With the bye week in the rear view mirror, the Cowboys' coaches and scouts can focus on building a team that is playing its best ball down the stretch. Despite the sizzling start that has created a buzz about the team's title chances in league circles, the Cowboys have plenty of work to do to turn that dream into a reality.
Given some time to study the team's performance over the first half of the season, here are some thoughts and observations on America's Team:
How is Dak?
The Cowboys' star quarterback was playing at an MVP level prior to the bye week, but he was also nursing a calf injury at the end of the Patriots' game. The lingering effects of the injury could impact how Dak Prescott plays inside and outside of the pocket, and change how the Cowboys go about their business on offense.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore must be mindful of No.4's limitations and tailor the game plan to minimize his exposure on the perimeter. Moreover, the Cowboys must tweak the passing game to feature throws that allow Prescott to throw comfortably with his ailing leg.
From utilizing more quick-rhythm throws that require little movement in the pocket to operating extensively from the shotgun, the Cowboys need to put their QB1 in the best position to perform at a high level while he recovers from an injury that could have lasting effects. If the Cowboys are able to manage Prescott's rehab and recovery while keeping him on the field, it gives them a chance to maintaining the chemistry and continuity that has helped them emerge as title contenders this season.
What's up with La'el Collins?
The Cowboys' starting right tackle returns after serving a five-game suspension, but it is not a given that he slides into his starting spot when he returns. Terence Steele has played well in his absence, and Mike McCarthy should not risk disrupting the chemistry of the unit by removing the third-year pro from the lineup.
That said, Collins is one of the best five offensive linemen on the squad and he should have a spot in the starting lineup. If he is moved to guard, he is an upgrade over Conner Williams and a more natural fit as an interior blocker.
At LSU, I thought he would be at his best as a pro at guard due to his mauler/brawler playing style and athletic limitations. Collins can focus on sumo wrestling bigger bodies in tight quarters compared to dealing with the swift speed rushers attacking quickly off the edges. In addition, the veteran would give the Cowboys a beefy left side if he played beside Tyron Smith at left guard. The massive duo would enable the Cowboys to crush opponents in the running game as the team shifted to a left0handed approach to maximize the strengths of a rebuilt offensive line.
Collins might like the acclaim and money that comes with being an starting offensive tackle in this league, but a move inside might help him and the Cowboys' offensive line thrive down the stretch.
Keep the running back rotation in place.
The Cowboys have surged out to a hot start behind the spectacular play of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Despite outsiders suggesting the team should feature one over the other, the Cowboys have ignored the noise and given each playmaker plenty of opportunities to impact the game.
Elliott remains the Cowboys' workhorse as power runner with outstanding vision, balance and body control. He is averaging five-plus yards per carry while 100 scrimmage yards in four of the last five games. With Elliott narrowly missing the 100-yard mark in the fifth game (97 yards). the Cowboys have gotten steady production from an RB1 with a pair of rushing crowns.
Pollard has been a standout contributor as a change of pace option in the backfield. He is averaging six yards per carry on a variety of edge runs that showcase his speed and quickness. In addition, Pollard is making his mark as a receiver with 15 receptions for 115 yards. With the third-year pro picking up six first downs as a pass catcher, the Cowboys have another weapon in the arsenal to counter opponents attempting to take away Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb with two-deep coverage.
Overall, the Cowboys' 1-2 punch in the backfield has given opponents problem and provided the offense with more knockout power this season.
Defense is feeding off the energizers.
Elite defenses in this league feature a handful of players who provide the energy and electricity for the group. The Cowboys' defensive success has certainly been tied to their energizers, Trevon Diggs, Micah Parsons, and Randy Gregory, adding some sizzle to the unit with their sensational play over the first half of the season.
While Diggs has received plenty of attention for his ball-hawking skills on the island, it has been his ability to successfully "travel" with No.1 receivers that have sparked the defensive backfield early in the year. It is rare for a second-year pro to take on the challenge of guarding the likes of Mike Evans and Keenan Allen without assistance, yet Diggs has been up to the task while also providing a spark as a turnover specialist.
Gregory and Parsons have added swagger to the frontline with their athleticism and non-stop motors. The duo is relentless in their pursuit of the quarterback and ball carrier, and that collective energy is infectious. The group has fed off of their aggressiveness and enthusiasm as the entire defense competes to get in on the playmaking party.
DQ has stoked the competitive flames by enabling his young players to play free and loose within the system while holding them accountable for their performance by maintaining high effort standards. With the trio adhering to the guidelines while making plays, the Cowboys' defense looks like they are having a blast playing ball.
Which Greg Zuerlein will show up?
John Fassel has shown ultimate confidence in "Greg the Leg" this season, but the veteran has been inconsistent to date. Despite nailing some key kicks with the game hanging in the balance this season, he has missed a few layups (extra points and short-range field goals) that have impacted the game.
With the kicker unable to guarantee points on PATs and short-range field goals, the head coach and offensive coordinator must reconsider their offensive plans when nearing the red zone. The lack of confidence in the kicker could force more aggressive play calls and fourth-down gambles that create huge emotional swings on the sidelines.
In addition, the wavering faith in Zuerlein could put more pressure on Dak and Co. to make more plays when the offense is on the cusp of reaching the red zone. Sure, you want No.4 to keep his foot on the gas whenever he is on the field, but the added risk-taking could backfire if an errant throw or deflected pass lands in the hands of an opposing defender.
That's why it is important for the Cowboys to find out early in the second half of the season if Zuerlein is going to return to form due to the impact his kicking has on the rest of the squad. If he can regain his rhythm and swagger as one of the best long ball kickers in the game, the Cowboys' scoring range will expand and everyone will feel better about the team's chances of winning a close game in December/January.