It’s hard to say whether it was because of an acceptance that the 2020 season is essentially over for the Dallas Cowboys, or that there were some things in the 23-9 loss to our beloved rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, that went much better than anticipated. But the Sunday Night game was much easier to stomach than last week’s debacle against the Washington Football Team. Even more than usual, this look at some stats and numbers from the game is all about what we may be able to learn, and due to the sad circumstances, the main focus is on how it could affect the future.
This was the first game all season where apparently there were no Dallas players hurt. At least no one was seen leaving the field or heading to the locker room, and nothing has been reported at the time this is being written. That is a small positive for a team that has been so badly devastated.
Working back in
Randy Gregory was in his second game back, and Sean Lee saw his first action since going on IR. Gregory had only six plays in his first appearance, but that went up to 31 against the Eagles, or 49% of the defensive downs. He notched four tackles and a QB hit, and just missed a sack. That bodes well, as DeMarcus Lawrence, who was in for 71% of the plays, was the only defensive lineman with more tackles at five. Gregory looks like his return is going very well.
Lee was very limited, only playing on four downs. But he was in on one tackle. This could be an indication that he will be brought back at a similar pace. And perhaps he will be used to try and fix a glaring problem.
Jaylon Smith continues to struggle
The linebacker was in on every defensive down, and being tied for the team lead in tackles with Trevon Diggs may seem like a positive sign. But this is a case where you have to dig deeper, and look at his performance on the field. Smith was still out of position on many plays, and seemed lost too many times.
It is time to start determining just what role Smith will have going forward. One way to do that is to start giving Lee some of his plays at the WILL. With Leighton Vander Esch having his best game in a while, with a couple of tackles and the sack/forced fumble he notched, the team has the opportunity to figure out just what to do about Smith - no matter how much he is making.
Another boost for Dak
Although the rather dismal performance by Ben DiNucci underscored how much the Cowboys miss Dak Prescott, we really could have expected nothing more from the seventh-round pick that was forced onto the field when Andy Dalton also was injured. But for a moment, consider this comparison, borrowed from DannyPhantom’s ten thoughts piece.
Ben DiNucci was 21/40 for 180 yards, QB Rating 64.6
Carson Wentz was 15/27 for 123 yards, QB Rating 61.2
Oh, and let’s not forget the two interceptions and two lost fumbles by Wentz. He, Prescott, and Jared Goff are forever linked as the top three quarterbacks to come out of the 2016 draft. It is not hard to argue that Prescott is the best of the three, and it is growing increasingly obvious that Wentz is dead last. He is playing on an expensive contract extension. The decision to draft Jalen Hurts this year looks a lot easier to understand. Philadelphia has a hard choice to make about the QB position, and it may come a lot faster than they had hoped.
Meanwhile, some Cowboys fans and even media types are proposing taking a QB with what is shaping up to be a high first-round pick. Barring a terrible setback in his recovery, Prescott is by far the best option for Dallas for the foreseeable future. And he is, at some point, going to get paid. Like, really, really paid.
222 net yards
That was what the Cowboys defense yielded against the Eagles, and most of it came on the two touchdown drives. It was their best performance of the year by far. Part of that was the rather significant ineptitude at quarterback, as well as very windy conditions that sailed a few balls, but that is still a legitimate shutdown of the passing game. Early in the game, they got gashed on some runs by Boston Scott, but as the game went on they became more effective there as well.
It is not unimportant that the team parted ways with three defensive players the previous week, Everson Griffen, Dontari Poe, and Daryl Worley. It is just one game, but the early evidence is that it was a case of addition by subtraction. Griffen’s absence gave more opportunities for Gregory and Dorance Armstrong, which seemed to work out well. And while none of the defensive tackles stood out, the overall play seemed better in the interior as well, although Tyrone Crawford did not look like a positive overall. Neville Gallimore only saw 27% of the snaps, and it will be worth watching to see how he develops.
The Trevon Diggs show
There is no question who the defensive star of the game was for Dallas. The second-round rookie had two huge interceptions, which brings the team total on the season to three. He made the Eagles pay for picking on him. He didn’t win all his snaps, but is growing into a very good cornerback.
While we are talking secondary, let’s not overlook Donovan Wilson’s forced fumble. He may still have a lot of work to do in coverage, but give him credit for making a big play. That is something that has been sorely lacking at safety.
The Ezekiel Elliott no-show
In a game where a strong running game would have been invaluable in taking pressure off DiNucci, Elliott hardly came through. He only had 63 yards rushing, with a paltry 3.3 yards per carry. Tony Pollard was actually much more effective, averaging a healthy 5.7 yards. One thing that did not show up in the stat sheet was how much more slippery Pollard looked. He got through small holes and got more yards after contact.
Elliott is of course another player with a big contract that he is not living up to. Admittedly, the problems with the patchwork offensive line plays a major role. But when the backup is having more success behind that same line, you have to wonder just where the issue is.
We should all hope that Elliott finds his mojo again, but so far there is little evidence. He looks to have lost some burst. This is all bad for the Cowboys. And there is no good solution.
Dalton Schultz continues to be a pleasant surprise
He was targeted eight times by DiNucci, and hauled in six of them for 53 yards, including the longest catch of the night at 15 yards. Part of that is the limitations DiNucci displayed, as his only real success came on shorter throws and the kinds of routes that Schultz runs. Still, Schultz has proven to be a more than adequate replacement for the injured Blake Jarwin. It is one of the few things that has gone right for Dallas in this problem-filled year.
While it was another disappointing loss, and one that may have gone differently if Andy Dalton had still been available, there were still some real signs of improvement, especially on defense. We will likely see few if any more wins down the stretch. But this is now a time for the team to evaluate and develop players. They got some of that done. The next game is against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, and that will likely get very ugly. Still, we will be digging into the game to see what else we can learn about the team now and for the future.