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After further review: Connor McGovern earns a spot, Cowboys run defense improving

Let’s see who came to play on Sunday after taking another look at the tape.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys played their most complete football game of the season on Sunday to come away with a 31-28 win over the Minnesota Vikings. The offense racked up more than 375 yards and scored over 30 points for the first time since being without their star quarterback, Dak Prescott. The defense struggled at times, but then also came away with some very nice plays down the stretch, allowing the offense a shot to pull off the comeback.

There were plenty of positive things on both sides of the ball, but let’s check out what we discovered after further review.

The running game

There were a lot of different schools of thought when it came to the decision to start Zack Martin at right tackle as that now meant Connor McGovern had to start at right guard. Some were proclaiming, “it’s about time” while others had little faith in McGovern’s ability to hold up. Regardless of where people stood on this dilemma, the coaching staff certainly made the right call on Sunday.

The Cowboys offense produced 180 yards on the ground on Sunday, which is their highest rushing total of the season. The patience and vision of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard allowed their blocking to open up some big holes, and they were able to take advantage. It was fantastic job by the entire offensive linemen, but especially pleasing to see the interior guys secure their blocks and seal off the Vikings defenders. The team utilized their blocking assets to their fullest as guys like Dalton Schultz and Noah Brown did a great job taking out defenders. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a right tackle who is one of the best run blockers in the game.

On these plays, watch how the offensive line does a good job of keeping the Vikings defensive line in grouped clusters, opening up running lanes for the Cowboys ball carriers.

And some of the play designs were brilliant. On this play, the Cowboys had both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in one-on-one coverage on one side, but then they had two great blocking tight ends bunched on the right side. The Vikings defenders are unsure how they want to defend it, as this play was over before it even started.

Putting your star rookie to good use

It was so satisfying to see Kellen Moore utilize the playmaking ability of CeeDee Lamb. The team used him in a variety of ways, from jet sweeps to option plays, you could find the rookie doing all sorts of different things in this offense. His amazing backward layout to haul down that level 10 difficulty touchdown catch was great stuff, but there were plenty other things he did to get excited about.

The CeeDecoy

Lamb was such a threat that he was even effective when the ball didn’t go to him. On the Cowboys go ahead touchdown, Minnesota was so worried about Lamb’s whereabouts that he demanded the attention of not one, not two, but three Vikings defenders. It’s hard to account for everyone when you have to triple cover a rookie.

Schultzy should’ve had three touchdowns

We can’t say enough about how great tight end Dalton Schultz has played this year. His ability as a blocker is often forgotten about, but it’s such an important part of what he brings to this team. Of course, what’s more easily recognized is what he’s done as a receiver. He had the game-winning touchdown, but he could’ve very easily had three touchdowns on the day.

On these plays, the result wasn’t good as they ended with the Vikings getting the ball, but if Andy Dalton would’ve positioned his feet better and made a more accurate throw on the interception and made a better read on the fourth down incompletion, Schultz would have finished with a huge game.

Obligatory Cooper appreciation

Amari Cooper led the team in catches (six) and yards (81) although it might’ve gone mostly unnoticed as we were all in awe of the rookie’s highlight plays, but we should take a moment to appreciate what Cooper adds to this offense. His route-running makes him such a dependable target for Dalton on those money downs.

The Hitman

The impressive play of Schultz is an example of what an up-and-coming player can do when he gets more opportunities. That also rings true for second-year safety Donovan Wilson, who is slowly emerging as the real deal in the secondary. Wilson was used as a third linebacker a lot on Sunday as he preyed at the line of scrimmage looking to attack. Not only does he hit people hard, but he has great awareness to go after the ball. This is a welcoming sight for a team that struggles to create takeaways.

On these plays, look how Wilson makes a concerted effort to go after the ball. He finished the game with two forced fumbles, but he was real close to having a third. Wilson was hitting with a purpose and was looking to strip the ball every chance he got.

Wolf hunting, and run stopping

It may not have seemed like it because the Vikings offense had so many yards, but the Cowboys defense did a great job of tackling in this game. And it was happening from everyone. The defensive linemen were dragging players down, the defensive backs stood their ground and kept taking shots as Dalvin Cook came barreling down at full speed. The Vikings were going straight at them, but credit the Cowboys defense for fighting back.

While everyone was getting in on all the tackling, Leighton Vander Esch was leading the pack as he finished with a team-high 12 tackles. LVE did a great job reacting to plays, getting to his spot, and then squaring up and stopping Cook in his tracks. On these plays, watch how Vander Esch stays discipline, but then fights quickly to fill the gap. In weeks prior, ball carriers were just caroming off of Vander Esch as the Cowboys linebacker was never there on time to get the leverage he needed to stop the runner, but that wasn’t the case on Sunday.

Edge rushers/Run stoppers

Can we give a shout out to how well the Cowboys defensive ends contributed in the running game. DeMarcus Lawrence was always making plays across the other side of the field, even if he had to hurdle blockers to get there. Aldon Smith diagnosed plays well and did a nice job shedding blocks. And even Dorance Armstrong, who we don’t hear a lot about, was quietly making stops, as he made a shoestring tackle that prevented a big play. It may have not felt like it at the time, but these guys were showing up often in this game.

Another shoulder shrug for the special teams

It’s a complete dice roll when it comes to this special teams unit. Sometimes they’re horrible, other times they make us cheer. But mostly, they’re still horrible.

Against the Vikings, the special teams had multiple blunders. A penalty saved them for giving the Vikings a free possession after Rico Dowdle wasn’t fast enough to cover the gunner as the Cowboys tried to bait a fake punt. The Vikings took the bait, and it would’ve been a nice conversion if only the gunner had contained his excitement before the snap and gotten set.

The Cowboys also allowed the Vikings to get a clean shot at blocking a Greg Zuerlein extra point when the edge wasn’t properly secured. And initially I was angry when Tony Pollard’s kickoff return pinned them back deep in their own territory because how many times have we seen that happen, but had it not been for a whiffed blocking attempt by C.J. Goodwin, that play had a chance of turning into a big return.

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