Grading the Cowboys last-second victory over the Falcons



Dallas brings home another good looking report card.

Your Dallas Cowboys returned to the scene of the crime, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, looking for their first two-game win streak of 2018 and a chance to get back into the NFC East division race. Consider both objectives met in a gritty, final-play victory. Let’s go to the grades.

OVERALL: A

It wasn’t always pretty. There were numerous costly mistakes and blown opportunities. And the defense, which played well overall, kind of wilted at the end. But road victories in the NFL don’t come with style points and this win will look fantastic at the end of the season.

Dallas played a physically strong game on both sides of the ball from beginning to end. A few key mistakes (Cole Beasley dropping an easy touchdown pass, Brett Maher whiffing on an extra point attempt) forced the team to work harder than it maybe had to. But facing their stiffest offensive test of the season the Cowboys defense showed the same stifling play we’ve seen throughout the season.

The offense struggled mightily at times but utilized another strong third-down performance (seven of thirteen, 54%) and a clutch final drive to put just enough points on the board to walk away victorious.

COACHING: B

Like last week, when the team plays well overall we have to credit those responsible for leading the team. Dallas came in prepared, ready for the Falcons’ impressive array of offensive weapons. They also played hard, showing exemplary effort from opening whistle to final gun.

The only negative for head coach Jason Garrett is his continued stubborn conservative strategic approach. Three times he chose a less aggressive approach when odds and common sense dictated some aggression:

  • Dallas trailed 6-3 late in the first half when Dak Prescott dumped the ball to Ezekiel Elliott who managed to get to the Cowboys 43-yard line with 15 seconds left. Common sense dictated the Cowboys use their last time-out to run a play or two and, at minimum, heave the ball into the end zone on a Hail Mary attempt. Garrett instead chose to just let the clock run out. I have no idea what he was thinking because leaving the field when you have a chance at points in a close, low-scoring game is indefensible. If you fear surrendering points in that situation as opposed to potentially scoring them there is something fundamentally wrong with the team you’re coaching. Yet that’s exactly what Garrett did.
  • The Cowboys’ first drive of the second half saw them move the ball into Atlanta territory. A sack of Dak Prescott left them facing 3rd-and-16 from the Falcons’ 44. Prescott again found Elliott on a screen and Elliott nearly got the first down but ended up four yards short, setting up 4th-and-4 from the 32. Now, virtually every NFL coach is going to kick the field goal in that situation. I wanted the team to go for it. This is based on pure mathematics. There’s four possible outcomes:
  1. Miss an attempted field goal
  2. Make an attempted field goal
  3. Convert the fourth down attempt
  4. Miss the fourth down attempt

Pure odds, based upon past results in the NFL, show that going for it on fourth down leads to more points (on average) than attempting the field goal. The New York Times Fourth Down bot has the odds for every fourth down scenario:


This one isn’t as cut and dried as the first situation but it yet again shows Garrett taking the easy, conservative route. With points at a premium in that situation, a shaky kicker in Brett Maher and a strong defense I thought he should have been more aggressive.

  • Finally, on the team’s final drive Garrett repeated the mistakes of his past that we’ve outlined previously. Driving towards a potential game-winning field goal Prescott hit Cole Beasley on a brilliant pattern for 19 yards, taking the ball to the Falcons’ 30-yard line, with 34 seconds remaining. The mistake Garrett has made in the past has been to run predictable, simple run plays and settling for the long field goal rather than making realistic attempts to move closer for a more make-able attempt.

He did the exact same thing again, despite having lost multiple times when the long field goal missed. This time it worked, but only because Elliott was able to gain six yards on the three simple runs up the middle. Had those six yards not been gained it’s highly unlikely that Brett Maher’s attempt goes through the uprights.

Some have pointed out that Tyron Smith was out of the game at that point, increasing the risk of a disastrous sack. Still, you’d think that after having repeatedly come up snake-eyes with this strategy in the past Garrett would try another approach. Nope. It all worked out and we’re rejoicing but it’s not the right approach in my opinion.

