On a short week after their Monday night loss, the Dallas Cowboys came into Philadelphia given little chance of escaping with their first road win here in week ten of 2018. The Eagles were rested off their bye week, and despite not playing up to their championship level of a year ago, had far fewer problems compared to the Cowboys coming in with speculation that a sixth loss could lead to significant coaching changes.
Such is why games are decided between the lines. Complete with some pregame scuffles, the Cowboys gave the Eagles all they could handle with Running Back Ezekiel Elliott eclipsing 100 rushing yards for the first time since week six.
Elliott's 151 yards with two touchdowns were enough for a tenacious Cowboys defense to come up with enough stops, forcing one turnover on rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's first interception.
Losers of two straight coming into hostile territory, the Cowboys have a win to build on through the back half of a difficult schedule. Playing up to their potential for the first time since acquiring Wide Receiver Amari Cooper, the Cowboys will simply be relieved to touch down in Dallas as winners at the Eagles 27-20.
Here are my notes on exactly how they got there.
- Of all the surprising things Leighton Vander Esch has done for the Cowboys defense this season, his first quarter interception of Carson Wentz was probably the most expected play.
Vander Esch's coverage skills coming out of Boise State were much more developed than anything he's shown against the run with the Cowboys. His ability to get depth and read the quarterback was one of the few strengths that were evident on his tape, with the rest of his outlook being a projection on how his athleticism would translate to NFL play.
Obviously, the rookie has made a bigger overall impact than even the Cowboys could have expected. Paying a steep price for LVE at 19th overall, the Cowboys have their replacement for Sean Lee (out once again in this game), something impossible to put a price on given what losing Lee has meant to past seasons.
Vander Esch's interception of Wentz set up the Cowboys first score in a game they would never trail. Leighton and Safety Jeff Heath assured this on back-to-back plays late in the fourth, as Vander Esch made a sensational play in space against Corey Clement for a loss of three.
Turning a third and two into fourth and seven, Heath drove on Zach Ertz and tackled him short of the line to gain to turn Philadelphia over and allow the Cowboys to run the clock down.
- Already without rookie Left Guard Connor Williams, the Cowboys appeared to be in for a long night when Right Guard Zack Martin exited with an ankle injury.
Martin would work his way back onto the field as his usual self, but the Cowboys handled the brief absence of both starting guards very well. On the first play with Adam Redmond on the field for Martin, the Cowboys dialed up a quick slant to Amari Cooper.
Prescott trusted Cooper to win on a route he's dominated since coming into the league, and the Cowboys newest weapon at WR did just that to move the chains on third and seven. The Cowboys red zone play calling left a lot to be desired in this game still, but getting points immediately after the loss of Martin was an important moment early in this must-win game.
More importantly, it was great to see Prescott develop his confidence in Cooper as his go-to receiver, something that's helping the entire Dallas offense find its footing.
- Jaylon Smith's fourth down stop will overshadow this play, but Xavier Woods' pass breakup on the third down before it might have been his best play of the season.
Right at the heart of the Cowboys and Eagles scuffle before kickoff was Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard.
It's well-known that Richard's expertise is coaching the back seven of a defense, coming over from a Seahawks defense that featured one of the most talented secondaries in recent memory. One player that Richard and the Cowboys are still trying to find a true role for is Xavier Woods, who had his share of negative plays in coverage on Sunday night as well.
Playing closer to the line of scrimmage on a third and short for the Eagles, Woods got a fantastic read on a pass from Wentz into the flat and broke on it to arrive first and knock it away. These are the types of plays that Woods made consistently in college, and if Richard can find ways to put him in position to be around the ball more, the Cowboys may have another welcome addition to their defense.
Off the turnover on downs, the Cowboys once again drove for a field goal, though not without a fourth down conversion via fake punt and Elliott's highlight reel hurdle.
For the most part, both Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan coached this game with their backs to the wall, and without scoring a touchdown that was clear on this drive as they rewarded their defense with three more points.
