Back/Future: Breakouts & Identity For 2019

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(Editor’s Note: The 2018 Cowboys were able to overcome a slow start to the season and not only make the playoffs, but win a game in the postseason. As the team looks to improve on that success, the writers of DallasCowboys.com will look back at last year, picking a positive and a negative from all 18 games that might be something to either build on or correct as we head into the 2019 season.)

Game 9: Cowboys 27, Eagles 20

Encouraging: The Cowboys saved their season that night at The Linc, the start of a five-game win streak. How, exactly? They got their identity back, plain and simple. Running back Ezekiel Elliott had gained under 100 rushing yards in three of the previous four games. Against Philly, he piled up 151 yards (the fourth-highest of his career) and a touchdown on only 19 carries. It was a statement performance for the run game and the offensive line, which promoted Marc Colombo to primary position coach during the bye week. Colombo’s task: re-instill the right mentality for that proud group up front. They did just that in the most important game of the season to date.

Alarming: The offense got back on track, but the defense let quarterback Carson Wentz and the Eagles hang around in the second half. Tight end Zach Ertz caught two touchdown passes and finished with 14 catches for a whopping 145 yards. Wentz hit pass plays of 21, 18 and 51 yards on three consecutive scoring drives to tie the game midway through the fourth quarter before the Cowboys took the lead for good. Overall, the Dallas defense did a good job of limiting big plays in 2018, and Ertz was held to five catches for 38 yards in the second meeting, also a Cowboys win. But the two-time Pro Bowler will continue to be a difficult matchup for Dallas moving forward.

Game 10: Cowboys 22, Falcons 19

Encouraging: If the above-mentioned Eagles game wasn’t Leighton Vander Esch’s breakout, circle this one. Vander Esch became the sixth Cowboys rookie in franchise history to reach 100 tackles in a season and the first Cowboys linebacker since 2013 (Sean Lee) with an interception in consecutive games. His pick on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan set up the Cowboys’ lone touchdown of the game, a 23-yard run by Elliott that pushed the lead to 19-9 in the fourth quarter. Dallas never looked back.

Alarming: Left tackle Tyron Smith suffered a neck stinger on the Cowboys’ winning field goal drive and would miss the next two games, a reminder moving forward of how critical the depth is behind their veteran Pro Bowler. Cameron Fleming stepped in the following two weeks, both Cowboys victories, but he’s set to be an unrestricted free agent in March. The club will have to decide how to address the backup spot behind the 28-year-old Smith.

Game 11: Cowboys 31, Redskins 23

Encouraging: This was Dak-Zeke-Amari at their balanced best. Prescott completed 71 percent of his passes, threw two touchdown passes and added a rushing score. Elliott averaged 4.7 yards per carry with one touchdown. Cooper, in his fourth game as a Cowboy, racked up 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 90-yarder that broke the game wide open. Easily one of the most efficient performances by the offense all season.

Alarming: Washington stayed in the game with a pair of second-half touchdown drives, both of which began inside Cowboys territory. First Trey Quinn set the offense up at the Dallas 25-yard line with a 30-yard punt return, then Danny Johnson’s 44-yard kickoff return got the Redskins to the Dallas 44. It was a major boost for a Washington offense playing without injured quarterback Alex Smith, and a reminder that the Cowboys’ special teams had to remain sharp going forward.

Game 12: Cowboys 13, Saints 10

Encouraging: The Patriots’ domination of the Rams was hands-down the best defensive performance all season. The Cowboys’ effort against the 10-1 Saints ranks right behind Super Bowl Sunday. Dallas held the Saints 27 points below their scoring average at the time. New Orleans had scored on just over 60 percent of its drives entering the game, but got points on only 2 of 9 drives against Dallas. It was a remarkable effort and a glimpse of this young defense’s potential in 2019 and beyond.

Alarming: As good as the defense was, the Cowboys’ offense just couldn’t cash on their drives. They converted touchdowns on only 1 of 5 trips inside the Saints’ 20-yard line, a microcosm of their season-long red zone issues. The Cowboys finished the year ranked near the bottom of the league in red zone efficiency and last in goal-to-go efficiency.

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