It almost feels like folk tale at this point, to say the Dallas Cowboys schedule from week 10 to 14 was destined to sink a 2018 season that's gone from 3-5 to 7-5 atop the NFC East. The Cowboys are undefeated over this stretch with wins over the Eagles, Falcons, Redskins, and Saints. Their midseason turnaround has set up a high-stakes meeting with the Eagles again this Sunday.
With so much focus on how the Cowboys began this winning streak from the lows of a week nine loss to the Titans, it's easy to lose sight of the improvements this revitalized team has made over recent weeks.
The Amari Cooper effect has generated all the headlines on offense for the Cowboys, while rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch continues to play his way into the national spotlight for a Dallas defense that most recently held the Saints to ten points.
Cooper is averaging 2.4 yards of separation over the last four weeks. On the season, Michael Gallup is averaging 2.6, but just 1.9 before the arrival of Cooper. This average for the first-year receiver comes from just two qualifying games, not reaching the minimum five targets any other week.
The combination of Cooper and Gallup on the outside is one the Cowboys should have confidence in for a long time. Still reaching their full potential, the ability for this duo to open up the offense - and the Cowboys ground game - has been evident.
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 5.15 yards per carry. Despite this number decreasing with each win, Elliott's effectiveness in the Cowboys first road win of the season is what set the tone for this being a season worth saving. His 151 yards at the Eagles was the first of three straight games over 100 yards, a streak snapped last Thursday against the Saints.
Elliott's 16 game pace at his yards per rush over the last four games is 1,876 yards. This would be a new career high, and ahead of the pace current rushing leader Todd Gurley is on for the LA Rams.
The Cowboys getting back to their basics doesn't stop with Elliott. The five blocking for him, including a new left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, are now coached by former Cowboys tackle Marc Colombo. Taking over for Paul Alexander, the Cowboys are back to dominating games in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, Daniel Ross, and Antwaun Woods have all contributed on a deep defensive line deployed by DC Rod Marinelli. This unit excels at occupying blocks, allowing Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith to look as great as they have. This "Hot Boyz" front seven that flies to the ball is second in the league for average points allowed. Over the last four games, the Cowboys have allowed an average of just 74 rushing yards.
Byron Jones is playing like one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. In the Cowboys win over the Saints, even Cornerback Jourdan Lewis made a reappearance on a defense he played well in as a rookie. With Jones, Lewis, and Chidobe Awuzie coached by Kris Richard the Cowboys are formidable against not only the run but the pass too.
The quarterbacks they've beaten recently prove this, as Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees have all struggled against the Cowboys. The 421 yards conceded to the Eagles at the start of this run is actually the most since a week five overtime loss to the Texans. This is something the Cowboys can look back on now, a clear sign of improvement from the last time they fought for their NFC East lives.
Reality for the Cowboys is that early season losses, put behind them with coaching and personnel changes, have one of the hottest teams in football in must-win mode against the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday. This young and confident team doesn't want it any other way, with this outcome being more than a best case scenario if proposed over the first eight weeks.
Four weeks remain for the Cowboys to continue peaking at the right time.
Looking Ahead: Will The Cowboys Run The Table?
Only three more regular season games remain before we head into the NFL Playoffs. The Dallas Cowboys have turned their season around winning five straight and positioning themselves at first place of the NFC East. Once a 3-5 team, the Cowboys are currently one win away from clinching the division title.
In the midst of a five game winning streak, Jason Garrett's team is already being discussed as a legit threat in the NFC. Said discussions are the result from such a streak including a victory over arguably the best team in the NFL, the New Orleans Saints.
With three more games left to be played, the question I pose to you today is...
Can the Dallas Cowboys run the table?
After the Cowboys fell at home to the Tennessee Titans 28-14 in week 9, the schedule ahead did not look nice at all. The following five games included two matches against the defending Super Bowl Champions and division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and a game against the high-powered offense from Drew Brees & Co. and well... we know how that story goes.
Now, the landscape is a bit different. The Cowboys seem to have only one more difficult game ahead of them. Let's take a look at each of Dallas' next opponents.
Week 15: @ Indianapolis Colts
This is easily the biggest challenge remaining. Similar to the Cowboys' recent success, the Colts have won six of their last seven football games. The offensive line has been able to keep the pocket clean for QB Andrew Luck who is finally back to his old self. Surely, they won't be intimidated by the Cowboys' being "hot" this past few weeks. Just last Sunday, they snapped the Houston Texans' nine game winning streak.
The Colts are averaging 29 points per game in their last 10 led by T.Y. Hilton in the receiving game, who might just be Byron Jones' biggest challenge yet due to his speed on the field. However, Indianapolis is far from perfect. That's the reason why the Jacksonville Jaguars left them scoreless a couple of weeks ago.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Cowboys this week will be playing on the road. Their recent success has been impressive, but they've played three consecutive home games. All things considered, this really is a very promising game. I'll lean towards the Cowboys to win this football game thanks to their great defense and Amari Cooper. It's worth noting that Colts' center Ryan Kelly could play on Sunday. If he doesn't though, DeMarcus Lawrence and the rest of the DL will make their presence felt constantly.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
Week 16: VS Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the 2018 NFL season. They've seen both versions of Ryan Fitzpatrick (the great one and the "why is he throwing so many picks?" one). They've gone back and forth again at the QB position between him and Jameis Winston. Right now, it seems like Winston is the guy who'll be leading the Bucs' offense for the rest of the season.
