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.
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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