At this point, the Minnesota Vikings are probably sick and tired of losing to the Dallas Cowboys’ backup quarterback. But this Minnesota team is significantly improved from 2020, and that was a statement win from the Cowboys.
Even in a game where the backup quarterback threw the ball 40 times, there is a lot that we can take away from the Cowboys’ Halloween matchup. This was a big victory for Dallas, and it came with a few prominent headlines.
Mike McCarthy is the real deal
If you don’t believe in Mike McCarthy yet, what will it take? Because that win was more leadership than anything else, and Mike Zimmer was thoroughly outcoached.
Let’s review the situation. Dak Prescott, who currently has the fifth-best odds to win MVP according to DraftKings Sportsbook, was ruled out moments before kickoff. The Minnesota Vikings had won three of their last four games, including a victory against the Russell Wilson-led Seahawks.
And it’s not like the luck was all on Dallas’ side during the game either. You lose Tyron Smith in the first half, Jabril Cox goes down during a punt, and the Cowboys gave up two turnovers and didn’t force any. It is always easy to blame officiating, and it should never be an excuse, but a good majority of the Cowboys’ eleven penalties felt like soft calls.
If you had heard all of that before the game started, what would you have guessed would be the final score? The Cowboys should have lost.
In fact, teams that commit over 90 yards of penalties, lose the turnover margin and score less than 21 points only win in 6% of games. That is not even to mention that Dallas had to overcome all of this behind a quarterback with three career attempts entering last night.
But the entire team played as if they knew they were going to win. The heart and sheer determination to surmount all of the obstacles that Dallas faced is a sign of great coaching. Every player was flying to the ball, making the open field tackle, and winning contested catches. The Cowboys wanted it more than the Vikings.
Dan Quinn coached a superb game. But we cannot give McCarthy enough credit for what he did on Sunday Night.
Special teams might be the Cowboys’ biggest weakness
This takeaway is also a statement about the rest of the team. Dallas is loaded with talent at nearly every position, but special teams has become the weakest aspect of the Cowboys’ game.
Despite being on the field for just 10% of plays, Dallas’ special teams accounts for 20% of their total penalties on the year. This includes eight special teams’ penalties in just three games, the first two and the most recent.
Leading the league in special teams penalties is part of the reason the Cowboys are currently the tenth worst special teams by PFF grading.
Now, Greg Zuerlein is an interesting aspect of John Fassel’s squad. The Cowboys’ kicker was perfect within 50 yards since week one, but with an ugly 43-yard missed field goal against the Vikings, he seems to still struggle with consistency.
Granted, no kicker is perfect, and it is nearly impossible to find a truly reliable kicker. However, the Cowboys currently have the twelfth worst field goal percentage in the NFL.
No, Greg Zuerlein is not the most pressing issue the Cowboys have right now. But the special teams as a whole is the only disappointing aspect of Dallas’ season thus far. The roster is filled with talent, and there has to be a weakness somewhere. Unfortunately for the special teams, it is them.
The defense is officially great
In 2020, if you had heard that just one year later, the defense would single-handedly win the Cowboys a game, would you believe it? Because that is precisely what happened Sunday night.
Coming into this game, there were two criticisms against Dan Quinn’s squad; the run defense is not as good as we might think, and turnovers are inflating the defense’s performance.
This was an entirely reasonable argument. Before week eight, Dallas’ defense was ranked eighth by EPA per play allowed, but they would fall to eighteen if you had taken away every team’s turnovers. And the Cowboys were also giving up 4.3 yards per attempt on the ground, but opponents were refusing to run on Dallas because they had to play catch up with the Cowboys offense.
But on Sunday night, the defense proved they are a legitimate threat. Dallas forced zero turnovers and only had a lead for 1.5% of the game. So, what happened?
The Vikings converted just 7% of their third downs, Dalvin Cook was contained to 78 yards and was successful on only 37% of his runs. Kirk Cousins didn’t drop back to pass 42 times because he had to play catchup; he did so because the Cowboys shut down the run.
By EPA per play allowed Dallas finished with the second-best defense in week eight, and turnovers played no factor in this ranking. Sure the Vikings offense isn’t elite, but it’s far from the worst. And after the first drive, the Cowboys completely shut them down.
It’s hard to believe after what we saw last season, but this defense is officially great. It is top ten, and at this point, you could begin to argue top five. Thank you, Dan Quinn.
Tyron Smith is the glue that holds the offensive line together
Sunday night was not a good showing from the offensive line. Dallas came into this game ranked fifth and first by PFF in pass blocking and run blocking, respectively. If you had taken their grading in these metrics against the Vikings alone, they would fall 13th and 30th.
To give the line credit, the Vikings were scheming to make it difficult for the ground game and put pressure on an inexperienced quarterback. But there was a clear decline in the line’s performance once Tyron Smith exited with an injury, and it was an inefficient second half from the offensive line across the board.
With Tyron Smith in the first half, the Cowboys were successful on 44% of their rushing plays, which is above the league average. But when Smith left the game, the Cowboys didn’t run a single successful running play for the remainder of the game. And it is not like they were exclusively running left.
Without Smith, the pass blocking held up fine, but it was far from perfect. Cooper Rush was getting the ball out quicker than 22 other quarterbacks in week eight, yet he was still sacked three times. No quarterback with a faster release than Rush was sacked more in week eight. He kept the passes quick and close to the line of scrimmage, yet he still faced a good amount of pressure.
The line had played exceptionally well all year, and the Vikings are not a team that posed a daunting threat on the defensive line. The only thing that changed was Tyron Smith leaving the game.
Smith’s health is part of the reason for the line’s resurgence in 2021. We have to hope he can return to the field as soon as possible and keep the line performing to the level we have come to expect. Because if not, there might be a sizable drop-off in the offensive line’s performance based on what we have seen.
Randy Gregory is a Pro Bowl-level pass rusher
In a contract year, Randy Gregory has done nothing but prove his worth to the team. With Demarcus Lawrence down to injury, Gregory has taken the mantle as the disruptor on Dallas’ defensive line.
Currently ranked as the third-best pass rusher and the sixth-best defender by PFF, he is establishing himself as a game-changing player. If Gregory keeps this up, a Pro Bowl is just the floor with All-Pro status being attainable.
Over the last four weeks, Gregory is tied for the most pressures on the quarterback, tied for the eighth-most sacks, and has the fourth-best win percentage in the pass rush. That is all on top of his two forced fumbles.
Gregory has been disruptive and he is consistently playing to the level we believed he could. With Demarcus Lawrence returning somewhat soon, it will be a spectacle to see both of these rushers playing to their highest level at the same time. There are many reasons to be optimistic about this defense, and Gregory is near the top of that list.
If he keeps up the pace that we have seen over the last few weeks, Gregory is a lock to make his first-ever Pro Bowl. Cowboys fans should be happy to know the contract price is going up because it means we are seeing Gregory developing into the player we hoped he would be.
What a game Sunday Night Football turned into. You likely started watching somewhat pessimistic about the outcome given that Prescott wasn’t playing, and it only got worse after the Vikings’ first drive. Then, as the game stayed close and Rush gained confidence, you started to gain some hope. This all culminated into the final four minutes, where you were beside yourself. Is that in any way accurate?
The Cowboys keep the winning streak alive, but more importantly, they established themselves as a threat to the league. This is not the Dallas team of 2016, 2014, or 2007; this is an entirely different squad playing at an entirely different level.