Remember when speculations arose that Dak Prescott would not be 100% this year and the Football Team arose as the favorite to win the NFC East? To say that the outlook of this team has changed since late August would be a drastic understatement.
For all intents and purposes, the Cowboys dismantled the undefeated Panthers. The last-minute scare that Carolina gave Dallas should not be dismissed, but heading into the fourth quarter, the game was practically over.
There were several individual takeaways from this game: Trevon Diggs’ interceptions, Dak Prescott’s four touchdowns, and Micah Parson’s continual versatility. But what are a few of the larger storylines from this game?
Dalton Schultz is the Cowboys undisputed TE1 and a top ten TE in football
Let’s get this out of the way, Dalton Schultz lost the football, and it was a bad call that should have resulted in a Cowboys turnover. This is the obvious counterpoint to the argument that Schultz is the best tight end on the team. However, pay attention to what happened after this disastrous series for Schultz.
After putting the ball on the ground twice in the span of three plays (one not a fumble, the other a fumble), it would have been reasonable for Dallas to trust Blake Jarwin for the remainder of the game. However, when the final whistle blew, Schultz had out-snapped Jarwin 25 plays to eleven on passing downs. This resulted in Schultz accumulating four more targets than Jarwin, leading to five more receptions.
You can argue that Jarwin was playing better and deserved more snaps, but clearly, the team trusts Dalton Schultz more. While many Dallas fans assumed that these two tight ends would play complementary roles to one another and take on equal responsibilities, that is not the case. Dalton Schultz is the Cowboys’ tight end one, and Jarwin is now an above-average back-up.
Now to the second half of this takeaway, Dalton Schultz is one of the best tight ends in the NFL. No, he is not Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Darren Waller, but he isn’t as far behind as you might think.
Through four games, Schultz is playing like a top-four tight end in the league. Schultz has the sixth most receiving yards among tight ends despite playing in an offense with weapons at every position. Pair this with the third-most yards after the catch, second in yards per routes run, and with a 0% drop rate, it is hard to argue that Schultz isn’t at least top ten.
And the cherry on top, Schultz is tied with Travis Kelce and George Kittle for the most missed tackles forced. That is the same Kittle and Kelce known as the best tight ends in football due to their ability to create yards after the catch.
The primary narrative after the Panthers game has centered around Schultz’s fumble. However, the conversation needs to shift to Schultz’s dominance in an offense loaded with other pass-catching options.
The defense relies on a lead
This takeaway is not an attempt to disparage the defense. Outside of the fourth quarter of the Panthers game, the defense has played near-perfect football since week one. Dan Quinn, Micah Parsons, and Trevon Diggs are working miracles for this team. However, the defense is heavily reliant on the Cowboys’ offense maintaining a lead.
The 17.2 average rushing attempts from the Cowboys’ opponents is the lowest in football, meaning that teams do not try to run against Dallas. But the defenses right behind the Cowboys in this metric are Tampa Bay, Denver, Baltimore, and Buffalo. Notice any similarities in these four teams?
If you guessed that all four are elite at stopping the run, you would be correct. And then there are the Cowboys leading this statistic despite allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, the seventh-worst in football.
But there is obviously a dissonance here. Why would teams try and pass on the eighth-best coverage team in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, when they can run on the eighth-worst defense by rushing grade? This is not because teams have a choice; the clock forces them to pass the ball.
When the Cowboys’ opponent takes the field on offense, they face a 4.4-point deficit on average. Thus, teams have to pass on Dallas if they want a chance to win the game. Making the opponent pass, paired with Trevon Diggs’ ball-hawking ability, is the reason the Cowboys lead the NFL in turnover margin.
This is slightly discouraging for the Cowboys because if teams have the opportunity to run against Dallas, there is no indication they will be stopped. If a team is beating the Cowboys, they could drive 75 yards on the back of their rushing game alone. The defensive turnaround we have seen so far is primarily due to teams being unable to establish the run.
Dallas has not been tested on the ground yet. Even the Buccaneers game was close enough to force Tom Brady into shouldering the burden. However, if a team with an above-average running back faces a positive game script against Dallas, this flaw could become apparent.
With the Cowboys squaring off against Saquon Barkley and Dalvin Cook over the course of their next three games, Dallas’ run defense will be put to the test.
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard is an unstoppable backfield
The level that Ezekiel Elliott has played at over these last two weeks is unprecedented. Whether this production is sustainable or not is irrelevant; it has been fascinating to watch this backfield work. The way that Pollard and Elliott complement one another is a work of art.
