The Dallas Cowboys put their backs to the wall when they began this 2017 season at 2-3 through five games. With Super Bowl aspirations put on hold for a moment, and the team forced to fully take Head Coach Jason Garrett's “game at a time” approach, we've seen the Cowboys return to their winning ways for the last three weeks now – looking again like one of the best teams in the NFL.
Lacking a true statement win, the Cowboys defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 28-17 (allowing an unimaginable touchdown before the half to keep the Chiefs around) yesterday from AT&T Stadium.
Let's take a closer look at a few things that stood out to me in another edition of Sean's Scout.
- Xavier Woods has a strong case to be a starter on this defense right now, and early on it appeared that he would be thrown into the fire after Jeff Heath exited the game following the Cowboys' first punt of the day. Heath returned to his usual safety spot and battled through the game to finally make a splash by picking off Alex Smith late in the fourth quarter, but it was Xavier Woods that introduced himself right away by ending Kansas City's opening drive playing coverage with Byron Jones. Jones drew the tough assignment of Travis Kelce, and on this third down Smith had more than enough time to allow Kelce to overtake Jones and free himself for a first down. Reading the play the whole time, Woods did not bite on any underneath routes as he mirrored Smith and drifted towards the middle of the field. Finding himself in position to attack the football, Woods did what he does best and laid a hit on Kelce that ensured the pass would not be caught.
- The Cowboys are getting an amazing level of cohesive play in their front seven despite naturally rotating in so many bodies across the defensive line and at linebacker. The high level of play that Dallas is getting at LB from starters Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens along with Damien Wilson and Jaylon Smith shouldn't go without a lot of credit towards these defensive tackles. Once again finding value in pushing pockets from the interior of the defensive line, imposing DTs like Maliek Collins and David Irving have forced opposing offenses to play from their own backfield. This had made it so much easier for Lee and the rest of these linebackers to clean up plays in the run, and there were a number of times yesterday that pressure in Smith's face forced an underneath throw into the coverage of either Lee or Hitchens. With Brian Price exiting this game late due to injury, it was even more important for the Cowboys to see the strides Maliek Collins made as the 1T DT in this game.
- It sure feels like the Cowboys are going to be the team that fully resurrects Jonathan Cooper's career. Yet another first round pick that finds himself starting at LG, Cooper is playing the most inspired and technically sound football of his five years in the league. On Ezekiel Elliott's lone touchdown of the game (seen above), it was the combination work of Cooper and Travis Frederick winning with pad level and strength that cleared a hole for Elliott to hit into the end zone. I wrote extensively about Cooper's dominance as a run blocker in this last edition of Sean's Scout, and all of these skills were on display once again Sunday.
- We don't talk enough about Dak Prescott's pocket presence in making the slight adjustments needed to deliver accurate strikes as consistently as he does. Already known as an elite ball handler, decision maker, and runner, there were so many times against the Chiefs that Prescott's ability to slide marginally to his left or right extended drives with big time throws. The moving pockets and other misdirection elements that the Cowboys dominated with in 2016 are proving even more lethal in 2017, mostly because of Prescott's improvements as a cerebral pocket passer that can navigate the limited pressure he faces to get the ball downfield.
- Speaking of Dak Prescott and Dallas' passing game, this game was likely the best example we've had since Brice Butler arrived in 2015 of why he hasn't overtaken Terrance Williams. With a career high nine receptions for 141 yards, Williams proved again how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands on the move – something Scott Linehan found more of with not only Williams but Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley too. Meanwhile, Butler's opportunity down the field resulted in a drop as he closed his hands running towards the sun prior to the ball arriving. This inconsistency has frustrated the Cowboys, who could have an even bigger role for Brice Butler if he made plays like these. With that said, Terrance Williams is firmly in place as this team's second receiver.
- Taco Charlton was more noticeable yesterday afternoon than he had been all season, and the very simple reason for this was because the Cowboys found snaps for him at LDE. Even from as far back as my own college scouting report on Charlton, I projected him as an ideal LDE in the NFL. With their “war daddy” pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence holding down this spot, Dallas tried the rookie first round pick on the right side to start his career – with the expected awful results. Able to generate push and capture the corner much easier as a left end, Charlton was able to put together some rush moves and set the edge with his solid base and strong hands. Breaking through for his first career sack in the clip above, Charlton notices the right tackle drop deep into his pass set. Instead of trying to run the arc and get to the quarterback, he keeps his momentum and rush going right at the blocker, who recovers to get Taco behind Alex Smith. With Charlton keeping his man away from his frame though, Smith holding onto the ball allows him to disengage and drill Smith in the back for a third down sack. There's no telling what a performance like this, capped off with a fourth quarter sack, will do for Charlton's confidence moving forward as a member of an amazingly productive defensive line in Dallas.
The Cowboys' crucial stretch prior to their first meeting with the NFC East leading Eagles has gone as well as it could so far, with three wins against the 49ers, Redskins, and Chiefs. With the Eagles on a bye prior to week 11 in Dallas, the Cowboys are one game away from hosting Philadelphia with a chance to win and close the Eagles' lead to just one game.
Playing at the sputtering Atlanta Falcons this Sunday, the Cowboys are on a mission to prove that their slow start will absolutely not define their 2017 season, dominating with complimentary football and elite quarterback play once again on Sunday.