How the Dallas Cowboys Turned Their Season Around

Background

On November 5, the 3-4 Tennessee Titans traveled to Dallas to take on the 3-4 Cowboys. It was wide receiver Amari Cooper’s first game playing for the ‘Boys after they traded their 2019 first round pick for the former Oakland Raider. The Cowboys were crucified by journalists and fans (including Cowboys fans) for this decision. A first round pick for a decent wide receiver who’s on an expiring contract and will likely request a big payday? The Internet was filled with memes ridiculing Jerry Jones and the Cowboys’ organization. In Cooper’s debut for Dallas, they had a chance to silence the critics. Instead, they added more fuel to the fire.

After Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota fumbled on the first two possessions and Coopers scored his first touchdown for America’s Team, the odds were looking to be in the Cowboys’ favor. Until Kevin Byard picked off Dak Prescott and humiliated the Cowboys by paying homage to Hall of Famer Terrell Owens. Byard ran to the iconic Cowboys logo at midfield and spread his arms in the center of the star. It was just as disheartening for Dallas as the original celebration 18 years ago.

After the mockery, the Titans went on a 28-7 run to win the game and drop the Cowboys’ record to 3-5. This was five weeks ago. The Cowboys haven’t lost another game since.

The affair against the Titans was a turning point in multiple ways. Linebacker Sean Lee was forced out of the game with a hamstring injury, giving rookie Leighton Vander Esch a chance to get increased playtime. The Boise State alum has thrived as the starter. His tackling ability has been as good as any player’s in the NFL this season, elevating him into the discussion for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Cowboys’ elite linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch has been the heart of a stout defensive unit. On the other side of the ball, Ezekiel Elliott is on pace to be the league’s rushing leader, but the real catalyst for the offensive surge has been Dak Prescott’s improved play along with the massive contribution from Amari Cooper.

Now, the Cowboys are sitting pretty. They’re currently seated at #1 in the NFC East, which would give them a home playoff game. Not bad for a team that started the season with 3 wins over 8 games.

Offense

There is no doubt that the Cowboys’ offense has looked radically different recently.

 Weeks 1-9Weeks 10-14
Win-Loss Record3-55-0
Points Scored Per Game19.2524.40
Passing Yards Per Game188.4266.2
Rushing Yards Per Game128.8138
Passer Rating85.9103.6
Completion Percentage63.6%75.1%
Third Down Conversion Rate33.3%50.0%
Average Time of Possession26:3736:14

According to nearly every offensive metric, the unit has significantly improved over the past five weeks. Why? Well, Ezekiel Elliot is their best player on offense, but he’s always been a top running back. The improvement can be contributed to the addition of Amari Cooper, which bolstered the performance of an unreliable Dak Prescott.

 

The wild inconsistency of Prescott has been stabilized over the last 6 games thanks to the addition of Cooper. He certainly struggled with the Raiders this season and managing to receive a first round pick for him was a good move on their part. However, he has played at a much higher level in the Dallas offense — even higher than the best season of his career (2016).

SeasonTeamReceptions Per GameYards Per GameYards Per ReceptionTouchdowns Per GameCatch Percentage
2018Cowboys6.7107.016.11.0075.5%
2016Raiders5.272.113.90.3162.9%
2018Raiders3.746.712.70.1768.8%

It should be no surprise that a player is playing better at age 24 than he was at 22. Cooper’s recent struggles raised questions but the Cowboys trusted his abilities and it has paid off for them.

On this play, Cooper is lined up on the outside against Quinton Darby (#23) in man coverage. Cooper embarrasses Darby with a quick cut inside for the slant. The fake was so effective that Darby fell down, leaving Cooper with a wide open lane for a touchdown.

Cooper’s pristine route running ability along with his reliable hands has resulted in Prescott having a lot of trust in the young receiver. The Cowboys desperately needed a pass catcher like this for the development of Prescott.

Prescott has greater confidence in himself when throwing to Cooper and it’s clearly visible. This is a difficult throw to make, but Cooper’s great release off the line of scrimmage against Sidney Jones (#24) gives Dak a chance. He responds by dropping an absolutely perfect pass into Cooper’s arms for a touchdown — Cooper’s first of a win where he’d finish with three.

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With the ball in his hands, Cooper has been one of the greatest threats in the league. He averages 6.5 yards after the catch, while his expected average gain after the catch is just 3.9 yards. This differential of 2.6 is the highest in the league for receivers with at least 70 targets. This isn’t an anomalous number either — Cooper finished 3rd in the league in Average YAC Above Expectation last season.

Meanwhile, the running game has been consistently elite all year for the Cowboys, thanks to the dominance of Ezekiel Elliott and top-notch offensive line play.

