A winning streak can turn a season around in just a matter of weeks. On Thursday, both the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints put their win streaks on the line and inch their way closer to the playoffs. The Saints are riding a 10-game win streak since week 2 and the Cowboys, for whom some believed this season was lost, are on a three-game win streak that could save their almost lost season. However, the Saints are a different animal than any team they’ve faced so far.
The Cowboys beat the likes of the Eagles and Falcons, who are both having down seasons, and an injury-ridden Washington Redskins team. The Saints are the Cowboys' toughest task on their schedule by far.
Already this week, Cowboys fans and experts have started to look ahead to next week's game, penciling in this contest as a loss. They might want to slow down for a second. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Cowboys can pull this off.
Yes the Saints are the best team in the NFL but that doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable, it doesn’t mean they don’t have weaknesses, and it doesn’t mean the Cowboys can’t find and exploit their weaknesses.
Even the great warrior Achilles was thought to be unkillable until he was struck in his heel. Goliath was thought to be unstoppable, until David came with a slingshot and a rock. There’s always going to be an overwhelming favorite, but there’s really no such thing as unbeatable.
In this case, the Cowboys have their slingshot, and here’s how they can win.
Keep the Saints out of the End Zone
The Saints can out-score just about anyone they want. In only three games, they were held at 30 points or less. In those three games, they played the three best defenses they’ve faced so far: Cleveland, Baltimore and Minnesota.
All three of those defenses have playmakers at all three levels.
They’ve got pass rushers, good linebackers and solid secondaries. The Cowboys are a mirror image of that.
Dallas comes in with the fourth-best total defense in the league, and with playmakers to spare: DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, to name a few. The best offenses the Cowboys have faced so far have been Carolina, Seattle and Atlanta. In those contests, they allowed only one 100-yard rusher, one 300+ yard passer and none scored more than 24 points.
In fact, the Cowboys have not allowed any team to score 30 or more points all season. It's true they’ll give up yards from time to time, but this defense has done an exceptional job of forcing the kicking game to score instead of opposing offenses.
Doing this to the Saints, who can score at will, defense will be HUGE. Hopefully we see plenty of Wil Lutz.
The New "Triplets"
At the time of the Amari Cooper trade, everyone thought the Cowboys overpaid for a wide receiver. In the four games Cooper has been in Dallas, the offense is moving better in all aspects.
The Cowboys' new, young triplets seem to have meshed well into a formidable offense that has caught the league's eye.
Don’t believe me? The numbers speak for themselves.
Since the Cooper trade:
- Dak Prescott - 91-130 for 1,010 yards, five touchdowns and one interception, with a 102.3 passer rating, including three rushing touchdowns.
- Ezekiel Elliott - 85 carries for 455 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and three rushing touchdowns. 22 receptions for 187 yards and a touchdown.
- Amari Cooper - 22 catches for 349 yards (15.9 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
Each week Dak Prescott gets better at throwing it to Cooper. As a result, not only is Prescott playing more like everyone planned, but it’s also helping Ezekiel Elliott. He’s once again reclaimed the top rushing spot and is only getting hungrier.
These three players will be key against the Saints defense.
Pass 1st, Run 2nd
Feeding off the last point, the Dallas Cowboys offense needs to produce. However, this week the game plan may need to be tweaked a bit.
The Saints defense is 1st against the rush, but 30th against the pass. It looks like while the Cowboys like for the running game to open up the pass, the pass will need to open up the run.
This would be a bit out of character for the Cowboys, who pride themselves on running the football with the league's leading rusher and a mobile quarterback capable of making plays with his legs.
The Cowboys have the ability to spread the ball around. Whether it’s Amari Cooper or Ezekiel Elliott getting the bulk of the targets, or Michael Gallup or Cole Beasley who have been open more recently as a result of defenses keying in on Cooper and Elliott, the Cowboys have the firepower but they’ll need to change the way they play for this week.
Stop the Running Game
Drew Brees is able to do so well not just because he’s a hall of fame-level quarterback, and the Saints don't have a great offensive line or solid receiving corp. A lot of it is because of Thunder and Lightning; Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
Kamara can beat you with his outside speed and ability to catch the ball, while Ingram can beat you up physically between the tackles and with his underrated closing speed.
It’s not likely that they both have an off day. Usually they both come on strong, or one makes up for the other.
To stop Ingram, you need a strong defensive line that doesn’t blow tackles. To stop Kamara, you need fast linebackers and a secondary that can match a player's closing speed. Luckily, Dallas has both.
If the Cowboys are able to slow down and contain the Saints' running game, it would make the Saints one-dimensional, even if that puts the ball in Drew Brees’ hands. If they can’t stop one or both of these running backs, it will be a long game for the Cowboys defense.
