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7 Cowboys lessons learned in the Eagles win

The Cowboys had plenty of good and bad to discuss after their win over the Eagles.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Takeaways were huge.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There were moments of doubt and wild swings in mood. The Dallas Cowboys’ defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles was a true nail-biter that was not decided until the Eagles failed on a fourth down pass with just :20 remaining in regulation. It kept alive slim hopes of overtaking Philadelphia for the NFC East crown and, with the results of some other games, ensures that the Cowboys will be no worse than the fifth seed in the playoffs.

There were some things about Dallas to learn from this game, both good and bad.


In certain circles, most notably the “Shout Crappy Takes To Generate Ratings” segment of sports media, there was a lot of talk about how Dak Prescott was not an elite quarterback and unable to lead this team to playoff success. His recent spate of interceptions has been the most common thing driving it. And at the beginning of the game, Prescott absolutely gave them ammunition as he put the ball in a perfect place for Josh Sweat to snatch for a pick-six that put the Cowboys in a 10-0 hole with less than six minutes gone in the game.

Prescott would later take full responsibility for the interception. On the field, he took full responsibility for bringing the team back. It started with a third down pass that highlighted one aspect of his game that may not be discussed as much as it should: He is a very strong individual.

(I have no idea why it is flagged as sensitive, but I promise you this is not objectionable except to Eagles fans.)

Following that interception, Prescott completed 14 of the 15 remaining passes before halftime on the way to a 27 of 35 afternoon for 347 yards and three touchdowns, his best performance of the season despite that interception. He also added 41 yards rushing.

The pass while wearing Avonte Maddux like an ankle weight was rather impressive, but the real heroic moment came in the fourth quarter. Dallas was trailing by a touchdown with barely eight minutes left in the game. After a fumble that Tyler Biadasz wrestled from Philadelphia defenders followed by a Prescott sack, the Cowboys faced an impossible-to-make third and thirty. Well, it is supposed to be impossible. Prescott took the snap and saw just activated free agent T.Y Hilton running straight down the sideline. He then dropped a perfectly placed 52 yard pass into the receiver’s hands. Hilton gets credit for fighting through what certainly looked like pass interference to pull the ball in and keep the game-tying drive alive, but it was as long and accurate a pass as any quarterback in the league can make.

The numbers were great. The plays were tremendous. What does not show up on any stat sheet or highlight reel is the leadership Prescott brings to this team. His attitude every time he leads the offense on the field is that they are going to score and win the game. That is infectious. They have not stopped fighting in any game this season despite some struggles in various aspects of their play. This is Prescott’s team, and his leadership on and off the field will be a big factor in how long they last in the playoffs.

We have real hope for the wide receiver situation

CeeDee Lamb has clearly emerged as a legitimate NFL WR1, and this game was the best evidence yet, as he caught ten passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The problem was that the Cowboys have not had anyone else to really draw the attention of the defense, as Michael Gallup has not made the contributions hoped. Dalton Schultz and Tony Pollard were the only other reliable targets, but they were not enough to keep other teams from blanketing Lamb to shut down the Dallas passing attack.

After stubbornly trying to get it done with their own guys, the team finally brought in outside help in the form of Hilton. This was his first game and it is only reasonable to expect he needs some time to get up to speed with both the playbook and his quarterback. Hilton was only on the field for twelve plays, but two of them were significant. The long bomb mentioned above will be the most remembered, but it was the second time a pass thrown to Hilton kept a touchdown drive alive. In the second quarter, the Cowboys were trying to get points off a Jayron Kearse interception, but faced a fourth and eight at the Eagles 45. Mike McCarthy elected to go for it. Prescott’s pass to Hilton was incomplete, but a flag was thrown for illegal contact by Darius Slay who grabbed Hilton when the latter made his cut. The resulting new set of downs allowed the drive to end in a touchdown that had Dallas up 14-10. And that flag happened because of the threat Hilton presents.

With that incompletion wiped off the board by the infraction, Hilton officially only saw one target for the lone completion. But it was a beauty. Most importantly, it shows that Hilton is still a deep threat to be feared. It is just a hint of what might be yet to come, but it is quite tantalizing. Hilton stretches the field, and that is just going to open more opportunities for the remainder of the receivers. The last two regular-season games will help get the veteran more fully integrated in the offense. That could have him hitting his full stride at the start of the playoffs. You couldn’t ask for a better time.

