Mixed emotions are the order of the day for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. They are leading the NFC East by three games with just four to go and assured of a winning record at 9-4. Before the season started, most would have gladly taken a guarantee of that being the situation in December. But the offensive struggles and letting a clearly outmatched Washington Football Team come back from a 24-0 deficit to make it a one-score game has raised big doubts for many. Now they face the New York Giants and a chance of locking up both a playoff spot and the division. We want some reassurance. Here are things that would go a long way to providing that.
Dak needs to get back to being Dak
Earlier in the season, Dak Prescott was on track to be the leading quarterback in the league. The team assures us that his calf is healed, but watching him the past few games makes it evident that something is just not right. He seems to struggle with reads. His decision-making is off. There appears to be a serious lack of trust in his protection.
We can fret about this and come up with what we think needs to be done. In the end, though, this comes down to him. All the issues appear to be in his head. Overthinking things is one likely problem. The only thing that will get him on track again will be to just go out and have a great game. Fortunately, the Giants may be an excellent opportunity for that. They are just an average team defensively, and their offense should not put much pressure on Prescott to have to come from behind. The following chart shows where they stand. When you compare this to the Cowboys, this should be a win for Dallas.
The Bills and Cardinals went through the "never trust your defense" learning experience this weekend.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) December 14, 2021
Are the Patriots the next victim on Saturday Night Football against the Colts? pic.twitter.com/TdwYgMT0Ej
However, that chart is over the entire season, and the Cowboys’ positioning reflects the early success. What we really need to see is for Prescott to look much more like the passing machine he was earlier.
Kellen Moore needs to get his groove back, too
During that six-game winning streak that has helped carry Dallas this far, Moore looked like an offensive mad scientist, throwing things at defenses that befuddled them. But in step with Prescott’s struggles, Moore has looked far less capable in scheming up ways to move the ball and score. There are far too many three and outs, and the red zone continues to be a vale of disappointment for the team.
It may not be entirely Moore’s fault. There are plays that should succeed, but don’t because someone misses their assignment. Against the Football Team, screens fell apart after being set up well, and many times the receivers on deeper passes were not headed the way that Prescott expected of them. These seem like things that need to be corrected in practice, however, so maybe it does circle back to the offensive coordinator.
Find the missing running game
When the quarterback is struggling, a good ground attack can help him and the team. Over the past few weeks, the run game has nearly disappeared when the team really needed it. Ezekiel Elliott is fighting through the injury he had when he fell on a pylon, and now Tony Pollard is trying to get back after missing the Washington game due to a torn plantar fascia.
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But this also points to Moore, as too many of the runs he calls are between the tackles, where things have gone poorly. The limited success running the ball has come to the outside, including the occasional use of CeeDee Lamb as a rusher. Pollard’s injury came on the longest running play of the year, and it too was wide. Whatever the cause, this needs to be fixed. Which brings us to the next point.
Sort out the offensive line
If you haven’t noticed, the above points are interrelated, and this one affects everything on offense. Between injuries, suspensions, and waffling on who should start, the O line has been a mess, especially the last half dozen games or so. The big topic of discussion has been the decision to bench Connor Williams after he suffered a spate of holding calls. Connor McGovern just has not performed adequately at LG since. The staff needs to admit the mistake and put Williams back in the starting lineup. The Washington game was probably not a good time to do that, with the risk of Williams having to get some rust knocked off. But the Giants seem a much better time to do so. However, the Dallas coaches, like most throughout the league, do not easily admit such errors and take proper corrective steps.
That is hardly the only issue, and for this week, the absence of the injured Tyron Smith is a bigger one. Terrence Steele or Ty Nsekhe will have to fill in. It is not a good way to increase Prescott’s confidence when he drops back. Here is one more way Moore could help things out with more up-tempo and quick-developing play designs.
The team also needs La’el Collins to be more careful when coming to the defense of his quarterback. We love the protectiveness, but the team can ill afford another suspension for Collins because he starts throwing hands. You can be sure the officials will be watching him like hawks after his punch last Sunday.
The good news
We only have one thing we need from the defense: Just keep doing what you are doing. Dan Quinn has worked wonders, and now has the most talent-laden group on the field we have seen for Dallas in a while. Micah Parsons is the big star and is making a legitimate case that he is the best defender in the NFL, period. Trevon Diggs is always lurking to make a pick, and Anthony Brown has been far more solid than some realize. Jayron Kearse has turned into one of the best free agent signings in years and leads a much improved safety group. Even Leighton Vander Esch upped his game against the fighting Teams.
As for the defensive line - oh, my. DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Neville Gallimore were on the field together for the first time all season. The latter two were playing in their first game back from injury. All three recorded sacks, and Gregory’s sealed the win late with the forced fumble. He also had a spectacular interception off a ball he batted up in the air and then tracked down. There is also good depth in Dorance Armstrong and Tarell Basham. With Parsons also coming at times to rush the passer, the game on Sunday could be a very long one for the Giants’ QB, which looks to be Mike Glennon as Daniel Jones is dealing with a neck injury.
Meanwhile, Gallimore joins Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill, and Carlos Watkins in giving the Cowboys the best interior defensive line group in recent memory. If health holds up, the defense should be the strength of the team until the offense figures things out.
We are looking for at least some of these things to feel better. The game in the Meadowlands is one that Dallas can ill afford to lose, as they still need to lock up the division as well as having hopes of improving their seed in the playoffs. A good, solid win could go a long way in achieving all these goals.