QUARTERBACK: B

When the Cowboys commit one or fewer turnovers in the Dak Prescott era they have won 21 of 25 games (86%). Make that 22 of 26 (85%) after yesterday’s victory. Prescott didn’t make a lot of plays, netting only 191 passing yards on 34 passing attempts. Repeated deep throws to rookie Michael Gallup seemed more hopeful than purposeful. Amari Cooper had only three catches on five targets. In fact, Cowboys’ receivers had only nine total catches for a meager 97 yards and no touchdowns.

But Prescott largely avoided the big mistakes that plagued him in the Washington and Tennessee losses. No interceptions, no fumbles and only two sacks. He also added a touchdown run.

The touchdown run, and another first down run later, featured Prescott using his size and strength to gain extra yards. This skill is something the Cowboys really need to utilize more like the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton.

Most importantly, he led the team on three scoring drives on the team’s final four possessions. This after leading the team on consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown drives in last week’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Prescott simply seems to make plays in these late game situations and that’s a mighty impressive skill. Given the ball with 1:52 remaining in a tie game Prescott made simple plays and went four for six for 45 yards on the team’s game-winning drive. That’s clutch and as long as he can continue to do that the modest volume numbers will be okay.

RUNNING BACK: A+

There are a lot of solid reasons for not drafting a running back high in the draft. These reasons, however, don’t account for special players. You know, Hall of Fame players who are difference-makers. Now, Ezekiel Elliott has a long way to go to making the Hall of Fame. His first two and a half seasons in the NFL, however, look very much like a Hall of Famer career arc.

Elliott was again fantastic on Sunday. He ran hard every time he touched the ball, getting seemingly every yard from every touch. He netted 201 yards on 30 touches, including 79 receiving yards on seven catches.

It was his two back-breaking carries midway through the fourth quarter that turned the game. Leighton Vander Esch had set up the Cowboys with good field position with his second interception in as many weeks. First, Elliott ran wide right for a solid eight-yard gain to set up second-and-two. The next play Elliott found a hole through the middle with only the safety to beat. Elliott set his foot, veered and easily avoided/ran over the attempted tackle for a 23-yard touchdown and a 10-point lead with only eight minutes remaining. It was vintage Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott accounted for 201 of the team’s 323 total yards (62%). He was the team’s only effective weapon despite the Falcons dedication to stopping him. Elliott is that difference-maker you look for with the fourth pick in the draft.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B

It wasn’t as good as last week when the offensive line dominated the Eagles talented front seven. But it was solid. Prescott took two sacks but you could argue both could be on him for holding the ball too long. There were no holding penalties, an issue that seemed to plague the team from the Atlanta fiasco last season to very recently.

Admittedly, the Falcons defense isn’t a stern test, and I had hoped the offense would be more productive. But again, the final results were enough and had the team come up short it would have been hard to blame the offensive line.

WIDE RECEIVERS: C

I’m not sure whether the issue was receivers who couldn’t get open or Prescott not seeing them. All I know is the wide-outs were targeted only 17 times and netted no touchdowns and only 97 yards (a very low 5.7 yards per attempt).

The team seemed dedicated on isolating Michael Gallup on go routes, trying the play three times. Not once did Gallup get an inch of separation and none of the three attempts were close to completed. Gallup did come up with a nice comeback route on the final drive.

Cooper was largely invisible, with only five targets. We’ve all seen the gifs showing him abusing opposing cornerbacks so it’s hard to believe he wasn’t open more often.

Finally Cole Beasley had the big catch on the final drive and ended up with 51 yards on seven targets.

But his drop of an easy touchdown pass on the team’s first drive loomed large as the game went on. It cost the Cowboys’ four points that could have been the difference in the game.

TIGHT ENDS: B-

Honestly, I didn’t notice the tight ends much. And that’s actually an improvement for this group as usually they make a couple or more boneheaded plays that cost the team. The return of Geoff Swaim has steadied this position as he’s proven to be a valuable player; without him this group is lost. He had four catches for 24 yards; nothing major but at least he contributed.

There were no holding calls, or interference or blown assignments so we’ll take it.

DEFENSIVE LINE: B+

The Cowboys held a potent Falcons team to only 354 yards and 19 points, significantly below their season averages (408/27). This is was a total team effort but much of the work was done by an undermanned front four.

