It wasn't their prettiest performance of the season, but it sure was the Dallas Cowboys best win of 2018 as they came away 13-10 winners over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football. By design, the Cowboys made this game ugly to hold an offense averaging over 37 points a game to a season-low ten. In doing so, the Cowboys defense made their strongest statement of the season, making up for miscues on offense along the way to carry Dallas to their fourth straight win.
The Cowboys needed a performance like this to prove they're not the same team that sat "hopeless" at 3-5 four weeks ago. Simply reshuffling the coaching staff and adding Amari Cooper wasn't enough, as the Cowboys entered this season expecting to contend in the NFC East, and now find themselves in first place after ending the Saints' ten game win streak.
Much will be made about where the Cowboys can go from here. Two divisional games remain against the Eagles next week and Giants on the road to end the regular season. For now, here are my first impressions of the Cowboys win on Thursday.
- Dak Prescott's execution against the blitz on the Cowboys first drive was one of his best plays of the night.
The Cowboys settling for just three points on this promising drive was not the start they were hoping for, but did set the tone for the type of night the defense would need to have. On third and eight, the Saints were smart to send a blitz from the left side, where Left Tackle Cam Fleming started over Tyron Smith for the second week in a row.
Prescott stood in and waited for Michael Gallup to separate on the sideline. Two plays later, he delivered a perfect ball to Gallup again for 40 yards.
It was Left Guard Xavier Su'a-Filo that was beat for a third down sack that forced a Brett Maher field goal, as the Cowboys fill-in for Connor Williams played his worst game of the season. In total, Prescott was sacked seven times, two of which were allowed on third down by Su'a-Filo.
Su'a-Filo struggled against the quickness of the Saints defensive interior, and allowed his technique to break down entirely when beat. Following the Saints only touchdown of the game, Su'a-Filo had a costly holding penalty that brought the Cowboys offense off the field quickly and gave the Saints their best chance to tie or take the lead.
As was the case all night, Kris Richard's defense responded with a stop, overcoming a turnover negated by penalty to bring up a Saints punt.
- The Cowboys still have room to improve in the screen game to Ezekiel Elliott, but the timing on his receiving touchdown was perfect.
Yet another backup offensive lineman, Center Joe Looney, was the reason this play sprung for the Cowboys only touchdown. Looney had been struggling to get to the second level and sustain blocks, which the Cowboys used to their advantage on the screen.
Once Looney released up the field, the Saints were not expecting his pin back on the quick pass to the outside. This block cleared a path for the patient Elliott to accelerate and beat the pursuing defense to the end zone.
To nobody's surprise, Zack Martin also landed a key block on this play. His ability to reach a new level of play alongside Looney at center has been enormous for the Cowboys offense.
- Another fine example of the Cowboys defense picking up the offense in a big way came on Jaylon Smith's third and goal stop following Amari Cooper's fumble.
Cooper's turnover set the Saints up in Dallas territory trailing by ten. The play that will be remembered on this drive was the fourth down stand that kept the Saints scoreless, but it wouldn't have been possible if not for a great play by Jaylon Smith on third down.
Smith was in coverage on the play, roaming all the way to the left hash and angling inside before exploding back out and stopping Alvin Kamara on the sideline. The outstanding effort was reminiscent of his play at the end of the half in Houston, when Smith ran down Deshaun Watson short of the goal line.
Smith proved throughout the night why he's the perfect complement to rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Both young defenders play with ideal range and instincts. Where Vander Esch diagnoses plays carefully before arriving on time to make seemingly every tackle, Smith is the enforcer that finishes plays with big hits and timely stops at full speed.
Coming into this game, I challenged Vander Esch to prove his value as the Cowboys starting WILL, and warned that even a sub-par performance shouldn't change the Cowboys plan for handling Sean Lee's return.
After holding the Saints to a season low in first downs and total yards, Vander Esch once again exceeded expectations in spectacular fashion. There's no reason he and Smith shouldn't be the guys at linebacker for Dallas through the rest of this season, and a long while after that.
- Randy Gregory's night will be remembered by two costly penalties, but I thought he did what was needed against Saints backup Left Tackle Jermon Bushrod to affect Drew Brees throughout the night.
Gregory's roughing the kicker call turned a Saints punt into a touchdown drive, and later a Cowboys fumble into a five yard gain for the Saints as he lined up offside. When he was able to rush the passer, Gregory along with the rest of the Hot Boyz did a great job.
I can't remember watching Drew Brees feel less comfortable in the pocket throughout a game, especially this season. Brees threw off his back foot a number of times, including on his game ending interception to Jourdan Lewis.
The Cowboys edge rushers aren't the only ones that deserve credit here, as their defensive tackles pushed the pocket consistently as well. Playing without David Irving again, Maliek Collins stepped up at the 3T while Antwaun Woods flashed as both a run stopper and pass rusher.
