The Dallas Cowboys’ disappointing loss to the Green Bay Packers led to the totally predictable overreaction by many. This ignored several truths. The Cowboys still are in position to get to the playoffs. They are not even out of the NFC East race, thanks to the Washington Commanders. All teams lose games they were not expected to, as the Philadelphia Eagles can attest. There is still plenty of time to set things aright.
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However, it is also a fact that Dallas faces some real questions that they need to answer. That starts, as always, with the next game. This week they face the Minnesota Vikings, now tied with the Eagles for the best record in the NFL. Here are some that loom large.
Will the offense get some of the mojo back?
After the sterling performance against the Chicago Bears, it was disappointing to see the team struggle with moving the ball. They did have some very good drives to score four touchdowns, but that was interspersed with real clunkers like the failure to get any points after the strip sack on the Green Bay ten-yard line and the impotence in the fourth quarter.
To use a word Mike McCarthy has overused this week, it is frustrating. The thing that stands out is the inconsistency last Sunday. The team clearly has the ability to score but also can fail to get out of its own way.
Part of the problem is one the top management has so far failed to address. That is the wide receiver situation. CeeDee Lamb was basically the one receiver Dak Prescott was looking for. It led to a career day for Lamb. It also proved that one or two (props to Dalton Schultz) reliable targets is hardly enough in the NFL. You normally have to be able to spread it around. That wasn’t happening against the Packers, and Dallas paid the price. The real problem is that they still don’t have a ready answer. Michael Gallup and Noah Brown have to step up this week. So does Kellen Moore.
How will Zeke’s return affect the running game?
It was something of a surprise that they held Ezekiel Elliott out against Green Bay. That should end against the Vikings. It was a game day decision, which meant he was very close. Expect him to return this week.
Now they need to use him and Tony Pollard correctly. While many call for Pollard to be the lead back, this needs to be a situational approach. The last game provides an excellent example. When the Cowboys faced the third and three at the Packers’ 35 in overtime, Elliott’s ability to convert in short yardage would have been very valuable. Even if they still passed (which was a bad decision) having Elliott in the backfield would likely have changed the way the defense approached the down. Had Elliott been there to get the first, or even just get them into a fourth and very short, it might well have won the game.
It may be a smart move to use the two backs in a 50/50 balance this week. Keep the Vikings having to constantly switch from facing Elliott’s tough inside power running and Pollard’s breakaway threat. The more you complicate things for the defense, the better.
Will the Cowboys run defense plug the holes?
For the second week in a row, Dallas gave up over 200 yards on the ground. While it didn’t hurt them against the Bears, the Packers were much more effective, keeping drives alive with the way they exploited the issues the Cowboys have. While Kirk Cousins is having a very good year and the Vikings are a top ten passing offense, you have to believe that Dallas is less afraid of him than their old nemesis Aaron Rodgers. And the good news is that the Vikings are a bottom ten team in running the ball, averaging just 107 yards per game.
This might be a great game to get things right. Unlike Green Bay, the Vikings rely almost exclusively on Dalvin Cook, who accounts for 80.8 yards per game of their total. Find a way to slow him, and it will make Minnesota more one-dimensional. That could be a good thing.
Can the pass rush get to Cousins?
They failed to do so against Rodgers. Like him, Cousins has been sacked 20 times this year, so it looks like an opportunity to correct that. One of the problems last game was that Dan Quinn used Micah Parsons more as an off-ball linebacker, sending him to rush the passer just nine times. With the Vikes seeming much less of a worry on the ground, that needs to change and Parsons needs to be bearing down on Cousins much more often.
Rushing the passer was a strength of the defense before the bye. They need to flex those muscles again this Sunday.
Do they have an answer for Justin Jefferson?
Jefferson is one of the best receivers in the league, and easily the biggest threat for the Cowboys defenders. He leads the NFL with 117.8 yards per game. The Cowboys can counter with one of the best corners in Trevon Diggs, but they will need to put him on Jefferson throughout the game for this to work. The rest of the secondary was not good at all against Rodgers. While Cousins doesn’t strike the same fear in our hearts, he is certainly capable of making all the throws and is not prone to a lot of interceptions. With secondary depth now a concern for Dallas, this is going to be a crucial chess match for Dan Quinn. They failed badly against Christian Watson.
It may not be as bad, because before Dallas faced Green Bay, Watson was basically a minor factor. His breakout performance was a true surprise. Jefferson is not surprising anyone.
These are five of the biggest questions facing the Cowboys. If they can beat the Vikings, it would be a good sign for the rest of the season. If they fail, the overreactions on Monday may not be so “over” after all.