Despite missing four players (David Irving, Taco Charlton, Antwaun Woods, Daniel Ross) the Cowboys sacked Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan three times and harassed him throughout much of the game. Ryan was lucky as at least four of his passes were errant throws caused by pressure that all managed to elude Cowboys’ defenders. Two potential interceptions were missed by Maliek Collins and Jeff Heath.

Demarcus Lawrence is an absolute beast. Though he hasn’t racked up the gaudy sack totals like last season, he’s been every bit as good. He’s again playing at an All Pro level and is the best defensive player the Cowboys have had since DeMarcus Ware.

The Falcons’ offensive line got their stuff together in the fourth quarter and started giving Ryan time. They were able to march 72 and 68 yards to tie the game after trailing by ten points.

That was a disappointing development that echoed last week when a stout defensive effort fizzled in the fourth quarter and the Eagles marched for consecutive long touchdown drives. The one area this defense needs to improve is closing out opponents after being given a late lead.

LINEBACKERS: B

The good: Leighton Vander Esch continues to impress. He not only picked up his second interception in as many games, he also recorded eight tackles, a quarterback hurry and three passes defensed. LVE making big-time tackles in space has become so routine that I think all of us were surprised when he finally missed on one such attempt. And of course he did this:

The not-so-good: Jaylon Smith had a rough game. He finished with zero solo tackles and only two assisted tackles. He seemed to take poor angles or get caught in the wash repeatedly in the second half as the Falcons got their running game untracked (56 second-half rushing yards). Smith just didn’t make as many plays as we’ve come to expect.

SECONDARY: B

Hey, Julio Jones lights up a lot of teams, as he went for 118 yards and a touchdown on only nine targets. There were times when he and Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley were wide open for relatively easy throws.

But there was also some good coverage where Ryan and the receivers were simply better. Chidobie Awuzie is clearly the preferred target for opposing defenses. Yet he had blanket coverage on Jones on the Falcons’ late fourth quarter, 34-yard touchdown that tied the game.

Awuzie, however, has poor ball awareness and has been beaten throughout the season despite often applying sticky coverage. Byron Jones and the rest of the secondary is similar. This is a better coverage group than what we’ve seen through most of the last ten years or so, but the play-making skills are lacking.

Xavier Woods actually led the team in tackles (seven solo, nine total) but it was his pathetic whiff that most will remember. What should have been a tackle for loss instead turned into a 30-yard gain.

Still, the final results were solid as the Cowboys kept the Falcons in check through most of the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C

Quick poll, how many were confident Brett Maher was going to put the ball through the uprights to win the game?

Maher missed his first field goal attempt of the season. But then he didn’t miss a kick of any type until clanking a potential game-tying field goal against Washington (a kick that could have been shorter had Jason Garrett not turtled at the end of the game).

Since then, he’s been highly erratic. He’s missed field goal attempts each of the last three games. But Sunday came his lowest point, as he missed badly on an extra point attempt after Elliott’s touchdown run.

This left the Cowboys with a ten point lead with eight minutes remaining, rather than an 11-point lead. Had Maher made the kick Atlanta would have been forced to go for two after Jones’ touchdown catch.

But Maher closed well, knocking the 42-yarder through for the win (if only barely).

Maher hasn’t exactly made us forget Dan Bailey and has many of us praying for results.

Chris Jones had an up and down day. I’m not sure what’s wrong with him but after performing like a machine throughout most of his Cowboys’ career he’s lately become unreliable. His first punt traveled only 40 yards and benefited from a fortuitous bounce. He did tack on 44 and 49 yard kicks that yielded only three yards in returns. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Jones so anything less is a surprise.

SUMMARY

As mentioned above, it wasn’t pretty. But a season many believed was lost just a couple weeks ago has regained promise. Dallas faces a wounded Redskins’ team on Thanksgiving and whoever emerges victorious will be in first place in the NFC East. The Panthers lost and, deliciously, the Eagles were embarrassed in New Orleans:

That’s funny, those five Super Bowl winning Dallas Cowboys teams never suffered anything remotely close to such a humiliating loss. Some franchises handle winning better than others.

These were all good developments on a Sunday where pretty much everything in the NFL went the Cowboys’ way.

We can all be thankful.





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