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Heroes and Zeros Through Dallas Cowboys 3-5 Start

John Williams

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Cowboys Road Game in Houston a Chance for Perspective on QB Dak Prescott 1

The first half of the season has come to a close and your Dallas Cowboys sit at 3-5 on the season with  an uphill battle to contend for a playoff spot. Things look bleak after the America's Team suffered a let down at the hands of the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football. The reality is, however, they are only two games back of the Washington Redskins for the NFC East lead and the Philadelphia Eagles haven't looked like the best version of themselves through the first eight games either. The NFC East remains there for the taking. The next six games looks rough, but if the Dallas Cowboys can pull out a victory on Sunday Night Football, they'll have a chance to keep pace in the division and make the playoffs.

Yes, I'm talking about playoffs!!!

Before moving further into the season, let's look back and hand out some awards to the best -- and worst -- Cowboys of the first half of the 2018 season.

Heroes

Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back

Things haven't been as good as they were in 2016 for Ezekiel Elliott in terms of production, but the guy still has a huge impact on the way opposing defenses play the Dallas Cowboys. If the offense was able to get better protection out of the offensive line and production out of the quarterback, then teams would be forced to back off of the line of scrimmage.

As things stand now, teams don't respect the Cowboys passing game and that puts all the focus on Elliott and the run game.

Just imagine where the Cowboys would be without Elliott as a threat on the ground. Despite teams stacking the box against Ezekiel Elliott, he's still averaging 4.6 yards per carry, 85 yards rushing per game, and is eighth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 906. He's averaging 113 total yards per game, which is down from his 128 average over the first two years of his career, but with how ineffective the offense has been, it's incredible he's gotten that kind of production.

Michael Gallup, Wide Receiver

After a rocky and slow start to the season, rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup has really came on strong in the last three games. In week six he made two nice catches -- though one didn't count -- against All-Pro Jaguars Corner Back A.J. Bouye. He then broke out in a big way in the week seven loss to the Washington Redskins taking three receptions for 83 yards including a long touchdown reception on a nice double move. Again in week nine, he brought in three catches for 51 yards on six targets (a couple of those targets were off-target throws). Gallup is seeing targets all over the field including in the red zone.

Even with the addition of Amari Cooper to the wide receiver group, Michael Gallup still saw the second most snaps at the wide receiver position and has begun to show a nice rapport with Quarterback Dak Prescott.

Over the last three games, Gallup's caught seven passes for 159 yards and a touchdown while averaging 22 yards per reception. His route running is looking really nice and he's getting a lot of separation from opposing defensive backs.

He had a bad drop against Tennessee on a target deep over the middle that he should have caught, but otherwise, the rookie is really beginning to show why he was worthy of the 81st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End

The Dallas Cowboys made a mistake not paying Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence this past offseason, because he's about to bank. If not with the Cowboys than with someone else.

Despite his sack totals not being where they were at this time last year, Lawrence is still the best defender on the team -- and maybe in the NFL outside Aaron Donald -- and is playing at an elite level.

Through eight games in 2017, Lawrence had 11 sacks. In 2018, he only has seven sacks. He's on pace for 14 sacks all the while being the focal point for every offensive coordinator when they begin game planning for the Dallas Cowboys. Those seven sacks rank 10th in the NFL among EDGE rushers, according to Pro Football Focus.

Not only has he been elite as a pass rusher, he's been elite in the run game as well. Again, among EDGE players (4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs), he ranks second in run stop percentage (15%) among players who have played at least 117 snaps. He's third in total run stops behind only Calais Cambell and T.J. Watt.

The Dallas Cowboys will probably have to put the franchise tag on him again this offseason to prevent a team from money whipping him away from The Star. This past offseason, they probably could have gotten a deal done with him for around $16 million per year over five years. Now they'll likely have to pay him upwards of $20 million per year.

That's a huge difference in terms of the salary cap. For DeMarcus Lawrence, the gamble paid off.

