They say you learn more from your failures than your successes. Well, let’s dispute that a bit. The Dallas Cowboys delivered a convincing, if imperfect, win over the Carolina Panthers, and there are a lot of things to find in the stats from the game. Some are impressive, others are a wee bit weird, but almost all of them are rather fun.
Let’s start with the offensive star of the game, Ezekiel Elliott. After years when he has been criticized for underproducing while being overpaid, he is reasserting himself as one of the elite running backs in the league. He had 143 yards and a touchdown on just 20 carries, which is a very impressive 7.2 yards per tote. He is one of the nominees for the FedEx Ground Player of the Week. (Go do your civic duty and vote for him.) And after the first week where the rushing game was basically unused, he has since vaulted to be the fourth overall player in rushing yards pending the results of Monday Night Football, which will almost certainly have no effect.
Zeke is back. We heard repeatedly before the season about his conditioning and preparation, and the evidence is that the hype was fully justified. He just looks different when you watch him run. Unless you go back to his rookie year when he was tearing things up, and then it looks very familiar. It was all on display on the 47-yard gallop against the Panthers. He is faster and more nimble than he seemed the last couple of seasons. His vision is excellent and he is hitting the holes decisively.
Elliott is not carrying the running game by himself
He’s not alone in ascending the rushing charts. Tony Pollard is now at number 13, and gives Dallas two backs on pace for 1,000 yard seasons. And did you notice that Dak Prescott has found his legs again? Together with Elliott. the backfield combined for 245 yards on the ground. Coming into the game, Carolina was all puffed up over the 45 rushing yards per game they were allowing. The Cowboys did not just put a hole in that. They ripped it in half, tore the halves into pieces, and ran it through a shredder.
Sometimes the numbers are staggering: The Cowboys ran for 245 yards, including 196 yards on first down. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the most Dallas has had in a game over the last 30 seasons. They averaged 9.3 yards per rush on first down.— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) October 3, 2021
Too often, running on early downs gets teams behind the chains. For Dallas on Sunday, it was exactly the opposite.
And let’s give credit to the guys up front
Whenever you see a strong running game, you also are seeing the results of the offensive line. The blocking was obviously very good to accumulate such a total running the ball. Here is a great example, which also allows you to revel in that long run.
Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott deserves ample credit on this 47-yard run, a great example of his vision and patience but also his offseason conditioning in action.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 4, 2021
But let’s slow it down to observe his blocking. Doesn’t get much better across the board. A complete effort. pic.twitter.com/T8iDNe13P7
And while we are at it, let’s also offer great admiration to the pass protection. Prescott didn’t get sacked once in the game, and only had one quarterback hit according to the official NFL stats. That is amazing. While there were some shaky moments early in the game, the offensive line found its mojo in short order and were a major part of the scoring explosion after halftime.
It always helps to have the best guard and arguably the best offensive lineman in the league.
Of course, just one great offensive lineman won’t get the job done. Fortunately, Martin is hardly alone.
The Cowboys have 3️⃣ of the Top-5 highest-graded offensive linemen this season— PFF (@PFF) October 4, 2021
Zack Martin - 93.4 (2nd)
Tyron Smith - 91.6 (3rd)
Connor McGovern - 88.6 (5th) pic.twitter.com/2uRwcmKBMc
Yeah, that works.
The McGovern effect
What do you do when you have a sixth offensive lineman that is so good that you want to still find a way to get him involved in the game? With Connor McGovern, Kellen Moore just plugs him in as a fullback.
It’s time to declare the Cowboys’ fullback experiment with backup guard Connor McGovern a success. In past two games, he’s played six snaps there. Both goal-line chances were touchdowns. Other four runs gained 28 yards.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 4, 2021
One way the Cowboys are keeping the 308-pounder involved. pic.twitter.com/vB7waUtBre
Now, as others have remarked, let’s see what happens if he gets the handoff on a play. If Dallas gets a big lead in one of the upcoming games and has a short-yardage situation, that would be a great thing for Moore to dial up. It might not only give you a way to pound out a short gain for a first down, but puts one more thing on video for defensive coordinators to have to account for.
