Grading the Cowboys unexpected victory over the Eagles



A report card to be proud of for the Cowboys after dispatching the Eagles.

The Dallas Cowboys leaped over the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles Sunday night – both literally and figuratively – and in doing so reignited the team’s feint 2018 hopes. It was an unexpected outcome as virtually everyone predicted an Eagles’ victory. But in typical Cowboys fashion, just when you assumed they would zig, they zagged. Let’s go to the grades on the team’s best, most impressive victory since beating Kansas City in week nine last year.

OVERALL: A+

Look, things weren’t perfect. But this was a team whose own fans were both ready and (seemingly) eager to lay the dirt on the team’s 2018 coffin. Everyone from Troy Aikman to our own BTB staff were counting down how long before Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan and Dak Prescott were all replaced. That’s not a conducive environment for nurturing the team’s best performance in over a calendar year.

But that’s exactly what the team put forth on Lincoln Financial Field before a national Sunday Night Football audience. The offense had perhaps their best game of the season, generating over 400 yards of offense and putting 27 points on the board despite some red zone hiccups and a missed field goal from Brett Maher.

The defense completely stifled the Eagles’ offense the entire first half, yielding only three points and not allowing a single third-down conversion. The defense then struggled for much of the second half but twice came up with clutch stops in the game’s waning moments to secure the hard fought victory.

Every coach and player deserves credit for persevering and coming up with a quality performance just when the skies turned their darkest.

Coaching: A+

Hey, if you’re going to hold the coaches responsible for terrible team-wide performances like the one last week against the Titans, then they deserve credit for an outstanding performance against a quality opponent in a difficult environment.

The Cowboys competitive spirit was rightly questioned following last week’s meek effort against the Tennessee Titans. Well, no one’s going to question the effort we saw last night. Dallas played hard and aggressive from the opening kick-off to the final whistle. That’s a testament to the Dallas staff keeping the entire roster focused and on message. That’s not an easy thing when everything seems to be going wrong and the entire NFL-watching universe seems ready to bury your corpse.

We also saw a more aggressive Jason Garrett. There was a fake punt on his own side of the field:

This came after Garrett was willing to go for it on fourth and short on his own side of the field but a false start derailed that effort. Why Garrett exhibits these aggressive tendencies only after his conservative approach puts him such desperate situations is a mystery.

The bottom line is the Dallas Cowboys won a road game for the first time in 2018, salvaging their season (for the time being) under very trying circumstances. The fact it also made the hated Eagles’ path to a repeat of their 2017 Super Bowl that much more difficult is just more flavor in an already delicious dish.

Quarterback: A

The numbers are those of a good NFL quarterback: 26-of-36 for 270 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. And there were some quintessential bad Prescott moments:

  • Poor pocket management
  • Missed opportunities
  • Inaccurate throws
  • Yet another comical unforced drop of the ball

But there were many more good moments. Prescott completed 12 passes to his wide-outs for 186 yards. I’m just gonna guess those are season-highs for both numbers. Prescott was more aggressive than we’ve seen and simply made more plays. Here we see a much more confident Prescott hitting a deep out to Amari Cooper on the right side of the field; something we’ve seen very little of in 2018.

Most impressive is the fact that twice in the fourth quarter the Dallas defense surrendered the lead and each time Prescott drove the team down the field for long, touchdown-scoring drives. It was a throwback to those 2016 through the first half of 2017 Prescott-led offenses that seemed unstoppable at times. We haven’t seen this offense in quite a while and it returned just in time to salvage the 2018 season.

There was also the clutch end-of-half drive that provided the Cowboys with a 13-3 halftime lead. The drive seemed to stall when Prescott made one of his boneheaded plays in the pocket – holding the ball too long then turning his back to the rush for a 13-yard sack – but recovered to score a much-needed touchdown. The key play was a 3rd-and-15 screen that seemed obvious to everyone other than the Eagles’ defenders:

All in all this was Prescott’s best performance in a while and a reminder of why some think he has a future in this league. He’ll have to have a lot more to restore the faith many of us once had.

Running backs: A+

Simply put, Ezekiel Elliott is a stud. He absolutely put the team on his back and carried them as far as he could. The numbers tell the story:

  • 19 carries for 151 yards
  • 7.9 yards per attempt
  • Six catches for 36 yards
  • One touchdown running and one receiving – both in the pivotal fourth quarter
  • One highlight reel hurdle over yet another helpless defender:

But Zeke had numerous big plays throughout the game. From early in the second half:

His fourth quarter touchdown reception (why did it take so long for this coaching staff to figure out how to utilize Zeke in the passing game other than the much-used screen?).

And finally his final touchdown run to provide the margin of victory:

Wide receivers: A+

Basically, this unit performed as designed. Amari Cooper set the tone early with five first half catches. This opened things up for both the running game and for his fellow receivers. Yes, they were going against a beaten up Eagles’ secondary playing numerous backups. But they did what they were supposed to do against such players: make plays.

Twelve catches for 186 yards. Zero drops. Numerous third-down conversions. Cris Collinsworth said it on the broadcast; with Amari Cooper assuming the lead dog role suddenly Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup look like quality complementary pieces. It worked for this game and will need to continue working moving forward if this team has any hopes of making a run this season.

Tight ends: B

We’re grading on a curve here. There weren’t many plays from the tight ends (naturally). But the absence of gross incompetence from the likes of Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin is a marked improvement. The return of Geoff Swaim probably had much to do with that as he’s quietly had a modest breakout season, becoming an integral part of the offensive scheme.

