Don't write off the 2018 Dallas Cowboys yet. Playing like a team in desperate need of a win on Sunday against the Lions, the Cowboys managed a final Brett Maher field goal as time expired to defeat the Detroit Lions 26-24.
Throughout the first three quarters, the Cowboys inability to finish drives with touchdowns seemed destined to cost them. Marvin Jones' late touchdown -- sneaking in behind a stunned Cowboys secondary -- could have assured just this, if not for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott moving the offense for a winning score.
Elliott finished his day with a career high 240 yards, 38 of which came on the winning drive. It was a standout day for Elliott as a receiver, highlighted by his 34 yard reception to the Lions' 25-yard line with under 90 seconds to play.
Here are my full post game thoughts on what will be an uplifting win for this young Cowboys team, improving their record to 2-2.
- Despite the win, this was not a game for Kris Richard's secondary to write home about.
The Cowboys difficulty defending Matt Stafford was evident on both of Golden Tate's receiving touchdowns. His first coming after the Cowboys settled for a 32-yard FG, the Lions jumped on the Cowboys early by taking advantage of Anthony Brown on the outside.
After getting beat across the field in man coverage on the outside, Brown was pulled for Jourdan Lewis on the touchdown play. Coming off the bench without a lot of reps while being asked to cover Golden Tate is a tall order, and one Lewis was not at all ready for.
After making quick work of him, Tate beat Jeff Heath to put the Lions on the board. Heath was unable to be the Cowboys trusted safety in this game, struggling to settle in at any point. The Cowboys should expect Heath to struggle if continuing to play him down against the run (evident on Kerryon Johnson's touchdown), but his poor angles in coverage have left the Cowboys secondary exposed multiple times.
From my initial viewing of this game, it appeared that Xavier Woods was mixed into the safety rotation down in the box, but was caught taking poor angles at times too.
Their worst collective play in this game came on Tate's go-ahead touchdown, as he got behind Brown again to give the Lions the lead with just 2:17 to play. As was the case most of last season, where Brown was nearly always at a loss with his technique, Stafford caught Brown peeking into the backfield and not getting depth against Tate.
He won't score many easier touchdowns this season, but the Cowboys offense did enough to pick up these mistakes from the defense to earn a team win.
- The Cowboys promised some new "wrinkles" on offense in this game, and while using their best player more efficiently was a great sign, Elliott's biggest impact in the passing game came on unscripted touches.
One play in particular that stood out was a third down conversion on the Cowboys second field goal drive. Feeling the blitz right in his face, Prescott was able to stand in the pocket and effectively "replace the blitz with the ball".
The trust between Prescott and Elliott in the passing game has always been there, but the execution and frequency at which the Cowboys use their running back in this way has been lacking. On this play, Prescott simply floated the ball into the flat where Elliott had to make a contested catch before lowering the shoulder to ensure a first down.
Paired with perhaps the most important play of this young Cowboys season, Elliott's go-route catch to set up Maher's game winner, the Cowboys may finally be turning the corner when it comes to getting the most out of their premier player on offense.
- There are a lot of Cowboys coaches and executives that deserve credit for how well Leighton Vander Esch has performed in his first season.
The controversial first round pick was labeled as a bust by fans before ever suiting up for the Cowboys. Now, he's the Cowboys fill-in for Sean Lee - a hopeless position that's costed them countless games in recent seasons thanks to a lack of depth at linebacker.
The Cowboys had a clear plan for Vander Esch throughout the draft process, focusing in on him early and pulling the trigger at 19th overall. Through four games, the Cowboys are executing this plan by keeping him clean on the second level to find the ball and attack.
Vander Esch is the starter at WILL but has also received plenty of snaps at SAM in Nickel looks for the Cowboys.
All Leighton has done so far is reward his team by making nearly every tackle in front of him. A product of the talent in front of him on the defensive line, occupying the attention of blockers, as well as Jaylon Smith alongside him, LVE has been one of the Cowboys few consistencies in the first quarter of the season.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys will move on to play at the Houston Texans in week five. The Texans managed their first win of the season on Sunday, winning on a field goal of their own against the Colts in overtime.
When the Cowboys lost in Seattle, the post game narrative was that the team missed a chance to take full advantage of an easier stretch on the schedule. Bouncing back with a gritty performance against the Lions, the Cowboys must now build on this and clean up their own mistakes that remain in the passing game as well as in the secondary.
For now, the Cowboys should absolutely enjoy this win, particularly Brett Maher - who has to be feeling incredible after making good on the Cowboys trust in him, converting his first game winning opportunity.
Cowboys, Redskins Week 7 Injury Report
Though it's still early in the 2018 season, the lead in the NFC East is up for grabs when the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins meet this Sunday. Both teams would like their full roster available for the game, but the Week 7 injury reports indicate that won't be the case.