Byron Jones, Corner Back

We've talked a lot about Byron Jones and his transition back to corner back this season, but we're going to keep highlighting him. He's doing everything you'd want from your top corner.

Among corner back in 2018, Jones has allowed the fourth fewest receiving yards on the season, the fourth fewest receptions, the seventh lowest passer rating, fourth lowest yards per snap, eighth best snaps per target rate, and the fourth best snaps per reception rate in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.

Teams are figuring out that going against Jones is a losing proposition, so they are looking elsewhere to get their passing game going.

Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver

He's only been with the team for one game, but you can already see that he's a really good player. He's got elite route running that makes corner backs look silly. He sets up his cuts really well and displayed nice hands in the loss to the Titans on Monday night. Cooper had five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 19. He brings Cole Beasley route running with Brice Butler speed.

As he practices and plays more with Dak Prescott, this will become a really nice combination in the passing game for the Dallas Cowboys. Will that lead to more wins in 2018? Who knows, but I think the trade for Cooper is going to reap rewards for several years after this one. For Cooper in Dallas, this is only the beginning.

Zeros

Scott Linehan, Offensive Coordinator

The offense hasn't been good this season and a lot of that falls on the players, but a lot of the blame has to rest on the shoulders of Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan as well.

I've chronicled it several times over the last two games, but I think his personnel deployment has been atrocious. On 4th and 10 on Monday Night Football he called for a personnel grouping that didn't include Cole Beasley or Michael Gallup. Instead, they put Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin on the field with Allen Hurns and Amari Cooper.

That's inexcusable to me.

When your team is staring at defeat and about to drop to 3-5, you need to have your best and most explosive playmakers on the field at the same time. It truly boggles the mind that the Dallas Cowboys can't come up with a formation that includes Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, and Allen Hurns on the field at the same time.

Scott Linehan doesn't seem to know what an offense without a tight end looks like and the further this season goes down the road, the more irritating it gets.

As egregious as that is, I also don't understand why he uses Jourdan Lewis as the jet sweep option instead of Deonte Thompson, who is, you know, a wide receiver. Since Linehan has been utilizing this as a part of the offensive arsenal, it's always been done by a receiver who was also the kick returner, as Deonte Thompson is. He has the ability to read blocks in space and has the speed to break big gains.

Even more egregious may be the involvement, or should I say lack thereof, of Cole Beasley. In the last two games, Beasley didn't really get involved until the final drive of the game, which is a problem that is hopefully rectified by the presence of Amari Cooper moving forward. As Dak Prescott continues to win by going down the field to Cooper and Gallup, Beasley should have more opportunities underneath. Linehan, however, needs to get Beasley involved early to get teams thinking about him so Dak has more room to work down the field.

With as bad as the offense has been for the last 16 games I'm nearly certain that Linehan is out the door in the offseason. The head coach may be joining him, but I'm not so sure. That brings me to my next zero...

Jason Garrett, Head Coach

I'll never shy away from admitting that I think that Jason Garrett can be a good head coach in the NFL, because I think he's an excellent motivator and gets great effort out his players, even when there's nothing to play for. See 2015.

Despite the "clapper" narrative that follows him around, there are real issues that we can point to and offer criticism. The most glaring is that he's unwilling to assert more influence over the direction of the offense.

I don't know if it's out of loyalty to Scott Linehan that Garrett remains hands off with his offensive coordinator or that Garrett doesn't have any ideas on how to fix the offense. Either way, that's a problem. Whatever the case may be, Garrett has been reluctant to take control of the side of the ball that he's most familiar with and that may be his downfall.

The offense hasn't looked the same since the Atlanta game last year. Some of that is on the players and some of that is on the coaching. What's frustrating is that the coaches came into training camp talking about a bunch of new wrinkles to the offense and the pieces being good enough to be a contender. That has not been the case and the failure to truly see the offense for what it is, is a microcosm of the 2018 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys.