Open Up the Play Calling
The Cowboys have done a better job of not just going with their simple game plans like run on first down, pass on second down; or run out of an I-formation with two tight ends.
In recent games, the team has done a good job of opening up the playbook and spreading the offense out. Against the Saints, with the NFC East up for the taking, they’ll need to make all the stops.
They can’t simply keep handing the ball to Elliott and throwing it to Cooper, but need to implement more players and formations to confuse the Saints defense. The Saints defense has great personnel and can match up well with Dallas and if Dallas keeps their same script, the team will miss this golden opportunity.
Once the offensive playbook is opened up, the Cowboys have the firepower to take over the game. Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan can’t stick to their old tricks if they want to beat New Orleans.
This game can set the tone for the rest of the year if they can pull it off.
Takeaway Tuesday: Scott Linehan’s Job Shouldn’t Be Safe
The Dallas Cowboys didn't look like they did during their five game winning streak when they entered Lucas Oil Stadium to face a hot Indianapolis Colts team. In fact, they had one of their poorest showings of all season, failing to score a single point all game. Heading home after being shutout 23-0, there isn't much to be said about the Cowboys' performance.
Here's this week's Takeaway Tuesday. This time, instead of talking about many takeaways, I needed to get one big takeaway off my chest. I hope you enjoy. Make sure to let me know how you feel about this topic in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL.
Scott Linehan's Job Shouldn't Be Guaranteed Going into the Playoffs
As tough as it is to fire one of your three main coaches when your team is headed into the postseason, the Dallas Cowboys should not rule out moving on from Scott Linehan. One win away from clinching the NFC East, it's not something you easily pull off but Linehan's play calling has been terrible all year long.
The truth is, despite Dak Prescott's struggles and a disastrous offensive line, the offense shouldn't be as inefficient as it is.
Watching a unit that counts with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott run a screen pass to Allen Hurns on fourth down and 14 was truly a microcosm of what this year has been for the offense.
Despite having a playoff berth practically clinched, the Cowboys should consider a change at offensive coordinator. Even if they don't fire Linehan, it's clear his play-calling is not good and could cost this team a real opportunity at a legit shot in the postseason. It would be an aggressive measure, without a doubt. The Minnesota Vikings did something similar by firing John DeFillippo a week ago. Based on their 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, being aggressive sometimes pays.
The Cowboys have arguably the best running back in the NFL in Ezekiel Elliott and yet they continue to misuse him. Whether it's turning their backs on their star tailback or over-using him, this offense has a hard time reaching balance. Dak Prescott's strengths could be exploited even more, but this OC refuses to do so.
As hard as it is to make a drastic change in coaching two weeks before the regular season ends, it truly could end up being a great move by the front office. Sure, Amari Cooper has had monster games since joining the Cowboys, but he could be even more dangerous under another coach.
Cowboys versus Colts was a coaching battle between Scott Linehan and former Dallas Cowboys LB coach, Matt Eberflus. It was the matchup of the week, and one we expected to be fun. Instead, we saw one side completely dominate the other. In the NFL, coaching matters. Probably even more than talent on a roster.
The biggest problem would be, who'd take over play-calling?
Since there isn't a promising candidate within the team, the team's only option would probably be letting HC Jason Garrett take over. It may not be ideal, but it could end up being an improvement over Linehan. Of course, it could also let the front office see what Garrett has to offer as a play caller and consider that when deciding how this coaching staff will look like in 2019.
It's unlikely that we see such a thing occur for the Cowboys, but if the offense has another letdown game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I don't see how the front office doesn't at least consider this. They should.
Ezekiel Elliott Productive in Cowboys Blowout Loss to Colts
It was as ugly of a performance as we’ve seen from the Dallas Cowboys in the Jason Garrett era. For the first time in a decade and a half, the Cowboys were shut out and it was a game full of bad pretty much everywhere you looked. Everywhere accept Ezekiel Elliott.
What a waste!
Elliott and the Cowboys offensive line played well for much of the game even with All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin missing his first career start and losing starting Left Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo went out with an eye injury.
On the day, Ezekiel Elliott carries the ball 18 times for 87 yards and added another seven receptions for 41. 25 touches for 128 total yards is a good game, but with nothing else going right for the Cowboys it was a game that ultimately didn’t matter.
The one play where Elliott and the offensive line failed to come through was early in the game in a fourth and one that the Colts defense seemed to have snuffed out and blew up from the start. Elliott was able to convert a fourth and one later in the game. It looked like Elliott was close to breaking one for a long run several times but got tripped up at the end of the runs. He was his typical self this week. Taking runs that looked to be going for a loss and turning them into positive gains.
