didn’t. He almost made a fatal mistake by throwing an interception that would have killed the game-winning drive, but he got away with it. Otherwise, he had a generally good game, with a bit of an assist from CeeDee Lamb’s incredible touchdown reception.
Given that Dalton was coming off a three week break and had not looked good in his two starts before his concussion, this was extremely encouraging. More important may be that a victory like that builds confidence among his teammates. They now know he can keep them in a back-and-forth game and then lead the winning drive. He also is showing some real chemistry with Amari Cooper and Dalton Shultz as well as Lamb. In the win in Minnesota, he found eight different receivers - nine if you include the deflected pass he grabbed himself to make sure it didn’t wind up in the hands of a defender.
We’ll never know if Gilbert would have been even better, but he certainly could have done worse. So for all intents and purposes, Dalton really was the correct move by the staff.
The running game stepped up
With the starting QB lost for the season, Dalton or whoever is behind center really needs the ground attack to work well. That takes some pressure off the passing game. For the first time, the running game came through, and it wasn’t just the lead back.
Ezekiel Elliott did have his best game of the year, amassing 103 yards on 21 carries for a nice 4.9 yards per carry, plus the extremely well-executed screen play for the first touchdown of the game. He was the workhorse, and had a long of 18 yards, something we had seen too little of from him before Sunday. Tony Pollard was more than useful as the change of pace back, with his 42-yard touchdown dash his biggest play of the year, and the longest run by anyone all season.
The Cowboys even got 12 yards on a couple of carries from Lamb, plus he also ran in the two-point conversion after Pollard’s score. That is a creative element that complicates things for the defense. It also leads to the next lesson learned.
Kellen Moore is the real deal
No plays illustrated Kellen Moore’s skills more than the first and last touchdowns. The screen to Elliott was behind tight ends Dalton Schultz and Blake Bell, and it worked to perfection. For the most part, the screen game has not been effective for Dallas all year, but this one was both a great design and very well executed.
But the final touchdown to Schultz was just spectacular. It may only have been a two-yard gain to the end zone, but motion at the snap led to massive confusion in the secondary, and the tight end was as wide open as you can ever hope for.
Those were the highlights, but throughout the game, Moore’s play-calling struck a fine balance between working within Dalton’s game and stressing the defenses. He had a lot of help from his players doing a good job throughout the game, but he is proving that Mike McCarthy made the right decision in keeping him from last year’s staff.
We may have a working offensive line
Joe Philbin may have done an even better job with his unit that Moore did running the offense.
Cowboys RT Zack Martin didn't allow a single QB pressure Sunday vs. Vikings in his first start at offensive tackle since being named Notre Dame's MVP of the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28, 2013. Also no pressure allowed by RG Connor McGovern and C Joe Looney, per @PFF.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 23, 2020
However, this also raises the issue of just why the staff took so long to slide Zack Martin out to get Terence Steele and his struggles off the field. Had they done so a game earlier, that almost upset of the Steelers might have become reality.
Nonetheless, they finally got it right. And the line also had its best performance of the season. That is where it all starts on offense, and finally getting things going there is a very good sign for more wins this year.
The defense was all about the big plays - both ways
It’s a good news/bad news story on defense. Let’s start with the negative, which was how the Cowboys repeatedly got torched by Kirk Cousins, especially when he was targeting Adam Thielen. Cousins threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. The only way the Cowboys could stop him was when the pressure from the pass rush was effective. Most of the game, the secondary just was not able to cover the receivers effectively. That will likely be the Achilles heel for the defense the rest of the season. Fortunately, there aren’t a bunch of really great quarterbacks coming down the road.
What the defense did right was forcing a pair of fumbles, and both of them were from Donovan Wilson. He is not always great in coverage, but he is a true monster when he is making a hit. His recovery was a case of simply ripping the ball away from Cousins before he was down. His hit on Dalvin Cook to knock the ball loose was just great defensive contact. Those two plays led to nine points, and were keys to the victory.
There is one thing that the staff needs to address. Randy Gregory needs to see the field more.
Randy Gregory had 4 total pressures. On 16 snaps. That's uh....good.— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) November 23, 2020
Pressure was crucial for the defense. It was a small sample size, but it certainly seems like evidence that Gregory is being severely underutilized. With Dorance Armstrong having some difficulties, there seems to be a much smarter way of allocating playing time.
Overall, the things we learned from this game were very positive. Now to see if that continues. If it does, we are going to see a playoff game in AT&T Stadium in January.