FRISCO, Texas – The grades are in. For the defense.
Remember, Sunday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings was that unit's big test going up against a legit offense, the Vikings ranked fifth going into the game with weapons like Kirk Cousin, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. They also were balanced, eighth in rushing yards and sixth in passing yards, averaging just under 25 points a game.
Well, this defense passed with flying colors. And let's give those guys an A-minus, collectively the defense's best performance of the season, only yielding 16 points, that assuring the Cowboys, even scoring just 20, their sixth straight victory and remaining in the hunt for the No. 1 spot in the NFC.
Look, we have known about this offense for nearly the first half of the season, especially now with Dak Prescott expected to return for Sunday's noon start against Denver. Heck, healthy, we expected that, this team now averaging 29.2 points a game, down from the 34.2 after just the 20-point effort without Dak at quarterback against the Vikings.
Now the questions remain this: Is this defensive performance for real? Can the Cowboys consistently play defense at that level? Can they continue to improve?
Like, not only did the Cowboys hold Cousins to 184 yards passing and Cook to just 78 yards rushing, but after the Vikings scored a touchdown on that first possession, Dallas held Minnesota to just three more field goals while going 0-for-12 on third-down conversions. And just 278 total yards, the second fewest the Cowboys have given up in the past 23 games, just the 222 last year to Philly the first time around less.
So, when defensive professor Dan Quinn was asked if this game was his unit's best performance, he said, "Parts of the game I'd say were, yeah. We've been in some close, tough games, you build a little resiliency by going through those, and you never know how you're going to react until you get into those moments. So Mike has done a good job of putting the team in a lot of those situations. …
"You have to be in those fights to gain the confidence. You can't just talk about it. You got to live it. So, I think by going through those tough moments and coming out on the other end – strong – I think those are very important."
Hmmm, think he is agreeing with me. So, yes on that _shot_.
- Whack-A-Mole: Just like that great carnival game, just when you knock down one problem, Prescott seemingly ready to return this week, another one pops up. Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith, who couldn't finish Sunday's game against the Vikings, is dealing with an ankle bone spur, and head coach Mike McCarthy says he'll be "hard pressed to play this week." What to do, what to do? Well, easiest thing to do would seem to be inserting returning tackle La'el Collins to his right tackle spot and moving six-game starting right tackle Terence Steele to left tackle. Why? Because, first, Collins hasn't played left tackle since his LSU days in 2014. And, while Steele is just in his second season, he actually took a bunch of snaps at left tackle in training camp and also in preseason games, the Cowboys trying to determine if he could become the backup swing tackle. Seems it's time to swing.
- Bronco? Just so you know, when offensive coordinator Kellen Moore sent in the play Sunday night for receiver Cedrick Wilson to throw an end-around option pass that he completed for 35 yards to CeeDee Lamb, all he did was call for "Bronco." Why Bronco? Well, as the Boise State alum knows, Wilson went to Boise State, too, and they are the Broncos. Which answers the next question about what gives Moore the confidence to use Wilson in that capacity. He says, "Boise State." Yep Ced, a former high school QB, was used in that capacity at Boise, as Moore well knows.
- The Hulk: Moore keeps it simple when trying to name different offensive packages. Like when the Cowboys began using guard Connor McGovern as a blocking fullback, he simply named that package "Mac." Now then, did you see the Cowboys utilizing that inverted Wishbone formation a couple of times against the Vikings, with McGovern and Collins the front base of the triangle and Ezekiel Elliott behind at the point? That package includes 636 pounds of blockers behind the quarterback. So, the "Hulk" package making all the sense in the world.
- Wonder No More: There were some questioning why the Cowboys released sixth-year starting linebacker Jaylon Smith on Oct. 6. Should have gotten your answer this week when after spending one month in Green Bay after the linebacker-needy Packers picked him up, they cut him. Played just 27 snaps in two games, registering one tackle. Seems the game has passed him by.
- Brave New World: Let's hear it for the Braves, winning the World Series after not crossing the .500 mark until Aug.6, well past the MLB trade deadline. But instead of subscribing to this sell-off philosophy teams have, getting rid of good players for more prospects or creditable players in the final year of their contracts, Atlanta not only stood pat, but worked to add talent to the roster. Let that be a cautionary tale for those who get all hyped up around the NFL trade deadline, always looking forward instead of staying in the present. The Cowboys ignored that notion, sticking with their current roster, not making any trades to dimmish the talent for future draft choices. As if they are so talented, they could get rid of depth players.
- Little Shots: Despite scoring just 20 points against the Vikings, the Cowboys' Cooper Rush-led offense did total 419 yards, maintaining their standing as the No. 1 offense in the league, now averaging 454.9 yards a game, down just 6 yards … Not only that, the Cowboys rank No. 2 in rushing offense and No. 5 in passing offense, having gained at least 419 total yards in six of their seven games, the 380 in the wipeout of Philly the exception … Randy Gregory now has five sacks in six games – missed Game 2 with COVID – so on pace for 16 sacks over his potential 16-game season. No one not named DeMarcus Ware has produced at least that many since Hall of Famer Randy White had 16 in 1978 when the NFL didn't recognize sacks as an official statistic. Ware had seasons of 19.5 in 2011 and 20 in 2008, ranking one-two in franchise history since sacks became an official stat in 1982.
Let's give the last word to special teams coordinator John Fassel when asked about emergency special teams players. This came up after Sunday's Pittsburgh-Cleveland game when the Steelers lost kicker Chris Boswell to a head injury when getting hit trying to throw a pass on a fake field-goal attempt. The Steelers instead of having the punter attempt an extra point, went for two.
So John, who are your emergency replacements in the kicking operation?
"Taking (Sunday) for an example, Will Grier would have been our emergency holder," Fassel said since Grier was active with Dak out and Cooper Rush starting. "Bryan Anger (punter) would have been our emergency kicker and Greg Zuerlein (kicker) would have been our emergency punter. And we have a couple of guys who can snap it, Blake Jarwin can snap, Connor Williams can snap. And CeeDee Lamb can snap incredibly well. Yep, that's a fact, that's not just a joke."
When did he find that out?
"It might have been last year, messing around on the field," Fassel says. "You know, everybody thinks they can be a quarterback or point guard and (it was) 'Watch this,' and oh geez, he can really do it."
And what if Anger couldn't kick if Zuerlein got hurt? Got a non-kicker who could step in?
"Cedrick Wilson would be a punter and a kicker," Fassel said, but on second thought said, "really Cedrick would be a punter and Azura Kamara can actually kick field goals. And I know you think I'm up here joking around, but Tyler Biadasz can kick field goals."
Yep, saw that in training camp.
And now you know the rest of those stories.