FRISCO, TX — There's no point in spreading icing on a pile of whatever the mules left behind after they finished their lunch, because the fact is the Dallas Cowboys got their asses handed to them in their first major test of the 2023 season — flunking the assignment against the San Francisco 49ers before hitting study hall to boost their GPA back to a respectable level.
Thankfully, they've gotten back to doing special things on defense and special teams, but here comes the cavalry by way of Dak Prescott and an offense that had been mostly stagnant through the first one-third of the season.
Prescott received a solid grade for willing the offense forward in the 20-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers heading into the bye week but, two weeks later, took the other team from LA out back and beat them within an inch of their lives.
It was a 43-20 shellacking that felt less like a football game and more like a snuff film.
That victory marked the 11th consecutive win at home for the Cowboys, defeating their opponents to the tune of 111-33 this season at AT&T Stadium, and there could not have been a better time to prove they can play a complete game, because now it's time to face the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles (7-1) for the first time this season.
And so the question now becomes … will Dallas ace the midterm exam?
"Let's make it three [best games of the season] next week. I'm in rhythm. It feels good. … A lot goes into it, and a lot of it's the other guys. It's not just me." - Dak Prescott
Lesson No. 1: Fast Start or Else
The answer can certainly be yes, but only if they've learned the harsh lessons from not showing up prepared in Santa Clara — unsharpened No. 3 pencils (nope, not No. 2) and the like.
Prescott owns an 8-3 career record against the Eagles, is 3-2 at Lincoln Financial Field and 1-0 in the only head-to-head matchup he's had with Jalen Hurts — a 41-21 thumping in Arlington in 2021 — so it's safe to say he knows his way around this division foe quite well.
One of the early mistakes made against the 49ers was suffering a 14-0 deficit. That simply can not happen against a top-shelf team, and especially on the road. It mostly turned the Cowboys one-dimensional and that played right into the hands of Fred Warner and Co., because Dallas had to scrap whatever plans it entered the game with and try to instead throw themselves back into the game.
In the end, a 14-point deficit became a 21-point deficit that then became a 25-point deficit that ended in a 32-point loss, including four giveaways (three interceptions and a lost fumble).
Get behind early on the Eagles and things will start to look eerily similar at Lincoln Financial Field.
Lesson No. 2: Don't Silence the Lamb
Another mistake was finally finding something that worked on offense against the 49ers and then abandoning it, e.g., Jake Ferguson caught all three of his passes in the first half before seeing no targets over the remainder of the game.
This directly ties to my disappointment in seeing the offense force 10 targets on a struggling Michael Gallup at SoFi Stadium on a night wherein there were opportunities for Ferguson down the seam, with CeeDee Lamb on a heater and as Brandin Cooks finally started to warm up in the Texas Coast offense for the first time.
Gallup has had some very good games this season, and the overarching point is directed not at the player, but at the lesson: find the hot hand(s) and keep feeding them until the leather melts off of the ball; or until the defense proves they can stop them.
There is only one exception to this rule and, you guessed it, it's Lamb.
In looking at Lamb's three best outings this season, he and Prescott connected on 30 catches of 34 attempts (88% - ha!) for a total of 418 yards and three touchdowns with NO interceptions, and with an average of 13 yards per reception. Against the 49ers, he was targeted only five times through 60 minutes of football, despite catching four of those targets for 49 yards (12.3 yards per reception).
"Not necessarily surprised. That's what we're looking for week in and week out. That's how we should play and that's just more of a stepping stone to what's to come." - CeeDee Lamb
He was targeted just once in the first quarter, just once in the second quarter, twice in the third quarter and once in the fourth quarter with the game well out of hand.
Feed Lamb early so he can eat as much of the grass in front of him as possible, especially against an Eagles secondary that defaults to zone coverage roughly 67 percent of the time. For reference, Prescott threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions on a perfect 24-for-24 attempts against the Eagles' zone coverage in the 40-34 victory at AT&T Stadium in December 2022.
He was the first player since 2018 to earn a perfect Next Gen Stats passing score (99) against a team's zone coverage, and no one's done it in any contest since. The Jets, Chargers and Rams were also zone-heavy schemes and, not coincidentally, those are the three most dominant outings for Lamb — as mentioned above.
Prescott has thrived throughout his career against zone coverage.
It's lunch for him … with a Transformers Thermos.
The real [added] difference maker will be an ability to attack the Eagles' man coverage, something they struggled against when they visited the 49ers, so I expect added hours to be put in this week toward making sure the Eagles can't attempt to mimic what Kyle Shanahan put on film.
Lesson No. 3: Run Forrest, Run!
I could not express just how elated I was to finally see Prescott use his legs to help will the Cowboys' offense into some sort of rhythm in Los Angeles. The next mission was to make sure it became a consistent threat that keeps opposing defenses off-balance and, after seeing him do it again following the bye week, I'm now confident that it will be.
And that's great news, because he's going to need to deploy it for a third consecutive week.
The re-emergence of what I like to call "Dirty Dak" is here, harkening back to his days at Mississippi State when he did very real damage as a dual-threat quarterback but, no, I don't expect nor demand he get back to that level of exposure in the open field.
But seeing him come back to middle ground and moving the chains with his legs in critical situations, as well as extending plays to allow his receivers time to break free — creating opportunities for explosive plays (e.g., Lamb's second TD vs. Rams).
"I've made the effort, been conscious about it throughout the week watching film, understanding who we're playing, as I said a few weeks ago out there in San Francisco." - Dak Prescott
This can only be seen as a good thing when factoring in the stated positives along with the unbalanced nature of the offensive line.
