The Dallas Cowboys have some major tasks to accomplish against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have an opportunity to lock up a playoff berth if they can notch their eleventh win of the season. But as we saw last Sunday, that is going to take getting some things right.
Right tackle rotation
The season-ending injury to Terence Steele was the biggest blow to the Cowboys in the narrow win over the Houston Texans. Initially they replaced him with Josh Ball. Ball was pretty good on running plays, but struggled in pass protection. It was his man that got a hand on Dak Prescott and caused the interception late in the game that almost lost it for Dallas. He also was responsible for the sack one play before that resulted in a fumble that Ball had to fall on. On the final 98-yard touchdown drive, Jason Peters took Ball’s place, and the results speak for themselves.
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Ball was the first option because Peters has not practiced at RT, and switching from one side to the other is difficult. Some players never make the adjustment. The way Peters rose to the challenge is a testament to why he is assumed to be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. However, he is also 40 years old and the staff has been very cautious with his workload. It is obvious they are concerned about how many plays he can handle in a game. The plan for the Jaguars is to rotate the two. Hopefully they can figure out how to give Ball some help to try and avoid more contact induced turnovers. They will also be paying close attention to how Peters holds up. The ideal thing would be for the long-time veteran to take more and more of the workload. Whether he can is a big question.
Wide receiver reinforcements
The big news of the week was the signing of T.Y. Hilton. Another player in the sunset years of his career, he is expected to provide the deep threat the team has been lacking. While CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Noah Brown have been a workable wide receiver group, none are exceptionally fast. However, Hilton is unlikely to be ready to go this week, or will see very limited action if he does get on the field.
While Hilton is more a future asset, James Washington made his debut wearing the Star against Houston. It was limited, with only eleven total snaps and one target that he did not bring in. We can expect that workload to increase. Washington also brings some speed to the receiver room and should be able to contribute going deep, even if all he does is draw coverage to open things up in the short and medium ranges. The Texans did an outstanding job of staying on the receivers and broke up multiple passes. Against Jacksonville, the Cowboys need to find a more efficient way to use the receivers to give the offense a spark.
Staying tough against the run
Another big loss for Dallas was defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. He has been very helpful shoring up the run defense. While Houston found some success on the ground, that seemed to mostly come from subbing in Jeff Driskel as an option QB. This is one place that the last game offers hope. The defense was able to stuff three running plays inside their own five-yard line to get the ball back for the game-winning drive.
Another big part of stopping the ground game is the play of the linebackers, and this is also good news. Leighton Vander Esch is having arguably the best season of his career and will likely wind up with a nice deal somewhere after this year. He had 14 tackles against Houston. Anthony Barr and rookie Damone Clark also had some good plays, giving the team a little depth. Safeties Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson add a third element. If the Cowboys can continue to hold teams near or below 100 yards a game on the ground, winning will be much easier. The Jaguars are a fairly mediocre running team, fifteenth in the league with a per-game average of 122 yards. As long as they don’t exceed that, things should be manageable.
Running the ball themselves
On the opening drive the running game was clicking for Dallas. But it didn’t last long.
Gains on the ground after the first drive of the game yesterday:— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) December 12, 2022
That’s 2.5 yards per carry with an explosive run built in. They abandoned the run, because it wasn’t working. How is this that hard to understand people????
This is a disturbing set of numbers. Dallas has leaned heavily on the running game this year, and it almost disappeared after that initial possession. Those negative gains knocked the offense off schedule, and the failure to get into the end zone with four consecutive Ezekiel Elliott carries from the eight-yard line wasted the wild fumble recovery and return by Trevon Diggs in the third quarter.
Turnovers and sacks
This was simply a bad game for the Cowboys. The muffed punt by KaVontae Turpin let the Texans tie the game in the first quarter and gave them a huge boost in confidence. Prescott would go on to throw two interceptions. That is just unacceptable. While Dallas would be credited with two takeaways, the last one was the interception on a Hail Mary that really should not be considered. Effectively the Cowboys were on the short end of a three to one turnover margin. The issues at right tackle tie directly to this.
Just as bad was the goose egg the pass rush put up. No sacks is not what we are used to. They only had one QB hit as well. Now they face Trevor Lawrence, who is starting to live up to his first overall draft position. He had his career-best game last week against the Tennessee Titans, throwing for 368 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, plus running one in himself. Dallas has to do a better job against him than they did facing Davis Mills and Driskel. Pressure and better coverage are going to be crucial.
One positive is that they only gave up one sack themselves, the one that mostly fell on Ball. That is an often overlooked aspect of Prescott’s talent. He is simply superb at evading pressure and getting a throw off. He just has to guard against making ones that wind up in the wrong hands.
Don’t look ahead but still prepare for the big one
The Houston game was supposed to be a chance to hone things. Instead it turned into a fight for survival. To a lesser extent, that was what Jacksonville was expected to be before they started looking better by winning three of their last five games. They are a bit of an up and down team, and hopefully will once again follow a win with a loss. But this is in their home stadium, and reports are that the fan base is fired up with the Cowboys coming to town. That is just part of being America’s Team. Obviously they cannot take the Jaguars lightly. If they make the kinds of mistakes they did last week, this could easily become a loss.
Meanwhile, the following game on Christmas Eve has been circled on everyone’s calendar since the schedule was announced, and it has just gotten more crucial as the season progressed. The Philadelphia Eagles are clearly the biggest challenge for Dallas this season. The NFC East title may be out of reach unless the Eagles have a big stumble, but that just means the path to the Super Bowl will likely run through Philadelphia. Not only do the Cowboys need to get a lot of things right after the squeaker against the Texans just to avoid another loss, they need to have those things fixed to face the team with the best record in the NFL. They need to prepare for that game without looking past Jacksonville. It is a fine line to walk.