Most NFL teams make their biggest improvement during the week in between the regular-season opener and Week 2. The experience of playing in a real game with consequences increases the pressure and places a premium on attention to detail. Mike McCarthy and Co. certainly have a greater feel for the team after watching them take on the defending Super Bowl champions in a primetime game that featured a playoff-like atmosphere.
The experience should help the team deal with the big games that dot their schedule down the stretch. Given some time to study the tape of the regular-season opener, here ae some of my thoughts and observations on the Cowboys
Dak is better than ever.
The preseason rust versus rest debate was at a fever pitch prior to the opener but Prescott silenced the critics questioning his preparedness after missing most of last season with a devastating lower leg injury. The veteran brought his A-game to the party as he put up a 400-yard game on the defending champs. Most important, Prescott put the rest of the league on notice that his sizzling 2020 campaign was not a fluke or a hot streak from a quarterback trying to make his mark in a contract year.
Reviewing the All-22 film, I loved the way No.4 attacked favorable match-ups on the perimeter while staying within the confines of the offense. He displayed enough patience and poise to take the easy throws yielded by the defense while maintaining an aggressive approach. Prescott pushed the ball down the field enough to keep the Buccaneers' defenders from squatting on short and intermediate routes.
Within the pocket, Prescott showed composure and poise in the face of pressure. He did not flinch with bodies around him or look to flee at the first sign of a pocket collapse. The courage and toughness displayed by the veteran in the openers suggest that he cleared any mental hurdles that could have impacted his return.
With Prescott also showing a willingness to run on a few zone-read plays and designed QB keepers, the Cowboys' QB1 looks like he is ready to take another step towards becoming a Top 5 quarterback.
Zeke is more than a runner.
If you were box score scouting the Cowboys' regular-season opener, you would probably give Ezekiel Elliott low marks based on his dismal production as a runner. However, if you conducted an extensive film study on the All-Pro, the Cowboys' RB1 deserves an A-plus for his blocking efforts in pass protection.
Elliott's ability to stonewall rushers inside pocket enabled Dak Prescott to make pinpoint throws while facing an aggressive Buccaneers' defense. No.22 stepped up to meet defenders, particularly Devin White, in the hole with the kind of violence and physicality that is normal associated with linebackers not running backs. The courage and conviction that Elliott displayed punishing free rushers were impressive for a marquee running back who typically makes his money with the ball in his hands instead of blocking defenders.
The outside world might paint the two-time NFL rushing champion as a descending player but astute evaluators will give Elliott his flowers for his rock-solid all-around game.
Will Kellen Moore take a more balanced approach going forward?
The Cowboys' success throwing the ball around the yard could prompt Moore to put the ball in the hands of No.4 as the unit transitions into a pass-based offense. If the play caller abandons the ball-control, run-centric approach that enables the team to play the kind of complementary football that is needed to win key games against elite opponents.
That's why a game plan that features 50-plus pass attempts should not be in the norm despite Prescott's success and production shredding the Buccaneers. The team can opt for throw early and run late approach to keep the pressure on their opponents but the Cowboys should never deviate too far from the running game due to Elliott's presence and the need to protect a defense that is still adjusting to a new defensive coordinator.
If Moore is calling the game to win instead of focusing on piling up points and yards like empty calories, the Cowboys will win a ton of games utilizing a complementary game plan that could make this team a hard out.
Is it time for a turnover chain?
Dan Quinn has made a concerted effort to emphasize fanatical effort and creating turnovers since taking over the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. After watching the team spend countless hours running through pursuit drills and turnover circuits during training camp, I am not surprised the Cowboys' defense produced four takeaways in the season opener.
The coaching staff's commitment and attention to detail in that area have resulted in the kind of ball-hawking habits that the old defender in me loves to see. From the 11-man unit running to the ball like a pack of wolves to multiple defenders punching at the ball at every turn to a handful of sticky-fingered defensive backs snagging tipped or overthrown passes, the Cowboys play like a collection of turnover-obsessed defenders searching for the next takeaway.
Considering college teams utilize turnover chains and other trinkets to motivate players to violently attack the football, DQ and the Cowboys should consider it (perhaps a diamond-crusted star) to keep their young and hungry defense motivated to take the ball away.
It might be time for a new kicker.
Greg Zuerlein has been one of the most consistent kickers in the NFL for most of his career but the veteran is a huge question mark at this time. After missing most of the offseason while recovering from back surgery, the veteran looked rusty and out of sync in his 2021 debut.
Zuerlein missed an extra point and a chip shot (31-yarder) against the Buccaneers. Although he split the uprights from 48 yards to give the Cowboys a lead with two minutes remaining, the shaky performance should lead to some conversations regarding potential subs or replacements. The Cowboys have a razor-thin margin for error and will need every possible point to win games while the defense matures under DQ.
That reality should make finding a reliable kicker a top priority when the scouts and coaches review the roster this week. While Zuerlein might return to form as a reliable option, the Cowboys should get take out a little insurance to keep them in the playoff hunt until the veteran finds his groove.