The bye week is behind us. Now the Dallas Cowboys look to put together a second half of the season that matches, or even exceeds, their 6-2 start. That begins with a trip to Wisconsin to play the Green Bay Packers. Dallas has faced many questions this year, and have done a surprisingly good job answering most of them.
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Arguably none have been complete misses. Rather than try to pose more questions this week, we’ll take what we have learned about this team and focus on what we need to see them do as they start what should be a run for the playoffs.
Don’t let Aaron Rodgers have a revival
Rodgers is not having a strong year. He is doing fairly well in volume stats, but he has thrown seven interceptions, including three against the Detroit Lions in the surprising loss last week. His completion percentage is in the bottom half of the league and he has been sacked 18 times so far. As a result, the Packers are middling in yards per game through the air, and about the same in how they rank in running per game.
Still, seeing him creates a frisson of fear for Cowboys fans, who have too many memories of him winning games against their team with a few ridiculously good throws. The Dallas defense has established itself as one of the best in the league and that needs to hold true in this game. Rodgers does not usually thrive under pressure, the forte of Dan Quinn’s bunch. Additionally, he is not the kind of threat to hurt a team running the ball that more mobile QBs pose. This should allow the defense to use a more standard defensive approach to keeping the run bottled up while still coming hard on passing downs. Do that, and the secondary may be able to force back to back multiple interception games on him.
Speaking of the run defense...
This has been the only problem of note for the defense in the first eight games. But the team has two recent additions that could help. The trade to add Johnathan Hankins has paid immediate dividends, as there was a marked improvement against the rushing game when he was on the field. Rookie Damone Clark saw his first action in the last game before the bye. He was expected to mostly play on special teams, but wound up on the field for half of the defensive plays when Anthony Barr was hurt and was in on five tackles. That is more than promising.
If you just look at the raw stats from that game against the Chicago Bears, you could think that this was another really bad performance versus the run. That is deceptive, however, as Dallas had a two- or three-score lead for much of the game, and was putting up touchdowns in bunches. It was a situation where you want the opponent to run since that makes it harder to catch up. Justin Fields accounted for a quarter of their running yards, and that is not going to happen with Rodgers. With how the latter has been playing, this is a game where the Cowboys may well want to force the other team to pass the ball, but as with the Bears, that will hopefully come from building a lead.
This will still be a test for the run defense. If they can keep the Packers from getting to their 4.8 yards per attempt average, they will take a big step toward winning this one.
Dak Prescott needs to continue his trajectory
In the second half of the win over the Detroit Lions, Prescott started to look like his best self. Against Chicago, he simply shone. While he didn’t blow out the volume stats, getting the team into the end zone on six drives while converting an impressive nine of eleven first downs is something you will take every day.
The rest of the season will be largely determined by how well the quarterback continues to play. The game leading into the bye offers a lot of optimism. He needs to come out of the bye looking just like he did two weeks ago. If he can do that, or just come close, there are good things ahead.
Kellen Moore has to stay on top of his game, too
That win over the Bears may have been the best game Moore has called in his career as offensive coordinator, simply a thing of beauty. It is a synergistic situation, where good play makes what he calls work better, and putting the players in a position to succeed gets the most out of them.
The most impressive thing about what he did was how the Cowboys were basically able to succeed with only two effective wide receivers and TE Dalton Schultz playing through injury. Now the team is hoping to get Noah Brown back to put a third WR option on the field. Schultz will hopefully be healed up after the bye, and rookie TEs Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot continued to impress last game. More tools means more Moore can do. It’s all good - at the moment.
The last game was where he shone the most, but he played a huge part in keeping the team more than just afloat with Cooper Rush at quarterback. Taken as a whole, he seems to be having his best overall year at OC, and that is great to see.
The two-headed run game needs to thrive
Just as impressive as what Prescott did was the stellar game from Tony Pollard, who took over RB1 duties with Ezekiel Elliott being held out to heal. Early indications are that Elliott will return to the fold. Many are taking that as an excuse to argue about who should be the lead back, but what this should be is an opportunity to use both to their best effect. Elliott may not be showing the breakaway threat that Pollard bring to the table, but there were plenty of plays Pollard succeeded on where Elliott would have also had positive runs.
That leads into what is the biggest surprise of the year, the way the offensive line has had so much success. That game from Pollard started with the blocking up front. Here is an excellent example of one phase of that, and how All-Pro Zack Martin is also a leader on the field.
Zack Martin recently turned to the Cowboys sideline and signaled to run a play again. That play? Duo. “It is what our offense is built off of.” A deeper dive into the concept and how Martin and Terence Steele’s combination blocks help make it work. https://t.co/WoCZ007KAV pic.twitter.com/N3IbmL95kA— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 9, 2022
Add in good protection for the quarterback, and this line has delivered despite the turmoil created when Tyron Smith was injured. This is an underappreciated part of the success this year, and another thing we need to see continue. With Smith getting closer to return and Jason Peters gradually increasing his snap counts, signs are good.
And there’s another aspect that is not given enough love
Special teams don’t often get much attention, but this has been an excellent year for them. KaVontae Turpin still has not reached his full potential, but he has come close and it just seems like a matter of time. Brett Maher has gone from someone we feared would hurt the team to a model of consistency, playing a big role in the 4-1 record while Prescott was out. Most importantly, and less noticed, is how no team has been able to hurt Dallas with their own teams play. There have been no big returns, and the Cowboys have had some big blocked kicks. John Fassel is doing as good a job as Quinn and Moore.
With flowers given to all three of the coordinators, head coach Mike McCarthy deserves his own big bouquet. Many have forgotten how he stated he was going to be more involved in offensive meetings early in the season, and that seems to have had a big positive effect. His letting Quinn do his thing is also a sign of effective leadership, which entails using your people to their best advantage.
The Cowboys look to be poised for a big second half of the season, but the games are played one at a time. Green Bay is an important first step. If they can come through in these important areas, it should be a very positive one.