It was Collins in the face of Brees as he turned the ball over to Lewis - his first interception of the season. Previously, Lewis had struggled to make an impact in limited snaps, but did everything possible to earn a larger role in this game.
Very quietly, Tyrone Crawford has also put together a strong season as he's been able to rush from the inside. This depth at defensive tackle has been crucial for the Cowboys in keeping their linebackers clean and allowing DeMarcus Lawrence to beat single blocks.
It was a difference maker again on Thursday night against the top offense in the NFL.
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When the Cowboys went on the road to the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles in week ten, their season was on the line. Not only did the Cowboys earn their first win away from AT&T Stadium that night, but they ignited this current four game win streak that now carries into a home meeting with the Eagles.
The Cowboys will have ten days to prepare for an Eagles team that doesn't play until Monday night. All signs points towards Dallas continuing this incredible in-season turnaround and taking advantage of a down year for the rest of the NFC East.
The Cowboys win against the Saints was about remembering just how close this team was to having a down year themselves, now firmly in the picture of NFC playoff contenders behind an elite defense and run game.
Takeaway Tuesday: Scott Linehan’s Job Shouldn’t Be Safe
The Dallas Cowboys didn't look like they did during their five game winning streak when they entered Lucas Oil Stadium to face a hot Indianapolis Colts team. In fact, they had one of their poorest showings of all season, failing to score a single point all game. Heading home after being shutout 23-0, there isn't much to be said about the Cowboys' performance.
Here's this week's Takeaway Tuesday. This time, instead of talking about many takeaways, I needed to get one big takeaway off my chest. I hope you enjoy. Make sure to let me know how you feel about this topic in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL.
Scott Linehan's Job Shouldn't Be Guaranteed Going into the Playoffs
As tough as it is to fire one of your three main coaches when your team is headed into the postseason, the Dallas Cowboys should not rule out moving on from Scott Linehan. One win away from clinching the NFC East, it's not something you easily pull off but Linehan's play calling has been terrible all year long.
The truth is, despite Dak Prescott's struggles and a disastrous offensive line, the offense shouldn't be as inefficient as it is.
Watching a unit that counts with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott run a screen pass to Allen Hurns on fourth down and 14 was truly a microcosm of what this year has been for the offense.
Despite having a playoff berth practically clinched, the Cowboys should consider a change at offensive coordinator. Even if they don't fire Linehan, it's clear his play-calling is not good and could cost this team a real opportunity at a legit shot in the postseason. It would be an aggressive measure, without a doubt. The Minnesota Vikings did something similar by firing John DeFillippo a week ago. Based on their 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, being aggressive sometimes pays.
The Cowboys have arguably the best running back in the NFL in Ezekiel Elliott and yet they continue to misuse him. Whether it's turning their backs on their star tailback or over-using him, this offense has a hard time reaching balance. Dak Prescott's strengths could be exploited even more, but this OC refuses to do so.
As hard as it is to make a drastic change in coaching two weeks before the regular season ends, it truly could end up being a great move by the front office. Sure, Amari Cooper has had monster games since joining the Cowboys, but he could be even more dangerous under another coach.
Cowboys versus Colts was a coaching battle between Scott Linehan and former Dallas Cowboys LB coach, Matt Eberflus. It was the matchup of the week, and one we expected to be fun. Instead, we saw one side completely dominate the other. In the NFL, coaching matters. Probably even more than talent on a roster.
The biggest problem would be, who'd take over play-calling?
Since there isn't a promising candidate within the team, the team's only option would probably be letting HC Jason Garrett take over. It may not be ideal, but it could end up being an improvement over Linehan. Of course, it could also let the front office see what Garrett has to offer as a play caller and consider that when deciding how this coaching staff will look like in 2019.
It's unlikely that we see such a thing occur for the Cowboys, but if the offense has another letdown game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I don't see how the front office doesn't at least consider this. They should.
Ezekiel Elliott Productive in Cowboys Blowout Loss to Colts
It was as ugly of a performance as we’ve seen from the Dallas Cowboys in the Jason Garrett era. For the first time in a decade and a half, the Cowboys were shut out and it was a game full of bad pretty much everywhere you looked. Everywhere accept Ezekiel Elliott.
What a waste!
Elliott and the Cowboys offensive line played well for much of the game even with All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin missing his first career start and losing starting Left Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo went out with an eye injury.
On the day, Ezekiel Elliott carries the ball 18 times for 87 yards and added another seven receptions for 41. 25 touches for 128 total yards is a good game, but with nothing else going right for the Cowboys it was a game that ultimately didn’t matter.
