It’s week 14 of the NFL season and the 6-6 Washington Football Team will be facing an 8-4 Cowboys team at home in FedEx Field this Sunday at 1pm. The Cowboys started the season hot, with a 6-game win streak from weeks 2-8, before coming down to Earth and losing 3 of their next 5 games.
In particular, the Cowboys offense has run hot and cold since their winning streak. Although the Cowboys put up 43 points on the Falcons week 10 and 33 points on the Raiders week 12, they were held to 16 points by the Broncos in week 9 and 9 points by the Chiefs in week 11.
Part of the reason for their inconsistent offense is poor pass protection by the OL. The Cowboys OL is ranked 24th in pass block win, though they are 6th in run block win rate. This regression is probably partly due to LT Tyron Smith missing several games due to injury as well as former RT La’el Collins losing 5 games to suspension and being moved to LG upon his return. In his place, undrafted Terence Steele has been starting at RT. Steele started all of last season when Collins was out with a hip injury and has earned a 64.6 PFF grade in his starts this season.
Injuries to the skill positions have also been a factor, with WRs CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper and RBs Ezekiel Elliott all sustaining injuries in the last few weeks, though all of those players are expected to play Sunday. One storyline for Dallas has been the emergence of RB Tony Pollard, who has looked like the more explosive RB since getting more opportunities, but Pollard will be a game-time decision Sunday after tearing his plantar fascia in last week’s game against the Saints.
Owning one of the statistically worst defenses in the NFL last year, the Cowboys fired DC Mike Nolan and hired former Falcons HC Dan Quinn as their new DC. Though the Cowboys defense is ranked 12th against the run and 26th against the pass in terms of yards allowed, they are also 5th in turnovers forced (23) and tied for first place in interceptions (19). Another factor in the Cowboys defensive improvement is the breakout of rookie Micah Parsons. Taken 12th overall in this year’s draft, Parsons started the season at LB, but was moved to split time at DE due to missed games by DE DeMarcus Lawrence (10 games) and Randy Gregory (4 games). Parsons already has 10 sacks and 25 QB hits on the season and could very well break the all-time rookie sack record of 14.5 sacks set by Javon Kearse in 1999. Both Lawrence and Gregory will be suiting up Sunday, so it’s unclear how much time Parsons will continue to spend at DE. In addition, Parsons popped up on the Thursday injury report as limited with a hip injury, so that will be a situation to monitor.
To learn more about these and other issues, I asked Dave Halprin of Blogging the Boys five questions about the state of the Cowboys and what to look for in this game.
1) The Cowboys offense started the season hot, but seems to have cooled down in some recent games, being held to 16 or fewer points by the Broncos and Chiefs and relying heavily on turnovers to put up 20 on the Saints (not including the defensive TD). What have you seen out of the offense this season and why do you think it’s been struggling in several recent games?
I think the offensive slowdown from the Cowboys has a few different factors at play. One was injury issues which affected just about every unit on that side of the ball. Dak Prescott injured his calf and soon after was playing his most inconsistent ball of the year. He claims it wasn’t his calf bothering him, but the timing was suspicious. More directly they lost left tackle Tyron Smith for a few games, and both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb missed time. Ezekiel Elliott has been playing with a bone bruise on his knee, so the Cowboys were slogging through a few injuries to key contributors.
But that is only part of the issue. I think the way defenses are attacking the Cowboys has changed. Defenses have decided they are going to take away the run as much as possible, especially though the interior. They scaled back on blitzing Prescott, instead choosing to leave the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to snuff out running plays. Prescott was a wizard at defeating the blitz, and teams figured out they could still pressure the QB with just their front four because Dallas has some suspect pass blocking this year. End result is to take away the running game, forcing Prescott to run through his reads while still under pressure. Dallas has yet to counter that.
2) On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys defense is much improved from last year under the supervision of new DC Dan Quinn. What has Quinn done to turn this defense around and what factors other than Quinn account for the defensive improvement?
