After last week's win over the San Francisco 49ers, I said that the 2016 Dallas Cowboys are for real. The reaction to my statement was mixed, as some agreed that this year's team looked different than years past, and with rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and a poised quarterback in Dak Prescott, the Cowboys have a real chance at doing some damage this season.
Others, however, told me to wait before making this bold statement. Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington were not worthy opponents for the Cowboys, and surely these next two games against perennial playoff teams would be more of a test.
Well, the Cowboys absolutely dominated the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday in all phases of the game, leaving no doubt during their 28-14 win in which the final score looks closer than it really was. Like I said, this team is for real, and this year is going to be a fun one for Cowboys fans.
But, yesterday was about more than just Zeke running wild or Dak taking another giant leap forward in his development. Yesterday, this defense played arguably their best game yet, holding a Bengals offense with a ton of weapons to just two garbage time touchdowns.
For a defense that has been ridiculed and looked over entirely, they are playing way above their heads, holding opponents to just about 18 points per game. So much is going right defensively, and while everyone is surprised, it might be time to start expecting performances like these.
Another telling stat, Andy Dalton rushed 6 times for 34 yards while Jeremy Hill only saw 4 touches, and Giovani Bernarnd saw just 9. What does this mean? Well, the Cowboys secondary was doing such a great job in coverage, that Dalton was left with no other option than to try to run for whatever yards he could find.
Individually, certain players continued to shine this week. Morris Claiborne seems to make at least one big play every game. This week, he batted down two potential touchdown passes, one to Brandon Lafell and one to A.J. Green. These acrobatic pass breakups add to a phenomenal season for Claiborne, which I hope he can continue this week in Green Bay.
It's time to start appreciating Brandon Carr more. No, he is not the shutdown number one corner which the Cowboys hoped he'd be when they signed him in 2012, but he is a damn good player who is outplaying his current post-pay-cut contract.
Lastly, these safeties are much improved. We all knew that Byron Jones was going to be a beast, and his pass breakup on A.J. Green in the third quarter proved that yesterday. But both Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox are playing their best football to date, and it is great to see.
The two biggest problems with this defense through the first four games of the season were stopping the run and getting to the quarterback. In a way, both of those problems were solved this week, but I can't give all of the credit for this to the defense.
On the ground, the Bengals basically did what they wanted to early in the game. Bernard finished with just 50 yards rushing, but those yards came on only 9 carries. Too many times the Cowboys lost contain on the backside, or over pursued the play allowing Bernard easy cut back lanes.
Pass rush wise, the Cowboys looked better, sacking Andy Dalton 4 times and applying more pressure than they have all season. The increased reps for Ryan Davis, the return of DeMarcus Lawrence, and the improvement of players like Benson Mayowa certainly helped, but many of these sacks and pressures seem to come more as a result of great coverage down the field.
What helped the Cowboys control the run game and get after the passer the most was actually their offense. When the Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft despite needing so much defensive help, we all pointed to how ball control and building big leads could help this defense overcome whatever flaws they may have.
Yesterday, this was exactly the case.
Going up 14-0 in a blink of an eye, the Bengals were forced to abandon the run game early, putting themselves in obvious passing situations and allowing for the Cowboys defensive linemen to rush like they haven't rushed all season. Or in some cases, their whole careers.
Regardless of who to give the most “props” to, yesterday's win was important for a young Cowboys team, who is proving they win can against any opponent.