The one play where Elliott and the offensive line failed to come through was early in the game in a fourth and one that the Colts defense seemed to have snuffed out and blew up from the start. Elliott was able to convert a fourth and one later in the game. It looked like Elliott was close to breaking one for a long run several times but got tripped up at the end of the runs. He was his typical self this week. Taking runs that looked to be going for a loss and turning them into positive gains.
In the race for the NFL's rushing title, Elliott has extended his lead on Todd Gurley to nearly 100 yards rushing. At 1,349 rushing yards on the season, Elliott will have a great shot to set a career high in rushing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants remaining on the schedule. The Bucs have allowed the sixth most rushing yards and the fourth most rushing touchdowns in the NFL this season while the Giants have allowed the fifth most rushing yards and the seventh most rushing touchdowns in 2018.
It was a horrendous loss at a time when the Cowboys could have locked up the NFC East and there is zero excuse for it. They got out coached, out played, and were beaten physically on both sides of the ball and that doesn't happen very often, especially to the defense.
But if we're looking for something positive to take away from this game, it's that with all the offensive line injuries and the poor play of the passing game, Ezekiel Elliott and the running game continues to find ways to shine. With as bad as the loss was, that's something to hang your hat on.
All the Cowboys need to do moving forward is Feed Zeke!
Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Can’t Finish Drives, Division Clinch with Shutout Loss at Colts
What is there to say about the Dallas Cowboys week 15 performance? After five straight wins, the last three coming at home, the Cowboys have only a return home to look forward to, facing the 5-9 Buccaneers on Sunday after a 23-0 defeat at the Colts.
Shutout for the first time since 2003, the Cowboys playoff hopes didn't take a hit despite the Redskins and Eagles winning on the road. Washington's last-second win went final just before the Colts ran the clock out on a game the Cowboys simply weren't ready for.
The Cowboys moved the ball well at times but failed to ever come away with points, opening the door for the Colts to expose this defense like it hasn't been all season. The Cowboys front four was hardly a factor on defense, allowing Colts Running Back Marlon Mack to average 5.1 yards a carry. Scoring the Colts only touchdowns, Mack and Andrew Luck assured the Cowboys running game wouldn't be a factor with their 10-0 halftime lead. Down to three backups at LG, C, and RG, Quarterback Dak Prescott stood little chance to bring the Cowboys back as the second half quickly got away from Dallas.
Internally, the Cowboys will have much more to say about their effort on Sunday, but here are just a few of my observations in the first somber edition of Sean's Scout since week nine.
- The Cowboys defensive problems up front extended well into the second level, with Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both playing one of their worst games of the season.
The Colts took a blocked Brett Maher field goal 44 yards for the game's opening score. Mack accounted for 34 of these yards and the touchdown. On his seven yard run to set up first and goal, Smith was caught taking a poor angle on Mack. The Cowboys were aggressive rushing up the field on the play, with Smith ending up being in the best position to slow Mack.
Vander Esch was sealed and couldn't fight to get off, which happened again three plays later on third and goal. Leighton looking like a rookie for the first time was just the start of the Cowboys problems, and with Sean Lee being active yet conceding starting snaps to him, it shouldn't take long for Vander Esch to figure things out again.
- Jamize Olawale's dropped touchdown on third and goal to bring up a failed fourth and one was the moment the Cowboys were taken out of this game.
This sequence was particularly deflating because the Cowboys did a great job getting down the field to have an opportunity to score. The fourth down decision to run out of a heavy formation, inviting extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, looks especially egregious when stacked against the Amari Cooper rush that picked up the Cowboys initial first down. Rookie Tight End Dalton Schultz got involved, Elliott ripped off a 24 yard run, and the Cowboys still came away empty on this drive.
A year removed from coaching the Cowboys linebackers, Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus had his way with Scott Linehan's offense all afternoon, stymieing their most promising drive after Olawale should have scored easily.
- The Cowboys only chance to get back in the game was taken away from them by a Joe Looney holding call, just another example of players that had carried them through a winning streak not playing up to standard.
The Colts took the second half kickoff down the field to extend the lead to 17-0. On fourth and two on the ensuing possession, Prescott hit an injured Cole Beasley for 18 yards to the Colts' 23-yard line. The Cowboys red zone offense certainly doesn't provide the confidence that Dallas would finish the drive, but Looney's hold negated Beasley's catch and forced a punt.
The Colts tacked on a field goal and finished out the game without the Cowboys threatening again. Looney played down to the level of Adam Redmond to his left, who replaced Xavier Su'a-Filo, and Connor Williams in for Zack Martin - though I thought Williams held up fairly well and should be in play to earn more snaps wherever needed.
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The Cowboys can regroup and still accomplish everything they set out for this season, forced to make this loss to the Colts and afterthought like their last one to the Titans became. A five game win streak as a response is out of reach, but a streak of just one is all Dallas needs to clinch the NFC East and focus on improvements for the playoffs.
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