(Editor's Note: Bucky Brooks brings a wealth of experience, not only as a former NFL player of five seasons, but also as a scout and on the pro personnel side for two teams. In the last decade, Brooks has worked in the media, including the NFL Network. Bucky will provide his own analysis and opinions of the Cowboys but also the entire NFL.)
After reviewing the film of the Cowboys' 37-34 win over the Giants, here are five observations based on the tape study.
Cowboys must tweak the offense to fit Andy Dalton's game.
Kellen Moore can talk up Dalton's athleticism and experience as reasons for the Cowboys continue down their current offensive path but the best play-callers in the league will adjust their play calls to accentuate the strengths of their quarterback's game. Prescott was playing like a Top 5 quarterback prior to his season-ending injury. He was on a record-breaking pace as a passer and his pinpoint passing had added an explosive dimension to the Cowboys' offense. Although Dalton has played at a Pro Bowl level (three-time selectee) during his 10-year, he is about five seasons away from playing to that standard. With that in mind, Moore needs to avoid the temptation to put too much on No.14's plate and pare down the playbook to ensure his former QB2 is comfortable on the field.
Studying the All-22 coaches' footage, Dalton is at his best operating out of the shotgun. Since his days at TCU, he has always been most effective playing in a spread-like offense that enables him to see the defense while also executing zone-read run plays, RPOs, and quick-rhythm throws from the pocket. As a high-IQ game manager with enough pitches in his repertoire to make the requisite throws in a ball-control offense, Dalton can keep the offense on schedule as long as the Cowboys aren't forced to play behind the chains.
With that in mind, Moore needs to mix up his early-down calls to prevent opponents from loading up to stop the run or sitting back in soft coverage to eliminate the layups that are typically available on first down. Unlike Prescott, Dalton isn't as comfortable throwing play-passes from under center. He has experience operating a traditional offense with old school play-action throws but he is at his best when is able to keep his eyes on the defense and assess the coverage from snap to whistle. He needs time to process the post-snap movement and identify the possible windows available in coverage.
Dalton also needs to throw from a clean pocket to be effective. The veteran has been prone to make mistakes when he is forced off of his spot due to pressure, particularly up on middle rushes. Given the Cowboys' offensive line problems, the team needs to focus on featuring "catch, rock and throw" concepts prominently in the game plan.
If Moore can keep Dalton's limitations in mind, the Cowboys' new QB1 can keep the offense afloat and the team in contention for the NFC East crown.
Feeding Zeke must become a top priority.
It is easy to forget No.21 is the best player on the offense when Prescott is throwing the ball all over the yard like a premier Madden gamer but Moore and Mike McCarthy have to get back to featuring Elliott as the focal point of each game plan. That doesn't mean that the Cowboys need to become a "three yards and a cloud of dust" outfit but the coaching staff needs to make sure that Elliott is getting enough touches to impact how the defensive coordinator elects to defend the offense.
Ideally, the Cowboys want opponents to utilize some "plus-one" defenses with an extra defender in the box with one on one coverage on the outside. This would make life easier for Dalton in the passing game with layups available to three talented receivers with big-play potential. With few opponents featuring three high-end cornerbacks on a roster, the cat and mouse game that can be created by utilizing Elliott as a pawn could help the Cowboys' offense thrive with a QB2 elevated into the starting role.
Playing "complementary football" becomes more important going forward.
The idea of throttling one of the NFL's most explosive offenses will drive some Cowboys' fans crazy but the team needs to revamp their blueprint to win without Prescott in the lineup. The Cowboys must become a team that operates with all three units and their coordinators working in unison to win the game. This methodology would require Moore to call offensive plays with the thought of protecting the defense in mind. This might prompt him to slow the game down a little to reduce the total number of possessions in the game, which would limit the possession the Cowboys' defense would also face. Considering their struggles, the reduction in reps could lead to fewer points from the opponent on the board.
Defensively, the loss of Prescott likely means fewer offensive points for the Cowboys. That significantly reduces the margin for error for a defense that's allowed 30-plus points in each of the past four games. Without the luxury of knowing the offense will put a 30-spot on the board, Nolan has to focus on creating more negative plays, turnovers, and scoring opportunities. To achieve that goal, the Cowboys will need to increase the number of blitzes on the call sheet and make it a point to force opponents to play behind the chains. If Nolan can force more long-yardage situations, particularly on early downs, the Cowboys will be able to dictate the term to the quarterback utilizing high-pressure calls or loaded coverage in obvious passing downs. With pressure and tight coverage windows creating errant throws or deflections, the Cowboys turnover numbers will go up with a more aggressive approach.
John Fassel has to tighten up the kicking units with Prescott on the sidelines. The Cowboys must win the field position battle to enhance their chances of scoring points with a depleted lineup. The return teams (punt return and kickoff return) need to produce more explosive plays to push the ball closer to midfield on changes of possession. On the coverage units, the Cowboys must do a better job of pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line while also attacking the ball in hopes of generating a timely turnover. The special teams have underachieved to date but the unit must turn things around quickly with optimal field position coveted more than ever.
Mike Nolan needs to turn up the pressure.
The Cowboys' defensive coordinator is mild-mannered and a little conservative by nature but he will need to step outside of his comfort zone to get his defense on track. Although the defense played with more energy and effort against the Giants, the performance still fell short of the standard for a playoff team. To his credit, Nolan attacked Daniel Jones with more pressures, particularly after Prescott's injury. The Cowboys need to continue with that approach to alleviate some of the pressure on the offense.
Whether Nolan dials up more man blitzes with his inexperience corners stranded on the island or mixing in some zone pressures with the corners assigned to take away the deep ball as one-third defenders, he has to put at least five defenders in the pass rush to create more chaos within the pocket. This is not Nolan's preference but after watching Jaylon Smith making a significant impact as a pass rusher, the wily defensive coordinator might need to step outside of the box for the Cowboys to win big in the NFC East.
The D-Line has to do more.
The Cowboys' veteran-laden frontline finally created the kind of havoc and chaos that many expected from the star-studded lineup. Demarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, Dontari Poe, and Everson Griffen routinely slipped into the backfield to harass and batter Jones in the pocket. Although some of their most effective pressures were a byproduct of Nolan's five-man blitzes, the creation of one-on-one match-ups utilizing pressure is exactly what the defense needed to pull off a hard-fought win.
That said, the Cowboys eventually need the frontline to create disruption on tradition three- and four-man rushes. Against the run, in particular, the Cowboys need to control the line of scrimmage and eliminate some of the leaks that have enabled runners to pick up big gains between the tackles. The Cowboys' vulnerability on the ground is problematic since it allows opponents to stay out of long-yardage situations. If the Cowboys are going to emerge as a playoff contender in spite of their injury woes, the D-Line will need to set the tone with improved play in the trenches.
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