The Cowboys defeated the Giants 21-6 Sunday to move to 10-4 on the season in a performance that said as much about the defense (still good!) as it did the offense (still bad!). What else got accomplished Sunday?
Followed the new path to victory
The Cowboys followed a roadmap in the first six games of the season—a broad one, but a roadmap all the same. The opposition did its best to limit one facet of Dallas’ explosive offense, be it Dak Prescott and the game’s most dangerous crew of pass catchers or the two-headed monster of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, and then the Cowboys responded by bludgeoning them to death with the other. Such is life when they could do just about anything they wanted when they had the ball. Add in two or three turnovers from their newly opportunistic defense, and Dallas looked like the most dangerous team in the NFL.
That stretch ended after the Week 6 overtime thriller at New England. What followed was an anomaly win (The Cooper Rush game), the bye week, and a stretch of three losses in four games that led me to declare a moratorium on any and all Super Bowl talk until Dallas got back to some measure of sustained success.
We are now there, as the Cowboys have strung together three wins for the first time since weeks 5 through 7 and done so in remarkably similar fashion. For the third week in a row, the defense forced four turnovers—including Trevon Diggs’ 10th interception, one shy of the Cowboys’ season record. Between takeaways, they stifled any serious threat New York posed, limiting the Giants to 302 total yards.
Meanwhile, once again, the offense did far too little with it. Per the game broadcast, over the last six games, the Cowboys averaged 101 rushing yards per game and 265 through the air. On Sunday, it was 125 and 217. Dak Prescott scuffled once again, tacking on another game-jeopardizing turnover on top of the meager yardage, and the receivers once again left yards on the table.
And, in the end, the Cowboys controlled the game start to finish against an overwhelmed opponent.
This is not a better way of winning, per se. Defensive gains notwithstanding, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes the Cowboy are playing better football now than they were to start the season. But after a wobbly month coming out of the bye week, the takeaway is that they’ve adapted well enough to grind out results without playing their best ball. That’s key, as is the fully healthy hydra of pass rushers in Randy Gregory, Micah Parsons, and DeMarcus Lawrence, the latter of whom was dominant.
Unsurprisingly, my takeaway this week isn’t especially different from last Sunday’s win at Washington: this will suffice through the end of the regular season, but the offense needs to get on track to have any chance at a serious postseason run. Still, all it takes is one glimpse at the Cardinals’ ghastly loss in Detroit for some perspective: it’s much better to play down to mediocre teams and win than take a loss and damage playoff positioning.
The division is all but secured, and Dallas maintains a chance at claiming the top seed in the NFC. This is very good, even if the football we watched on Sunday wasn’t.
Saw signs of life from Ezekiel Elliott
Both Elliott and the Cowboys have admitted that he is far from healthy, something that could also be gleaned from his play over the past month and a half. Heading into today, Elliott had not topped 50 yards rushing in his previous five games. He didn’t crack 4 yards per carry in any of them. Elliott’s balky knee is sapping his explosiveness, and it’s hard to imagine it totally healing before the season is over.
But according to a pregame update from the Fox broadcast, it’s also unlikely to get worse, and so Elliott strapped a brace on his knee and got back to work. And for the first time since the Denver loss, he showed some flashes of life.
Nothing earth-shattering, mind you. Elliott hit 42 rushing yards by halftime, but he finished the game with only 52 (plus 20 more through the air). He is still a ways from the form he displayed in these teams’ first meeting, when he rumbled for 110 yards on 5.2 yards per and two total touchdowns. But it is meaningful that his 13-yard touchdown run was his longest rush since a 21-yarder against New England in Week 6, and it’s hard not to be encouraged by the power he showed in this pile mover:
Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t give up. pic.twitter.com/AzGCsXBtDv
— USA TODAY NFL (@usatodaynfl) December 19, 2021
The Cowboys ended the day with 125 yards on the ground, second-most since the New England game, and Tony Pollard—back on the field after missing last week with a foot injury—gets the credit for that far more than Elliott. But Zeke looks functional for the first time in a while, and this team needs both backs to approximate some level of threat during those games when opponents are content to sit back and follow the increasingly obvious blueprint to slow down Prescott (more on that later).
Got victimized by the wildest catch of the weekend
How TF did Saquon Barkley catch this… those gloves must have super-glue on them 😂 pic.twitter.com/R7bywqUrPi
— Alex Wilson (@AlexWilsonESM) December 19, 2021
I’m not saying Saquon Barkley has magnets in his right hand. I’m just saying it’s in the realm of possibility.
Hopped back on the Greg Zuerlein roller coaster
Gregory The Legory—still making it A Thing—missed two more extra points Sundaay, bringing his season total to five, which ties him for the league lead entering Sunday. That’s one higher than the number of field goal attempts he’s missed from 40 or more yards.
As ever, there is no explaining the strange alchemy that makes Zuerlein one of the game’s more unique weapons. He’s far more entertaining than the average kicker at a position where no one is signing up for “entertaining.” Depending on the situation, then, Zuerlein can win the Cowboys a playoff game or lose them one, and Sunday provided a reminder that there’s no telling which it might be. The uncertainty remains disconcerting.
Found a workaround to the Dak Prescott blueprint?
The aforementioned Prescott blueprint, as explained by Jake, is to back off the blitz—which Prescott has historically shredded—and instead drop tons of defenders into coverage to muddy up passing lanes. As Jake noted last week, Dallas’ offensive slump transcends the coverages they’re seeing, but there absolutely is a correlation between the opposing defenses turning to that blueprint more often and the recent drop in production on Dallas’ end.
So let’s take a step back for a moment. If the opposing defense’s goal is to limit the damage through the air, the best way for Dallas to exploit that is to hammer it underneath to force a new adjustment, which in turn would free up space either downfield or in the running game. And a pretty good way to go about it is feeding Dalton Schultz, as Dallas did Sunday to the tune of a season-best eight receptions—on eight targets—for 67 yards and a score.
Like the rest of the passing game, Schultz’s production has waned since the first third-ish of the season. Unlike the rest of the passing game, there’s a non-schematic reason: the return of Michael Gallup, whose early season calf injury kept him out of the lineup from weeks 2 through 9. During that span, Schultz averaged 5.8 targets per game, and that number jumps to 6.5 if you remove a two-target day against the Chargers, who forced Dallas into a run-heavy game plan. Once Gallup returned in Week 10, that number dipped to 5.0.
Schultz is hardly the most explosive pass catcher on Dallas’ roster, but he played like a borderline star when given the volume earlier in the year, and as drops continue to plague the receiving corps—CeeDee Lamb bore the blame against New York, although it’s been a unit-wide problem—Schultz was Prescott’s only dependable outlet outside of the tailbacks. As I wrote last week, locking up the division so early, as the Cowboys effectively have, provides Dallas the luxury of zeroing in on any and every possible solution to jolt Prescott and the passing attack out of their funk prior to the postseason. So why not see if a larger diet of Schultz is one of them? On Sunday, that led to a game-sealing touchdown, two third-down conversions, and three more receptions that turned long downs into manageable conversion opportunities. A similar workload could yield similar results—or, failing that, just might shake loose some sorely needed opportunities for the receivers on the perimeter.
If not? Well, back to the drawing board. All options need to be on the table these next few weeks, and the tight end continues to show he’s a very useful one.