Sometimes there are things we can learn from the performance of the Dallas Cowboys. But after their narrow 20-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the most important one may have been taken to heart the week before by offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. With Dak Prescott out, he called a game that was often near-perfect for Cooper Rush stepping in. It was not without some concerning flaws that still need to be corrected, but the most egregious errors from the season-opening flop against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were thankfully absent.
Moore has often seemed at his best during the first “scripted” portion of the game, usually about fifteen plays, and that was evident as the Cowboys put together back-to-back touchdown drives to open the game. The first was a relentless drive down the field, Effective use of the run took the early pressure off Rush until the team faced a fourth and two at their own 44. That was perhaps the quarterback’s finest moment of the entire game as he skipped over Dalton Schultz to complete a seventeen-yard strike to Noah Brown. It was a harbinger of things to come as Brown would be the leading receiver in the game, including the touchdown to cap the second drive.
But it also showed that Moore was indeed capable of scheming a second wide receiver open as well as finding ways to get the ball to CeeDee Lamb. Rush certainly wasn’t spreading the ball around as he only completed passes to five different receivers. Normally that can be a bit of a concern, but with Rush having to fill in as the starter, it hints at a pared down game plan to keep him playing within himself. Just as the effectiveness of the first two drives demonstrated, it indicates a wise approach to counter a difficult situation. The second drive was much shorter as it featured the longest play from scrimmage when Tony Pollard took a short throw behind the line and raced down the left sideline to almost score. He deservedly got the tuddy on the next play with an assertive burst up the middle.
There was also a bit of addition by subtraction, as we saw no sign of the reverses and trick plays that failed miserably in the first game. Part of that is probably attributable to keeping it simpler for Rush, but it also was a wise adjustment on Moore’s part.
Leading up to the game, there was a mini-furor over head coach Mike McCarthy saying Moore had to be smarter with his playcalls. That seemed to be more a bad bit of phrasing than anything, as Moore still handled things during the game as normal. More telling was the report that McCarthy increased his involvement in developing the plan during the week. This seemed to pay big dividends as Dallas avoided slumping to 0-2 and no longer sits alone in the cellar of the NFC East.
It was great to see Moore make welcome strides, but he still has plenty to work on. Notably, once the Cowboys jumped out to a two score lead, they seemed to let up on the pedal, not at all a wise move when you are just in the second quarter. Moore’s calls became visibly more conservative. As mentioned earlier, he is much better with the scripted plays, but seems to lose some of his nerve once they get beyond those. After closing out the first half with the first Brett Maher field goal, Dallas would not score again until the very last play of the game. One lesson Moore clearly still needs to absorb is that when you have a lead it is time to build on it, not sit back and be cautious. It almost cost the team. Our own RJ Ochoa provides a handy summary of the dry stretch after the second TD.
The Dallas Cowboys scored on their first two possessions of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 19, 2022
After that though, the offense was nowhere to be found:
- Field Goal
- Field Goal
Points on 2/8 possessions. 25%.
Fortunately, things got much better on the game-winning drive. The situation was certainly challenging. After a brilliant defensive stand to force the Bengals to punt from deep in their own territory, the Cowboys had the ball at their own 35 with just :57 seconds left in the game and one remaining timeout. Three ice-blooded passes from Rush got them to the Cincinnati 35, but they had to use their last timeout at that point. Then McCarthy gets credit for some good clock management and having his team prepared. They ran the ball with Tony Pollard to get another three yards but also to set Maher up on his preferred side, and then quickly got set for Rush to spike the ball with just three seconds left. Maher came on to make his second long-range field goal of the game and put it in the win column.
We don’t know how many games Rush will have to start before Prescott recovers from his hand injury. Getting this win takes pressure off them to hurry Prescott back. Hopefully Rush can continue to help them win games so we won’t see QB1 until he is fully ready to go. That is going to take more good games from the offensive coordinator. This was a very promising way to start. It turns out the season was not lost when Prescott was hurt. Moore was a key part last Sunday and he is going to have to continue to improve to keep hopes alive.