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Back To The Future: How Rookies Stepped Up To End November Slide

(Editor’s Note: The 2017 Cowboys finished with a winning record, but they fell out of the playoffs in a disappointing follow-up to a 13-3 season. As the team seeks to find a way back to the postseason, the writers of DallasCowboys.com will look back at last year, picking a positive and a negative from all 16 games that might be something to either build on or correct as we head into the 2018 season.)

Game 11: Chargers 28, Cowboys 6

A third straight game without running back Ezekiel Elliott and linebacker Sean Lee ended in a third straight blowout loss, this time on Thanksgiving Day before a nationally-televised audience. Despite left tackle Tyron Smith’s return from a two-game injury absence, the offense continued its struggles sustaining drives. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw two interceptions, and the Cowboys went scoreless in the second half as L.A. scored 25 unanswered points and finished the game with 515 total yards of offense.

Encouraging: There’s no question the Cowboys missed Elliott’s ability to get big plays and grind out tough yards. But third-year back Rod Smith showed he could step in and make plays in a rotation with Alfred Morris. Smith scored his first career touchdown in the loss and averaged 4.6 yards on 9 carries. With Morris now set to be a free agent, Smith could have a chance to step into the No. 2 spot behind Elliott in 2018.

Discouraging: Big plays allowed on defense. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers had eight pass plays of 20 yards or more, the most allowed by the Cowboys in 2017. Four of those eight passes went for touchdowns. Rivers finished with 434 passing yards, another season-high total against the Dallas defense. Those struggles led to the Cowboys coaching staff holding more competition at cornerback the following week – and the start of a larger youth movement in the secondary over the final month.

Game 12: Cowboys 38, Redskins 14

Finally, the slide ended. On the heels of a three-game losing streak in which they were outscored 92-22, the Cowboys delivered a complete performance against their division rivals. Prescott led the offense on five scoring drives despite bruising his throwing hand in the second quarter. The defense sacked Washington’s Kirk Cousins four times, and the Cowboys turned a season-high four takeaways into 10 points.

Encouraging: The Cowboys got major contributions from two rookies in their bounce-back victory. Fourth-round pick Ryan Switzer’s 83-yard punt return for a touchdown gave Dallas a 17-0 lead with 3:46 left in the half. And second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie was productive in his first career start at cornerback. After playing only 57 snaps in the first 11 games due to injury, Awuzie played 53 snaps against the Redskins and tallied three tackles and three pass breakups. Awuzie showed skill and toughness down the stretch, a positive sign for 2018.

Discouraging: Remember the Tyreek Hill touchdown a few weeks back? The Redskins rematch marked another game in which the opposing offense directed a touchdown drive before halftime. This time, Cousins drove the Redskins 75 yards in only 2:47 and found Ryan Grant for a 20-yard score that cut the lead to 17-7 with just under a minute left. The Cowboys did a much better job of getting off the field in the second half, but finishing quarters strong certainly will be a focus in 2018.

 

Games 1 & 2  |  Games 3 &4  |  Games 5 & 6 |  Games 7 & 8

 

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