- This shouldn't be something we just now have to praise Linehan for, but he did a great job sticking with Elliott on the drive following Brett Maher's miss from 42 yards.
The Eagles tied the game on a short field when Wentz found Ertz from 15 yards out, and looked poised to take back momentum. Elliott had just gained 50 yards on carries of 15 and 35 on a drive that came up empty for the Cowboys. Coming back onto the field in a tie game, I was worried Linehan would rely too much on Prescott's arm, but instead kept Philadelphia guessing while feeding the hot hand in Elliott.
On the Cowboys first series with the game tied at 13, Elliott touched the ball on the first three plays to move the chains with one reception and two rushes. He would rip off an 18 yard run two plays later, and walk into the end zone for his second receiving TD of the season to cap off the drive.
Of course, it took yet another touchdown for the Cowboys to take the lead for good, and this one was also provided by Elliott on a one yard plunge.
The Marc Colombo effect is a real thing for the Cowboys offensive line, paving the way for Elliott's heroic night. Their emphasis on getting to the second level and playing better in space was evident in not only the run game but on a few crucial WR screens as well.
- Lance Lenoir played in his second regular season game for the Cowboys, both of which now being wins at the Eagles.
The practice squad receiver was called up to the active roster this week, and found a way to make an impact on special teams. Lenoir was given a chance to return punts as a UDFA last year, but his struggles on STs forced the Cowboys to keep him on the practice squad for his rookie season.
Lenoir did play in the Cowboys meaningless week 17 win last year.
With a deep group of receivers for Lenoir to work through this summer as well, the Western Illinois product had been working on the practice squad again before earning this opportunity. Covering the Cowboys final punt of the game, Lenoir closed the angle on Golden Tate as the only Cowboy downfield in that moment.
The Eagles came after the punt as they should have, forcing the Cowboys to commit numbers inside to protect. Lenoir's efforts in the open field limited the return on a clean punt by Jones. The Eagles final drive began on their own 32, as Wentz would earn one throw with a chance to reach the end zone and come up short on a completion to Ertz.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys schedule doesn't get easier from here, as they'll revisit the site of the "Burning of Atlanta" next Sunday. Last year's Cowboys loss in Atlanta was the beginning of the end of that season, and through nine weeks this year it felt like the turning point for perhaps Garrett's tenure and Prescott's time under center.
The Cowboys were able to deafen the outside noise surrounding the uncertain future of this team and play up to potential on the road for the first time at the Eagles. This starts with Prescott's efficient night, something that must inspire confidence for him to put any result from last year behind him and focus on the tall task at hand of climbing the NFC East standings at 4-5.
With a home win on Sunday, the Washington Redskins remained in the division lead at 6-3. They play in AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving.
As if this Cowboys win didn't prove that the NFL is a week-to-week league, Cowboys Nation should be intrigued by this week's result for the Falcons - a loss at the Cleveland Browns 28-16.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
#INDvsDAL: How The Game May Be Decided In The Red Zone
In many ways the Dallas Cowboys offense has found their stride in recent weeks. Over this five game win streak they have "found their identity" playing ball control offense and trusting their quarterback to make big throws when needed most. Of course the defense has been the star most weeks, but this offense should not be slept on either.
This doesn't mean the offense has been without their fair share of struggles, however, particularly in the red zone. Struggles that the numbers say could cost the Cowboys this weeks' game in Indianapolis if they don't get it cleaned up.
In terms of red zone offensive efficiency the Cowboys have been downright horrendous. In fact, they are dead-last in the league in success rate inside the 10 yard line, last in first-and-goal success rate, and 21st in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
There's no sugar-coating those numbers, they are bad. Especially when you consider that this team has arguably the league's best running back and a quarterback with the size and athleticism you might expect from a linebacker.
For as bad as the Cowboys are inside the red zone, the Colts are equally as good. Indianapolis is top 10 in terms of success rate inside the 10, at the goal line, and in first-and-goal success rate. They are also 11th in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
Despite not having the individual running back the Cowboys have, the Colts offensive line and skill players as a whole set them up a bit better when the field is shortened. Tight end Eric Ebron has been rather incredible in terms of production this season, catching 12 touchdowns on 58 receptions. Andrew Luck is also a more accurate quarterback than Dak Prescott, though Prescott should be a much more dangerous red zone threat than he currently is.
