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What the Cowboys showed us against the Colts

The Cowboys gave us some clues about where they are heading.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys
It turned into a backyard beatdown at the end.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Be very careful what you take away from the Dallas Cowboys eviscerating the Indianapolis Colts 54-19. That is a gaudy number. It was even Scorigami as that was never an ending score in the NFL before this game. The problem is that the final tote was due to a record-breaking fourth quarter. It is hard not to take away some good things from this game, but we are not going to overlook a wart or two.

The best thing they did all night

All season long we’ve been ranting about the huge number of penalties the Cowboys have had against them, and that continued for the New York Giants game last week. The most encouraging thing to come out of the win over the Colts was what didn’t happen. Dallas played its cleanest game of the season, only being penalized three times for 43 yards, half the six flags for 88 yards that Indianapolis drew. After three months of a building despair that the team was just incapable of controlling the problem, they did so, and with the officiating crew that was leading the NFL in the number of times they threw a flag.

Now for the bad news. There is no assurance at all this will continue, or whether it was just another aberration in a game that was so atypical in many ways. It is absolutely great that they managed to avoid getting called for infractions in the game. It was the best game of the season in that respect. But consistency is the key here, and that is highly questionable until they manage to do this a few more times.

One thing could carry through. It was at times evident on the screen that they were being particularly careful about only having one man in motion at the snap. That looks like an adjustment the staff made, and while overdue, it is very welcome. Players were also continually checking with the refs as to not line up offsides on both sides of the ball. The fact the offensive line had no false starts or holding calls on any member, despite shuffling things at times by putting Jason Peters in the lineup while the game was not yet under control, is also significant. While playing at home may have been an influence, that was still great poise and focus. If this is a sign of things to come, it will be a big help. Because when this team is not enduring self-inflicted wounds, it can be downright scary.

The killer instinct

After playing a closer game than we were expecting through most of the first three quarters, Dallas quickly got to a 15-point lead just a minute and a half into the fourth. With the way the Colts’ offense was going, this was a lead that could have led the team to let up on the gas at that point and mostly let Dan Quinn and his defense protect it.

However, that didn’t work so well against the Green Bay Packers. So instead, that defense absolutely took over and the offense then capitalized on what they were given. There would be two more takeaways after that, and it only took the Cowboys five and three plays respectively to convert them into points.

Admittedly, the first of those scores was greatly aided by a 44-yard pass interference call. The second of those gave the team a very short field, 29 yards. The Indianapolis defense was going into surrender and get out of the stadium mode. And it is hard to blame rookie RB Malik Turner for taking advantage to put the final TD in the books. But this was not the conservative way the team has played with a multi-score lead in the past. It was keeping their foot on the neck and punishing the opponent.

It is the attitude you need when making a playoff run. And if opponents don’t like getting the score run up on them, they can try to do something about it.

Stumbling out of the gate

It was another unusual week of practice coming out of the mini-bye. And as discussed in the look at the stats for the Giants game, that has led to a slow start for the team every time they are not on a regular practice schedule. It seems to particularly affect Dak Prescott. He was not at all good on many plays.

It’s hard to know how the team might fix that, and they have a Saturday and Thursday night game to negotiate in consecutive weeks still to come this season. We just have to hope they can continue to come up with fourth-quarter massacres to overcome things.

Takeaways cover a lot of warts

The Cowboys got five of them, while the offense, with a bit of luck on a possible missed fumble by Dalton Schultz, only lost the ball once. That puts them second only to the Philadelphia Eagles in turnover margin. And they turned every single one of those takeaways into touchdowns. That efficiency wins a lot of football games. Having one of the fumbles run back for an immediate six points helped, but those other four were the offense finding some efficiency when they needed it.

Turnovers are one of the most inconsistent aspects of defensive performance. Still, you don’t get that many at this point in a season unless the defenders are doing something right. And when combined with the most sacks in the league, it spells some real dominance. It is no coincidence that the top two teams in the NFL in both categories are the Cowboys and the Eagles. There is a key reason they are now the best two teams in the NFC.

Let’s talk about the rookie class

The Cowboys’ 2022 draft class just keeps looking better and better. Only Jalen Tolbert has disappointed this year, and Matt Waletzko and Devin Harper have wound up on IR. But the rest are shaping up to be something special. Consider:

  • First-round pick Tyler Smith continues to start at left tackle while getting work in at left guard. He has occasional lapses in pass protection, but is an absolute mauler run blocking. That latter is particularly important as the ground game carried the offense against the Colts, netting 220 yards to only 165 passing. The team can rely on Tyler Smith to carry the load at tackle until Tyron Smith is ready to play, and then will likely use that run blocking talent at guard the rest of the way.
  • Second-round selection Sam Williams just keeps making big plays. He had a fumble recovery and a tackle for a loss in this game while playing only 29% of the defensive downs. The talent ahead of him is all that is holding his snap count down.
  • You expect the day one and two picks to contribute, but is what the day three guys and UDFAs are bringing to the table that is eye-opening. Start with fourth-rounder Jake Ferguson. While his contributions as a receiver are somewhat sporadic, he is definitely a plus value as a run blocker. There is good reason to think becoming TE1 is not too far off with Dalton Schultz’s future with the team questionable as he is playing on the tag.
  • The best bang for the buck guys are the two fifth-rounders, DaRon Bland and Damone Clark. With Jourdan Lewis on IR and Anthony Brown headed that way, Bland is going to be crucial, possibly having to move from the slot to play outside along with Travon Diggs. All Bland did after Brown was hurt was intercept Matt Ryan twice during the fourth quarter dominance. While Dallas is still frighteningly thin at cornerback, Bland looks up to the task.
  • Clark is turning into the best story on the team. After starting the season on IR and widely expected to be “redshirted” due to his spinal fusion surgery, he has become a big part of the linebacking corps. He carried an extra load while Anthony Barr was hurt, but with Barr back in the lineup, Clark still had a splash play with a forced fumble. He had more snaps than Barr, who was probably being worked back in. With the improved performance of Leighton Vander Esch this season, the off-ball linebackers look to be a much stronger group than we expected.
  • Finally, don’t forget the trio of UDFAs who have made some impact this year. KaVontae Turpin continues to force teams to respect the threat of him breaking a big return. Peyton Hendershot is a solid part of the tight end group. And Malik Davis took full advantage of getting on the field in a game where every active player on the roster saw playing time. Markquese Bell seldom is not on the inactive list, but with the problems at corner, he might become more active as Dan Quinn shuffles and adjusts the secondary.

That is a simply remarkable level of production from a draft class, especially the late rounders. Once again we have to give props to Will McClay and the scouting staff, and even Stephen Jones for overseeing this construction job.

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