Will Tyron Smith play? Or will it be Chuma Edoga starting despite a low ankle sprain? Either way, there are too many questions for an O-line that allowed two sacks (nearly three, if not for penalty) in its first four plays in Week 8 to believe Prescott can pull a Jerry Jones and stand pat.
So when the opportunity presents itself, run like the wind, Forrest.
Lesson No. 4: Air Apparent
I've spoken quite a bit about what the offense needs to learn from to avoid repeating their mistakes, and rightfully so, given the defense and special teams (including Brandon Aubrey) have mostly shown this season. That said, the defense hasn't been perfect either, and since we're breaking down lessons to learn from the trip to The Bay.
Do not let the superstar, superstar.
Against the 49ers, it was George Kittle scoring three touchdowns, his first two giving San Francisco a 14-0 lead that launched the demoralization of Dallas. This time around, it's A.J. Brown who's hoping to take them for a ride, and he's got the talent to do exactly that — if allowed. One way to slow down Brown will be to use the physicality, speed and sticky skill set of DaRon Bland, **who now has a record-setting three pick-sixes this season**.
"I'm just doing my job." - DaRon Bland
That doesn't mean Brown won't still make a play or two, but it will likely keep him from racking up a monstrous day of production and, from there, the onus will be on Stephon Gilmore and Jourdan Lewis — fresh off an afternoon of turning their No. 2 pencils around and erasing both Puka Nacua and Cooper Kupp — to contain former Heisman trophy winner DeVonta Smith as Jayron Kearse takes on the assignment of Dallas Goedert.
Yes, that's some serious weaponry, which is why the next thing I say is the most important:
Give some Hurts to Jalen.
Markquese Bell's speed could loom large in keeping Hurts from doing damage on the ground when he takes off for what he hopes is chunk yardage, but containing him is a must so that he'll be forced to play the game from inside of a pocket that, statistically, should be disrupted throughout the entirety of game as names like Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and Osa Odighizuwa get rolling in tandem with Johnathan Hankins and Dorance Armstrong.
I made it a point in Week 3 to note how Hurts has suddenly become a turnover machine, citing some trends that suggested it would continue, and it has. Kudos to him and his defense for overcoming his interceptions and fumbles, but the point is there will be opportunities to take the ball away from him in 2023 that simply were not present in 2022.
He has already logged eight interceptions through the first eight games.
His career-high, previously, is nine, and he's on track to throw 17 INTs this season.
Additionally, he has three lost fumbles heading into Week 9.
His career-high in that category, as well, is nine.
Are you ready for a stunning revelation regarding Hurts' play this season, though? Hold on to your butts … er … um … your tushes.
Six of Hurts' eight interceptions have occurred when he's throwing to his right, and that includes four interceptions when aiming deep right beyond 20 yards with a passer rating of just 86.74.
Contrarily, he's thrown only two interceptions to the left side of the field (zero INTs beyond 10 yards), and his passer rating leaps to 112.44.
This is rather wild to consider for a right-handed quarterback who drops back with his front facing the right side of the field (his strong side), but it's one thing the Cowboys can potentially use in their favor.
Another would be in the fact Hurts has thrown four interceptions within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in-between the numbers, which hints largely at opportunities for Dallas' linebackers and Jourdan Lewis, the team's resident nickel corner.
The science is there, now the execution must be as well.
In his matchup against the Jets defense, a unit that Prescott and Lamb took for a walk around the block like a stray puppy, Hurts threw three interceptions — two in the second half with one of them having occurred on third down with two minutes to play and trying to overcome a narrow 14-12 deficit, which is to say his invincibility of 2022 has been oddly absent this time around.
It's no secret the Cowboys are one of the best in the league at taking the ball away, and I believe they'll have more than one shot at doing so in Philadelphia.
So if Bland, easily the most sure-handed defensive back on the roster not named Trevon Diggs, had to have a game with dropped INTs this season, hopefully getting it out of his system in Los Angeles promises it won't happen with the smell of cheesesteaks in the air.
Lesson No. 5: Leave the Laundry in the Hamper
Last but certainly not least, it's paramount to remain self-disciplined against the Eagles. It's a Cowboys team that, at times, has put a revolver to its foot and emptied the barrel with back-breaking penalties that have either killed offensive drives or extended them for the opposition's offense, and that simply can not be the case in Week 9.
Pre-snap penalties could be serial killers in a game like the one to come, so let's make sure to look at where the ball is placed to prevent lining up over it and drawing an offsides call — simple mental errors such as those being wildly preventable.
The last thing the Cowboys need is to force Hurts and his offense off of the field on third down only to see laundry on the field due to an infraction that grants them an automatic first down.
It's demoralizing and it's dangerous.
In Week 8, the Cowboys didn't draw a single penalty until the first half was nearly in the books and, by then, they owned a commanding 33-3 lead. That is no coincidence in how it helped to keep Dallas' momentum chugging along at full speed. And, for the love of all that is holy and righteous, give KaVontae Turpin a break in the return game. He's now had two big returns called back this season due to penalty, costing him a touchdown against the Rams.
If Turpin can help break the game open on kickoff and/or punt return, it'll apply that much more pressure on Hurts to do more work with his arm than with his legs. One need look no further than the 63-yard return in the win over Los Angeles, the Cowboys' scoring a red-zone touchdown thereafter, to see what his impact can be … if he's allowed to make one.
And so as the Cowboys fly into Eastern Pennsylvania hoping to ace their midterm, they know exactly how important it would be toward their final exam.
Anything other than a win puts them right back on academic probation.