The Cowboys rely far too much on the run

If you take away the yards contributed by Prescott, the running attack only generated 64 yards. Ezekiel Elliott averaged just 3.4 yards a carry. Pollard was worse, a paltry 2.1 per carry. Meanwhile the offense was averaging 7.4 yards per pass. Clearly this was a game where only one of the two phases was working well.

Most frustrating was the way the run was almost a complete failure on first down. Here is a chart that shows the results for each of the 30 first down plays the Cowboys ran.

Results on first down

Run Pass
Run Pass
1 11
0 9
-1 -10 (sack)
1 14
3 6
8 13
-4 INC
3 24
3 -9 (sack)
1 -1 (sack)
7 16
5 10
16 -9 (sack)

The trend is particularly noticeable early in the game, but of the fifteen runs, ten got less than four yards, which is generally seen as a failure. The longest first down run of the game, the 16-yard gain late, was actually a Prescott scramble on a designed passing play.

The fifty/fifty split is good, but sometimes it is better to roll with what works rather than sticking to a plan to try and keep the defense guessing. Even with the incompletions and sacks, eight of the first down passes were successful, and six led to an immediate new set of downs.

Dallas’ offense was working at a high rate of efficiency all game, only punting the ball once. They did have to settle for Brett Maher field goals on four possessions, but between the 20s they were moving the ball almost at will. They only got six first downs running the ball and 18 through the air. They did maintain a balance offensively, with 31 runs (including scrambles) and 35 pass attempts. But that balance had limited effectiveness.

Most crucially, the Philadelphia defense was waiting for so many of those first down carries and shutting them down. Something did not work for the Cowboys, and they need to fix it.

The return of the takeaway

It was certainly a case of eking out a win. Every point counted, and they got 20 points off the four turnovers the defense generated. Without those takeaways, there appears to have been no way to win this game. And the two interceptions were not the result of mistakes by Gardner Minshew. Jayron Kearse and DaRon Bland literally took the ball out of the hands of the intended receivers. Those were definitely plays where the defense generated opportunities for the offense. They will need to keep that up, because they have some other things that still are not fixed.

The pass rush is now into three weeks of not getting home

They did not have a lack of opportunity, as Minshew dropped back to throw 40 times. But they again did not get a single sack or even a QB hit. It was like a switch was thrown from on to off after the team led the league in sacks through the early part of the season.

However, they did generate pressure, and unlike in the loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, it appears to have really helped throw Minshew off enough to make the crucial final stop of the game. Still, to see the clear strength of the team suddenly take a leave of absence is more than disturbing. Dallas needs to find it again in the final two games before the postseason. It the biggest issue on a defense that has some other things yet to work on. The Cowboys only punted once. The Eagles never had to. That seems an issue to consider.

The unsung hero

Last week was something of a disaster at cornerback. The team had to hold a competition to figure out who would play after Kelvin Joseph was benched after giving up two long touchdowns to the Jaguars.

The winner of that competition turned out to be Nahshon Wright. He responded with what could be considered a breakout game with eight tackles, two passes defended, and a tackle for a loss. While it was not Jalen Hurts throwing the ball, this was still an opponent that put up 355 yards via the air. The worst damage was not against Wright or Bland, who had a pass defended to go with his interception, but Trevon Diggs, who at least twice looked completely lost on his responsibilities.

With the quality of opposition the Cowboys will face during the playoffs, they need to hope that Wright is the solution he appeared against the Eagles, that Bland continues to play far above what could be expected from his draft status, and that Philadelphia was just an aberrant bad day from Diggs. If those work out, they may have found the solution they need.

Money Maher

It is hard to say one thing was the key to this win, because there were multiple plays in the game that combined to get the narrow win. But once again we see how right the team got it when they signed Maher. He hit on all his attempts, four field goals and four extra points. That totals to 16 points put on the scoreboard. His reliability may well mean the difference in a game or two come January.

The remaining burning and unanswered question

Is Dallas a legitimate playoff contender? I’m not going to pretend that I know the answer to this They had a narrow win over a team starting their backup quarterback, but the rest of the Philadelphia roster may be the best in the league. They had to have so many plays break their way, but somehow they did. That is partly some outstanding luck, but as we saw on the turnovers, they were making some of their own. And there were certainly things that went badly against them, like the pick six and the six sacks of Prescott.

That breakdown in pass protection is another red flag, but with Prescott in the game, you can never say never. They still are trying to sort out some injury issues and figure out who can step up in a variety of places. Still they got a win. It may have been of limited effect on their playoff positioning, but it was major for the confidence level of the team. They next two games should be easier, but that is always a risky assumption. Now, at least, the team has the option of focusing on getting as right as they can.

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