I don't know what to believe about Jason Garrett and his future with the Dallas Cowboys, but one thing I know is that if he doesn't begin to assert some influence on the offense, then this season is going to get much worse before it gets better.

Offensive Line

The bread and butter, the leaders on the team, the identity of the Dallas Cowboys since the 2014 season has been their offensive line. And they have fallen flat through the first eight games of the 2018 season.

It's possible that Paul Alexander's technique and style of offensive line play just didn't suit this group of players and that is why they haven't been very good. Or, it could be that their's been a decline in play by Tyron Smith and La'el Collins in particular. Obviously, missing Travis Frederick is a big factor, but Smith and Collins haven't played like their capable of. And with Joe Looney starting in place of Frederick and Connor Williams trying to figure out life on the inside of the offensive line, you can see why the offensive line is struggling.

They have to be better moving forward and as a unit will have to be against a Philadelphia Eagles defense featuring one of the best interior players in the NFL in Fletcher Cox.

Chidobe Awuzie, Corner Back

I really don't know what to say about Chidobe Awuzie accept, I expected better from him. In 2017, his rookie season, he flashed some ball skills and a swagger that I though was going to translate very well into Kris Richard's aggressive press coverage scheme. Instead, he's being beat a lot.

Even though Awuzie is more often than not in the right space at the right time, he's not making plays on the football that prevent catches. Unlike Byron Jones, who is tied for 13th in the NFL with eight pass deflections.

Though he's not been good in coverage, he's held his own in the run game, ranking 11th among corner backs in run stop percentage. Problem is, that to play corner in this league at an effective level, you can't give up a reception once every 6.7 snaps, which is the worst in the NFL among players with at least 205 snaps.

Hero or Zero?

Dak Prescott, Quarterback

What can we say about Quarterback Dak Prescott? He's had some really good games, like the games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Detroit Lions. He's had some bad games like the ones against the Seattle Seahawks and the Houston Texans. Then he's had some good moments and bad moments in the same game like he did against the Washington Redskins and the Tennessee Titans.

He's been a roller coaster of a player this season and hasn't recaptured the magic that was the first 24 games of his career. Dak Prescott is currently on pace for career lows in pretty much every passing category, including yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, passer rating, He has the lowest passer rating of his career at 88.9, the lowest completion percentage at 62% and is just a touch higher than his 2017 yards per attempt number of 6.8.

He's on pace to break his career high in rushing yards by nearly 150 yards, which seems odd since we'd like him to run even more.

He's struggled this year, but so has most, if not all, of the offense. Like I mentioned above with regard to Scott Linehan and the offensive line, Dak Prescott carries some of the blame as well. He's been inconsistent and unwilling to let the ball fly at times. He's held the ball too long or he's missed open receivers by not letting their routes develop. And other times, Prescott hasn't had the time or he's hit the open receiver and been let down by a drop.

According to Pro Football Focus, Dak Prescott has been pressured on 39% of his dropbacks, which is the third highest rate in the NFL. Only Deshaun Watson holds the ball longer than Dak Prescott. Part of the reason that Dak has had to hold the ball longer than almost anyone in the NFL is that his wide receivers haven't been able to separate even at a league average rate according to Next Gen Stats. Prior to Amari Cooper's arrival, no receiver on the Dallas Cowboys, aside from Geoff Swaim, averaged more than the league average of 2.7 yards per separation. Cole Beasley was the closest at 2.5.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

What is going on with the offense for the Dallas Cowboys isn't just a Dak problem. It isn't just an offensive line problem. It isn't just a receiver a coordinator problem. It's an everyone problem. It is essentially a "chicken and egg" debate. We could argue it round and round, trying to pinpoint or place blame on one person or unit, when the reality is, the entire offense needs to play better.

Who have been your Heroes and Zeros for the first half of the season?



