Nobody saw this coming 13 weeks ago.
The 11 game win streak, the playoff birth, having a chance to clinch the NFC during the re-match with the New York Giants.
None of it.
13 weeks ago, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott looked like rookies, for the first and last times of their careers. Dak’s performance wasn’t impressive, and left many of us to wonder just how quickly Tony Romo could get back. Elliott looked unsure of himself at times, making some crazed fans even call for more carries for Alfred Morris. Luckily, they both got it figured out pretty quickly.
The Improvement of Dak Prescott
Completing 25 of 45 passes for just 227 yards, Dak avoided the big mistake but also the big play. Prescott threw just 10 of those passes more than 15 yards downfield. When he did throw that far, chaos ensued, as Marty Callinan of ESPN.com pointed out earlier this week. A yards per attempt of 3.6 and a completion percentage of just 20% on his deep ball was the Achilles heel in a Cowboys loss.
Since then, Dak has been one of the best downfield passers in the entire NFL, as you can see in the graphic above.
Of course some will make the argument that Dak’s struggles say more about the ability of the Giants defense to confuse and stop him than it does about his improvement over the course of the season. But, I would have to disagree.
As good as we think the Giants pass rush is, and as good as many think Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins are, the Giant still rank just 25th in pass defense, allowing 265.3 yards per game. San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, Green Bay, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and even Cleveland all rank better than New York here. And, of course, the Cowboys beat every single one of those teams.
In terms of opponents passing yards per attempt, the Giants are much better, ranking 7th in the league at 6.4 YPA. But once again, considering the development of Dak in this offense which has occurred over the last 13 weeks, this number should not scare you.
With Dez Bryant now healthy and in full swing of the offense, Dak has an arsenal of weapons at his disposal which most teams can only dream of. Maybe the deadliest of those weapons is lined up behind him in the backfield.
For Ezekiel Elliott, his first game was by far his worst game. Rushing for only 51 yards on 20 carries, Zeke could not find his stride in the Cowboys loss. A lot of this had to do with the offensive line, who struggled to block Damon Harrison and Johnathon Hankins on the inside.
Since week 2, however, Zeke leads the league in designed runs for 10 or more yards with 37. During that same time span, 28 teams do not have that many 10-yard designed runs, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info. This number is absolutely insane, and further proves how dynamic the Cowboys run game has been all year long.
Well, all year besides this one game. What was it about the Giants which made it so difficult for the Cowboys to get going?
Of course, their run defense had a lot to do with it. Hankins and Harrison are both beasts in the middle of the defense, leading the Giants to the third best rush defense in the NFL (according to opponent yards per attempt).
The Cowboys also tried too many times to block Olivier Vernon on the backside with Jason Witten. It didn’t work too well at all, and I don’t expect it to be tried often this week. Let Tyron eat him, forget about tight ends.
But I also think the Cowboys own inexperience and lack of familiarity brought them down. Zeke had only played in one preseason game, and got very limited snaps there. He hadn’t run against an NFL defense yet, or even behind his offensive line.
13 weeks in, with the offensive line gelling and Elliott making a push for NFL MVP, I expect them to have much more success.