5 Bucks

5 Bucks: Defense Now Clicking Under Mike Nolan? 

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The Cowboys must play like a blue-collar team.

Perhaps it is the flashy star on the helmets or the fancy uniforms that have prompted the Cowboys to embrace a glitzy and glamorous playing style at times, but Mike McCarthy's squad is at their best when they function like a blue-collar outfit. The Cowboys not only increase their chances of winning by leaning on a hard-hitting rushing attack and efficient passing game to control the tempo and the clock, but adhering to an old-school philosophy enables the squad to also overcome key personnel losses.

With their QB1 and a pair of starting offensive tackles on the sidelines, the conservative approach is the best way for McCarthy to keep the Cowboys in the hunt for the NFC East title. The ball-control formula protects a patchwork offensive line and a collection of backup quarterbacks rotating in and out of the lineup. In addition, the "keep away" tactics are part of a complementary football strategy that enables the Cowboys to protect a struggling defense that couldn't get stops or keep points off of the scoreboard.

If the Cowboys are going to earn a playoff berth via a division title, they will need to find a way to get to eight wins. The best way to hit the magic number is by adhering to a conservative strategy that features a blue-collar offensive approach built around the running game and high-percentage aerial attack.

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are a formidable duo.

The Cowboys' backfield features a couple of dynamic playmakers in Elliott and Pollard. The two-time NFL rushing champ hasn't posted gold standard numbers, but he remains one of the most dangerous runners in the game. Elliott continues to flash the balance, body control and power that made him the NFL's undisputed RB1 a few seasons ago. Although his fumbling woes and lack of 100-yard games have led to some concerns regarding his game, the All-22 coaches' tape still reveals a blue-chip performer at the position. Sure, he hasn't played to his standard as a top-five back, but he remains one of the most feared playmakers at the position.

Pollard has started to come on in recent weeks as an electric RB2. The second-year pro has settled into his role as a change-of-pace back with 30 or more rushing yards in four of the Cowboys' last five games. That number doesn't jump off the stat sheet, but it speaks to his contributions as a super-sub behind Elliott. Pollard shows more juice and pop with the ball in his hands than No.21, and his ability to slither through cracks adds a dimension to the Cowboys offense.

The defense is beginning to click under Mike Nolan.

The Cowboys' defensive coordinator has been under fire for his unit's poor performance at the beginning of the season, but things are beginning to come together for Nolan's squad. The Cowboys defense has put up back-to-back solid performances while showing significant improvement with their communication, effort and tackling. The defense has reduced their blown assignments due to miscommunication, and defenders appear to have a better grasp of their roles and responsibilities. Part of that could be due to a reduction in volume on the call sheet, but the improved performance is likely due to better comprehension through game experience.

From an effort standpoint, the Cowboys are certainly exhibiting more hustle on the field. The defense is running to the ball as a collective unit, and the "loafs" have seemingly disappeared. Nolan and McCarthy suggested that the defense was playing hard when questioned earlier this season, but it is clear that a message has been sent to the unit based on their improved effort between the lines.

Addition by subtraction has worked well for the defense.

When the Cowboys moved on from Dontari Poe, Daryl Worley and Everson Griffen, McCarthy and Nolan were clearly sending a message to the defense that every defender was accountable for their production and performance. The underachieving veterans weren't giving the Cowboys quality reps, and their presence in the lineup prevented some hard-working players from getting valuable snaps.

Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore, in particular, needed more time on the field as energizers with athleticism, speed and quickness. The duo has upped the energy for the entire defense and added some playmaking to the mix. Gregory's disruptive skills as an edge defender have repeatedly shown up on tape since his insertion into the lineup in Week 8. The 6-foot-5, 242-pounder has recorded seven tackles, a tackle for loss and two QB hits in the last two games while exhibiting a high-revving motor as a speed rusher off the edge.

Gallimore has started to make his mark as an interior disruptor at the point of attack. The Cowboys' third-round pick has flashed as a "move" defender on slants and angles designed to create immediate penetration at the line of scrimmage. Gallimore displays outstanding snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness on the way to the ball. His disruption has helped the Cowboys control the point of attack against the run in recent weeks.

With Gregory and Gallimore playing bigger roles on the defense, the unit has improved quickly with a crew of young, hungry players on the field.

Make no mistake about it, the Cowboys are Dak's team.

The Cowboys are in a prime position to land a top pick in a 2021 draft that could feature a few blue-chip quarterback prospects. The intrigue surrounding the next generation of QB1s has fueled speculation that the Cowboys could grab a young passer with Dak Prescott unsigned beyond this season.

While I understand the sentiment based on No. 4's injury situation and contract demands, the Cowboys should have a better understanding of their QB1's value after watching the offense with and without him. Prescott was playing at an Offensive Player of the Year level prior to his injury and the offense hasn't been the same since his departure. The Cowboys were capable of dropping 40-burgers on any opponent with Prescott throwing dimes to a talented wide receiver corps that appeared to be indefensible.

Although his robust numbers weren't rewarded with wins, the fifth-year pro was keeping the team in contention despite historically poor performance from the defense. Prescott masked the team's biggest flaws with his MVP-caliber play, and the team has certainly recognized his evolution from game manager to playmaker. With an opportunity to elevate the franchise with the acquisition of another blue-chip player, the Cowboys should avoid the 2021 quarterback class and give Prescott a weapon to help him take the team to another level.

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