The Cowboys defied all odds to scratch out a 4-1 mark without their franchise quarterback on the field. Although the team could have won the fifth game with a better overall performance against the Eagles, Mike McCarthy and Co. should be pleased with where this team is at this stage of the season.
Given some time to review the film from Week 6 and reflect on where this team stands heading into a mid-season push, here are some thoughts and observations from a former NFL scout.
Good job, Cooper!
Despite a disappointing performance in a loss to the Eagles, the Cowboys should be pleased with how the backup quarterback kept the team in the playoff picture during Dak Prescott's injury-related absence. Rush guided the team to a 4-1 mark while also helping the Cowboys find an identity that could spark a deep post-season run.
As an efficient game manager, the veteran enabled the coaches to employ a ball-control approach that works well with the Cowboys' personnel. The run-first game plan put the ball in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard as the unit's primary playmakers. With the offensive line tasked with moving defenders off of the ball instead of spending most of their team in pass protection, the Cowboys played to the strengths of a frontline that was incorporating a few new faces into the lineup.
Rush's instincts, awareness, and management skills were critical to the unit's success as he made checks at the line of scrimmage to ensure the team was in the best play to handle a defensive front or coverage. In addition, the veteran kept the team on schedule by paying attention to the play clock and avoiding the pre-snap penalties (delay of game, false start, and illegal formation) that kill drives.
Most important, Rush avoided the costly turnovers (prior to the Eagles' game) that can tip the game in the opponent's favor. Although it is critical for the backup quarterback to be an effective passer for the offense to run effectively, it is more important for him to avoid throwing the ball to the other team. Rush was able to execute that task for most of his five-game run and the Cowboys were able to stay in the playoff race due to his sound judgment and solid execution.
The running game keeps getting it done
The Cowboys might have walked away with a loss, but they discovered their running game is effective and gives them a chance against any team.
With Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard leading the charge, the team rolled up 134 rushing yards on 26 carries (5.2 yards per attempt) and a score. The combination of inside and outside runs, and a persistent approach from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was effective against an Eagles' defense that did not have a solid answer for the ground-and-pound attack.
As the Cowboys' coaching staff takes a few notes for the rematch at the end of the season, the solid production on the ground could become the focal point of a game plan that produces a different result down the line. If the offensive line and running backs are capable of averaging five-plus yards on each rushing attempt against an Eagles' defense that is loaded with front-seven talent, they might have discovered a weakness that could eventually take the NFC leader down.
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
In the NFL, it is all about the ball. If you give the ball to your opponent, you can chalk up an "L" in the loss column on that day. The Cowboys discovered that lesson the hard way against the Eagles with three turnovers and a failed fourth-down conversion that gift-wrapped the win to their division rival.
Rush was responsible for each of the turnovers with a series of poor decisions that resulted in the Eagles taking the ball away on tipped or overthrown passes. The veteran had avoided those blunders during his first four starts, but the Eagles' constant harassment and sticky coverage forced him out of his comfort zone. As a result, he made some off-the-mark throws that were easy picks for the Eagles' sticky-fingered secondary.
The Cowboys' coaching staff should also shoulder some of the blame for the team's giveaways with a failed fourth-down conversion giving the Eagles the ball in scoring territory. Although I understood the gamble based on the team's success on the ground coming into the game, the decision to pass the ball on fourth-and-one was a little too cute for my tastes, particularly coming off a turnover on the previous possession.
With the Cowboys adding another turnover the following series, the Eagles were able to jump out to a 20-point lead in the second quarter due to three straight giveaways. In a high-stakes game against a division rival, the Cowboys must take better care of the ball to win against top teams.
DQ's defense is legit
The Cowboys did not knock off the league's only unbeaten team, but the defense should have walked out of the stadium knowing that they can carry this team to a title. Micah Parsons and Co. held their own against a vaunted running game directed by an athletic quarterback playing at an MVP level.
The Cowboys held the Eagles to fewer than four yards per carry (3.5) while containing Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders for most of the night. The defense's combination of speed, athleticism, and gap discipline made it hard for the Eagles' runners to find room on runs between the tackles or on the edges. The Cowboys surrendered just two explosive runs (10 yards or more) and kept the Eagles' explosive running duo under wraps for four quarters.
Against the pass, the Cowboys' frontline kept Hurts on the run in the pocket. The defense tallied four sacks with a persistent pressure plan that kept the third-year pro on the move. Although Parsons did not register a sack, he certainly commanded enough attention to enable Donovan Wilson, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, and Chauncey Golston to tally up sacks in the pocket.
With the pass rush effectively harassing Hurts within the pocket, the Cowboys' secondary was able to provide blanket coverage on the perimeter. Despite AJ Brown and Devonta Smith scoring key touchdowns, the Cowboys kept each pass catcher from making a significant impact play down the field. If the secondary can continue to bottle up to wideouts in the coming weeks, this defense will keep the Cowboys in the hunt as a viable contender going forward.
Will Dak's return change the offensive approach?
During No.4 absence, the Cowboys have discovered an offensive identity that works well with their personnel. That plan should not change with the Pro Bowl quarterback returning to the lineup. Despite his skill as a prolific pocket passer with outstanding chemistry with his pass catchers, the Cowboys should remain a run-heavy, play-action passing squad that features the running backs and offensive line as the focal point of the game plan.
While the fantasy football crowd might disagree with that sentiment, the Cowboys have been at their best throughout Prescott's tenure when they have operated as a run-first squad. The old-school approach enables the offensive line to move defenders off the ball and relies on the best running back combination in football to go to work with the ball in their hands. Prescott simply manages the game and makes a handful of plays in the passing game to take advantage of over-aggressive defenses adding extra defenders to the box.
Considering how well the offense (and defense) responded to this game plan during Prescott's absence, the onus should fall on the veteran quarterback to adjust to the plan. He must be willing to sacrifice style points for wins despite the stat sheet critics who could take him to task for putting up pedestrian numbers as a $40 million quarterback.
The all-star quarterback has won utilizing this approach in the past, and he could win it all this time around if he is willing to check his ego and go along with a plan that works well with this team.