Here are the players either confirmed to be out of action tomorrow or are otherwise listed by Dallas and Washington:
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
- LB Joe Thomas (foot) - OUT
- CB Chidobe Awuzie (ankle) - Questionable
The Cowboys are getting healthier, with Sean Lee finally off the injury report and set to return to action. Not only will Dallas get their elite linebacker back, but it means a deeper rotation while the team remains without Joe Thomas.
Tavon Austin elected to skip season-ending surgery on his injured groin, but his should be out a few weeks. That will put Cole Beasley on punt returns and perhaps create more offensive opportunities for Deonte Thompson and Brice Butler.
Awuzie remains limited in practice but has played the last few weeks despite the ankle injury. There is no reason to think he won't suit up in Washington.
- WR Jamison Crowder (ankle) - OUT
- WR Paul Richardson (shoulder, knee) - Doubtful
- S Troy Apke (hamstring) - Doubtful
- RB Adrian Peterson (ankle, shoulder) - Questionable
- RB Chris Thompson (rib, knee) - Questionable
- G Shawn Lauvao (calf) - Questionable
- CB Quinton Dunbar (shin) - Questionable
- CB Danny Johnson (forearm) - Questionable
It's a rough time for Washington's offensive weapons. They will definitely be without slot receiver Jamison Crowder and likely starter Paul Richardson, who current lead all WRs in receptions. Josh Doctson will put into a major role, as will veteran Brian Quick off the bench.
Peterson and Thompson both practiced this week and should play, but have nagging injuries that could slow them down. Washington is already missing Rob Kelley and rookie Derrius Guice, who are both on injured reserve.
Starting left guard Shawn Lauvao is also nursing a lower leg injury, but practiced in a limited capacity all week. His backup is undrafted rookie Casey Dunn out of Auburn.
In the defensive backfield, starting CB Quinton Dunbar was a Friday addition to the injury report with a shin injury. He did practice with it, though, so will likely play. Backup safety Troy Apke is doubtful with a hamstring issue.
Cowboys Focused on Improved Communication to Solve Road Woes at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season. Not only do you already know this, but they do as well, needing to build off a 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 6 at AT&T Stadium to claim first place in the NFC East at the Washington Redskins.
Although the Cowboys were given Monday and Tuesday off, they are focused on addressing one alarming reason why the team has struggled so much on the road -- particularly on offense.
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott pointed out the Cowboys lack of communication in early season losses at Carolina, Seattle, and Houston. "Seeing the same thing," was the issue Elliott addressed when discussing the Cowboys knowing their assignments in hostile territory.
Yesterday, Quarterback Dak Prescott told the media of a meeting between players and coaches that addressed this specifically.
Dak Prescott said players & coaches held a meeting before today's practice to "address the elephant in the room," which is poor communication among the offense on the road. "I know we'll take a lot from that conversation," The QB said.
Unlike Prescott's remarks about new "wrinkles" in the Cowboys offense prior to a 26-24 home win over the Lions, this has a tangible sign of progress for an offense that made scoring 40 on the Jaguars look impossibly easy. The Cowboys season high in total yards remains the 414 amassed against Detroit, after which Prescott confessed that he simply tells the media "things" that aren't necessarily true.
The Cowboys didn't necessarily do anything new against the Lions, but they most assuredly will this week against the Redskins, at least by way of signaling and remaining in sync on offense.
Prescott and Elliott's leadership is on full display here, and their on-field impact can be attributed as closely to the Cowboys successes or failures as any duo in the NFL.
Missing is a similar impact from Center Travis Frederick, who remains sidelined as he deals with GSB.
Joe Looney's play at center has been good enough to pave the way for Elliott's 586 rushing yards so far, second to Todd Gurley at 623 yards, but his ability to call checks for the offense is understandably much more limited.
Looney deserves all the credit in the world for his strong play in place of Frederick. The Cowboys have never asked for him to be anything he isn't, a reliable depth option that earned a second contract and with it the starting center job for the time being in Dallas.
He has the full support of his teammates, Frederick included. All of this is lovely to put down in writing until Looney and the Cowboys have been forced to step on the field with the crowd against them and attempt to sustain a drive, something Frederick will unfortunately not be a part of for a long while.
If the Cowboys offense isn't going to unveil new wrinkles in the scheme, there is one wrinkle worth mentioning that's new to the team's communication on offense this season. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan up in the box, his play calls are sent down to first-year Quarterback Coach Kellen Moore, who has been in the ear of Prescott ever since playing with him from 2016-17.
Sure, these are things that could've been addressed before the Cowboys managed only eight points in week one, turned the ball over three times in week three, or punted away their best chance at victory in week five. The best teams in the league likely already have these things down to routine, and few would consider the Cowboys anywhere near the upper echelon of the NFL.
Following sixty minutes of football at a division rival they've won four in a row against, with an even more impressive five game win streak at the Redskins, the Cowboys could control their own path atop the NFC East.
That feels truly incredible for such a young team faced with a steep learning curve early in the season, adjusting to it on the fly as they prepare to leave everything on the field before a bye week.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
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