In the race for the NFL's rushing title, Elliott has extended his lead on Todd Gurley to nearly 100 yards rushing. At 1,349 rushing yards on the season, Elliott will have a great shot to set a career high in rushing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants remaining on the schedule. The Bucs have allowed the sixth most rushing yards and the fourth most rushing touchdowns in the NFL this season while the Giants have allowed the fifth most rushing yards and the seventh most rushing touchdowns in 2018.
It was a horrendous loss at a time when the Cowboys could have locked up the NFC East and there is zero excuse for it. They got out coached, out played, and were beaten physically on both sides of the ball and that doesn't happen very often, especially to the defense.
But if we're looking for something positive to take away from this game, it's that with all the offensive line injuries and the poor play of the passing game, Ezekiel Elliott and the running game continues to find ways to shine. With as bad as the loss was, that's something to hang your hat on.
All the Cowboys need to do moving forward is Feed Zeke!
Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Can’t Finish Drives, Division Clinch with Shutout Loss at Colts
What is there to say about the Dallas Cowboys week 15 performance? After five straight wins, the last three coming at home, the Cowboys have only a return home to look forward to, facing the 5-9 Buccaneers on Sunday after a 23-0 defeat at the Colts.
Shutout for the first time since 2003, the Cowboys playoff hopes didn't take a hit despite the Redskins and Eagles winning on the road. Washington's last-second win went final just before the Colts ran the clock out on a game the Cowboys simply weren't ready for.
The Cowboys moved the ball well at times but failed to ever come away with points, opening the door for the Colts to expose this defense like it hasn't been all season. The Cowboys front four was hardly a factor on defense, allowing Colts Running Back Marlon Mack to average 5.1 yards a carry. Scoring the Colts only touchdowns, Mack and Andrew Luck assured the Cowboys running game wouldn't be a factor with their 10-0 halftime lead. Down to three backups at LG, C, and RG, Quarterback Dak Prescott stood little chance to bring the Cowboys back as the second half quickly got away from Dallas.
Internally, the Cowboys will have much more to say about their effort on Sunday, but here are just a few of my observations in the first somber edition of Sean's Scout since week nine.
- The Cowboys defensive problems up front extended well into the second level, with Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both playing one of their worst games of the season.
The Colts took a blocked Brett Maher field goal 44 yards for the game's opening score. Mack accounted for 34 of these yards and the touchdown. On his seven yard run to set up first and goal, Smith was caught taking a poor angle on Mack. The Cowboys were aggressive rushing up the field on the play, with Smith ending up being in the best position to slow Mack.
Vander Esch was sealed and couldn't fight to get off, which happened again three plays later on third and goal. Leighton looking like a rookie for the first time was just the start of the Cowboys problems, and with Sean Lee being active yet conceding starting snaps to him, it shouldn't take long for Vander Esch to figure things out again.
- Jamize Olawale's dropped touchdown on third and goal to bring up a failed fourth and one was the moment the Cowboys were taken out of this game.
This sequence was particularly deflating because the Cowboys did a great job getting down the field to have an opportunity to score. The fourth down decision to run out of a heavy formation, inviting extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, looks especially egregious when stacked against the Amari Cooper rush that picked up the Cowboys initial first down. Rookie Tight End Dalton Schultz got involved, Elliott ripped off a 24 yard run, and the Cowboys still came away empty on this drive.
A year removed from coaching the Cowboys linebackers, Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus had his way with Scott Linehan's offense all afternoon, stymieing their most promising drive after Olawale should have scored easily.
- The Cowboys only chance to get back in the game was taken away from them by a Joe Looney holding call, just another example of players that had carried them through a winning streak not playing up to standard.
The Colts took the second half kickoff down the field to extend the lead to 17-0. On fourth and two on the ensuing possession, Prescott hit an injured Cole Beasley for 18 yards to the Colts' 23-yard line. The Cowboys red zone offense certainly doesn't provide the confidence that Dallas would finish the drive, but Looney's hold negated Beasley's catch and forced a punt.
The Colts tacked on a field goal and finished out the game without the Cowboys threatening again. Looney played down to the level of Adam Redmond to his left, who replaced Xavier Su'a-Filo, and Connor Williams in for Zack Martin - though I thought Williams held up fairly well and should be in play to earn more snaps wherever needed.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys can regroup and still accomplish everything they set out for this season, forced to make this loss to the Colts and afterthought like their last one to the Titans became. A five game win streak as a response is out of reach, but a streak of just one is all Dallas needs to clinch the NFC East and focus on improvements for the playoffs.
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