The Dallas Cowboys have reached the bye week with a record of 4-2, navigating the early part of their season with some definitive wins over the Giants, Jets, and Patriots, blemishes against the Cardinals and 49ers, and most recently a hard fought win on Monday night at the Chargers. The jury is still out on just how much of a contender this Cowboys team can be, but they’ll have the chance to work on their flaws on the bye before taking the field again at home vs. the Rams.
When they do so, the Cowboys may show some lineup changes, some of which were hinted at with their backs somewhat against the wall against the Chargers. A Cowboys roster being highly regarded for it’s depth and skill is hardly new to this season, but the time is now for the offense to move past any install phase under Mike McCarthy and utilize this depth - the same going for the rotation Dan Quinn can trust to get the job done on defense.
Who are some of the players fans should keep an eye on seeing more of in week eight and beyond? Let’s take a closer look.
RB Malik Davis over Deuce Vaughn
This is an obvious place to start because it’s rooted in how the Cowboys lined up in the backfield against the Chargers. Rookie Deuce Vaughn was a healthy addition to the inactives list, as the Cowboys went with more power between the tackles in their run game behind Tony Pollard.
Pollard had his lowest yards per carry of the season against the Chargers, but handled all but four rushing attempts out of the backfield. Rico Dowdle took three carries and Brandin Cooks had a jet sweep attempt, as the Cowboys look for more big plays from Pollard by upping his volume.
The big play potential from Pollard could open up even more if the Cowboys find more consistency in the passing game, but the team addressing their need for the physicality that Ezekiel Elliott provided just a year ago is a step in the right direction. Pollard and Dowdle has been the top pairing all season, but by potentially adding Davis as the third back over Vaughn, the Cowboys can go with the hot hand in any game situation and try to find the splash plays Davis made to stay on the roster this preseason.
The Cowboys also have Kavontae Turpin back on the field earlier then expected after being injured against the 49ers, a player that can give them reps out of the backfield as well as on special teams in ways Vaughn hasn’t yet as sixth-round rookie.
The Chargers win was the type of complementary performance on both sides of the ball the Cowboys can build from, starting with using their run game to put the defense in favorable situations protecting the lead. Whether or not Pollard proves he can shoulder the majority of this load, the Cowboys are exploring their options behind him, and need to fine tune this run game if they hope to make a deep run in the NFC.
WR Jalen Tolbert over Michael Gallup
QB Dak Prescott played an efficient game and made the big plays when it mattered most to win in Los Angeles, a performance that saw just nine incompletions on the night. Prescott was a perfect seven for seven when targeting CeeDee Lamb, four of four to Brandin Cooks with a touchdown, six of seven to Tony Pollard, one for one to Jake Ferguson, but noticeably three for ten when looking Michael Gallup’s direction.
Gallup has been able to carry over his ability as a strong scramble drill receiver into a new offense, but the in-rhythm throws to use his size against smaller defensive backs have been lacking, as has Gallup’s ability to finish plays at the catch point.
An incredibly strong offseason for Jalen Tolbert that had him poised for a year-two leap has only resulted in an average of 25 offensive snaps per game, a number enhanced by Tolbert seeing 59 plays against the Jets. Tolbert’s special teams miscue to make contact with a Bryan Anger punt and give the Chargers an extra possession may not help his case immediately after the bye, but he’s still been a trusted core player on John Fassel’s side of the ball.
The Cowboys are a middle of the pack team at creating explosive passing plays so far this season. The addition of Brandin Cooks was supposed to provide a boost here but has yet to do so. There’s a path for both Cooks and Tolbert to share the field alongside CeeDee Lamb, instantly giving the Cowboys more speed and playmaking ability all around, and saving the veteran Gallup for situations that suit him.
LB Markquese Bell over Leighton Vander Esch
The Cowboys will still be without their signal caller on defense in Leighton Vander Esch after the bye, which in the short term likely means continued snaps for UDFA Markquese Bell. A Dan Quinn favorite for all the right reasons, Bell had his breakout game against the Chargers with seven tackles and a pass defended. He played in tandem with Damone Clark who had a resurgent game and led the team with eight tackles.
The “secret sauce” to this Dallas defense has always been playing hybrid, safety-esque players down on the second level to give a unique pre snap look against the pass. The downside of this has been run defense at times, and when the Cowboys tried to adjust for this and line up in a more traditional defense with the size of Vander Esch on the second level, the results were the 42-10 beatdown at the hand of the 49ers physical offense.
How the Cowboys can play more of these sets with players like Bell and Donovan Wilson in the box is tricky, as each game’s flow will dictate how much the opponent is willing to run against Dallas. The exciting thing about Bell’s most recent performance is he showed great range and instincts against the run, setting the edge by coming downhill and using his length against blockers, while finishing tackles sideline to sideline with range. The duo of Bell and Clark made Los Angeles earn every yard and regularly drive the length of the field to put up points.
Seeing more of Bell isn’t an indictment of Vander Esch no longer being welcome to the lineup when ready to return from IR, as the Cowboys will still need much of what he offers at the MIKE position, but this is a defense with understandably high standards for itself. The numbers crunch can get to any player when new faces are helping uphold this standard, and Bell is the perfect example as he allows Quinn to call the defenses this team is best at more often.
SAF Juanyeh Thomas in rotation with Malik Hooker
Juanyeh Thomas’ snaps on defense have trended down all season; he was inactive with an injury against the Chargers, but in limited opportunities he’s shown the ability to make splash plays. Dallas has no problem rotating players on all three levels of the defense, and Thomas is someone to watch for as this rotation develops.
One of the biggest remaining questions this defense will have to answer after the bye is how they handle a run-heavy offense that isn’t afraid to patiently hand the ball off against them and force them to tackle. This is an area veteran Malik Hooker has struggled in, missing plays in the hole when flying downhill to stop the run. Hooker has still been valuable as his deep safety position allows both Wilson and Jayron Kearse to play closer to the line of scrimmage, but as mentioned above this is a tightly crowded area for this defense currently, should Bell and Clark continue to play well.
One of the storylines that’s sure to come in the weeks ahead for the Cowboys offense is how they handle the attrition of the season under McCarthy compared to Kellen Moore, a much-publicized area they struggled in when Moore was OC. While this is something they can work on during the bye, it feels like the fundamentals of the offense are still coming together, while the defense is further along and in better position to be thinking about their own long-term lineup changes.
Juanyeh Thomas is not a player opposing QBs are going to ID before the snap, but he’s shown a knack for making plays in coverage as well as throwing his body around against the run. Hooker has made these splash plays at times as well, and playing in more of a tandem with Thomas could see the best of both safeties come out.
Add in that Thomas is another two-way player with plenty of run on special teams, and he easily becomes a name to keep an eye on for increased playing time down the stretch.