Back To The Future: Lessons From September

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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 1: Panthers 16, Cowboys 8

Encouraging: It’s hard to find a ton to be encouraged about from such a shaky start to the season, but we did start to see signs of the Cowboys’ ability on defense from the very start. At the outset, it looked like it was going to be a long day, as Cam Newton ran all over the Cowboys in the first half to help Carolina build a 10-0 lead. The defense buckled down in a big way, though, as the Panthers managed just 84 yards after halftime. The Cowboys showed off an ability in the red zone that would become a trend, as they limited the Panthers to just two touchdowns on five trips.

Alarming: Every, single thing about the offensive performance was cause for alarm here. Against a talented Carolina front, the Cowboys struggled to run the ball effectively, and the Panthers’ double-digit lead eventually forced them to abandon that aspect of their game. The offensive line couldn’t protect Dak Prescott, as he was sacked six times. To top it off, Prescott couldn’t get on the same page with anyone in his wide receiver committee, as he struggled to find open receivers and missed throws when guys could generate some space – bad misses to Blake Jarwin and Michael Gallup spring to mind. The Cowboys were able to manage these problems as the season went along, but they were issues that would reoccur throughout the 2018 season.

Game 2: Cowboys 20, Giants 13

Encouraging: Week 2 provided another glimpse at the defense that would wind up carrying much of the season. Yes, the Giants would score 10 points in garbage time to make this game look respectable, but they didn’t get onto the scoreboard until the final five minutes of the third quarter. Eventual NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley had 80 receiving yards on the night, but he needed 14 catches to get there. He also finished with just 28 rushing yards. The Giants managed just 255 total yards on the day and weren’t a threat to score a touchdown until the final 90 seconds of the game.

Alarming: It looked like the Dallas offense was going to break out early, as Tavon Austin went 64 yards to the house on the third play of the game. Unfortunately, that was about it. The ground game fared better and Ezekiel Elliott tacked on a 6-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the offense still looked anemic. The Cowboys went just 3-of-10 on third down, which is a big reason why this game wasn’t a blowout.

Game 3: Seahawks 24, Cowboys 13

Encouraging: It goes to show how ugly the start of the season was that, once again, it’s hard to find a ton of encouraging aspects from this game. Prescott was once again completely overrun by an opposing front, as he was sacked five times and struggled to find receivers downfield. If there was one positive, it was that the Dallas ground game finally broke out. The Cowboys ran for 166 on the Seahawks, and Ezekiel Elliott rumbled for 127. Of course, Elliott had a forgettable day despite that. His step out of bounds nullified a potential game-tying touchdown, and his fumble in the fourth quarter killed any hope of a comeback. It was just that type of day.

Alarming: By this point in the season the offense was a five alarm fire, having failed to score more than 20 points in three-straight games. In the interest of not sounding repetitive, it’s fair to note that the defense showed problems against the big play. With Xavier Woods sitting out, the Cowboys struggled in coverage and Tyler Lockett made them pay. Lockett’s 52-yard touchdown was a back-breaker, putting Seattle up by 11 points. It was also incredibly uncharacteristic of what we’ve grown accustomed to from Rod Marinelli’s defenses.

Game 4: Cowboys 26, Lions 24

Encouraging: At long last, the Cowboys showed us a glimpse of what Zeke Elliott can contribute as a receiver. At this point in the season, Elliott had caught just 11 passes for 37 yards, so it’d have been hard to guess he was headed for a career year as a pass catcher. Week 4’s dramatic win was a taste of what was to come. Elliott only caught four passes, but they went for 88 yards – the highest total of his career. He caught a 38-yard touchdown on a screen in this game, but no catch was more important than his 34-yard wheel route to set up Brett Maher’s 38-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired.

Alarming: Again, another uncharacteristic day from the Dallas pass defense. Golden Tate victimized the Cowboys’ DBs, going off for two touchdowns and 132 yards on eight catches. No moment was more egregious than Tate’s first touchdown, when Jourdan Lewis slipped in coverage and Jeff Heath took a poor angle in pursuit, allowing Tate to waltz into the end zone from 45 yards out. Again, for a unit that finished in the top half of the league in pass defense, it was an uncharacteristic showing.

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