The Cowboys have emerged as a title contender behind an offense that lights up scoreboards and a defense that specializes in generating turnovers. With the kicking units also performing at a high level, Mike McCarthy has "America's Team" looking like a heavyweight contender in the NFC.
Although the season is only four weeks old, you can see the Cowboys developing some of the traits that are associated with championship-caliber teams. That's why I wanted to dig into the tape to see the hows and whys behind the team's hot start. After taking some time to review the game tape from the Cowboys' recent win, here are some thoughts and observations from a former scout:
Dak is playing at an MVP level
No matter how you slice it, Prescott should be in the mix for the league's top individual honor. The sixth-year pro has piled up impressive numbers while directing an offense that is one of the most explosive units in the league.
Prescott ranks second in completion percentage (75.2%), third in passing touchdowns (10), and fourth in passer rating (116.9) while guiding an offense that is putting up 30-plus points per game with the third-most total touchdowns (16). The combination of the quarterback's efficiency and the offense's explosiveness should earn No.4 a few votes as the top playmaker in the league.
Moreover, the Cowboys' rise to the top of the NFC as a legitimate contender put more eyeballs on Prescott in the coming weeks. Considering how well he is playing while managing an offense that delivers knockout punches through the ground and air, the Cowboys' QB1 should be at the top of the list as an early-season MVP candidate.
The O-Line is getting it done in the trenches.
The Cowboys are always at their best when the big fellas are dominating in the trenches. The offensive line is the driving force of the team and their ability to have their way with the Cowboys' last three opponents has keyed the team's emergence as a contender. Tyron Smith and Zach Martin were expected to play at an all-star level based on their All-Pro resumes but it has been the play of Terrence Steele that has caught the attention of evaluators around the league.
The second-year pro has held his own at right tackle in place of La'el Collins. Steele has shown more power and pop than expected and displayed improved footwork and technique in pass protection. With the super-sub playing well, the Cowboys have been able to protect the edges and impose their will as a unit that wants to play "bully ball" at the line of scrimmage.
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are a problem.
It is hard enough to stop one dynamic runner in the backfield but it is nearly impossible to stop a pair of explosive running backs in the lineup. That's why the Cowboys' 1-2 punch at the position is making life miserable for defensive coordinators around the league.
Opponents are unable to focus solely on containing Ezekiel Elliott as the key to slowing down the Cowboys' offense due to the emergence of Tony Pollard as a key contributor in the RB2 role. Although an "RB1b" label more accurately describes how the Cowboys have been featuring Pollard in the rotation, the combination of the two backs rotating in and out of the lineup has made it challenging for defensive coordinators to come up with a solid plan to neutralize the running game.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has done an excellent job of tailoring the call sheet to each runner's strengths (Elliott thrives in the power game; Pollard shines on the edges) while also mixing in enough tendency breakers to keep opponents on their toes.
The plan has worked out well with Elliott's carries and rushing totals improving each week. The former All-Pro topped the 100-yard mark in Week 4 after tallying 95 and 71 yards, respectively, in the previous two games. The steady improvement from a workhorse runner is significant as the team begins to find its offensive identity.
With Pollard also receiving at least 10 carries and tallying 60-plus yards in each of the past three games, including his 109-yard effort in Week 2 (13 carries), the Cowboys' offense suddenly has punching power from both hands.
Trevon Diggs is the NFL's new CB1.
After watching Trevon Diggs snag his fifth interception of the season and his eight picks over the past nine games, it is time to hand the second-year pro the title belt as the top corner in the league. He deserves top billing on the marquee after showing a combination of ball skills, instincts, and awareness that separates him from others at the position.
Sure, Jalen Ramsey and Jaire Alexander deserve their props for locking down half of the field in coverage, but the NFL is about creating turnovers and no one is taking the ball away better than Diggs. The all-star cover corner is emerging as a ball magnet with an uncanny ability to pick off errant passes on deflections, overthrows, and educated guesses.
The youngster's playmaking prowess jumps off the screen when reviewing his game film, and it is one of the reasons why the football world is suddenly buzzing about his emergence as a superstar on the island. Given Diggs' playmaking prowess and his "traveling" skills as a man-to-man corner, it is hard to find a better CB1 on the planet and that is why deserves top billing at the position.
DQ has worked wonders with the defense.
Coaching really matters in the NFL. That is the only way that I can explain how the Cowboys' defense has improved dramatically this season after stinking up the joint a season ago.
Dan Quinn has given the unit an identity while also creating a culture of commitment, accountability, and trust. The defense is playing with greater effort, intensity, and energy than the previous version, and that has resulted in improved performance.
In addition, the Cowboys have eliminated some of the glaring mistakes that routinely contributed to their losing ways. The mental mistakes and blown assignments that enabled receivers to run free and clear through secondary have disappeared. And the unit has reduced the silly penalties that extend drives and lead to more points for the opponent.
Listening to the Cowboys' defenders in interviews, it is not a coincidence that Quinn and his coaches are frequently praised for their efforts. Players have pointed to the clear and concise communication and the detailed instruction as critical parts of the turnaround. The defense not only understands performance expectations but they are holding each other accountable for their effort between the lines. The increased player-to-player accountability has created a culture that produces successful results and a championship swagger.
With the defense showing gradual improvement in a short span, the credit should go to DQ and his staff for cleaning up the scheme and changing the culture in the defensive meeting room.