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5 takeaways from the Cowboys win over Washington: The defensive line is a game-changer

It wasn’t great, but if you only watched the Cowboys defense then it was an all around fun game.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Over their last two games, the Dallas Cowboys have won by a combined 17 points, with a point differential of +29 going into the fourth quarter. Yet somehow, these wins are not inspiring any confidence in this team.

Granted, winning two consecutive games is excellent, and the NFC East is essentially locked. But there are still significant question marks surrounding the Cowboys heading into a pivotal stretch in the year. So what can we take away from Dallas’ defensive win against the Washington Football Team?

A healthy Dallas defensive line changes everything

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Nearing the middle of the third quarter, you just had to feel bad for Taylor Heinicke. The Cowboys were rushing four, yet all four defenders were constantly in the backfield. It was a true work of art.

Randy Gregory, Demarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Micah Parsons all playing at the same time completely altered the outcome of this game. Not in the sense that one of these pass rushers would make an occasional big play, instead, they consistently shut down Washington’s game plan.

Taylor Heinicke completed an abysmal 11 passes on 25 pass attempts, throwing for 4.9 yards per attempt, faced 17 pressures, and was sacked another four times, finishing as the worst graded quarterback in week 14, according to PFF.

Oh, and this isn’t even to mention that Taylor Heinicke was actually lucky in this game. 11% of Heinicke’s throws were deemed “turnover worthy,” yet he only finished with one interception. Heinicke is not an elite player, but he was the second-ranked quarterback since his bye week by EPA per play. That is, until the Cowboys made his day miserable.

And what isn’t being discussed is what Dallas did to contain the run game. Just look at what Antonio Gibson was doing after the Washington bye week compared to what he did yesterday:

Antonio Gibson Ran Into a Brick Wall Against Dallas

Metric Weeks 10-13 (which includes Tampa Bay and Carolina) Week 14
Metric Weeks 10-13 (which includes Tampa Bay and Carolina) Week 14
Yards/gm 89 36
Yards after Contact per Attempt 2.9 2.2
Missed Tackles Forced per game 5.8 1
15+ Yard Runs per Game 1.3 0
First Downs 6.5 2

The Dallas defensive line gave Heinicke trouble all day, shut down the rushing game, and single-handedly won this game.

There is a reason Leighton Vander-Esch looked great again, Trevon Diggs was able to play perfect coverage, and Anthony Brown only allowed two receptions. When the defensive line is getting to the quarterback on every play and causing havoc, it makes every other defender’s job easier.

The return of Gregory and Gallimore, paired with Lawrence and Parsons, did not disappoint. The defensive line is anchoring this team, and there is reason to believe in the Cowboys because of Dan Quinn’s front four.

The offense is seriously concerning (and so is Dak)

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The defense was superb, and it would be much more fun to solely form five takeaways around that aspect of the game. Unfortunately, the offense’s ineptitude has become impossible to ignore, and this is obviously highlighted by Dak Prescott’s poor performance lately.

This will be a difficult pill to swallow, but it needs to be said. Since the bye week, Dak Prescott ranks as the 27th quarterback by EPA per play. Over this stretch, he falls below quarterbacks such as Daniel Jones, Trevor Siemian, Justin Fields, Davis Mills and is only slightly better than Jared Goff.

This is a significant reason for the offense’s inability to put up points. Since week six, Dallas’ offensive ranking has fallen from four to 14 by EPA per play, from second to 18th by third-down success rate, and they've seen a five-point decline in their average points per game. The efficiency has similarly declined; while they used to average a score on 52% of their drives, that average is now at 41%.

All of the stats listed above include the beginning of the season, and those first six games are inflating the statistics of this offense. Kellen Moore’s squad has been well below average since the bye.

This was only made worse by the constant throws behind the line of scrimmage on third and long; it was as if the Cowboys had essentially given up on their possessions. It is unclear if this was Dak checking down, Kellen Moore calling a conservative game, or a combination of the two. But it was infuriating to witness, and that never would have happened before the bye.

This isn’t a death march for Prescott and Moore, they still have the potential to recapture the magic they once had. But it is getting late in the season, and they need to figure it out before playoffs, or else the ceiling of this team is capped. We now need a complement to an elite defense.

Micah Parsons is one of the best defenders in the NFL

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

You probably read this headline and think, “of course, he has been in the DPOY conversation for weeks now.” But this takeaway is more significant than an award; consider the implications of crowning Parsons the Defensive Player of the Year. It is essentially naming a rookie player the best defender in the NFL after just 16 games.

