Admit it. If you were given the chance to buy a 5-1 start for the Dallas Cowboys headed into the bye, you would have been scouring your budget, hocking some valuables, and digging under the couch cushions to find as much as you could to afford the price. After 2020, that was a dream, especially given how the first two games looked coming into the season. Here we are, and we are basking in a couple of tight wins over good coaches and teams, plus some absolute butt-kickings thrown in for good measure. Even the season-opening loss to the defending champions left us feeling hopeful. That hope has been fulfilled.
We discussed things we are enjoying during the bye on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe right here and Spotify users can subscribe right here.
It was not one thing, but a whole bunch of aspects of this team that got Dallas to this most pleasant position. It would take a lot more space than available here to cover them all, but here are some of the most significant so far.
The offseason of the defense
Offensive injuries may have doomed Dallas in 2020, but the repeated ineptitude of the defense would have certainly limited them even if the offense had been more intact. Better health on offense was hoped to heal those woes, and so far that has been absolutely what has happened. The defensive problems, however, required drastic action. To the credit of both the Jones family and head coach Mike McCarthy, they went all in. First, Mike Nolan was replaced by Dan Quinn. Then they loaded up on low-cost, high-ceiling free agents, and for once, it has paid off. The draft was the final part of the puzzle. Micah Parsons has been everything we were afraid he wasn’t, Osa Odighizuwa is looking like an absolute steal, Chauncey Golston is coming along very well, and we haven’t even seen Kelvin Joseph take the field. Add in the incredible jump Trevon Diggs has made in his second season, and suddenly the defense is no longer holding this team back. They still have obvious warts, but they also are making big plays and getting key stops that just didn’t happen last year. Quinn got his groceries, and so far, he is proving to be a master chef.
The contention was that if the offense was what it has turned out to be, just an average defense would make this team a contender. We are exactly there so far in the season. If Quinn and his staff can get some of the issues corrected, then we can dream big. Even if they stay about where they are, the Cowboys are not going to go quietly this year.
The sudden rise of 12 personnel
Credit for bringing this to our attention goes to Bob Sturm of The Athletic, who made this the focus of his weekly look at Kellen Moore and the offense. With a dominant quarterback like Dak Prescott, 11 personnel (one RB, one TE) is supposed to be the default package. But against the New England Patriots and evil defensive genius Bill Belichick, Dallas used 12 personnel (one RB, TEs) on 52% of the plays. They were similarly heavy on first down. Although at first glance, they used slightly less overall (50%), they also went with extra offensive linemen on four additional plays. And they made it work beautifully. As Sturm put it:
Just look at that beautiful power football. In 20 first-down snaps with two tight ends, the Cowboys rolled up 152 yards for an insane 7.6 yards per snap. That is a lot of second-and-2s.
The other 19 plays on first down which were all of the non-12 personnel plays still were good, but only gained 110 yards — 5.8 yards is nice, but it isn’t 7.6. That is just dominant stuff.
But, this isn’t new. Dallas’ 12 personnel — employing the abilities of (Dalton) Schultz and (Blake) Jarwin as bigger and stronger versions of a third and fourth receiver who can assist in the run game as blockers — is something this team does very, very well.
Contained in that is something that is often overlooked. With Schultz and Jarwin, the Cowboys are blessed with two tight ends who could start on many NFL rosters. And in the kind of adaptation that was sorely lacking under the previous regime, this year they are fully capitalizing on that. This is another place where McCarthy is not getting proper recognition for what he is doing. Sturm certainly sees it.
Why do the Cowboys love 12 personnel? It is something that goes back to Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. Despite being a team with the three-time NFL MVP at the helm, the Packers always in McCarthy’s run, built a premium on running the ball and also balancing the run game with the pass game.
Certainly McCarthy has been influential in this. Just as importantly, he not only retained Moore as OC, he has fully unshackled him. Often in those 12 personnel plays, Schultz and Jarwin are stacked on the same side of the formation. That really forces the defense to shift with them to try and counter the risk of Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard gashing them. With Prescott as your quarterback, that is going to open up some big passing opportunities out of play-action. Against the Patriots, he did that repeatedly on the way to the thrilling OT win. Expect this to remain a staple of the offensive game plan. It is something that can only be done if you have the horses to run things well. Dallas has an awesome stable.
Speaking of one of those horses...
There were a ton of great performances, none more so than Prescott. But one stud was a bit overshadowed, despite being in on some of the most significant plays of the game. CeeDee Lamb had a career game. He had personal bests in receptions (nine) and yards (149), plus he tied his best day scoring touchdowns with two.
In volume stats, Lamb is not at the top in the league, sitting seventh in total yards and tied for ninth in touchdowns. But he is lining up with Amari Cooper, who is still in the top 30 among receivers despite fighting some minor injuries, and the emerging Cedrick Wilson, who has filled in more than capably for the injured Michael Gallup. Gallup is being brought along carefully, due at least partly to how well Wilson has performed. When Gallup comes back, the challenge for defenses will just get worse. Prescott is also getting the ball a lot to his new safety blanket Schultz. When you have so many good targets on the field, the offense can hum. And it hums best when Lamb gets the ball in his hands, at least so far.
Having to look for ways to get everyone involved is a great problem to have.
We see a new attitude
Patti Labelle may have the real theme song for this year’s Cowboys. After years of grinding our teeth in frustration over conservative, predictable play-calling or going for the safe points, we now have a team that goes for it on fourth down at a high rate, and shows a marked preference for six points over three. The watchword is aggression. Whether it is Moore taking what the defense gives him, Elliott actually looking to be in the best shape of his career, Randy Gregory snatching souls, Diggs claiming his regularly scheduled interceptions, or the other many players winning their individual battles, this team is throwing and landing roundhouse kicks on so many plays. And as the great Sounds from the Sidelines series of videos from the team’s media department show, this team does not just think it can win. It fully expects to.
Intangibles are an important part of the game. That winning, even dominating, attitude is huge.
And now to be contrary
I have already come to the defense of McCarthy, who is being unduly criticized. Now it’s time to stand up for a player who is invariably called the weak link on offense: Tyler Biadasz.
He certainly had his struggles early in the season, both in pass blocking and just getting the snap back accurately. But quietly, he is starting to round into form.
After allowing 11 pressures over the first 3 games, #Cowboys C Tyler Biadasz has only allowed 1 pressure over the last 3 games.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 18, 2021
I've been a vocal critic, but Biadasz has been much better in pass protection as of late.
You likely didn’t hear Biadasz mentioned at all during the Patriots game. For offensive linemen, that is usually a very good sign. Even his snapping seems to be coming around. He has only started ten games in his brief career; effectively he is still in his rookie year by playing time. Yet the standard he is judged by is as an experienced veteran. He is not quite that, and it showed in the first three games. But now he is protecting his quarterback well, and he has always been at his best in the run game.
We hoped for him to improve to solidify the line. He is doing just that and his contributions should be recognized. The fact it took a few starts for him to get settled should be considered in context.
Don’t forget La’el Collins has finished serving his suspension, and we even had the bonus of Ty Nsekhe filling in capably while Tyron Smith was getting checked out on the sidelines. The good times are back for the offensive line.
Those are just a few things to list. Just as a postscript, there is another great article at The Athletic, this one by Ted Nguyen, about how the staff just outcoached Bill Belichick.
We keep saying this year seems different, and it is.