I am working on the Cowboys 32nd ranked Goal-to-Go offensive numbers. They have run 35 of their 59 total plays out of Shotgun-11 Personnel. In those 35 plays, the average gain per snap is....12 INCHES. I am not kidding. They could out-gain that by running QB sneaks. I am amazed.
Of course, some of the Cowboys red zone struggles can be pinned on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan has failed to scheme open the "easy" red zone touchdowns we see so often around the league. As pointed out by Bob Sturm on Twitter this week, the Cowboys' personnel groupings and play calls when in goal-to-go situations have been questionable to say the least. But while blame does fall on the coaches' shoulders, the players need to execute better as well.
Games in the NFL often come down to just a handful of plays, and red zone efficiency plays a key role in deciding the outcome of close games every week. If this is once again the case on Sunday, based on past performance, the Dallas Cowboys could be in trouble against the efficient Colts.
#INDvsDAL: Betting Preview, Trends, And Prediction
For once, the Cowboys are not playing what feels like a do-or-die game on Sunday, needing just 1 win over their final 3 to win the NFC East. This week the 8-5 Cowboys go on the road to face the 7-6 Colts, with each times vying for playoff spots in their respective conferences.
Both the Cowboys and Colts have turned around what looked like dead seasons, but there is no doubt the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do to keep pace for the 6th seed in the AFC.
Cowboys +3, O/U 47 points.
The once 3-5 Cowboys are now head and shoulders above the rest of their division, after winning their fifth straight in thrilling fashion over the Eagles last Sunday. The team which seemed so disjointed and inconsistent through 8 games has found their identity, and is playing complete team football as of late.
Dak Prescott is coming off a career-best game in terms of yardage, and despite some poor turnovers is still playing some of the best football of his career. This is due in large part to two stars in Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, who have shouldered the production load of this offense the last 5 weeks.
And, of course, there is the defense which continues to make life a living hell for opposing offenses. Randy Gregory is coming into his own as a pass rusher, getting another sack last week and getting flagged for what should have been his second sack of the day.
Dallas is playing the brand of football they told us they would before the season, and are beginning to make their front office and decision makers look very smart in the process.
At 7-6 and fighting for the final AFC playoff spot, the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do. Getting shut out by the lowly Jaguars two weeks ago may ultimately keep the Colts out of the playoffs, but a win this Sunday and a little help elsewhere could set them up nicely down the stretch.
Indy has quietly one of the best passing offenses in all of the NFL, with star quarterback Andrew Luck playing his best football in quite some time. Luck is healthy and looks like himself again, and the selection of Quenton Nelson to sure-up the offensive line has gone a long way to improving this offense as well.
Defensively the Colts have been even more impressive lately. Though they have a roster comprised of no-names nationally, the Colts defense is 11th in DVOA. Darius Leonard has been a revelation for the Colts at linebacker, and their young defense seems to be improving by the week.
The Colts are coming off of a big road victory over the Houston Texans a week ago, and will look to defeat the Texans' in-state rivals on Sunday to improve to 8-6.
- The Cowboys are 5-0 against the spread their last 5 games, and have won all 5 straight up.
- The score total has hit the over 4 of the Cowboys' last 6 games.
- But the score total has gone under 4 of the Colts' last 5 games.
- The Colts are 4-1 straight up their last 5 home games.
- Dallas is 6-3 their last 9 games against the Colts.
The Cowboys' winning streak has to end at some point, right?
Well, unlike Vegas, I don't expect that ending to happen on Sunday. The Cowboys have been playing desperate football over the last 5 games and they are well aware what a win over Indianapolis would mean.
A victory would clinch them a division title for the third time in five years, and just as they did in 2014, I expect the Cowboys to get that clinching victory over the Colts. Give me the Cowboys and the points this week.
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