You hear all the time that football is a game of inches, but I've never seen a game with two seasons on the line for both teams come down to index cards and late fumbles. This was the case as the Dallas Cowboys visited the Oakland Raiders for a game played with a playoff atmosphere in hostile territory for the Cowboys last night.
Coming away with a thrilling 20-17 victory, the 8-6 Cowboys kept their playoff hopes alive heading into a week 16 game that will see Ezekiel Elliott return to face the Seahawks at AT&T Stadium. With things now looking up for the Cowboys, here are a few of my notes on the good and the bad from this memorable game.
- Ezekiel Elliott's return is coming at the perfect time for a ton of reasons, but it is especially timely considering how the Cowboys utilized both Alfred Morris and Rod Smith in this game.
Early on, the Cowboys' offense was putting on a clinic in how to expose a Raiders defense that simply lacks talent on the second and third level. Doubling Khalil Mack and forcing him to run through traffic allowed this offensive line to get out in space and play up the field, which got Alfred Morris going similarly to last week's effort against the Giants.
The Cowboys seemed primed to wear down the Raiders all night long with Morris before searching for big plays with Smith, but instead had a few drives stall thanks to poor decisions with these backs. Throwing the ball to Morris in space while running Rod Smith in tight zone is poor coaching by Scott Linehan, and it allowed the Raiders to fight their way back into this game with a great chance to steal it.
Rod Smith was able to score for the fourth consecutive game in the second quarter, and this play was a perfect example of the Cowboys' unison up front as Jonathan Cooper and Tyron Smith flowed to the second level with ease to create the gap for Smith.
- Khalil Mack did finish the game with two sacks, but the Cowboys will be happy with La'el Collins' performance against him at RT.
This was a premier match up in this game that I highlighted in a previous Sean's Scout, and Collins - with the help of chipping TEs and RBs - got the job done against Mack for the majority of the night.
When Mack did capture the edge, something he can do in an endless amount of ways, Collins did well to use his strength and steer Mack behind the pocket to give Dak Prescott areas to step up and deliver the football.
Ultimately, the Cowboys were going to be the better team on the field last night if they didn't let this Raiders pass rush derail their offense, and for the most part they didn't - scoring just enough to pull out the win.
- David Irving was missed badly in this game by a Cowboys defense that adjusted well to the Raiders' running game.
On a number of critical plays that kept Oakland drives alive, QB Derek Carr was able to escape the pocket and extend plays. Each time, it felt like he was running right into an area that Cowboys DT David Irving would have occupied and been in position to make a stop.
As it was mentioned all night on the broadcast, the Raiders lack a true identity on offense. A unit lost between being a spread team or a physical running one, both concepts were used in their comeback against the Cowboys here.
With Irving's presence also missed inside against the run, the Cowboys adjusted very well to Marshawn Lynch's punishing style up front as this game went on. Some fans may think Sean Lee is all the Cowboys need defensively to hold up in this area, but Rod Marinelli was able to put DeMarcus Lawrence in better situations to play the run along with 1T DT Richard Ash in support of Lee.
Lawrence's effortless ability to win both inside, on the edge, and on the move continues to stand out in what was one of his best all-around performances of the season last night.
- Speaking of Cowboys defensive ends, rookie first round pick Taco Charlton had some of his most productive rushes as a LDE in this game.
The problem that exists for Charlton in this defense right now is that his best spot to make plays continues to be at LDE, where DeMarcus Lawrence is rarely going to come off the field. When Charlton did get opportunities to rush off of that strong side, he showed some burst off of the edge that translated better than it has at any previous point to some power rush moves back towards Carr.
On Jeff Heath's game-winning forced fumble, Charlton did a great job of initially keeping Carr in the pocket, using his length with the Cowboys in man coverage behind. Charlton tried to spin out and stop Carr from ever crossing the line of scrimmage, but was held back as the play got loose and nearly ended the Cowboys' hopes.
For a rookie that was given some high expectations to start his Cowboys career, give a lot of credit to Taco Charlton for the way he's handled starting in a rotational role and slowly improved his pass rush ability with each rep he gets.
- Having cornerbacks that are willing tacklers on the boundary continues to elevate the play of this entire Cowboys defense.
Once the Raiders' running game was slowed down, they looked to get the ball out of Carr's hands quickly and attack a Cowboys defense that will always take short throws being completed in front of them.
CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis did a great job tackling in space and delivering some big hits along the way in this role, as they've done consistently since both being inserted into the starting lineup. Their play on the outside has allowed Anthony Brown to move inside along with S Xavier Woods, and this coverage package for the Cowboys worked well all night in sticking to their scheme and forcing Oakland to make enough plays to beat them - something they came one snap short of.
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The next time we're laying out one of these post game Sean's Scout posts, it will once again include notes on Ezekiel Elliott as the Cowboys' running back. This boost to their offense will come in yet another must win game against a Seahawks team looking to respond after a bad divisional loss on their home field.
Regardless of if Elliott's efforts will be enough to get the Cowboys into the playoffs, something that is not entirely in their control, adding another proven, young player back into the mix to go with the number of guys that stood out on both sides of the ball in this season's most thrilling game from last night will be exciting.
Until then, carry around index cards for good luck (I'll be doing so for my finals this week), and check back here for future editions of Sean's Scout.
#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.
Takeaway Tuesday: Randy Gregory is a Big Time Player
It was a dramatic win for the Dallas Cowboys but a win nonetheless. The Philadelphia Eagles gave the Cowboys one hell of a fight at AT&T Stadium in a great rivalry game. It was undoubtedly one of the most exciting games this season has seen as it ended with a walk-off touchdown that gave the home team the victory.
Here is this week's Takeaway Tuesday on what we learned from such a thrilling match!
Amari Cooper Trade Shouldn't Even Be a Discussion
Once a complicated debate, the Amari Cooper trade has a clear winner. It's simple, really. If it wasn't for Amari Cooper, the Cowboys would not be 8-5 en route to the NFC East title. Cooper has literally saved the 2018 season for the once 3-5 Cowboys team.
Since becoming a part of the Cowboys, the former Oakland Raider has accounted for 40 catches, 642 yards and six touchdowns. Last Sunday alone, he was responsible for 217 yards and three scores. Not to mention the amount of times he's moved the chains for this offense. The 24-year old can seriously play football. Despite struggles, this offense is very promising with that caliber of a WR1 and an elite RB such as Ezekiel Elliott.
What was it again? A first rounder? Should've asked for more, Raiders.
Randy Gregory is a Big Time Player
Gregory's journey to be back on a football field was a difficult one. But it was worth it. Versus the Eagles, his presence was constantly felt by Carson Wentz. He was able to get in five pressures, one of which resulted in a sack.
The last couple of games, Gregory has drawn a few costly flags, but his play is still amazing. He's one of the fastest defensive ends in the league and he continues to improve in bending around the corner. He has five sacks in the last eight games. If you weren't convinced #94 should be our starting right defensive end, you should be by now.
Tight Ends Rise
The lack of a tight end did not stand out this past Sunday. But Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin did. With Geoff Swaim out with an injury, this couple of young rotational players had their best games of their careers. Both were targeted in key moments of the game. Blake Jarwin had 56 yards in seven catches and a big third down conversion and Dalton Schultz finished the night with 37 yards.
A promising sign for the Cowboys moving forward. The offense is clicking at wide receiver with Amari Cooper, having a tight end (or a couple) stand up will only make this unit better.
Garrett Deserves a Round of Applause
Whether or not you think Jason Garrett is a good head coach, the guy deserves an applause. I get why you might not like him. In fact, I still question if he should be in Dallas in 2019 if the Cowboys fail to have success in the playoffs. But the way this team has come back from such a terrible start can't be ignored.
The players on this team fight for this guy. The Dallas Cowboys went from a team everyone had written off from playoff contention to legit Super Bowl contenders since they fired Paul Alexander and got Amari Cooper.
Dak Prescott is One of the Best Facing Adversity
Dak Prescott's career continues to cause a great debate among Cowboys' fans. You see, in the NFL, things are not white or black. When judging a player, there are a lot of gray areas. Take last night's performance from Dak Prescott. He threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball once and pretty much played bad football for three quarters. But his night ended with 455 yards and three touchdowns and a 78% completion percentage in 54 attempts.
In the NFL, not any quarterback comes back from turning the ball three times. With the help of his tremendous defense, Dak did. In the fourth quarter, he completed 17 out of 20 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns. His performance was clutch.
This isn't a one thing either. Since 2016, Dak is tied for the most game-winning drives in the NFL. Prescott might be inconsistent and can have some pretty bad plays. But he's one resilient quarterback. As T.O. would've said: "that's my quarterback."
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