We are now halfway to the next game for the Dallas Cowboys, a long road trip to face the Seattle Seahawks. It is a traditionally hostile environment, but the absence of fans helps negate that. Still, the Seahawks are red-hot behind the nearly perfect Russell Wilson, so this is a real challenge.
Dallas also faces the pleasant challenge of moving on from the wild and wonderful win over the Atlanta Falcons. That is probably easier for the team than for fans. All of this brings up questions about the Cowboys and what they face. Here are three things in particular.
One concern that lingers is just how much early down running Kellen Moore plans. In a post on how much the coaching staff really has changed, there was a quote from the OC.
“In a perfect world, you want to be heavy run, play action world [on] first and second down. Get that, mix in a couple quick gains, those sorts of things.”
It could be good news, or it could be bad. The real key is how many times they run versus letting Dak Prescott throw it. From a purely statistical viewpoint, you always have a better chance of a successful set of downs (resulting in another first down or touchdown) if you throw the ball on first down. But for some reason, coaches across the league want to “establish the run” or work for “manageable” third downs with running the ball on early downs. They see that as safe, preferring a 2nd-and-7 or more to an incomplete pass - despite the fact that almost all quarterbacks in the league are going to complete that first down throw two times out of three - with two more shots to get the 10 yards after that.
That is why play-action is such an effective weapon on first down. Coaches are just as prone to projection as any of us, which means they think the opponent thinks the same way they do. In many cases they expect early down runs because that is what they prefer. So for those teams their defenders are out there really watching for the run, which primes them to bite on play-action. That means someone is almost certain to be open for the pass. All you need is a good throw and a good catch, again things that actually happen more often than not, and you are off and running. So to speak.
So far for the Cowboys, that seems to be working very well, indeed.
#Cowboys QB #Dak Prescott has run play-action 24 times, the fifth-most in the league. His 319 passing yards off play-action are the second-most in the NFL. #Bills QB Josh Allen has the most yards with 367.— Mark Lane (@therealmarklane) September 23, 2020
That is highly encouraging. It looks like Moore really uses PA, which is something that many teams don’t do enough. And it may be about more than just trying to catch up when behind, as Dallas was doing against the Falcons. When you are in a big hole, play-action tends to be used less in favor of straight dropbacks. Of course, that works out for the Cowboys just about as well, if history is any indication.
Dak Prescott was 70.1% accurate on straight dropback passes last season, the most accurate quarterback in the NFL.— QB Data Mine (@QBDataMine) May 1, 2020
(A straight dropback pass is any pass where the quarterback didn't use play action or throw a screen.) pic.twitter.com/HRuiouEqmj
So the bottom line is that the Cowboys have one of the most accurate and effective quarterbacks when he throws the ball, no matter what kind of play. In Ezekiel Elliott, they also have one of the most reliable and effective running backs, especially as injuries thin the ranks across the league. Modern football should lean heavily toward passing, though. Just how Moore conforms to that is probably going to determine the outcome of more than one game. Or, as it has been put on social media, Kellen needs to let it Rayne.
Some things are not going as we expected - in a good way
We knew the team was shorthanded at right tackle going into the season with La’el Collins sidelined with injury. Then Cameron Erving got hurt in the first game. Then Tyron Smith developed a neck problem, and suddenly Dallas is facing a Falcons team that famously sacked Prescott eight times in their 2017 meeting with a pair of UDFAs, Terence Steele and Brandon Knight, starting. The flashbacks were real as that last meeting of the teams sent Prescott into a year-long funk after first Chaz Green and then Byron Bell failed to provide any real protection, and Adrian Clayborn went on a sack spree that was apparently a one-time event for him. It is not surprising that Prescott felt a bit gun-shy for a while, having endured nine QB hits along with the sacks.
So we crossed our fingers and clenched our, um, toes and suffered through . . . one sack for six yards and four QB hits. As results go, that is, well, excellent. Part of this has to be the backups coming in and performing much better than expected, but another major element is that Prescott himself is a mobile quarterback, and there were some rollouts and other play calls that helped avoid pressure. If you weren’t told about it, you really would have no idea that the tackle position is so beat up for Dallas.
Through two weeks the Cowboys are tied with the Dolphins for the fourth-fewest quarterback hits in the NFL (7).— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) September 22, 2020
Only the Bengals (4), Vikings (4), and Panthers (1) have fewer.
It’s almost like sacks are really a QB stat.
Tight end was also supposed to be a major issue for Dallas after the loss of Blake Jarwin. But Dalton Schultz and Blake Bell combined to account for 11 catches, 122 yards, and a touchdown in his absence. With Leighton Vander Esch on IR, the MIKE linebacker was expected to be a problem with backup Joe Thomas filling in.
Need to check the All22, but Joe Thomas may have been DAL's best defender Sunday— John Owning (@JohnOwning) September 20, 2020
The team lost Gerald McCoy before the season even started, and all Trysten Hill has done is show up repeatedly disrupting things behind the line of scrimmage.
Trysten Hill may not show up in the stat sheet, but make no mistake about it - he was blowing up the Falcons interior offensive line. This is a really good sign. pic.twitter.com/2c8u3jp22u— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 23, 2020
All of these have been surprising developments, even with Schultz and Hill getting some nice mentions in camp. With the rash of injuries already, Dallas has been forced to resort to the “next man up” approach, because those elite replacements just aren’t out there waiting to be signed. So far, it has worked out rather well for them. Now, it is going to need to continue with news that Chidobe Awuzie is expected to be out this week, and likely longer, while Trevon Diggs did not practice on Wednesday with a shoulder injury. With Anthony Brown already on IR and Jourdan Lewis still getting back to form after his camp injury, the cupboard is getting a bit bare in the secondary. That may not be optimal when they are headed to visit the Seahawks and Wilson. We can just hope for another pleasant surprise.
There’s so much less pressure this week
Pulling out the win over the Falcons makes the game with the Seahawks less crucial. As OCC noted in his look at ELO stats, the Cowboys could go on a winning streak after this one, and the schedule is looking easier than it did before the games began.
Most importantly, though, is that the rest of the NFC East all lost on Sunday, and it may well be the weakest division in the NFL. Yes, we still want to win, but Seattle looks like one of the real powerhouses in the NFC. If the Cowboys can just keep improving, despite the injuries, then they have a very good shot at getting into the playoffs - and not just a one-and-done, either. While the first couple of games showed some roughness and a lack of coordination, that should not have been unexpected. That miracle win last game now looms especially large. It might be just the measure of insurance they need, while it bought them a little extra time to get fully up to speed.
Had they lost when Atlanta came to town, it would have impacted more than just the standings. The way they fell behind was the kind of thing that can birth some doubts among the players and staff. Coming back and actually winning not only helps erase those, it inspires greater confidence. That all falls in the intangibles category, which cannot be measured. It doesn’t make them meaningless, however. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself, your teammates, and the staff to go out and win NFL games. As the time was winding down on Dallas last Sunday, you have to know that “28-3” was in the minds of both teams.
Sometimes, it just takes a little edge.