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2 Comments
  • Harold Ellerbee

    The boys need to play the whole game like they are in the last minute of a game…they remind me of hour pay clock watchers waiting for the lunch bell…hey Mr.Jones you need to start wispering in their ears….hey guys no play no pay. I wonder does a player get the same pay when hes on the bench…or not at the game. …my point is we can loose with out these lunch bell wonders…why not play the back ups and leave the big boys at home…that way we find out who’s who and in prove our draft day chances at the same time…I mean wow we can practice going for all 4th downs…even if we are on our own 2 yard line……either way we would win..just think of it we would get really good or flop flat on our faces.

  • Chuck Wright

    No LVE???? Sorry, he is light years ahead of Gallup. . . . .and I like Gallup.

    Otherwise, you have Scotty L #1 zero and he is the #1 problem with this team. So outside of LVE, very solid list

Game Notes

Do Or Die: Chidobe Awuzie Must Improve Sunday, Or Cowboys Season Could End

Kevin Brady

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Will Chidobe Awuzie's Return Benefit The Cowboys' Defense?

Coming into the season there was a lot of hype surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' cornerbacks. With Byron Jones moving from safety full time, and now second year player Chidobe Awuzie playing opposite Jones after a promising rookie season, there was a lot for Cowboys fans to be excited about.

Through the first 10 weeks of the year, though, only one of those two has maintained fans' excitement. While Byron Jones has been arguably the best cornerback in all of football, Chidobe Awuzie has been damn-near an automatic completion when thrown at.

Awuzie has a -5.8 coverage rating this season, 65th among cornerbacks in the NFL. Coverage rating is a metric which factors in how often a cornerback is targeted as well as how many passes they've defensed per target. Quarterbacks also have a 116.6 passer rating when targeting Awuzie, compared to just 64.5 when targeting Byron Jones. For comparisons sake, Jones' coverage rating is a +45! So you can see why "cornerback opposite of Jones" is becoming a need for the Cowboys.

What's perplexing about Awuzie's season, though, is that he is only giving up an average 0.95 yards of separation, 27th in the league (courtesy of playerprofiler.com). So while Awuzie is playing relatively sticky coverage, he's still being targeted often, and he's still allowing completions way too often.

This week, Chidobe Awuzie will be tested once again, this time by the dynamic passing game of the Atlanta Falcons. The match-up many fans are focusing on is that between Byron Jones and Julio Jones, but how Awuzie does against Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu may play a bigger factor in the result.

Both Ridley and Sanu are solid supporting receivers, and considering how much attention the defense typically has to pay to Julio Jones, they tend to get man coverage often. This allows for a precise route runner like Ridley to take advantage of opportunities, and come away with the types of big plays we've seen from him this year.

When matched up with either of these weapons, Awuzie will need to continue to stay close, but play and defense the ball better. He must continue to make it hard on these receivers and force them into contested catches, but hopefully he can improve on his play when the ball gets to the catch point.

Sunday will be another big test for the Cowboys' young defense. And as well as they have played most weeks, this game has the potential to be a season ender if certain guys do not step up. One of those guys who will certainly play a key role in influencing the result in Chidobe Awuzie.



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Game Notes

Cowboys Defense Faces Tough Matchup vs Falcons Passing Attack

John Williams

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Bottom Line: Are the Cowboys Better or Worse for 2018?

When you're a 4-5 team in the NFL with preseason expectations of making the playoffs, the last half of the season has a lot of of must-win games. This week is no different. The Dallas Cowboys face another 4-5 team in the Atlanta Falcons who is also looking to keep their playoff hopes alive. Both teams are still in the hunt, but have slightly different paths to get there. The Dallas Cowboys would probably have to win the NFC East to make the playoffs with the Falcons only real chance coming via the wild card. The New Orleans Saints look to be the kings of the NFC South this season.

In order to stay in the hunt, the Dallas Cowboys are going to need a huge defensive effort against a fierce Atlanta Falcons passing game. Through the first nine games, the Cowboys have provided reason for optimism that they can slow down Matt Ryan and company, but they've also had some porous efforts this season.

The front seven of the defense has played pretty well through the first nine games of the season and Byron Jones has been one of the best corner backs in the league. They've had problems on the left sde of the defense with Chidobe Awuzie and with the safeties.

