The NFL can be an up and down league. The Dallas Cowboys clearly demonstrated that in their victory over the New York Giants last Thursday. Just four days prior, they absolutely dominated the Minnesota Vikings. Against their division rivals they had to come from behind to manage a one-score win, although the end results may have been a bit deceptive with a last-minute score by the visitors that had no impact on the outcome.
As always, the goal is to find some useful indications about the strengths and weaknesses of the team. We start with one of the latter, and it’s a big one.
13 penalties for 86 yards
This is absolutely unacceptable. And it is by no means a one-time blip, as Dallas has had multiple games with far too many flags. The fewest they have had in any game this season is four. That is a bit of a maximum that could be considered good. They average 7.5 a game, which is bad. Twice before, they have had ten infractions. The Cowboys are the second worst team in the NFL for penalties, with only the Denver Broncos having more.
Those penalties extended drives for New York and hindered Dallas’ own possessions. It took some hero ball by Dak Prescott at times to keep drives alive. He was fortunately up to the task, but that is hardly a good formula for success.
The team is at a loss to fix it. There is a legitimate concern that this could cost them a crucial game, especially in the playoffs. It would be a shame to see a promising year fall short because of a foolish mistake.
The Cowboys don’t ever seem to start a game on medium. They are either on fire from the start or cold out of the gate. The latter was the case on Thursday. However, this was almost entirely due to the two interceptions that Prescott had. Both killed drives that were already at or close to field goal range for Brett Maher, and one led to three points for New York. The defense stepped up to limit the damage, but those really hurt the team and were instrumental in going into halftime trailing by six points.
When Prescott has been available, there have been four games we have seen the slow start in effect. The first was the season opening loss. The others were his first game back against the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay game, and the last one. There is an odd commonality. All saw Prescott coming off an unusual break. The Tampa Bay opener was of course after training camp, the Lions was after his absence to injury, Green Bay came after the bye, and of course there was the short week to play on Thanksgiving. Now they face the Indianapolis Colts coming out of the mini-bye. We have to hope that the team does not again seem out of rhythm at the beginning of that contest, or that they will get things righted if the do.
At the moment the chances of overtaking the Philadelphia Eagles to get the first week bye seem slim. You have to wonder if that is not really a bad thing. For whatever reason, a break from the week to week routine just does not sit well with Dallas. Maybe staying on a normal practice schedule helps. Of course, as the playoffs start bringing in Saturday games, they still may have to face the issue of a different pattern before vital games.
The rebound for Dak
Before halftime, he went 10 of 16 passing for 116 yards, for an average of 7.3 yards per attempt, and the two picks. After the intermission, he was 11 of 14 for 145 yards, a 10.4 yards/attempt clip, and no interceptions with two touchdowns. That included having to fight through penalties on all of the scoring drives in the second half. On the touchdown scored on the first drive after halftime, he had to overcome a third and goal from the 15 due to a false start on Tyler Biadasz.
While it is always better to not have a slow start, it says a lot about the composure of Prescott in those situations.
Excellent hands and yards after the catch
This was a game where the receivers had one excellent reception after another. CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup made great grabs, with one of Lamb’s best not even counting thanks to a heel that just touched down out of bounds. Dalton Schultz hauled in both the touchdowns with aplomb. And Jake Ferguson had arguably the play of the game.
And while it was not a catch, we can’t ignore the rushing TD by Peyton Hendershot, which was more a tribute to a perfectly executed play by all.
It was a game where Prescott did not spread the ball around much, but when the best receivers are performing the way the did against the Giants, that is a minor quibble at worst.
Ezekiel Elliott had his best game of the year. His 92 yards and a touchdown were a good day at the office under any circumstances, and before the final drive where Kellen Moore was calling plays conservatively, Elliott was averaging over seven yards a carry. He showed great burst on some plays, and his longest runs were for 22, 16, and 15 yards. For a change, he really outshone Tony Pollard, who only had an average gain of 3.3 yards on his 18 totes. Still, the two combined for 152 yards on the ground. The running game was very much integral to the win. It is something that can really help the team in the postseason if maintained.
Pressure on Dak
This one falls into the unfavorable category. The offensive line had a bad day in pass protection, with Prescott having to endure nine QB hits and making several other throws under heavy pressure. He was not sacked for the second game in a row, but just as he did against the Vikings he saved himself by just bouncing off a would-be tackler and getting a small gain. It was a particularly bad day for rookie left tackle Tyler Smith. Tyron Smith cannot return from his training camp injury too soon, and with what appear to be some easy games coming up in the next three weeks, the Cowboys could opt for more Jason Peters at tackle with Tyler kicking inside to guard to prepare for the postseason.
Two or nothing
Micah Parsons is second in the league in sacks with twelve. That is impressive, if not unexpected as he continues to make the case for Defensive Player of the Year. The oddity about it is that he either has two sacks in games or none at all. Fortunately, there is plenty of help in rushing the passer as the Cowboys continue to lead the NFL in sacks with 45 already on the season. That averages out to a tick over four per game. The team actually was behind that pace against New York with just three, but overall they continue to make life hard for opposing quarterbacks.
A rising star on defense
If there is a feel-good story for Dallas this year, it is the amazing job rookie Damone Clark has done since being called into action. When he had spinal fusion surgery after the Cowboys’ medical staff discovered an undiagnosed problem in his neck, almost everyone assumed this was going to be a redshirt year for him after he fell to the team in the draft. Maybe Dallas pulled a fast one on the league.
Not only has Clark come back to be active much faster than anticipated, he has done a remarkable job since Anthony Barr’s injury forced him into starting. Against the Giants, he was the second leading tackler for the team behind Leighton Vander Esch, who is also quietly having a very good year. That is even more impressive when considering that Clark played on 72% of the defensive downs compared to 88% for LVE. The linebacking in the game was a big part of limiting Saquon Barkley and the rest of the New York running game to just 90 yards, or less than Elliott had on his own.
Run defense has been a problem for the Cowboys this season. It is very encouraging to see them shut down the fourth most productive runner in the NFL to date. If this is a sign of things to come, Dallas can continue to control the ball and dictate the flow of games.