The optimism in Dallas is growing. Getting excited about a Cowboys team is similar to an on-again-off-again relationship that tends to end in disappointment. The way that a failed relationship starts is what Dallas fans are going through now; we are choosing to believe that maybe this time it is different.
However, there are legitimate reasons to be optimistic. Even if you don’t think this team is capable of hoisting the Lombardi, can you honestly say that you haven’t been impressed through five games?
For the fourth straight week, the Cowboys emerge victorious. Even in an odd game such as the one on Sunday, several storylines became apparent.
Dallas’ pass-rush is dominant
When DeMarcus Lawrence went down after week one, there was speculation that the Cowboys would be unable to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Well, after week five, it is safe to say the Dallas pass rush is just fine.
Coming into this matchup, the Giants’ offensive line had allowed the fifth least pressure per dropback at 16.8%. But in week five, the Dallas defensive line was imposing their will, getting to the quarterback on 45% of passes. Randy Gregory alone pressured the Giants’ quarterback nine times, the most of any player in week five.
Whether it was Daniel Jones or Mike Glennon, the Cowboys were making them uncomfortable in the pocket. While these efforts did not result in any sacks, the Dallas defensive line made the Giants backfield their temporary home.
We should not be surprised about this performance as the Cowboys have done it all season. Of the 221 players in 2021 with more than 40 pass-rush snaps, three Dallas defenders rank in the top twenty of quarterback pressures. Osa Odighizuwa, Micah Parsons, and Randy Gregory have looked like men amongst boys through five weeks.
Micah Parsons alone is enough to intimidate opposing offensive lines. The rookie “linebacker” is fourth by win rate, eighth by Pro Football Focus pass-rushing grade, and 12th by total quarterback pressures. There is not much to say about Parsons that hasn’t already been said, but he is putting up numbers that most veterans could only hope to reach.
Oh, and remember Pro Bowler DeMarcus Lawrence? When he returns, offensive lines will be unable to double team him, and if they do, it will only be that much easier for Gregory, Odighizuwa, and Parsons to get to the quarterback.
The pass-rush is part of the reason the Cowboys have been able to generate turnovers at such a rapid rate. This is a squad that Dan Quinn has improved immediately, and with Lawrence waiting to return, it will be a spectacle when the defense is fully healthy.
Trevon Diggs is the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner
Diggs has been absent from the takeaway articles thus far because most fans don’t need statistics as proof of how special he is. However, with Diggs’ ball-hawking ability taking the spotlight, his overall talent in coverage is being ignored.
Diggs tends to jump the route, and he thus allows the occasional big play. But even if you take away the interceptions, he is still a phenomenal corner. He currently allows the 15th lowest completion percentage and the lowest passer rating when targeted, among all cornerbacks. Additionally, only four other players have more pass breakups than Diggs.
His closing speed on opposing wide receivers is the reason he is the second most targeted corner in the league. He can give space in coverage yet still makes the play when the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand. Setting aside his takeaways, Diggs is a great cornerback in coverage.
However, what makes him the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner is his five-game streak with at least one interception. But you might not realize how impressive this streak truly is. Since the NFL merger, only 23 players have had an interception in at least five consecutive games. Through five weeks, Diggs has accounted for 5% of all interceptions in the NFL.
While it has been outstanding to watch, his interception streak will assuredly end as opposing quarterbacks begin to avoid Diggs when they throw. But if he can eliminate the number one wide receiver on a team simply because he is lined up on the other side of the ball, it is even more of a testament to his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy.
The Cowboys need to consider a replacement at center
Dallas’ offensive line has played outstanding through the beginning of the season, and they are partially responsible for the resurgence of Ezekiel Elliott. However, there is an evident weakness on the offensive line, and it exists with the center position.
To preface this takeaway, Tyler Biadasz is not a bad player. He is an above-average run-blocking lineman and definitely has his strengths. Biadasz is still young and has time to develop into the player we all hope he can be, but this season has not been ideal for the second-year offensive lineman.
Biadasz currently allows the third-most quarterback pressures, the most hits on the quarterback, and the fourth-most hurried throws among all centers. This is in addition to his four penalties on the year, leading to the third-worst PFF pass-blocking grade among centers.