The passing efficiency bordered on the ridiculous
When you are gashing the defense so badly with the run, you have no reason to lean on the arm of your quarterback. And Moore didn’t, with Prescott only getting 188 yards on 14 of 22 passing. That is still a very nice 8.5 yards per attempt.
Oh, and four touchdowns.
Dak Prescott only completed 14 passes today, but 4 of them were for touchdowns. 29% of his completions were for touchdowns.— Danny Phantom (@DannyPhantom24) October 3, 2021
People who had Prescott on their fantasy team are still celebrating.
Big picture: Moore is working some magic
At first glance, the third-down numbers were not great. The Cowboys only converted on a third of them. What is hidden in that is they only faced a third down nine times in a game with 56 offensive snaps. They were cooking on first and second down all game. The average gain per play was 7.7 yards, which will win you a bunch of games.
Another stat that can be greatly improved by not having to face it is red zone efficiency. The Cowboys only got inside the opponent’s 20 yard line three times. They converted all of them. That perfection is great even with the small size. It also meant they scored two times from long distance, on passes from Prescott. And the best pass of the day set up one of those conversions.
I'm old enough to remember training camp practices when Dak Prescott was rehabbing a throwing shoulder strain, Amari Cooper rehabbing from ankle surgery.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 3, 2021
2 months later: Dak to Amari, 35-yard TD . Cowboys lead 20-14.pic.twitter.com/gJrcQ1Ywsd
Dak Prescott & Amari Cooper (35-yd TD)— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 3, 2021
Completion Probability: 16.8%*
Prescott's pass to Amari Cooper traveled 46.3 yards in the air, Cooper had 0.7 yards of separation & 0.6 yards from the sideline.
*Prescott's most improbable completion since 2019#CARvsDAL | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/JkV38YWaXH
Meanwhile, the stars were also out on defense
Let us just sit in awe of this guy.
Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs leads the NFL in the following coverage metrics through the first four weeks of the season entering Sunday Night Football:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 3, 2021
Ball Hawk Rate (32.0%)
Target EPA (-24.8)#CARvsDAL | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/56fS5cIxDu
Jumps in effectiveness are not at all uncommon in the second year for NFL players. But what Trevon Diggs is doing borders on the absurd. Takeaways are supposed to be greatly affected by random chance, but the two interceptions he had against Sam Darnold make it look like he can get one when he decides it is time. His play overall not only got him Defensive Player of the Month recognition in September, he already has a big jump on things for October. The NFL world is taking notice.
Meanwhile, another corner has taken more than his fair share of abuse. Anthony Brown did drop an easy interception in the Panthers game. But let’s also acknowledge what he did very well.
Anthony Brown finished with 4 forced incompletions vs CAR, tied for the most among CBs in Week 4 thus far.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 4, 2021
The pass rush finally arrived
In a big way. The Cowboys notched five total sacks, attributed to Randy Gregory (two), Micah Parsons (one), Tarrell Basham (one), Osa Odighizuwa (half), and Chauncey Golston (half). And they were all over Darnold the entire game, with a total of eleven QB hits. That is impressive in any game, and don’t overlook that three of the players involved in the sacks are rookies, with Golston only suiting up for the second time this season.
Can we say that the 2021 draft for the Cowboys is already awesome? And that’s with second-round pick Kelvin Joseph not playing yet.
Only 4 interior DL have more QB pressures this season than #Cowboys rookie Osa Odighizuwa (15). 3x All-Pros Calais Campbell (16) & Cameron Heyward (17) and future Hall of Famers JJ Watt (17) & Aaron Donald (21). Pretty impressive company. pic.twitter.com/eNkgG0A0AN— Jordan Ross (@CHQ_Jordan) October 4, 2021
Oh, and that is all without DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Dorance Armstrong, and Bradlee Anae on the field. Imagine when this defense gets healthier. For opposing quarterbacks, it could be doomsday.
Yes, I said it. You old heads know what I’m talking about. There’s still a lot of season to play to see if it holds up, but I already hear the echo.
It was almost all good for the Cowboys. Outside of a few busted plays, this team was absolutely dominant in getting their third win of the season and staying alone in the lead for the NFC East. That is hardly the target this team has in mind. If they can continue to find this kind of performance in them, they have reason to dream big.