Welcome back to Sean's Scout – and welcome back to the win column, 2017 Dallas Cowboys! Coming off of the bye with a decisive 40-10 win at the San Francisco 49ers, the Cowboys finally showed off 60 minutes of football that displayed who this team is.
As the reigning NFC East champions, the Cowboys improved to 3-3 behind a rushing attack that gashed the 49ers for a season high 265 yards and a defense that created two takeaways while sacking rookie QB C.J. Beathard five times in his first start.
Even with the victory coming against a win-less, outmatched 49ers team, there was plenty to love from the Cowboys' performance. While I can't wait to dive into the coaches film and evaluate just how this team responded the way they did, here are my initial thoughts on Dallas' week seven performance in another Monday morning edition of Sean's Scout.
- Leading up to this game, it appeared that Chaz Green was going to be the team's starter at LG. I wrote up that news here, endorsing a healthy Green as the best option between Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, and had an incredibly hard time finding anyone that felt the same way. After watching Jonathan Cooper once again start and perform well, it is easy to see why. The Cowboys understand that they must set the tone with their running game, and Cooper has helped them do that up front. Cooper's game has played very well to the offensive line's overall ability to dominate athletically, on the move, and with power. Not a truly overpowering player, Cooper was solid at the point of attack against the tough DeForest Buckner Sunday. When he was able to clear to the second level, Cooper did so with great pad level and an above average punch to move bodies in the running game. Add in his performances against the stout defensive fronts of the Rams and Packers, and the Cowboys have a starter to trust at left guard moving forward.
- Speaking of the Cowboys' running game, it was refreshing to see this team execute what they do best with all eleven guys on offense. Major adjustments were not needed for an offense that had scored at least 30 points in consecutive losses, and this 40 point outburst started with everyone recommitting to running this offense through Ezekiel Elliott. As Cooper tightened up Dallas' offensive line play, it was the inspired blocking performances from Jason Witten and the WRs on the outside that helped Elliott grind for 5.65 yards a carry. Zeke Elliott also took a screen pass 72 yards to the house in the first half, with Noah Brown and Brice Butler doing work downfield to lead him across the goal line. From here, the rest of the Cowboys' offense showed off their lethal simplicity, as Dak Prescott did not have to win this game with his arm. Instead, getting Prescott outside of the pocket and finding ways to stretch the 49ers defense while playing ahead of the chains let Scott Linehan dictate this game – in an offensive performance that resembled many from a year ago, 13 of which went for wins.
- Getting a season high seven receptions from Dez Bryant was also a great sign that the Cowboys' offense was firing on all cylinders this afternoon, and it was great to see Bryant consistently find ways to win with his size and strength. Too much has been made about Bryant's game regressing to a point where Prescott struggled to utilize his skill set effectively, but this simply wasn't the case against the 49ers' man coverage. Bryant was able to work inside of his defenders with ease, once again serving as a massive target for Dak to hit in rhythm. It was the touch from Prescott on Bryant's touchdown reception that made the difference, as his man was able to recover late in the down with not a ton of room to work with in the end zone. The pass hung in the air for the perfect amount of time, allowing Bryant to make a play “above the rim” on it for a circus catch and score.
- On the defensive side of the ball, the difference that Sean Lee makes at linebacker was of course felt against a San Francisco offense that has struggled to get out of their own way for much of this season. The Cowboys' defense with Sean Lee is conceding just 16.3 points a game, compared to an unmanageable 35 a game without their leader. What was fascinating about Lee's performance was the way he moved around to all three linebacker positions and was effective despite visibly limping a bit through the second half. With hopes that Lee at WILL and Anthony Hitchens at MIKE would fix a lot of this defense's problems, it was Lee lining up to start the game at SAM as his replacement from the past two weeks in Damien Wilson remained at WILL. I had been skeptical of Wilson's performance at this spot, but with Lee taking on blockers and finding the football, Wilson was just fine in flying around and finishing at the point of attack as he does best. Lee also helped take Jaylon Smith off the field by shooting gaps as a MIKE linebacker numerous times. This was as inspired a performance as I've seen Lee play, and it helped Rod Marinelli's unit put a lot of moving parts into place at all three levels on defense.
- The level where the Dallas defense has faced the most uncertainty in is the secondary, with inexperience and injuries causing a major lack of continuity in the back end. Having a rotation of safeties was so important for a defense that thrived in 2016 with heavy doses of Nickel and Dime sets. The Cowboys' pass rush is improving, but it is still not consistent enough to shut down opposing passing offenses, meaning the Cowboys must change up looks in coverage. Trusting Xavier Woods more and more has allowed them to do just that, as the rookie sixth round pick has flashed the ability to play comfortably at all levels of the defense. On the 49ers' first drive of the game, CB Jourdan Lewis was matched up with Pierre Garcon as the lone receiver on the weak side. With Lewis trailing on the corner route, Beathard saw an opportunity to throw the ball over the smaller defender for a first down. With great anticipation and burst, Xavier Woods was able to break over the top and tighten the throwing window as the pass was thrown too far outside and incomplete. Woods' steady play has been absolutely critical for the Cowboys, as it has helped both Byron Jones and Jeff Heath alongside him to constantly play to their best traits.
The Cowboys will have a much better time reviewing the film from this game at The Star compared to their previous two weeks before the bye. As mentioned, I'll be doing the same throughout the week here at Inside The Star as Dallas prepares for a much more difficult test in the Washington Redskins on the road.
Until then, enjoy the fact that we made it back to Cowboys game day in emphatic fashion yesterday – and that this team is far from finished on the 2017 season.