The Cowboys will face a really difficult challenge as they travel to face the Atlanta Falcons passing game led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

Matt Ryan is in the top five in most passing categories including yards, touchdowns, passer rating, completion percentage, and leads the league in passing yards per game. In yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and air yards per attempt, Matt Ryan is sixth in the NFL.

As you can see from the chart above provided by Next Gen Stats and NFL.com, Matt Ryan has been average to better than average throwing to every area of the field this season. Particularly troubling is what he's doing when he's throwing to his right, which happens to be the side of the field occupied by Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie is allowing a passer rating of 129.7 this season, which is the 15th worst number in the NFL among corners who have played a minimum of 92 coverage snaps.

What's potentially more troubling than how efficient Matt Ryan's been throwing to Awuzie's side of the field is the fact that Julio Jones will play all over the formation and can beat you in every area of the field.

The chances are high that we'll see Awuzie lined up against Julio Jones on several occasions on Sunday. Pray for Chido, y'all. 

Jones has only scored two touchdowns this year, but through nine games, he's already over 1,000 yards receiving, which is leading the NFL. Julio is fourth in the NFL in receptions and is averaging more than 15 yards per catch. He's third in the NFL in yards per route run at 2.99 sitting behind only Michael Thomas and Albert Wilson among players with at least 20 targets on the season.

From Jones' chart against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week six, you can see that they lined him up all over the formation and they ran him on a large variety of routes to a large variety of depths. Julio Jones is one of the best route runners in the NFL, which is scary considering he provides huge size and athleticism to go with it.

As good as he's been this season, the secondary receivers for the Falcons -- Calvin Ridley, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper -- have also played well. Each of them has more than 400 yards receiving on the season. To put that in perspective, Cole Beasley leads the Dallas Cowboys in receiving yards at 403. Each of the Falcons' top four targets have more receiving yards than Beasley does.

Not sure if that speaks of how good the Falcons passing game has been or how bad the Cowboys passing game has been.

The Cowboys will be facing the player that fans wanted the team to select instead of Leighton Vander Esch at 19th overall; Calvin Ridley. Ridley's been excellent this season with 500 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions. He's averaging 13.2 yards per reception. Ridley's second on the Falcons in receptions for first downs and Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 138.9 when targeting Ridley.

Austin Hooper doesn't get the same publicity that Jones and Ridley do, but he's been effective this season as well. Hooper is second on the Falcons in receptions with 46, which is the fourth most among tight ends in the NFL. Hooper will test Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch in the middle of the field as well as Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath down the seem.

Mohammed Sanu will be the matchup to watch for Anthony Brown in the slot. Though Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones will run routes from there on occasion, Sanu is the primary slot receiver. He ranks 22nd in the NFL in receptions and yards from the slot. Of his 45 targets, 33 have come while in the slot and 25 of his 34 receptions. When Matt Ryan throws Sanu's way, he's got a passer rating of 125.8.

And if all that wasn't bad enough, you have the Dallas Cowboys defense as one of the worst in the NFL at getting off the field on third down. The Atlanta Falcons are second in the NFL at getting off the field on third down.

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The Dallas Cowboys are likely going to give up some long drives to the Falcons, and that's ok. What they don't want to do is give up big plays to the Falcons passing attack. The Cowboys rank sixth in the NFL in red zone defense allowing teams to score on only 48.1% of their trips inside the 20 yard line. The Falcons are seventh in the league at scoring in the red zone, but have had their issues scoring touchdowns when getting inside the 20. If the Cowboys can hold them to three instead of seven, I'll count it as a successful drive for the defense.

The Dallas Cowboys defense is playing really well this season and it ranks in the top 10 in most team defensive categories. However, if they have a weakness it's been in their pass defense, primarily Awuzie and the safeties. If they want to win this game and continue to get themselves back into the playoff picture, they're going to need better performances from their defensive backs not named Byron Jones, Anthony Brown, and to a lesser extent Xavier Woods.

