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Grading the Cowboys nail-biting victory vs the Houston Texans

Time to hand out the grades on this week’s Cowboys report card.

Houston Texans v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

Coming into Week 14, it felt like it was a forgone conclusion that the Cowboys would not only win, but win in rout versus the one-win Houston Texans. Well, Dallas did win against their in-state foe, but it was much more of a battle than anyone had thought it would be. Heading into the fourth quarter, America’s Team trailed Houston 23-17. With just under six minutes left in the game, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw an interception at their own 11-yard line which was returned to the Dallas four-yard line. When this sequence happened, it appeared that the Houston Texans were about to pull off arguably the upset of the season, until they didn’t. The defensive unit for Dallas made four consecutive stops from inside their own five-yard line to give the ball back to Dak Prescott and the offense.

With the Texans only having one win on the year, who could blame them for going for the touchdown? And, instead of kicking the chip shot field goal which would’ve extended the lead from three to six, they opted to take their chances and put the deficit to two scores which ended up failing. With the failed fourth-down try by the Texans, all the Cowboys had to do was drive the ball 98 yards to win the game. 11 plays later and with just 41 seconds remaining, running back Ezekiel Elliott punched it in for the two-yard score that put the game on ice for the Houston Texans.

This performance by Dallas was a very shaky one in what could’ve been an embarrassing loss. It certainly was ugly, but championship contenders, more times than not, find a way to pull it out. Cowboys safety, Jayron Kearse, summed it up perfectly in a tweet.

As polarizing as the Dallas Cowboys franchise is, Kearse is not wrong in what he said. It does come with the territory however, as the Cowboys are known as “America’s Team”. Regardless of how ugly the game was, Dallas pulled it out and showed some grit. Grit is the kind of thing championship contenders possess, and it was refreshing to see some grit from this group. With an ugly performance comes not so pretty grades.

The yard total on offense was solid, but the turnovers were costly

Grade: C-

Franchise quarterback Dak Prescott, aside from the final scoring drive, did not look like himself as he threw two really bad interceptions on the afternoon. The first pick did result in a Texans touchdown towards the latter part of the first half. The other pick was almost a game-clincher for Houston, until they had a problem scoring from inside the Dallas five-yard line. It should be noted the second pick was the result of some poor pass protection, For the game, Prescott threw the ball 39 times, which as we’ve seen from previous weeks, is not a recipe for success and this week was no different.

Having the dynamic duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard limited to just 25 total carries this past week is mind blowing. It wasn’t like Elliott and Pollard were ineffective as they averaged nearly 4.2 yards per carry. Not all was bad as they both rushed for a score and Pollard added a receiving score as well.

Speaking of receiving, it was the Dalton Schultz and Noah Brown show in Week 14 as they combined for 10 receptions for 172 yards. The Cowboys top two wideouts, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, were held in check as they combined for just seven catches for 73 yards. Lamb really struggled this week as he only tallied 33 yards on the afternoon.

Part of the Cowboys woes in the passing game were due in part to an injury to starting right tackle Terence Steele, who ended up tearing his ACL and MCL late in the second quarter. It was clear that Prescott didn’t feel confident in second-year tackle Josh Ball, who struggled mightily to protect the franchise quarterback. Ball would eventually be replaced on the final drive of the game by future Hall of Fame tackle Jason Peters, and Peters stepped right in and played well. The final series for the Cowboys on offense and the success of it should put to bed who the new right tackle will be, and that is Jason Peters. With Peters sliding over to right tackle after the Steele injury, it gives the offensive line some much-needed stability given the injury situation.

With Tyron Smith back in the mix at left tackle in short order, this means Tyler Smith will be kicked inside to right guard. With Connor McGovern presumably the odd man out, the starting five of: Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, and Jason Peters makes for a quality group. Assuming this is the five starters on the offensive line, then all will be fine going forward. The Cowboys will need to have quality offensive line play going forward as both of Dak Prescott’s interceptions were due to him being under pressure very quickly which led to bad decisions which led to the two picks. Keeping the pocket clean will make things much easier for Dak going forward, and will be of the utmost importance come playoff time.

Given the amount of points surrendered, the defense came up big when they were needed most

Grade: B

It wasn’t the cleanest or most complete performance by the defense in Week 14, but they played well enough to help the offense get into a position to put together a game-winning drive towards the end of regulation. Surprisingly, there were no sacks given up by the Texans, which was shocking due to the elite level of the Cowboys pass rush.

With the pass rush not getting to the quarterback for any sacks, the pressure was cranked up on the secondary. This unit only allowed 213 yards in the air, but allowed over 74% of the passes thrown to be completed. With names like Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel throwing the ball, that completion percentage is inexcusable as both quarterback’s aren’t anywhere near close to being in the elite category in the NFL. Believe it or not, the run defense performed quite well given the Texans heavy focus on the ground all game long. Dallas faced 37 carries and only gave up 114 yards. At 3.1 yards per carry, the defense held their own in this area of the game. Unfortunately, Dallas lost one of their run stuffers due to a pectoral injury, and Jerry Jones has said Hankins likely won’t play again until the playoffs.

Guys like Leighton Vander Esch need to continue to step up and play well. Vander Esch in Week 14 had that exact number of total tackles on the day. He has been a bit of a renewed player in 2022 after it seemed like the 2021 season would be his last in Dallas, but here we are in 2022 with Vander Esch playing quality ball.

With quality of play being of the utmost of importance, the injury-riddled secondary will need to continue to improve it’s play given the talent at wide out coming down the pike. The pass rush will need to get back to form and provide the secondary a lift by getting quick pressure on the opposing quarterback and forcing quick throws. Having the opposing quarterback getting rid of the ball in quick fashion alleviates the pressure of having a shaky secondary needing to hold up for too long in coverage. It is going to be very interesting to see what happens, but in order for a nice run in the post season to happen, the defense as a whole will need to play quality football.

The normally reliable special teams unit had an uneven performance that resulted in points given up

Grade: C+

Typically when discussing this year’s special teams group, it seemed like consistency was par for the course. It certainly was for kicker Brett Maher and punter Bryan Anger. Maher made all three extra points as well as two field goals, one of which was from 53 yards. Maher, like Leighton Vander Esch, has resurrected his career with his quality of play. In 2022, he has been as consistent as they come and is having a career season. Speaking of quality play and consistency, we cannot forget about Bryan Anger. Anger once again performed very well and in his three boots in Week 14, averaging just over 52 yards with a long on the day of 62. Anger, like Maher, has been very steady all season long and has made this special teams unit among the best in the league.

Last, but not least, we have return specialist KaVontae Turpin. Turpin had his worst game as a pro as he muffed a punt and gave the Texans great field position as they recovered the ball at the Dallas 24. What would’ve been a great start for the Cowboys as they forced a three and out on the Texans first offensive drive, turned into a touchdown. It was a tough break for Turpin, who has been very reliable all season long. On the day Turpin had three total returns for just 36 yards. Hopefully this performance was just a blip and that he bounces back going forward. He is an explosive player and is very dynamic with the ball in his hands.

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