 Percent of Rushes with 8+ Defenders in the BoxTeam's Run Blocking Rank (DVOA)Yards
Ezekiel Elliott26.12%91262
Todd Gurley3.59%11203
Saquon Barkley22.01%241124
Phillip Lindsay13.10%4972
Christian McCaffrey18.99%8926

Elliott is leading the league in rushing yards despite defenses stacking the box against him more than any other running back in the top 5 for rushing yardage. While the Cowboys’ offensive line has won the battle in the trenches more often than not, some backs are fortunate to play for superior units (except for the beastly Saquon Barkley). Even then, Elliott is leading the pack.

The Cowboys line up in a jumbo package and the Lions stack the box. The left guard on the play (Connor Williams, #52) is overmatched, forcing Elliott to stutter-step and wait for a hole to open up. Zack Martin (#70), who has made an All-Pro team every season of his four-year career, pushes A’Shawn Robinson (#91, defensive tackle) 3 yards to the side, giving Elliott one man to beat before he can break off. Elliott’s hesitation move makes Glover Quin (#27, Pro Bowl safety) lean to Elliot’s right side, which creates a gaping hole that Elliott immediately accelerates into for a 40 yard gain.

As Prescott continues to develop and the passing game becomes more of a threat, defenses will be forced to place fewer men in the box. This will just allow Elliott to dominate even more than he already is.

Defense

While the offense was making headlines, the defense was quietly playing at a superb level. They’re allowing the least yards per carry in the league and the 9th least passing yards per game. Altogether, opponents are scoring just 18.9 points per game. In Week 13 against the Saints, the entire nation saw what Cowboys fans already knew.

Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence confidently praised his team’s defense during the week leading up to the game and predicted that they’d stifle a historic New Orleans offense led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Most fans laughed off Lawrence’s conviction, but they found themselves eating their words after the Saints were shut out in the first half and held to just 10 points in the second half. Their offense was dominated in every facet of the game by the Cowboys’ suffocating defense.

Alvin Kamara is having a great sophomore year after earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season. However, against Dallas, there was absolutely nothing Kamara could have done.

 Percent of Rushes with 8+ Defenders in the BoxYards Per Carry
Week 13 at Cowboys9.09%3.3
2018 Season21.39%4.7

The Cowboys outmatched the Saints’ offensive line, which ranks 2nd in the league in run blocking and 3rd in pass blocking according to DVOA. That’s no easy task.

Kamara has maybe been even more important to the Saints in the passing game. He is one of the hardest players to tackle in the NFL, making him a very reliable check-down option for Brees. There was zero chance for any yards after the catch against a defense that was flying across the field all game.

At the start of the 2nd quarter, the Cowboys are up 10-0 and the Saints desperately need to get something going on offense. It’s 3rd and 9 at their own 22 and nobody else is open, so Brees dumps it off to Kamara. This is typically not a bad option for New Orleans. After all, Alvin Kamara has the 2nd most yards after the catch for a running back (behind only Saquon Barkley). But nobody was breaking tackles against this defense. In this instance, it’s Jourdan Lewis (#27, cornerback) who recognizes the play and immediately reaches Kamara before he gains any additional yards. Another punt for New Orleans.

In this game, Kamara was targeted 11 times — his second highest total of the season. Nothing but the check-down was open. The Cowboys’ secondary was playing extremely physically, giving no breathing room to the Saints’ receivers.

Everywhere you look, there’s a white jersey glued to a black jersey. Brees throws an accurate ball to wide receiver Keith Kirkwood (#18) but there’s only so much you can do against great defense. Anthony Brown (#30, cornerback) dives to get his hands on the ball and force the incompletion.

Also, this isn’t their highlight, but notice Leighton Vander Esch (#55) and Jaylon Smith (#54) at linebacker. Their quick footwork as seen in this clip was on display all night. Any catches between the sticks and at least one of the two linebackers would be there for a swift stop.

Conclusion

The Cowboys probably aren’t going to win Super Bowl LIII, but they’ve certainly exceeded expectations and given their fans something to be excited for. The Cowboys have the 3rd youngest team in the league. Dallas will more than likely play in a home game during the Wild Card round. This will serve as playoff experience as their youthful roster continues to progress. Not to write them off this season, of course. They’ve already shown that they’re capable of pulling off upsets against top teams. It’s not the end of the world if they go out early, though. They started 3-5 and they’re now on track to finish with the 4th seed in the NFC.

The Cowboys’ young QB is playing better as the season progresses, their youthful talent on defense is thriving and their running game is among the best in the league. There’s nothing not to be happy about in Dallas.

Image Source: Tim Heitman / USA Today

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