As the Cowboys hit the final five games of the season, they still find themselves in position to compete for the NFC East race, despite a 3-8 record.
Here are some of my thoughts about this team as they prepare for Baltimore next Tuesday.
The extra "bye week" could lead to improved play down the stretch.
The NFL's altered schedule has provided the Cowboys with what amounts to a second bye week. Mike McCarthy and his staff can take advantage of the additional prep time to clean up the mistakes and mental errors that have resulted in inconsistent performance from the squad. The offense, in particular, will have an opportunity to bring the offensive line up to speed on the exotic pressures that they are certain to face from the Ravens and others down the stretch. In addition, the coaching staff can harp on the fundamentals (ball security, penalty avoidance, and technique refinement) to help the skill players become more consistent and productive on game day.
Defensively, Mike Nolan can continue to stress the importance of gap integrity and proper pursuit angles to his front seven. The Cowboys' run defense will be tested by the Ravens' ground and pound attack, and their success will hinge on their discipline and attention to detail. The secondary should take advantage of the extra time to clear up any comprehension issues related to their base coverages. With so many young players and practice squad prospects rotating into the lineup, the coaching staff can use the extra time to teach, demonstrate, and drill the fundamentals over and over until they are mastered.
A young, reshuffled offensive line holds the key to the Cowboys' playoff hopes.
Winning in the NFL is all about controlling the trenches. The Cowboys will need to find a way to own the line of scrimmage with a reshuffled offensive line that features four starters with three or fewer seasons of experience. The lineup of Brandon Knight, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, and Terence Steele will need to quickly develop chemistry and continuity on the practice to handle the disruptive defensive lines remaining on the schedule. It is not ideal to constantly shuttle different blockers into the lineup but this combination needs to play at a high level despite their inexperience. The unit held their own against WFT for most of the game but the Cowboys will need a consistent performance from the frontline to string together a series of wins to climb to the top of the NFC East.
Zeke has to get back on track.
The All-Pro running back hasn't been on his game this season but he is still capable of leading the Cowboys into the playoffs if he plays to his potential. Studying No.21's game this season, he still flashes the strength, power, body control, balance, and vision that made him a two-time rushing champion. Although Elliott hasn't delivered the explosive plays that we are accustomed to seeing from him and he's put the ball on the turf too often, he is still a five-star player and he is the Cowboys' top offensive playmaker.
With that in mind, McCarthy has to find a way to get the fifth-year pro back on track as a dominant performer. Whether it is putting the ball in his hands on his favorite plays or giving him a pep talk to remind him of his greatness, the head coach has to find a way to get Elliott to play like an elite RB1. Elliott has to do his part by cleaning up his fumbling woes and locking in from a mental standpoint. The three-time Pro Bowler has owned up to his failures at every turn but the Cowboys need his actions to match his words. He can do that by focusing on his fundamentals and relying on his refined technique to produce better results.
Mike Nolan needs to clean up the Cowboys defense again.
The Football Team exposed the Cowboys' lack of gap discipline at the point of attack utilizing a running game that featured a mix of misdirection, deception, and power. WFT rushed for 182 yards on 36 rushing attempts, including a 115-yard effort from Antonio Gibson. The clever utilization of fly sweep motion and blur action froze the Cowboys' linebackers and edge defenders to create huge seams at the line of scrimmage. The hesitancy displayed by the Cowboys' defenders against WFT will encourage the Ravens and others to feature more misdirection and deception in the game plan.
To combat the motion and misdirection, the Cowboys will need to exhibit gap discipline at the point of attack with each defender occupying their assigned gap and ignoring the deceptive tactics. Although discipline and assignment errors have been a major problem for the defense, the Cowboys have shown steady improvement over the past month. If Nolan can clean up some of the errors that reappeared during the WFT game, the Cowboys will have a better chance of slowing down some of the dangerous rushing attacks that remain on their schedule.
McCarthy needs to scale back his gambling ways.
The Cowboys' head coach has won over 60-percent of his games with a straightforward approach that didn't feature excessive gambles and risky decisions. He routinely called the game by the book and his reliance on old school odds led to solid results. Since joining the Cowboys, McCarthy has become a more daring decision-maker with a host of failed fourth-down gambles, two-point attempts, and trick plays undermining the team's chances of winning.
Although it is easy to point to those failed decisions in hindsight, I'm more concerned about McCarthy's 180-degree turn as a decision-maker. He has abandoned an approach that made him one of the most successful coaches in NFL history in favor of a high-risk, high-reward strategy that produces inconsistent results.
In the NFL, more games are lost due to self-inflicted wounds (sacks, turnovers, and penalties) and questionable management decisions. McCarthy has won a number of games by coaching "clean" games with minimal risk-taking. If he wants to reverse the Cowboys' fortunes, he has to get back to the conservative approach that led his opponents to self-destruct under the pressure of needing to play a perfect game. McCarthy trusted a conservative process in the past to win big with the Packers and he needs to rely on that same process to chalk up wins in Dallas.