Quinn has played to the strengths of the Cowboys players and has them bought into what he’s teaching because of his player-friendly style. The defense loves playing for him. He changed his philosophy since he was fired by the Falcons and is using much more man-to-man than he was previously and he has been using more blitzing than he did before in a creative way. So he’s not forcing a rigid scheme on the players, but has been adaptable to what he is seeing from his defense.
But he also just has better players on that side now. Micah Parsons has changed what this defense can do. He can be used in so many ways and he has been effective in them all. He is very difficult to block and he doesn’t miss tackles. His athleticism is off the charts and has fundamentally altered what the defense can do. Trevon Diggs is also coming into his own in his second year, giving the Cowboys another player who simply makes plays on defense. There have also been subtle improvements in other personnel leading to a more talented unit on that side of the ball.
3) There has been controversy brewing over the role of Ezekiel Elliott compared to Tony Pollard in the backfield. What have you seen out of each of these RBs so far this season and what should their roles/workload be going forward? Is Elliott beginning to decline?
Let’s go back a little bit in time for Elliott. There is no doubt that coming off the 2020 season he seemed to be in decline. His production was down, his fumbling was an issue and he just didn’t look the same. But he recognized that and overhauled his training routine in the offseason and frankly looked very good in the early part of the season. Then came the knee injury and he hasn’t looked the same although he has played through it. So, in summary, he’s not the back he was in 2016-2018, but he’s also better than his current injured form.
Pollard, on the other hand, is electric when provided some space. The Cowboys run game has slowed tremendously but Pollard can sometimes make it work simply with his elusiveness and his speed. At this point, he should be getting the majority of the carries, but now he’s shown up on the injury report and it’s unclear how serious his foot injury is at the moment. If healthy, he should be the featured back until Elliott gets healthy again then they should be splitting carries.
Theres goes Tony Pollard ♂️— NFL (@NFL) December 3, 2021
Down the sideline for a 58-yard touchdown! @Tp__5
: #DALvsNO on NFLN/FOX/PRIME VIDEO
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4) How have the Cowboys rookies been looking? Other than Parsons, have any flashed so far?
Yes, there have been a couple of other bright spots besides Parsons, but it’s sometimes hard to see that because Parsons just soaks up all the attention, and rightly so. He has been tremendous. Defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa has carved out a role on the line. He is quick and can be disruptive, all he needs is consistency as he can be up-and-down, sometimes in the same game. Chauncey Golston has been used as an edge and a tackle on the defensive line and has been a role player, but not a splash player with big highlights. Corners Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright have become core special teamers, with Wright really showing some skills in that area.
5) How would you gameplan to beat the Cowboys on both sides of the ball?
I kind of touched on the way to attack the offense above. First is to take away their run game, not because that is how they beat teams, but because everything else flows better when they can get that part of the offense going. Prescott plays better when he has an effective running game and third downs become that much more manageable. Also, don’t blitz much, stay in coverage and make Prescott go through his progressions. If the Cowboys have to go on long drives with numerous plays, they tend to make mistakes along the way.
Run the ball on offense because the Cowboys will give up rushing yards. Things should be better for them in that area now that DeMarcus Lawrence is back and Parsons can play more off-ball linebacker, but it is still a weakness for the Cowboys. You can put up yards on the ground. Also, the Cowboys aren’t the best tackling team around so get your playmakers in space with short passes and rub routes and let them get YAC. The Cowboys play a lot of man so rub routes can be particularly effective. Oh yeah, be careful when testing Trevon Diggs - he can be had at times, but he can also turn the game around with a turnover.
Thanks again to Dave Halprin for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Cowboys.
As of right now, Vegas has Dallas as 4.5 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
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Dallas wins by more than 4 points
Dallas wins by 4 points or less or it’s a tie
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 48 points. Which would you bet?
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48 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 48 total points are scored (both sides combined)
Which Cowboys player returning from injury or suspension in the last few weeks do you think will be most impactful in this game?
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LT Tyron Smith
LG La’el Collins
WR Amari Cooper
WR CeeDee Lamb
DT Neville Gallimore
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
DE Randy Gregory