In the NFL, teams make the biggest improvement between the season opener and Week 2. Perhaps it takes a week for players to adjust to the increased speed and pace of regular season action or it is simply a case of being able to identify and correct the errors from Week 1.
Regardless, the performance between the lines typically improves after the season opener. After reviewing the game tape of the Cowboys' 20-17 win over the Bengals, it is apparent that this team went to work on the practice field and in the film room after a disappointing season opener. Here are my thoughts….
The stage isn't too big for Cooper Rush
It is hard to find backup quarterbacks with the confidence and skills to play well as a long-term sub, but the Cowboys might have found a unicorn in the fifth-year pro.
For the second year in a row, Rush stepped in for Dak Prescott and led the team to a win against a quality opponent. The veteran not only completed 19 of 31 passes for 231 yards with a score, but he connected five different receivers and avoided relying solely on CeeDee Lamb to anchor the passing game.
As a result, the Bengals could not double team or tilt coverage to No.88 or Noah Brown or Dalton Schultz on intermediate passes on the other side of the field. With Rush showing an obvious connection and chemistry with Brown, the Cowboys' passing game looked more diverse and efficient in Week 2.
While the jury is still out on whether Rush could ever develop into a potential starter in the league, Rush has clearly shown the Cowboys that he is a capable option as a ready reserve.
The offense must run through No.20 and No.21
The loss of an all-star quarterback required offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to make some adjustments to the game plan. Instead of throwing the ball all over the yard, the clever play caller decided to put the ball in the hands of his best offensive players—Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott.
Although we can debate which running back deserves to occupy the RB1 role, the Cowboys are a much better squad when each player is featured prominently in the game plan. Pollard
(speed, quickness and route running skills) and Elliott (power running and pass protection) bring different skills to the table but they are all-star talents in their roles.
Against the Bengals, the duo combined for 147 scrimmage yards on 29 touches to spark an offense that looked punchless in the season opener. By making a greater commitment to give No.20 and No.21 enough touches, particularly on the ground, to make an impact, the Cowboys were able to control the clock while enhancing their odds of generating a big play.
With Prescott likely on the shelf for a few more weeks, the Cowboys will need Pollard and Elliott to continue to shoulder a heavy workload to scratch out wins with a short-handed lineup.
Put the game on DQ's shoulders
Whenever a team loses a franchise quarterback, the rest of the squad needs to pick it up to make up for the loss. For the Cowboys, the defense will need to hold it down until No.4 returns to spark an offense that will struggle to score points in his absence.
Given those circumstances, the pressure is squarely on Dan Quinn to hold the score down to give the Cowboys a chance to win. As the defensive coordinator, he must call the game knowing that he does not have the luxury of relying on the offense to put 28 or more points on the board.
Against the Bengals, it was easy to see the shift in philosophy play out between the lines. Instead of opting for a "bend but don't break" approach that allows the opponents to move the ball down the field on short throws but eliminates the big play, Quinn dialed up more blitzes and pressures designed to create negative plays or turnovers to give the offense the ball back with favorable field position.
In addition, he decided to play tight coverage on the perimeter to take away the easy throws to a talented cast of pass catchers on the perimeter. Without access to the layups, Joe Burrow was forced to sit in the pocket and deal with an aggressive pass rush that whipped the Bengals' offensive line. From Micah Parsons' abusing La'el Collins and Jonah Williams to Dorrance Armstrong showing up everywhere to Dante Fowler making key contributions, they unleashed their energetic frontline defenders on the Bengals with great success.
With the pass rush and coverage completely disrupting the Bengals' offensive rhythm, the Cowboys were able to keep the score down and prop up a conservative offense that lacks the firepower to win a shootout.
Micah Parsons is a one-man wrecking crew
The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year is poised to make a run at the Defensive Player of the Year award if he continues to dominate opponents in spectacular fashion.
Against the Bengals, Parsons gave multiple blockers the blues with impressive whippings that showcased his athleticism, explosiveness, and pass rush skills. From his ability to win with speed or power to his deadly hand-to-hand combat skills, the Cowboys' designated defensive playmaker completely destroyed the Bengals' game plan with his combination of skills. With four tackles, two sacks and five QB hits on the stat sheet, the production speaks for itself.
As the Cowboys transition into becoming a defensive-led team in Prescott's absence, Parsons has a chance to make his case for the DPOY award. If No.11 continues to single-handedly take over games, it is going to be hard to keep the second-year pro from snagging the trophy this season.
The secondary steps up
Credit the Cowboys' defensive backfield for suffocating one of the most talented WR corps in the league. The talented trio of Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd have given opponents fits over the past two seasons, but the Cowboys never allowed the Bengals' pass catchers to get it going on Sunday.
Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis not only won their individual matchups against the stars but their willingness to harass and challenge the wideouts at the line of scrimmage. The combination of sticky coverage, clever pre-snap disguises, and flawless execution, particularly in Cover 2 and "2-Man" (two deep, man under) coverages enabled the Cowboys to suffocate an offense with explosive potential.
If the defensive backfield can continue to lock in and perform at an all-star level, the Cowboys will have a chance to remain in the hunt as a playoff contender.