Facing the Atlanta Falcons prolific passing attack is a huge test for this defense and one that could define the rest of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 season.



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Game Notes

Cowboys’ Revenge Against Atlanta Hinges on These 3 Key Matchups

Brian Martin

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Cowboys' Revenge Against Atlanta Hinges on These 3 Key Matchups 1
(AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

With their seasons hanging in the balance, the Dallas Cowboys (4-5) and the Atlanta Falcons (4-5) know all too well the importance of this matchup. The Cowboys however might have a little extra incentive to win this game, revenge. The Falcons absolutely throttled them in 2017, but Dallas is looking to turn the tables on them this year.

Playing in hostile territory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn't the ideal place to secure a victory, but I believe the Dallas Cowboys have a excellent shot at coming out of this contest with a "W". This time around the Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith at their disposal and they should pay huge dividends. Having these two players in the lineup will certainly factor into the outcome of the game, but there are other matchups worth keeping an eye on as well.

Here are the three matchups I believe will decide the outcome of this game:

Amari Cooper vs. Falcons' Secondary

Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott and WR Amari Cooper

If the Atlanta Falcons secondary continues to play the way they've played for the majority of the 2018 season, the Dallas Cowboys should be able to find quite a bit of success in the passing game. That's why I'm expecting Quarterback Dak Prescott and his receivers to have a big game, especially Amari Cooper.

The Falcons are surprisingly giving up 294.4 passing yards a game, which happens to be third worst in the NFL. But what's more surprising is they are also the worst at defending their opponents best receiver, ranking 30th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). That's why I think Amari Cooper could end up having his best game to date in a Cowboys uniform.

Cooper's ability to threaten an opponent's defense all over the field has already made the Cowboys offense better and that should continue to improve as his bond with Prescott develops. He has already become one of the most highly targeted WRs in the NFL since coming to Dallas and that is not only helping improve their passing game, but the running game as well.

Ezekiel Elliott vs. Falcons' Run Defense

Ezekiel Elliott

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

As much as I'm excited about the damage Amari Cooper could do to the Falcons secondary, I'm even more excited about how dominate Ezekiel Elliott can be against Atlanta's defensive front. A lot of that has to do with the way both of these teams played in these areas a week ago, and it's a matchup that heavily favors the Cowboys.

The Cowboys are coming off their best rushing attack of the 2018 season. The offensive line completely manhandled the Philadelphia Eagles top ranked run defense last week, allowing Zeke to rush for 150+ yards. We could see a repeat performance, especially with the way the Falcons failed to stop the run last week against the Cleveland Browns.

Rookie Running Back Nick Chubb had a career day against the Falcons a week ago, amassing 176 yards and a touchdown on the ground and another 33 yards and a touchdown through the air. If that's an indication of what we can expect from Atlanta's run defense, Zeke should have a huge game. Controlling the clock with the running game would more than likely secure a much-needed victory.

Cowboys' Defense vs. Falcons' 3rd-down Offense

Byron Jones

Dallas Cowboys CB Byron Jones

As good as a Dallas Cowboys defense has been this season, they have really struggled to get opposing offenses off the field on third down. In fact, they're currently the fourth worst third-down defense in the league, allowing offenses to convert a first down 44.07% of the time. That's not good, especially if you factor in that the Falcons convert 51.26% of their third downs, ranking second in the NFL.

The matchup between the Cowboys defense and the Falcons third-down offense could end up being the most important. Dallas absolutely have to find a way to get Matt Ryan and his offense off the field and the ball back in the hands of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. They can't allow Atlanta to get out to an early lead, because they're not a team who's built to come from behind.

Hopefully the Cowboys can capitalize on the Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott match ups (previously mentioned), that way they're play on third-down becomes less of a factor. But if it ends up being a close game, they will without a doubt have to improve their third-down defensive efficiency.

Do you think the Dallas Cowboys get their revenge against the Falcons?



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