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Lessons learned from the Cowboys recent improved play

It may be too late, but chance has favored Dallas lately, and so has some of their performance.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

After hitting the depths of despair over how badly the Dallas Cowboys have played, fans and media alike suddenly have some real positives to consider. With their surprisingly good 41-33 win over the San Francisco 49ers, they now have the first winning streak of this long and sometimes painful season. This is not to say that the team has fixed all, or even most, of its problems. We still are torn between clinging to the extremely slim chances of making the playoffs and fully supporting Team Tank. No matter which side of that conundrum you fall, you must admit that Dallas has improved as a team. As always, there are things we can take away from the games.

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers

This is the most important single factor in having back-to-back victories. Before their game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cowboys were -13 in turnover margin. Now, with a plus three in that contest and four more added against the Niners, they have gotten to -6. It still puts them too close to the bottom of the league, but the improvement has been drastic, and it is not hard to argue they could have lost both games without the takeaways. Just as importantly, Dallas did not lose a fumble or interception in either of those games. There were some close calls, but things have decidedly gone their way for a change.

Getting takeaways and not giving the ball up is always good. If you can do that reliably, you will win a lot of games.

It just isn’t reliable at all, however. There is always an element of chance involved. On the first fumble lost by the 49ers, Dorance Armstrong managed to keep Richie James on top of him while he was tackling, which meant that when he pulled the ball out, it was still live. That is hard to do. And the second one was a very close call for the officials. They had to judge whether Nick Mullens was in the act of throwing the ball when DeMarcus Lawrence knocked it loose. The replay showed just how close that decision was. If we are being honest, there are some more established quarterbacks who would have gotten that call. But Mullens doesn’t have the reputation of a Tom Brady, just to pick a name totally and completely at random, and he turned the ball over.

The two interceptions were more a matter of Donovan Wilson and Anthony Brown making good reads and good plays, especially Wilson’s. Which segues nicely into the second lesson.

Getting healthy helps

For perhaps the first time all season, the Cowboys were at full strength in the secondary. Wilson, Brown, Chodobe Awuzie, and Trevon Diggs all have missed time, and were finally on the field together with Xavier Woods, plus Jourdan Lewis had a very good game when he was called on. It showed, although Mullens was still able to pass for 308 yards and sustain long scoring drives. Still, things are looking up - maybe. Woods had to leave the game with a chest injury, and his status for the upcoming divisional battle with the Philadelphia Eagles remains unknown.

Injuries have been the overriding story for the Cowboys this year. It seems more than just coincidence that as they see a little bit better health, they are finally having more success.

They need to feed someone else

This was the best game of Tony Pollard’s career, and it was certainly due to him starting in the absence of Ezekiel Elliott, who was out with an injury for the first time since being drafted. Call it a silver lining for what would normally be looked at as a detriment. It raises a real question about who is the best option for the team. There is absolutely a valid argument to be made that Pollard has been underutilized.

Given Elliott’s injury and very high mileage, the team needs to think strategically. It may be wiser to keep him out, perhaps for the remainder of the regular season, to ensure his calf is fully healed and not risk aggravating things. He certainly wants to get on the field, but the staff must make the decision in light of both the medical evaluation and what is best in the long run. It is still highly doubtful that the Cowboys can make the playoffs given the situation and the remaining schedule of the division-leading Washington Football Team, which just has to win one of their two remaining games. Those are against the 4-10 Carolina Panthers and the 4-9-1 Eagles, so the odds are in their favor. If everything were to align perfectly and Dallas does sneak into the playoffs, then Elliott could be reevaluated. In any case, they still need to get Pollard more touches, because good things tend to happen when they do.

The red zone was finally friendly territory for the offense

Thanks to those short fields on the takeaways, the Cowboys had three trips to the red zone and they scored touchdowns on all of them. That is certainly a change. Time and time again this year we have seen them stall out and have to settle for a field goal attempt. Even in the win over the Bengals, they just went two for four in the red zone. It was also encouraging to see that two of the touchdowns against San Francisco were on passes. Andy Dalton has had his struggles in filling in for Dak Prescott, but seems to be improving in some important areas. Few are more important than getting touchdowns instead of field goals when the team gets down close.

Now for the negatives

Winning makes things better, but there are still problem areas for Dallas. The run defense, while much better when they were defending the red zone, still allowed 150 yards on the ground to go with that good day passing from Mullens. Both Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. had strong days.

The offense had trouble sustaining drives, only converting 40% of their third downs and having three three-and-outs, including two in the second half when the 49ers twice tied the score. One of the touchdowns they scored only came because of a great scramble drill throw for the longest play of the day for the Cowboys, the 45-yard completion to CeeDee Lamb that set up the Dalton Schultz touchdown catch on the next play. The only reason that the Cowboys won this game while just totaling 291 yards was the field position. Which leaves a high note to finish on.

Winning the battle of the hidden yards, again

It is an old Bill Parcells term for having to travel less distance to score because of takeaways and kick/punt returns. The Cowboys just crushed this, with a phenomenal average starting position of their own 41-yard line. San Francisco started on average from their own 24. It wasn’t just on fumbles and interceptions, either. The special teams had another strong showing, with a staggering 181 yards in returns, boosted considerably by Lamb’s touchdown return on the onside kick attempt. Some still complain about John Fassel, but that makes little sense given how he has turned this aspect of the game around. That includes coverage, as Dallas only allowed 46 yards on kick and punt returns.

It was overall a big step forward. It may ultimately be too little, too late. It certainly has dimmed hopes of a top five draft pick. But for the players and coaches that will be back next year, winning does far more good than losing.