The Dallas Cowboys have cruised to a 2-0 start, leaving only faithful Cowboys fans to discuss the nuance of what they’ve seen from the team and where they can improve in trying to reclaim the NFC East crown from the Eagles. The national media already has this team at or near the top of power rankings, and the scary thought for opposing teams is they’ve done so without last year’s first-round pick Tyler Smith suiting up on the offensive line, or enforcing safety Donovan Wilson giving the defense yet another way to cause havoc.
One position group they’ve made a clear statement about not needing any change at is in the backfield, deciding to release veteran insurance option Ronald Jones on Monday. This Sunday at the Cardinals would have been Jones’ first eligible game to play for the Cowboys after serving a two-game PED suspension, instead he is going back into free agency as a two-time Super Bowl champion at 26 years old.
This move is just a small step towards the plan Dallas has telegraphed all along at running back, letting Tony Pollard step into the lead role. Pollard has 39 carries for 142 yards and two touchdowns through two games, distancing himself from Rico Dowdle who has just 13 carries and Deuce Vaughn with nine. Pollard has faced eight or more defenders in the box for just over 25% of his carries, half of what Derrick Henry faces and a full ten percent less than Christian McCaffrey. The 49ers’ do-it-all back has warranted this by jumping out to a huge lead in rushing yards around the NFL, but Pollard and Henry have the same yardage so far.
The Cowboys have kept their backs fresh by incorporating them in the passing game, highlighted in the win over the Jets when Pollard was the team’s leading receiver behind CeeDee Lamb. Vaughn and Dowdle added four catches for 33 yards, as Dak Prescott distributed the ball comfortably to finish second to Josh Allen in EPA per play on the week.
If getting Lamb more involved was a critique of the Cowboys offense from the week one win, they answered it emphatically. New questions about their ability to run the ball for tough yards and finish in the red zone have arisen by settling for three field goals inside the 20 in the second half Sunday. Dallas also faced 18 third-down attempts against the Jets, dropping back to pass on 16 of them. Prescott kept the ball and ran himself for first downs on two such plays, but how this offense can get their offensive line playing downhill with power in the run game is something to watch for.
Regularly giving Prescott checkdown options that Mike McCarthy can call with confidence as extensions of the run game is great, but the run-blocking ability of Zack Martin and Tyler Smith at the guard positions paired with Tyron Smith and Terence Steele’s mobility at tackle is begging for anyone in the Cowboys RB stable to take full advantage.
Pollard’s best runs have come outside the tackle so far, playing in a tandem with Ezekiel Elliott last year to keep defenses honest up the middle. The loss of Elliott left a hole as one of the better short yardage and pass protecting backs in the game, both areas the Cowboys considered Jones for as a veteran depth option. Now, it appears Dowdle will get more opportunity to develop in this role. Dowdle earned the RB2 role over Malik Davis this preseason, as Vaughn’s role was mostly kept behind the curtain, getting much more involved in week two.
The Cowboys face former Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, now with the Cardinals as head coach in week three, before the always tough test of playing against Bill Belichick and the Patriots defense. If the Cowboys can pass these tests as they’ll be expected to, the ultimate litmus test for how much they can sustain offense on the ground will come against the best team in the league in this area - Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers in a primetime playoff rematch from both 2021 and 2022.