But here is the thing, Parsons might actually be the best defender in the NFL. And for a rookie with a presumably higher ceiling than what we are seeing, he might just be a generational talent. Just look at what he did on this play.

Now you’re probably thinking that crowning him one of the best defenders in the NFL already is a little premature. But is it? If we compare what Parsons is doing in his rookie season to what the best defenders of this decade did in their prime, the argument becomes a little more reasonable.

After looking at this graphic, consider that Parsons has about half the pass rush snaps as everyone listed above. He is versatile enough to be used at every position on defense, and yet he is still one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

Obviously, Parsons had a great game against the Football Team, finishing with five pressures, two sacks, a forced fumble, two run play stops, and zero receptions allowed on two targets. But the takeaway for Parsons has evolved past singular game stats.

He has a ceiling as high as any NFL player we have seen over the past 20 years, outside of maybe Patrick Mahomes. This is not premature either, just thirteen games into his career, and he is already one of the best defenders in the NFL. We don’t focus on individual players for the takeaways article, but Parsons deserves every ounce of credit.

Parsons is a player that the Cowboys can build a defense around, and the jury is no longer out; he will be pivotal for this team for years to come. Assuming health, Parsons is a true difference-maker. The Cowboys got their Christmas present in late April with pick twelve.

The rushing game is showing some life*

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

This headline has a heavy asterisk next to it. While the rushing game is nowhere near what it was pre-bye, at least it positively impacted the team in week 14.

Here are some rushing achievements the Cowboys hit this past week:

  • Ezekiel Elliott hadn’t run for over 3.6 yards per attempt since week nine, he ran for 3.8 in week 14
  • Elliott ran for over two yards after contact per attempt once since week nine, he was at 2.3 in week 14
  • Since week seven, the Cowboys were running a successful rushing play on 29% of their attempts, that number jumped to 41% in week 14
  • Elliott’s 45 rushing yards ties his highest yards in a single week since week nine

This is in no way a statement that Ezekiel Elliott looked back to form, because he still struggled at times. However, what we saw out of Elliott in week 14 was a consistent four yards on every touch, making Dak’s life easier.

Even more encouraging is how good Washington’s rushing defense was; they are easily a top-five unit against the run. Again, it is not like Ezekiel Elliott set the world on fire in week fourteen, but there were signs of life again against a formattable rushing defense.

This takeaway is not to be interpreted as “Ezekiel Elliott is back.” But we should now be more encouraged that Zeke’s injury is healing, and we might see him get back to what he was doing before the bye week. There are signs of life from Elliott, which is good news.

This team has the potential to win it all

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, it might be difficult to see now, but this team does have incredible promise. Granted, they need to improve the level they are playing at right now, but the ingredients for a deep playoff run are there.

By EPA per play, the Cowboys currently have the fourth-best defense in the NFL, and they are barely behind the second and third-best defense. Dan Quinn’s squad is elite and can carry this team if need be; we know that and can set it to the side for now.

So how well does the offense need to play for a chance at the Lombardi?

Here is another rude awakening that is tough to swallow; the pre-bye week offense was unsustainable. Scoring on 50% of their drives, punting at the second-lowest rate in the NFL was likely not going to continue.

If the offense can play at just 75% of the level they were playing at before the bye, this team can beat anyone. Essentially, Dak just needs to play decent football (he doesn’t need to be an MVP contender anymore), and the rushing game needs to provide him some support.

This is great news. The Cowboys defense is playing to the point where Dak won’t need to carry this team in January. He will just need to capitalize on the defense’s success, lead a late-game drive in the situations that warrant it, and play mistake-free football. We are past the days where Dak needs to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns for Dallas to have a chance in a game.

The ingredients are there for a special season if the offense can gain consistency. Now we just sit back and hope Moore and Prescott can figure it out. But overall, we should be encouraged that the bar is lowered for what the offense needs to achieve for postseason success.

No one is arguing that was a perfect game for the Cowboys. They dominated through three quarters and left FedEx Field with a win, which is enough to essentially lock the division. We need to see more before January, but they have four somewhat pressure-free games to figure it out.

Disappointing, unnecessarily close at the end, a defensive masterpiece, or encouraging; however you want to classify the game, at least it is a win. The regular season ends in four weeks, and we will soon find out what this team is made of.