The combination of speed and power has resulted in the Cowboys leading the NFL in success rate on the ground and landing fourth by EPA per play on rushing attempts. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb have been touted as the best running back combination in football for a couple of years now, but the Cowboys are making a case they deserve this title.
The Cowboys have used Elliott primarily between the tackles, and no one seems to be able to stop it. Zeke currently falls fifth in the league by yards per attempt, sixth by yards after contact per attempt, fourth by the longest run of the year so far, and currently holds the fourth most rushes over ten yards.
After week two, Elliott was in the bottom half of both yards per attempt and yards after contact per attempt. But the sixth-year running back has not only looked dominant the past two weeks, he has been the elite player the Cowboys paid him to be.
When Elliott comes off the field, the Cowboys can trot out one of the most elusive backs in the league. Pollard currently boasts the highest yards per attempt in the NFL, fourth in yards after contact per attempt, second in 15 plus yard runs and has the highest PFF grade among running backs.
This combination is a defensive coordinators’ worst nightmare. Accounting for one game-changing running back is one thing, but there is no game plan for stopping the Cowboys’ tandem in the backfield.
After week two, many thought that Ezekiel Elliott should take a secondary role to Pollard, myself included. However, it seems that we should admit the error of our ways and appreciate the powerhouse that is the Dallas running backs.
The secondary has its weaknesses
If you need a summary of the Cowboys’ coverage abilities this year, feel free to watch any of Trevon Diggs’ five interceptions through the first four games. However, the secondary is still one piece away from being elite.
Dallas’ spending on the safety position in free agency has paid off. Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse have exceeded expectations, and with Donovan Wilson waiting to return, the Cowboys should feel comfortable in their safeties.
The emergence of Trevon Diggs has clearly highlighted the cornerback play from Dallas thus far. Anyone remotely interested in the NFL knows how dominant the second-year player has been. On top of leading the league in interceptions, Diggs holds the seventh-best PFF coverage grade, allowing a 42.9 quarterback rating and the thirteenth lowest completion percentage when targeted.
The story is not the same for Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. The pair of cornerbacks are averaging a 90.9 quarterback rating and a 65% completion rate when targeted. Don’t misinterpret this argument; both of those numbers are above average. Lewis and Brown have been entirely serviceable while Diggs strikes fear into opposing quarterbacks.
Brown also deserves credit, finishing with the fourteenth best coverage grade among cornerbacks in week four. However, when Diggs came out of the game, the defense looked eerily similar to 2020, allowing Sam Darnold to gain yards at will.
It will not be long until opposing quarterbacks realize they can’t throw in the direction of Trevon Diggs, and that is when Brown and Lewis will have to step up. If the Cowboys were to add that second cornerback to shut down opposing receivers, the secondary would become elite.
Again, this is not a glaring issue. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have been playing well, and they deserve praise for improving over these last few weeks. But if Dallas wants a truly game-changing defense, the second corner on the team has to outperform Lewis and Brown’s current production.
Maybe Anthony Brown continues to improve, maybe Kelvin Joseph surprises when he returns, or perhaps help comes from the outside. All we know is that when Diggs exited the game, things went downhill quickly, granted it was essentially garbage time. But adding one last piece to the secondary would drastically improve the ceiling of this defense.
Mike McCarthy is willing to be bold
Interpret this as you will, but McCarthy has proved that he will not coach a conservative game. If the Cowboys lose, they are going to go down swinging.
On Sunday, McCarthy attempted a pair of two-point conversions, failing both times. Additionally, the Cowboys’ head coach declined a penalty that would have set up second and 23 for the Carolina offense, instead opting for third and twelve.
While only five teams have seen fewer fourth-downs than the Cowboys this year, Dallas has chosen to keep the offense on the field four times.
You can argue with the decision to go for it, you can argue with the decline of the penalty, and you can argue with the decision to go for two. However, you cannot argue that Mike McCarthy is fearless in his decision-making.
Following season after season with Jason Garrett choosing to play it safe, it is a breath of fresh air to see a coach that expresses confidence in his teams’ abilities. McCarthy knows the talent on the Cowboys roster, and he is willing to center his coaching decisions around his players.
In a week where the NFC East went a combined 3-1, the Cowboys once again proved they are the clear favorite to win this division. With the Giants and Patriots left on Dallas’ schedule before their bye, the Cowboys may be a 5-1 team entering week eight.
With a win against Carolina in the books, there is even more reason to be optimistic about this team. While the Cowboys need to address their weaknesses, fans deserve to be happy after the debacle of 2020. Before we speculate about the ceiling of this team, let’s just enjoy winning again.