This problem became more apparent during week five with a few errant snaps and several other miscues. Biadasz had a decent game in pass-protection against the Giants, but with his other mistakes, he finished with a below-average PFF grade for the fourth time in five weeks.
Once again, Biadasz is simply the weakest link in an offensive line filled with talent. It would be unfair to assume that he should be playing like Travis Frederick in his second year. There is still room to grow, and he could become an essential piece to this offensive line one day.
However, that this is not going to be the case in 2021. If the Cowboys want a complete offensive line, they need to consider the possibility of a substitution at center. It is a vague takeaway considering there isn’t a player readily available to replace him. It is also tricky to mess with an aspect of the team that isn’t broken. But if opposing teams begin to key on this weakness and send multiple defenders through the A-gap, Biadasz’s struggles will only increase.
Dallas can win in ugly games
While we would like every game to be blemish-free and perfect in every aspect, that is not the reality in the NFL. Every team will have their down weeks. But the mark of a good team is how they rebound when these mistakes arise. This week, the Cowboys proved they are a good team.
Remember the first five weeks of last season, where the games were filled with nothing but mistakes? As a quick refresher, through week five in 2020, the Cowboys had turned the ball over more than any team in the league and had received the eighth-most penalties. As a result of these mistakes, the Cowboys were 2-3 with a combined four-point margin of victory in their two wins.
The first half of the Giants game looked eerily similar to the first five weeks of 2020. The Cowboys had turned the ball over twice, and with less than a minute until halftime, the game was tied. In week five, seventeen other teams had a better first half than the Cowboys by offensive EPA per play. It was a bad start.
But unlike last year, a poor offensive start no longer results in an insurmountable deficit. Through the first five weeks in 2020, the Cowboys’ defense was giving up 23.2 points per game in the first half alone. Fast forward a year later where the Dallas defense is allowing just 23.4 points through the entire game. The significantly improved defense is able to contain opponents when these mistakes inevitably arise, providing the offense time to find its rhythm.
So what happened after this sluggish start? After the Giants tied the game at 10-10, the Cowboys rattled off a 24-3 run before garbage time took over. Let that sink in for a little. In a game where the Cowboys turned the ball over twice, received the fourth-most penalties in week five, and had miscues everywhere, they won by 24 points.
This game would not have happened in 2020. The Giants would have been able to capitalize on Dallas’ mistakes and likely would have entered halftime with a two-score lead. Instead, the defense was able to do its job and ensure the Cowboys maintained the ability to run the ball.
Beating the Eagles by 20 points in a game where they played exceptional football is one thing, but outscoring the Giants by 24 after an ugly first half is another. This team is good, and they proved it again on Sunday.
The Cowboys are NFC contenders
As a Dallas fan, you are likely optimistic about this team but prepared for the disappointment that will inevitably arise. However, it is time to buy into the legitimacy of this team as a true contender.
If we look at where the Cowboys are ranked overall by various analytics sources compared to NFC teams alone, Dallas is first by DVOA, first by PFF, third by EPA per play, and second by point margin. There is an argument that these metrics are inflated due to the Cowboys facing an easier schedule. But after playing the Buccaneers, Chargers, and Panthers, Dallas has faced the fifth-hardest schedule through five weeks.
There are others in the NFC that present a challenge; the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Packers, and Rams are playing great football. However, it is time to start believing that the Cowboys belong in the same conversation as these teams.
With a top-five offense and a top ten defense through five weeks, the ingredients for a great season are there. Before you start calling this takeaway too rosy, reaching the Super Bowl is still unlikely. But it is no longer outside the realm of possibility. The Cowboys probably won’t come out of the NFC, but anything can happen in January.
If you watched the game against the Giants, witnessed all of the mistakes, and still see a flawed team, that is entirely reasonable. But we can all be happy that the Cowboys are 4-1 for the first time since 2016 when they rolled out eleven straight wins after losing their season opener.
Can history repeat itself? Time will tell. However, let’s enjoy the fact the Cowboys have a two-game division lead, the offense is playing to the level we had hoped, and the defense looks legitimate. There is reason to believe in this team again, and that is fun.