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Cowboys going from get-right to get-better against the Panthers

How Dallas plays against the Panthers could tell us a lot about how the rest of the season will go.

Carolina Panthers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Last week was just what the doctor ordered for the Dallas Cowboys. They looked fantastic at times against the battered and out-manned New York Giants, giving our spirits a real boost. It was a true “get-right” game, and while it was not perfect, the Cowboys were much better in an array of things. Most good teams encounter some rough moments like Dallas did against the Philadelphia Eagles. If they are lucky, they will have a next game like that to recover and recharge. But through a quirk in the schedule, it appears they have a second game in a row that they should win easily in this week’s match at the 1-8 Carolina Panthers. It isn’t a get-right game, but it is a great opportunity for the team to repeat some of the good things and work on others that still need some improvement. Roy White and I have some things we are looking for.

Let’s start with the items we want to see more of. The biggest one to continue is the sudden connection between Dak Prescott and Brandin Cooks. As most are quite aware, Cooks went off in this game with 173 yards and a touchdown on nine catches. Prescott only missed one time when targeting Cooks, and the wide receiver turned into a defensive back on the play to avoid a turnover. We have been waiting for this all year since Dallas made the trade for Cooks in the offseason. One thing we wanted Cooks to bring to the team was an ability to stretch the field, and his 19.2 average yards per catch did exactly that. It was just one game, though. The Panthers offer an opportunity to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

That ties in to the second thing we hope continues. This was a game where Prescott continued his streak of excellent performances, and this is a game where they can further establish consistency. Of course, the chemistry with CeeDee Lamb continues to be red-hot as Lamb set an NFL record for consecutive games with at least 10 catches and 150 yards. It was his third in a row, and that has never been done before. Things really changed after the miserable showing against the San Francisco 49ers. In the four games since then, Prescott has averaged almost four yards more per attempt than he did in the first five of the season. In technical terms, that’s pretty good. It is a great sign for the maturation of the Texas Coast offense. Mike McCarthy seems to have that figured out and is using his assets well. It needs to continue before things get tougher after they face the Panthers.

We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

Cooks wasn’t the only player who had a bit of a breakout game. First-round rookie Mazi Smith also played his best game of the season. The Giants game was dominated by the Dallas defense, especially in the first half, but Smith more than played his part, being the highest-graded rookie defensive tackle in the league for Week 10. He is still getting limited snaps with Johnathan Hankins playing very well, but this is welcome growth and it needs to continue down the stretch.

Those are all trending strongly in the right direction, but there were just as many things that the Cowboys still need to figure out. One is at running back. Tony Pollard has been a bit middling recently, not getting more than 60 yards in any of the past six games. He was eclipsed against New York by Rico Dowdle, who is a third member of the team to have a bit of a breakout. There was something of a garbage time factor in his 79-yard, one-touchdown performance, but early in the game he also looked more explosive than Pollard. Dowdle averaged a healthy 6.6 yards per carry while Pollard just mustered 3.7. This still offers a lot of potential as a tandem, since they combined for 138 yards in the game.

That leaves an open question concerning whether this is a problem or a good situation. This could go more to McCarthy’s game calling and usage of his backs. If the two combine for another good day in Carolina, that would be encouraging. But if Dowdle continues to outperform Pollard, McCarthy needs to consider who is really his lead back.

Hidden in the offensive explosions the past few weeks is a potential problem with turnovers. Dallas actually has a negative turnover margin the last four games, including a minus one against the Giants. Part of that may be the welcomed aggressiveness McCarthy is displaying, and the lopsided number of plays also could be a factor. The Cowboys ran 77 plays on offense while limiting New York to 55, and a lot of the Giants’ plays came in the second half after the outcome of the game was obvious. When an offense is pushing the ball down the field the way the Cowboys were with so many plays, there are just more opportunities for the law of averages to lead to interceptions. It is still something the team can get right against an opponent that is suffering a lot of confusion on who is really calling their plays with a lack of talent and a struggling rookie quarterback.

The team got a significant bit of bad news when it was announced that Leighton Vander Esch’s season was over with his neck injury. It could be the end of his career, unfortunately. It means the team will have to roll with Damone Clark and Markquese Bell, currently the only linebackers listed on the 53-man roster. However, Dan Quinn’s defense doesn’t rely that much on linebackers. Clark and Bell have been doing very well, and Jayron Kearse often plays as a functional linebacker. Against the Giants, they also called Rashaan Evans up from the practice squad, and he performed well. He may turn out to be a long-term addition to the 53.

Quinn is making it work. On Sunday, none of those players were on the field much, with playing percentages of 58% for Kearse, 53% for Clark, 49% for Evans, and just 39% for Bell. Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker also fill some of the linebacker role, especially on passing downs. Given how well the defense played through most of the Giants game, things seem to be well in hand, but it is something that will bear watching.

Penalties reared their ugly heads again for the Cowboys last game, but it was an odd distribution. Dallas went into halftime with only one flag for ten yards, but after the intermission, they would get called for eight infractions that gave New York 73 yards. The Cowboys just got sloppy with a 28-0 lead, which was also reflected in gong three and out and then letting the Giants score a touchdown on their second possession of the second half. Both are things the team really needs to sort out.

However you look at things, this is a game where Dallas needs to keep things rolling. Nothing has been decided with eight games left to play. They are in a good position to make the playoffs, but just getting in as a wild card is not the way they want to do it. They need some help, but they are still contending for a higher seed. That will only be possible if they take care of business and keep stacking wins, and this game is one they need to do just that.

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