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3 & Out

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3 & Out: Dak, The Red Zone & The Run Defense


FRISCO, Texas –Back from the bye with three quick topics:

  • Cook, Part II
  • Seeing Red
  • Dak's Status

I Know…
the run defense has improved considerably this season, but Sunday presents the toughest test yet.

The Cowboys had moderate success against Dalvin Cook (27 carries, 115 yards, touchdown) in last year's upset victory over the Vikings. Given their massive struggles stopping the run in 2020, and Cook's place among the NFL's best rushers (366 yards in only four games this year), that's a win bolded-in-all-caps.

Run defense was the biggest emphasis in the offseason. The Cowboys signed five veterans and drafted five rookies who play in the front seven, most notably Micah Parsons with the 12th pick.

Those additions, a healthy Leighton Vander Esch and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's scheme have provided more stability.

The defense is allowing 4.3 yards per carry this season, down from 5 yards per carry in 2020. They've also been aided by their own offense building huge leads and forcing opponents to abandon the ground game. Opponents have run against the Cowboys 121 times, a league low.

So, it's a smaller sample size than most teams. And the Patriots did test them more than any opponent to date: a season-high 27 carries for 120 yards, including three explosive runs, two for touchdowns. On one drive in the fourth quarter, they hammered it eight times for 45 yards, capped off by a Rhamondre Stevenson score.

The Vikings will commit to the run with Cook and Alexander Mattison for as long as the score allows. It will be a good midseason challenge for Dallas.

But so far, so good, Quinn says.

"I certainly feel like we have enough variation of coverages and guys to fit into the runs," he said about the run defense through six games. "…Just like to see us knock down some of these explosives (plays) that happened (against New England)."

I Think…
the Cowboys aren't far away from being a much better red-zone offense.

It's probably the team's strangest statistic from the first six games:

The turbo-charged offense leads the league in scoring (34.2 average) and yards (460.8 average), yet they're tied for 24th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns inside the 20 only 56% of the time. (By comparison, the No. 1 red zone offense is San Francisco at an 85.8% clip.)

"Yeah, it's not good," Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said with a wry smile, but added, "I think we're really, really close."

I think he's right.

Let's recap. The Cowboys are 14 of 25 in the red zone. Of those 11 trips that didn't end with a touchdown, there were some close calls:

  • A would-be touchdown pass to Cedrick Wilson against the Patriots that got ripped out at the last milli-second.
  • Two Dak Prescott quarterback sneaks against the Patriots and Eagles that appeared to go past the goal line but weren't ruled touchdowns. (Micro-chip football, anyone?)
  • A Prescott throw to Dalton Schultz against the Giants that bounced off his hands in the end zone (not sure if it was a drop, because it was tight coverage).
  • A fumbled snap by Prescott against the Giants.

If the Cowboys cashed in on those five trips, suddenly they'd be at 76% red zone efficiency. That would rank them third in the league behind San Francisco and New Orleans. Even two successful sneaks by Prescott would've put them at 64%, just outside the top 10.

I Have No Idea…
why some say the Cowboys should rest Dak Prescott this Sunday no matter what.

What if he's ready to go with no limitations? The athletic training staff knows what they're doing. Prescott knows what he's doing, too.

They navigated last year's ankle injury together. Remember his shoulder strain from the first padded practice in training camp? He pulled himself out of practice as a precaution. The communication between him and the medical staff has always been really good.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said they're "much, much less" concerned about the calf than they were the shoulder in August, but they're going to take the full week and see how the calf responds to on-field work.

If he's ready, he'll play. If he's not, they'll see how next week goes. Simple as that.

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