The season is just three weeks old, but it appears that the Cowboys are already playing "must-win" games with skeptics dismissing their playoff chances after Dak Prescott's unfortunate injury. The doubters did not believe the Cowboys could switch up their styles to help their backup quarterback succeed in a game that could have playoff implications down the road.
Although it is too soon to make bold predictions on how the Cowboys are going to finish, the gutsy showing against the New York Giants has led to some optimism surrounding a team that is playing hard and exhibiting the requisite toughness needed to snag a ring. Given some time to assess the film from the Cowboys' latest, here are some notes from my film study…
The Cowboys are finally playing complementary football
Sometimes it takes an injury to help a team find a playing style that suits the identity of the team. The loss of Dak Prescott appeared to ruin the Cowboys' season, but it has been a blessing in disguise.
Without No.4 in the lineup, the coaching staff had to devise a plan to win games with a backup quarterback in the lead role. Although every team would love to have a high-end QB2 with the talent and experience to carry out the original game plan, the Cowboys were riding with a fifth-year pro with only a handful of career starts under his belt.
Given the uncertainty of how an inexperienced player would perform as a long-term sub, Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore have decided to call a more conservative game that prioritizes the running game and limits mistakes. By leaning into a ground-and-pound attack spearheaded by Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, the Cowboys have been able to control the clock, reduce negative plays and wear down their opponents in the fourth quarter.
Moreover, the decision to adopt a blue-collar style has resulted in the Cowboys playing "big boy" football with heavy personnel (multiple tight ends) on the field. The increased utilization of "12" personnel has enabled the Cowboys to run the ball effectively between the tackles while also incorporating maximum pass protection schemes.
With more time to throw from the pocket due to play-action fakes and rock-solid protection, the backup quarterback has flourished as a game manager.
Defensively, the loss of Prescott has prompted Dan Quinn to adopt an aggressive plan that features more bluffs, blitzes, and pre-snap disguises. The savvy defensive play caller wants to create chaos at the line of scrimmage with the quarterback and offensive line unable to determine when and where the pressures are coming from. The ultra-aggressive style meshes well with a ball control offense that wants to play "keep away" from the opponent.
With the Cowboys' deliberate offensive approach reducing the total possessions in the game and limiting the opponent's scoring chances, the aggressive defensive plan takes advantage of opponents abandoning the running game to chase points through the air. The persistent pressure created by the steady stream of twists, games, and five-man blitzes has led to more sacks, turnovers, and negative plays.
If the Cowboys continue to dominate in the kicking game to obtain prime field position or timely field goals, the team's new three-phase plan could result in a playoff berth or division title when the regular season ends.
Cooper Rush is getting it done
Credit the journeyman quarterback for being ready when his number was called. Rush has exceeded expectations as a long-term sub with a 2-0 record in a pair of starts for a team that was expected to struggle under his direction.
The fifth-year pro has not only avoided the costly turnover but he has made a few timely plays that have helped the Cowboys win games. From his pinpoint throws to CeeDee Lamb and Noah Brown to his ability to get the Cowboys in the best play, the veteran has played like a high-end game manager for the team. Rush's composure, poise, and judgment have enabled the Cowboys to manage the game effectively to compensate for their deficiencies on each side of the ball.
Considering how some quarterbacks lack the self-awareness and football acumen to play the game in a controlled manner, the football character and maturity displayed by Rush certainly make him a rare find as a QB2.
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are a perfect combination
Ignore the No.21 versus No.20 debates that take place on hot take-shows around the country. The Cowboys are at their best when each player plays a significant role in the game plan.
As the Cowboys continue to lean into a running game that has sparked their two-game winning streak, the combination of Elliott and Pollard on the ground has given opponents problems due to their contrasting styles.
Elliott is the bruiser with the size, strength, and power to move the pile. He excels on inside runs between the tackles due to his rugged running style and tough guy demeanor. The former Pro Bowler is no longer the explosive runner that used to claim rushing crowns, but he is an effective battering ram who is capable of churning out a 100-yard game on a heavy workload.
Pollard is the explosive runner who excels on the edges and in the screen game. He flashes outstanding stop-start quickness and instant acceleration as a perimeter runner who prefers to attack off-tackle plays. Although he has shown the ability to find creases on inside runs, Pollard's explosiveness and jitterbug running style make him an ideal fit as a change-of-pace weapon.
The talking heads will continue to pit Elliott against Pollard in a debate over which runner should occupy the Cowboys' RB1 role, but the coaches have figured it out by utilizing a system that enables the duo to play together in a running back-by-committee situation.
Dan Quinn's D-Line dominates
The Cowboys' surprising 2-1 start after Prescott's injury can be attributed to the solid play of a defensive frontline who has turned it up since No.4's departure. Led by Micah Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler, and Dorrance Armstrong, the Cowboys have pummeled their opponents in the trenches. The combination of size, speed, and strength has overwhelmed offensive lines ill-equipped to deal with pass rushers with the capacity to utilize power or finesse to get the quarterback.
Quinn has helped his frontline get loose by featuring more twists, games, and blitz pressures designed to confuse pass protectors or create favorable one-on-one matchups. The combination of a creative scheme and blue-chip talent has enabled the grizzled defensive coordinator to dial up the pressure when the Cowboys need a stop.
With the team slowly transforming into an old-school unit that relies on the performance of the defense and running game, Quinn will need to keep dialing up the pressure to help the Cowboys' defense carry the squad to more wins.
Will the Cowboys continue to stick to the blueprint when Dak returns?
After watching the Cowboys win a pair of games utilizing a blue-collar game plan that prioritized the running game over quarterback stats, I wonder if Moore will continue to build his call sheet around Elliot and Pollard or put the ball in the hands of Prescott when he returns.
Despite No.4's status as the team's franchise quarterback, the coaching staff cannot deny the team has responded better to a more balanced offensive plan that features heavy personnel and a nice mix of runs and passes. The blueprint is similar to the ones utilized by the team in Prescott's early years when the team claimed a pair of division titles within his first four years.
While the quarterback's hefty contract has confirmed his status as the team's franchise quarterback, it is apparent that the Cowboys are at their best when the team plays through the running backs and offensive line with a complementary aerial attack. The style is not sexy but it has always been effective for the team since Prescott's arrival and the Cowboys should stick to the plan when No.4 returns.