The Week 9 bye comes at the perfect time for the Cowboys. The team has reached the mid-point of the season playing solid football, but a week to focus on the basics and fundamentals could help this team become a more dominant unit down the stretch.
Given some time to review the Cowboys' most recent games while exploring the team's biggest issues, here are some thoughts and observations on America's Team heading into the Bye Week…
More Tony Pollard, please!
The absence of Ezekiel Elliott allowed the Cowboys to give Tony Pollard more touches. And the fourth-year pro responded in splendid fashion with 147 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns on 15 touches. As an ultra-explosive playmaker with outstanding speed, quickness, balance, and body control, Pollard has a knack for slithering through creases to explode to the second level.
Against the Bears, the speedster put on a show that has some fans clamoring for No.20 to take on a more prominent role as the lead back for the Cowboys. Although Pollard certainly deserves more touches based on his robust average (6.7 yards per touch) and big play potential (six runs or pass receptions of 20 yards or more), the Cowboys are at their best utilizing a 1-2 punch that features the speedster and Elliott sharing the load in the backfield.
Considering how effective the Cowboys have been with No.20 and No.21 featured as the centerpiece of the game plan, Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore would be wise to stick with the rotation while bumping up Pollard's touches. Instead of giving the super-sub 10 touches each week, the Cowboys could give him four to six more opportunities to enhance his chances of breaking off a big play.
With Pollard thriving in his role as the change of pace back, the Cowboys should expand his role without abandoning a two-back rotation that has been a key component to the winning formula that has helped the team re-emerge as a legitimate contender in the NFC.
DQ's pass rush is the best in the business
After lavishing praise on the Cowboys' frontline for the past few weeks, it is time to acknowledge the unit as the best pass-rushing group in the league. Micah Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence, Dorrance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, Sam Williams, and Osa Odighizuwa are a disruptive collection of pass rushers with the talent to overwhelm opponents at the line of scrimmage.
While Parsons attracts the most attention as a Tasmanian devil with an exceptional combination of strength, power, and explosiveness off the edge. As a hybrid defender with the capacity to align as an off-the-ball linebacker or as an edge defender in a standup position or three-point stance, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year forces opponents to account for his whereabouts on every play. Moreover, offensive coordinators are challenged to come up with pass protection schemes that direct multiple blockers to No.11 to keep him from destroying the game at the line of scrimmage.
With opponents beginning to send more blockers to Parsons' side, the Cowboys are getting better production from the supporting cast at the line of scrimmage. Lawrence (4), Armstrong (5), Fowler (4) Williams (2), and Odighizuwa (2) have combined for 17 sacks and 29 QB hits in eight games. Considering the Cowboys lead the NFL with 33 sacks and 61 QB hits, the production generated from the "others" is a significant development based on Dan Quinn's creative scheming.
As the Cowboys make a playoff push behind a formula that relies on a powerful running game and a disruptive pass rush, the ability to knock opposing quarterbacks down early and often could help the team emerge as a title contender down the stretch.
Dak Prescott plays his role
Despite commanding $40-plus million annually as a franchise quarterback, Prescott and the Cowboys have been at their best when No.4 operates like a high-end game manager for the squad.
Against the Bears, Prescott was on his game completing 21 of 27 passes for 250 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. With the veteran posting a 77.8% completion rate and a 114.5 passer rating in the game, the efficient passing game is exactly what the Cowboys need to complement a dynamic running game that has become the foundation of the offensive game plan.
As Prescott grows increasingly comfortable playing in an offense that features more two- and three-tight end sets to enhance the ground attack, the veteran quarterback has a chance to guide the Cowboys on a title run operating under a "less is more" premise that would make some franchise quarterbacks cringe.
Keep an eye on the leaky run defense
The Cowboys might have dominated the Bears in Week 8, but surrendering 240 rush yards should set off the alarms in the defensive meeting room. Whether the Cowboys were willing to allow Justin Fields and Co. to run around like crazy as part of a defensive game plan designed to make the Bears drive the length of the field in a methodical fashion or the defense had an off day against the NFL's top-ranked rushing team, future opponents will see this tape and build game plans around a run-centric approach.
Considering the Eagles and Giants are run-heavy teams with dynamic weapons in the backfield, the Cowboys must squash the running game over the next few weeks or it could become the kryptonite that keeps them from realizing their potential as title contenders. If that requires more time dedicated to nine-on-seven and team drills focused on the running game, Quinn has to come up with a plan that suffocates running backs plunging between the tackles. How well the defensive coordinator fares fixing the Cowboys' run defense could determine whether this team vaults to the top of the charts in the NFC.
Rest or rust?
With the Cowboys heading into the Bye Week, McCarthy must determine how to best handle the next few days to give his team an opportunity to make a run down the stretch. The Super Bowl-winning head coach will assess his team's overall health to determine how to lighten the unit's workload while addressing the areas of needed improvement to become a heavyweight contender in the conference.
As the team takes the week to prep for an upcoming slate of competitive games against NFC contenders (SEE: Packers, Vikings, and Giants), McCarthy has to consider the "rest or rust" debate with his team. Can he trust his team to take a few days off but return ready and focused for the stretch run? Moreover, can he address the potential issues that could derail the team's title chances without beating the team up with excessive physical practices?
Given the Cowboys' early-season success, the veteran coach has to figure it out without disrupting the flow of his team.