They surely seem like an easy opponent, but they're the same team that led the Saints 14-3 by halftime last Sunday. Their offense can be dangerous if the Cowboys are not careful. Cameron Brate at tight end is a player to watch out for when the Bucs visit AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys should get a comfortable win on this one, though. Tampa Bay's defense ranks 30th in the league in scoring and 20th against the run. Ezekiel Elliott will surely be fed.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
Week 17: @ New York Giants
By this week, it's hard to know if the Cowboys will rest starters for the playoffs or not. History tells us they won't, so we'll pretend that's the case. When these two squared off back in September, both were very different teams. Against one of the worst offensive lines in the league, it should be a fun game for the Cowboys' defense.
The Giants are 4-1 in their last five games, but don't let that record fool you. In that span, they've beaten the Josh Johnson-led Washington Redskins, the Chase Daniels-led Chicago Bears, the Bucs and the San Francisco 49ers.
The Cowboys should be able to win this divisional game fairly easily as they try to improve their execution before January football.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
To be quite honest, only the next game feels like a true threat to the Dallas Cowboys' winning streak. The Indianapolis Colts are an intimidating rival. In fact, they're the favorites in Vegas to get the win on Sunday. If Dak Prescott and his team are able to walk away victorious from said game, this team should go 11-5 on the season
That would be quite the ending for a team that had only three wins through eight games in week 9. They're really a new team. It's time to finish strong.
Is Scott Linehan Holding Playoff-Hopeful Cowboys Back on Offense?
Wide Receiver Amari Cooper means many things to the Dallas Cowboys. He is a token of change for a team that started the season 3-4 without him, and 5-1 since with their first win streak beginning in Cooper's second game at the Eagles. Cooper is the player this club promised they wouldn't need to compete this season, happily being proved wrong by the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for both weeks 12 and 14. Much more subtly, the 24-year old receiver is also the latest player to very publicly doubt Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan.
Cooper matched his season high 10 receptions in the Cowboys home win over the Eagles, hauling in the game-winning touchdown in overtime as his third score to go with a career high 217 yards. Seventy five of these yards came on one play, with Cooper getting behind the depleted Eagles secondary to put Dallas ahead 23-16 late in the fourth.
After the game Amari Cooper talked about his 75-yard touchdown and how he originally had a stop route but Dak Prescott gave him a hand signal to run a go instead.
Exclaiming "this is ridiculous" while watching the Cowboys offense at any point before trading for Cooper was a common occurrence. The Cowboys were playing with a struggling offensive line, receivers that couldn't separate, and frustrated quarterback being asked to carry way too much in a Linehan offense that also does him few favors.
It was Dak Prescott that warned Cooper to stick with Linehan's play call before giving in and throwing the touchdown.
If it took Cooper only six weeks to tell the media that opposing defenses are sitting on the Cowboys plays, it's almost certain he's noticed it much sooner. Where teammates have brought nothing but excuses for poor play, Cooper is a solution in and of himself, changing the play that helped lift the Cowboys to their fifth straight win.
With the Cowboys 75-yard overtime march to win the game on Sunday, Dallas finished with a season high 576 yards. After four quarters the Cowboys had 485 yards, which would still be their best output of 2018.
The emptiness in some of these yards starts with Linehan's play calling in the red zone. As I noted in Sean's Scout for Monday, Ezekiel Elliott's 40 touch performance saw just six attempts when the Cowboys were inside the Eagles' 20-yard line.
The Cowboys have the longest active win streak in the league, and also the lowest percentage of red zone touchdowns over their last three victories. It still feels like fantasy to be inking the Cowboys as NFC East champions-elect, with one more win confirming their spot in the playoffs.
This is exactly how much of the Cowboys coaching staff should feel about their ink on any contract extensions. Around Linehan, the Cowboys made several moves at the positional level entering the year. Jason Garrett's staff has at the very least earned the right to be evaluated at the end of the season, with Garrett credited for guiding his club through this ongoing revival.
For a team that expects to be playing single elimination games next month, the Cowboys offense is slowed down entirely too often to trust Linehan more than at any previous level. As if a reminder was needed, Linehan's job was under enough fire from all angles for Garrett to address his newfound "job security" during the bye week.
Garrett doused the flames of a report that he aimed to replace Linehan during the Cowboys week off. Head coach openings in Green Bay and Cleveland have opened since, with more to follow, decreasing the Cowboys chances at bringing in a top offensive mind in any capacity below HC.
Of course, it was also during this bye week that the Cowboys were integrating their offensive savior in Cooper. The latest challenge for the Cowboys comes from a Colts team back in the AFC playoff picture with a win over the Texans last week. Holding Deandre Hopkins to just four catches, the Colts have defended #1 receivers well.
Calling the defense for this Indianapolis team is none other than former Cowboys Linebackers Coach Matt Eberflus. At a point in their season where the Cowboys should be fine tuning both sides of the ball before a playoff run, their championship level defense runs the risk of being held back by an uninspired offense more so this week than any other.
Linehan has stepped up with his back to the wall before, and with the right players in his system (read: Amari Cooper, again) the results can follow. Trying to extend a five game win streak to six isn't exactly pressure territory for any coach in December, but the Cowboys offense has three weeks to show what their playoff potential will be with Linehan as the play caller.
Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense
For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.
He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.
During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.
Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.
With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.
Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.
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