The Cowboys improved to 2-1 on the season after a 41-21 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles. The win is important, but how they won is telling in its own right.
Here’s what got accomplished on Monday night:
Proved they have a defense that forces turnovers
I held off on this one as long as I could.
Even though the Cowboys finished the 2020 season with a plus-10 turnover margin over their last four games, even though they forced four of them against the defending Super Bowl champions in the season opener, even though tacked on two more last week at Los Angeles—still, I was skeptical.
After all, this was the unit that slogged its way to just 17 turnovers in 2019 and 10 in its first 12 games last year. The schemes were unimaginative: safe yet rarely spectacular, which played down to the very worst traits of a roster mostly devoid of playmakers. Heading into those final four games of 2020, only DeMarcus Lawrence could be considered a dependable impact player. The secondary was a black hole, while Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith had dipped from defensive pillars to question marks inside of two years. Nevertheless, former defensive coordinators Rod Marinelli (2019) and Mike Nolan (2020) hitched their wagons to limited players winning individual matchups—a strategy that too often didn’t lead to enough competent plays, to say nothing of spectacular ones.
But when the Cowboys’ Anthony Brown picked off Jalen Hurts on Philadelphia’s first drive, there was no denying it any longer: this defense is a turnover machine.
Two quarters later, Trevon Diggs drove that point home:
Only NFL player with an INT in every game this season:
Trevon Diggs 😤pic.twitter.com/MZkd6AXKd7
— PFF (@PFF) September 28, 2021
Dallas now paces the NFL with eight forced turnovers through three games while Diggs co-leads the NFL in interceptions. Going into the year, the hope was for the defense to merely feign competence as the offense did the heavy lifting. Dak Prescott’s crew has held up its end of the bargain, but the other side of the ball has established itself as a genuine force and done it mostly without Lawrence, who broke his foot prior to Week 2.
How did that happen? The personnel got better, for one thing. That process began late last season. Randy Gregory returned from suspension to provide a pass-rushing complement to Lawrence on the edge, while Diggs came into his own as a ballhawk. So did Donovan Wilson, a stick of dynamite playing safety who blows up plays, albeit not always in the most refined manner. Then came the offseason: Micah Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa in the draft, and, in free agency, Keanu Neal at linebacker and trio of safeties—Jayron Kearse, Damontae Kazee, and Malik Hooker—each of whom pops in different ways.
New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn unleashed every one of them by cranking the blitzes up to 11. There’s no telling for certain just how much of, say, Diggs’ leap from exciting rookie to potentially dominant sophomore (Dan will have more on that later this morning) is due to the new defense versus natural growth. But there almost certainly is some correlation, just as there is no ignoring the solidity Vander Esch and Smith have suddenly regained or that the same strategy that has failed Dallas time and again at safety—bring in veterans on the cheap and hope to luck into production—has magically rewarded the Cowboys with their best group at the position in at least a decade and probably closer to two.
The coaching is enhancing players’ talent instead of constraining them, and an elevated group of talent takes the rest from there. That’s how it should be. But it’s been a while since it’s how things have actually played out that way in Dallas.
Reminded us that imitation is, in fact, the sincerest form of flattery
"Your boys medium jeans are kinda keepin you from really kinda gettin turned." – Peyton Manning
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) September 28, 2021
I’m going to think about Peyton’s “boys medium jeans” burn at least once a week for the remainder of the season.
Controlled the running game
This cuts two ways. On offense, the Ezekiel Elliott-Tony Pollard duo combined for 155 yards and a pair of scores on 28 attempts—good for 5.5 yards per carry. Most of that damage came from Elliott, who looked every bit the player Hard Knocks breathlessly depicted as In The Best Shape Of His Life during training camp. While there were no breakaway runs to be had, the 26-year-old was decisive hitting the hole and downright violent at the point of attack:
— TimeoutSPORTS__ (@TimeoutSPORTS3) September 28, 2021
Only the lopsided nature of this game kept him from getting the work needed to crack 100 rushing yards for what would have been just the third time since the 2020 season began.
On the other side of the ball, I wrote Monday that the Cowboys would almost certainly win if Dallas’ depleted defensive line could contain Hurts and Miles Sanders on the ground. Mission accomplished, as Hurts gained 35 yards on nine attempts while Sanders only got two carries. You can thank time of possession for that, as the Cowboys effectively played keep away by holding the ball for the overwhelming majority of the third quarter. After all, you can’t get scored on if they don’t have the football.
Just how little burn did Philadelphia’s running backs get? Well, midway through the third quarter … actually, let’s go back to Eli Manning for this one:
How many running back rushes do the Eagles have tonight, Eli? pic.twitter.com/rjqN5aEG5k
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) September 28, 2021
Got victimized by a truly egregious touchdown review
As a rule, I try not to bag too much on officiating. Referees have plenty to commit to memory and even more to interpret in real time as sweaty masses of humanity slam into one another at terrifying speeds. That’s why the football gods—read: TV networks—gave the world replay review: to help them. Run the tape back enough times at enough angles and usually, they arrive at the correct answer.
Let’s relive a rather embarrassing exception, a supposed turnover on downs on fourth-and-goal from the half-yard line. As a refresher, this was the play:
Dak is stopped short of the goal line. @Eagles take over on downs.
— NFL (@NFL) September 28, 2021
Can we zoom in?
Why is this even a convo? pic.twitter.com/itQNDzcnq8
— Matt Aiken (@KingAiken25) September 28, 2021
Mmm, yeah, that’s a touchdown. All’s well that ends well, of course, but expect this to stand out as one of the worst blown reviews of the 2021 season.
Had Luka talking trash
The stage was set two weeks ago, when Luka dropped the following on Jalen Brunson—his fellow Mavericks guard and an alumnus of Philadelphia’s Villanova University—after some online video game banter:
— Luka Doncic (@luka7doncic) September 14, 2021
Brunson wisely declined to make a prediction on Monday’s matchup, but that didn’t stop Luka from bodying him one more time once Dallas came out on top.
— Luka Doncic (@luka7doncic) September 28, 2021
Assumed control of the NFC East race
ESPN’s broadcast crew ran a rather significant graphic as the seconds ticked down on a mostly insignificant fourth quarter.
It looked like this:
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 28, 2021
The immediate takeaway is that first number: 64 percent after three weeks and one division contest feels strong until you consider that a) this division was historically awful in 2020, b) the Cowboys, barring a catastrophe, are not even garden-variety awful in 2021 and, in fact, c) the Cowboys look like a very good team.
Besides, who’s going to take it away from them? ESPN’s best guess—and here comes the second number—is the team they just steamrolled without several key players. Perhaps you’d prefer to bet on Washington and its bottom-tier quarterbacking, or the Giants and their bottom-tier everything. Pick your poison; Dallas is markedly better than all three of its division rivals. Barring a doomsday scenario, the Cowboys should run away with this division—not because of what their opponents can’t do but what they can.