Schultz and Swaim did combine for five catches for 34 yards so there were positive contributions.

Offensive line: A+

Quick, how many times did you hear Xavier Su’a-Filo’s name called out? There was one time early in the game, but after that it was pretty good. Which is a remarkable feat for a backup facing the likes of Fletcher Cox. The fact is the Cowboys’ offensive line had their best game of the season.

Yeah, Prescott got sacked four times but most of those can be put on the quarterback. Most of the night Prescott was given time to find receivers. And the run-blocking was the best we’ve seen in a while. Things started sluggishly but soon Elliott was given holes to run through.

The Cowboys ended up with 171 yards rushing with a hefty 6.1 yards per attempt. There were zero holding penalties. This despite the absence of All World guard Zack Martin for multiple drives. There was a point when the entire interior line consisted of backups – Su’a-Filo, Joe Looney and Adam Redmond. The coaches deserve credit for having these players ready to play but it’s the players who had to go out on the field and execute.

Defensive line: A

The Cowboys managed to sack Carson Wentz only two times. But they managed to put constant pressure on the Philly QB and disrupted numerous passes. Which is a good thing because after a slow first half Eagles receivers seemed to be running free in the Cowboys’ secondary throughout the second half.

The game’s final play was indicative of how the night went:

They didn’t sack Wentz, and he even completed the pass – but they denied the Eagles’ the objective. This happened throughout the game with most of Wentz’s incompletions due to pressure, not high-quality coverage.

Demarcus Lawrence continues to play at an All Pro level. He’s now in DeMarcus Ware territory where opponent’s first scheme to stop him and worry about the other 10 players after. He had another strong game, finishing with five tackles, a tackle for loss and a QB hurry. But his impact was felt throughout. Randy Gregory also showed up in a big way, having a sack in his best game yet.

Linebackers: A+

Remember when the absence of Sean Lee meant the Cowboys’ defense was toast? Remember when we watched Jaylon Smith unable to change directions? Those days are over. Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch combined for a truly dominating performance. LVE, in particular, had a monster game but each had multiple big plays.

The two combined for 17 tackles, an interception, one tackle for loss and two passes defensed. But they each had massive plays that contributed to the victory. Vander Esch came up with the game’s only turnover, a big-time interception on the Eagles’ first drive:

Then Jaylon Smith had a big-time fourth down stop in a key first half sequence:

Then LVE came up with a Sean Lee-like play to force the Eagles into a desperate 4th-and-7 they were unable to convert. It was the biggest defensive play of the game; Vander Esch beat two blockers and then made the tackle for the five yard loss (despite an uncalled block in the back).

According to NFL’s NextGen Stats, Vander Esch’s stop was the most yards saved by a defender on a single play in any game this season. Wow.

Basically LVE and Smith were flying all over the field throughout. LVE had an absolute monster game, adding 13 tackles along with his interception. He’s looking like a foundation piece the Cowboys can plug into the middle of the defense for the next ten years.

Secondary: C

Here’s what I tweeted after the first half:

Other than Byron Jones, the Cowboys honestly don’t cover much better than they have throughout the Garrett era. The Eagles did run some in the second half but all their big plays came via the passing game as they racked up 289 second half yards. This big play where Jeff Heath was cleanly beaten illustrates the group’s struggles:

Heath did make up for his mistake with the key defensive stop that ended the Eagles’ best hope to tie the game late:

Chidobie Awuzie had a bad game against the Titans and the Eagles seemed intent on targeting him last night. He was beaten a few times but also came up with a key deflection that negated a monster gain:

All in all it was juuuust good enough. But I worry about this unit. It simply doesn’t look any better than what we’ve seen for seeming forever. The Eagles had wide open receivers throughout the second half and teams are going to realize that if they can’t run they can just pass against this secondary. The Cowboys’ pass rush saved this group repeatedly.

Special teams: C-

Brett Maher missed a 40-yard field goal. Had he made it, the Cowboys likely coast to a much easier victory. It was his third miss in his last five attempts going back to the Redskins game.

He also barely made an earlier chip shot from 31-yards that would have missed from 35-yards. All this after making 15 straight. At this point I don’t think anyone is very confident in Dan Bailey’s replacement.

Almost unnoticed has been the recent struggles of Chris Jones. The “Puntisher” has seemingly had multiple bad kicks in each of the last four or five games. Sunday he had kicks of 39 and 34 yards, neither of which was remotely close to the Eagles’ end zone. In short, Jones has become as unreliable as the team’s placekicker. He did have a quality 44-yard kick with just over a minute remaining which, with good coverage, forced the Eagles to go 67 yards to tie the score. They came up eight yards short so a bad kick there might have been the difference.

Summary:

The 2018 Dallas Cowboys season could have very well ended in Philadelphia. Most expected that, with many ready to declare the team deceased:

Instead, they came up with their best performance of the season. They still face long odds of reaching the post-season. But with the Eagles now below them in the standings thanks to head-to-head results and the Redskins offensive line being decimated, hope remains.

Yeah, it came down to the last play and we were all like this when it finally ended:

But Dallas has been on the wrong end of some gut-punch, last-play losses this year so it’s about time things went the right way.

Particularly satisfying is the fact the defending Super Bowl champions, who many claimed had a front office that ran circles around the Cowboys’ and had a better roster and could do no wrong, now sit 4-5 with worse playoff odds than the Cowboys.

NFL football seasons can sometimes be a roller-coaster ride. After experiencing the lowest of lows last week Cowboys fans should enjoy the highest of highs this week. It may not last but we’ll worry about that later. Let’s just savor this victory for now.





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