Following the Dallas Cowboys’ loss to the Arizona Cardinals last week, the team knew something had to change. Their performance on defense last week was sub-standard and, quite frankly, out of character. There were several self-inflicted penalties and a lack of defensive discipline. However, the unit was immensely better this week and stifled the New England Patriots’ offense.
A homecoming game for former Cowboy Ezekiel Elliott, now with New England, did not turn into a warm welcome on the field. It was all smiles on the Cowboys’ bench as they controlled the game almost from start to finish. Dallas neutralized Elliott and the Patriots on the ground and through the air, and moved the ball against their defense. Here are prime players who made that possible and brought the Cowboys back in the column.
Honorable mention: Jalen Tolbert
Jalen Tolbert deserves recognition for his outing against the New England Patriots. He’s been making strides in his second season and showing up in more consistent spurts. On Sunday, Tolbert did the little things that matter. He had a respectable output (four receptions, 43 yards), but his effort is what counted.
Tolbert’s highlight of the day was on special teams. After punter Bryan Anger sent a 55-yard punt to New England returner Demario Douglas, Tolbert ran downfield to make the tackle on Douglas for a two-yard loss, pinning the Patriots at their ten-yard line. On the ensuing possession, Mac Jones fumbled the ball that was returned on a short field by Leighton Vander Esch for a score, made possible by Tolbert’s effort on special teams.
Following an ACL injury to Trevon Diggs, the Dallas defense had big shoes to fill. In his absence, DaRon Bland was asked to step up in his place and transition from a slot corner to an outside corner after playing inside much of last season. The former 2022 fifth-round pick is literally taking the opportunity and running with it. Bland’s instincts and ball skills aren’t sheer luck. He’s got a penchant for being in the right place at the right time.
The timing of his performance couldn’t have been any better. Sunday was the second multi-interception game of his career. His eight career interceptions are the most by any player dating back to last season. His pick-six of Mac Jones dealt a crushing blow to the Patriots offense and, for all intents and purposes, put the game away early for a Patriots offense that was not equipped to play down by multiple scores.
Sunday was a return to form for Dak Prescott. He played very similar to how he played in Week 2, making quick decisions, getting rid of the football, and improvising when possible. It wasn’t a red zone play, but his 21-yard connection with CeeDee Lamb is a step in the right direction. Prescott completed 28 of his 34 passes on Sunday for 261 yards and no interceptions (108.5 QB rating).
For further context of Prescott’s performance, here’s this tweet from Next Gen Stats.
Dak Prescott completed +10.7% of his passes over expected in Week 4, his 7th game with a CPOE over +10% in a game over the last two seasons.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 1, 2023
No other quarterback has more than 5 games with a CPOE over +10% since 2022; only two have more than 3.#NEvsDAL | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/3rUefJf9pT
He had several terrific throws and didn’t allow not having a fully healthy offensive line to alter the course of the game. The Cowboys still have to work on their red zone woes, but Prescott managed the game well in that department. He made an excellent pass in a tight window that Luke Schoonmaker dropped; that should have been a touchdown. Though some may use the term “game manager” as a negative, Prescott did what was asked of him within the flow of the game and managed the game exceptionally.
The Cowboys must solve this Rubik’s cube that is the red zone. Some have opined that the team misses Elliott or the departed Dalton Schultz. There may be some truth there. Regarding the tight end position, the Cowboys’ Jake Ferguson is beginning to blossom.
Former NFL tight end Greg Olson on the TV broadcast stated how elusive Ferguson is after the catch. He routinely makes the first defender miss and turns a minimal gain into favorable outcomes. Ferguson is a big target with a good understanding of where to be in zone coverage and to show the quarterback his numbers. Ferguson’s becoming a favorite of Prescott. His lucky number must be seven. Prescott targeted him seven times for seven receptions and 77 yards. The red zone issue is still persistent, but perhaps Ferguson is part of the solution. Good things are happening when Prescott looks his way.