After a tough loss to the Washington Redskins last week, the Dallas Cowboys are tied for second place in the NFC East at 3-4, staring down another 8-8 season. This is all too familiar for Cowboys fans. At least that’s what it looks like on paper, but a bold move before the bye week could pay off in a big way. Let’s recap some bright spots from this year before we look at how to correct the Cowboys biggest issues, especially away from AT&T Stadium.
Dallas Cowboys State of the Union Heading Into Bye Week
The brightest part of the Cowboys year has to be their new star tandem at linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. The two have formed a bond on and off the field, and it has shown in their play. Vander Esch has played all seven games, starting three of them in place of Sean Lee. The number 19 pick in the draft is second on the team in tackles with 53 and has shown a knack for being able to correct in-game errors. Only Luke Kuechly had a better overall grade than Vander Esch weeks 4-7 according to Pro Football Focus and was also ranked first overall in run stop percentage at 14.3%.
Smith has become the leader they thought they were getting when they selected him 34th overall in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He leads the team in tackles with 57 and looks every bit the eventual replacement to Lee. What’s still scary for other teams, is that team doctors still don’t believe he’s reached his full potential post-surgery.
Byron Jones has turned into the shutdown corner that so many predicted during his impressive showing at the combine before his rookie year. You have to wonder how it was so easy for Kris Richard to see that cornerback is where Jones needs to call home. Through week six, Jones was the top-rated cornerback in all of football, proving that the move to safety was either a huge mistake or was done out of necessity.
Dak Prescott has had more critics than he can count this year, yet he continues to show incredible heart and leadership for this offense. His play has improved significantly over the last four weeks, as he is the seventh highest rated passer over that timeframe with a rating of 84.0. His down the field passing has improved, and his yards rushing have improved as well. He is currently on pace for 544 yards rushing. All four of Prescott’s interceptions this year have come off of tipped passes, that all arguably should have been caught. He has also been sacked 23 times, third most in the NFL, trailing only Deshaun Watson and Eli Manning. It is easy to place the blame on Prescott, but there are many other factors that need to be improved on this offense.
If I gave you a guess of which Cowboys receiver played the most snaps against Washington, I bet you wouldn’t guess that it was Michael Gallup. He has slowly gained the coaching staff’s trust and is starting to show why they chose him in the third round this year. Week over week his route running is improving dramatically, none better than the double move he put on Greg Stroman last week against Washington. He is a tremendous athlete and looks to be earning Prescott’s trust, which could mean good things heading into the second half.
This statistic is troubling in the fact that it shows how basic of an offense that Dallas has run dating back pretty much to the start of last season. Ezekiel Elliott has been utilized on the highest percentage of first downs in the NFL this year at 69.7%. He is also tied for the most passing targets on third down among qualified backs. Even though defenses know it is coming, Elliott is still on pace to rush for 1414 yards and is averaging 4.7 yards a carry. He has 13 rushes of 15 or more yards which leads the league. Look for him to crush the 1414 yards he’s on pace for if the Cowboys offensive line can figure out their road communication issues.
Inconsistencies and Where to Go From Here
Coming into this year there were question marks on both sides of the ball. While the defense has answered a lot of those questions, the offense has left a lot to be desired. The biggest concern for the Cowboys offense is their inconsistencies on the road. They are 0-4 outside of Arlington, allowing double the amount of sacks as they are at home, and all six turnovers are on the road as well. Much of it has been attributed to communication errors within the offensive line, leading to big plays consistently being called back by holding penalties, as seen with Connor Williams against the Redskins last Sunday. Da’ron Payne and Jonathan Allen dominated, and Elliott was held to 31 yards on 14 carries. Jason Garrett continues to play the game not to lose, as he stated after the game “run the ball, make some yards, use the timeout and then kick the game-tying field goal”, reminiscent of the non-aggressive style that got him the loss against Houston.
This leads to Dallas answering their fans screams for help at the wide receiver position. Here comes Amari Cooper, the two time Pro Bowl receiver formerly for the Oakland Raiders. There was a lot of concern when news broke that the Cowboys decided to part ways with their first-round pick in next years draft. I believe the reasoning for justifying giving up their first-round selection for Cooper was because they don’t believe there is a wide receiver worthy of a first-round selection that could be a true number one. At a 4.4 forty, he finally gives this offense someone to fear deep which should force additional coverage his way freeing up Gallup and Cole Beasley. Opposing defenses know what it means to allow Beasley to have one on one matchups for most of the day, a lot of first downs for the Cowboys. As much as the other receivers may benefit, Elliott may benefit the most. With Cooper forcing safeties back to play the deep ball, this should open up lanes for Elliott to get downfield quickly. Cooper has been known to be among the league leaders in drops so hopefully, he has worked to put those issues behind him, and help Prescott return to his rookie form.
This team has an amazing amount of talent, but it has also shown to have a lot of holes as well. Jason Garrett hasn’t shown the ability to make in-season adjustments very well in the past, but the seat has never been hotter for him. Hopefully, this leads to a more aggressive down the field offense, which has been lacking for some time. The next 9 games will decide Garrett’s future as the head coach of this team. Ownership has put this team in a position to compete with the Amari Cooper trade, leaving no more excuses for Garrett if they miss the playoffs for the 7th time in 9 years in his head coaching tenure.
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