Here are my thoughts on the Cowboys' performance against the Falcons in a 40-39 win on Sunday:
- Dak puts the Cowboys on his back.
The Cowboys' QB1 silenced his doubters with a spectacular performance in which he posted a 400-yard game through the air while adding three touchdowns. Prescott displayed surgical precision throwing the ball to nine different receivers on the way to completing 34 of 47 passes for 450 yards with a score. Most impressive, he picked the Falcons apart despite playing behind a patchwork offensive line with a pair of UDFAs (Brandon Knight and Terrence Steele) on the edges. With Prescott also displaying his underrated running skills near the goal line with three rushing scores, the much-maligned quarterback fed his critics plenty of crow.
- Tempo revs up the Cowboys' engine.
Credit Kellen Moore for revving up the Cowboys' offense by pushing the pace with a no-huddle approach that neutralized the Falcons' aggressive defense. The frenetic pace helped Prescott get into a rhythm while also forcing the Falcons' defense to scale back on blitzing due to potential communication miscues. Facing a simplified defense, the Cowboys' offensive line performed better and kept No.4 upright in the pocket. Given the success of the uptempo approach, the Cowboys should consider playing faster going forward.
- Dalton Schultz steps up.
The loss of Blake Jarwin to a season-ending injury led to questions about how the Cowboys would fill the void in the passing game. Schultz stepped up in splendid fashion with a nine-catch, 88-yard effort that showcased his skills as a route runner and pass catcher. The third-year pro repeatedly found open windows in the Falcons' zone while also displaying enough physicality and wiggle to separate against man coverage. His ability to get open between the hashes enabled Prescott to move the chains with safe, high-percentage throws on key downs.
- Ball security is an issue.
The Cowboys' coaching staff will need to reexamine their practice methods after watching the ball hit the ground four times in the first quarter. The Cowboys' carelessness with the ball prompted the Falcons to aggressive punch and poke at the ball at every turn. With the Dirty Birds successfully knocking the ball out with their efforts, the Cowboys will continue to face opponents intent on stripping the ball from a collection of runners and receivers with questionable ball security skills.
- Mike McCarthy's gambles aren't worth the risk.
The Cowboys' head coach won a lot of games, including a Super Bowl, with a conservative approach that drew the ire of his previous fan base. McCarthy seems intent on changing that narrative in Dallas with a more aggressive management style that's led to a number of fourth-down gambles and questionable two-point conversion attempts over the first two games. Against the Falcons, a pair of fake punts backfired and a too early two-point attempt put the team behind the eight-ball in the game's final minutes. Although the Cowboys walked away with a W, the risky decisions will lead to some head-scratching and raised eyebrows from the team when they review the film on Monday.
- The O-Line figures it out.
It is hard to win in this league without premier players at offensive tackle. That's why the odds were stacked against the Cowboys with a pair of UDFAs (Brandon Knight and Terrence Steele) penciled in at offensive tackle. The inexperienced duo was joined by an interior trio that struggled against a dominant defensive tackle (Aaron Donald) in Week 1 and started off slowly against Grady Jarrett and Co. After taking a quarter to figure out how the Falcons were attacking with stunts and blitzes, the O-Line settled down and did a better job of keep defenders away from Prescott. Some of their success could be attributed to the tempo tactics but you have to tip your hat to the unit for their problem solving after a dismal start.
- Where is the pass rush?
The pass rush was expected to be the strength of the Cowboys' defense but the D-Line failed to generate consistent pressure on Matt Ryan on Sunday. The unit only recorded one sack and four QB hits on the former MVP despite facing 38 passing plays. That's not the kind of production that you would expect from a pass rush that features Demarcus Lawrence, Everson Griffen, and Aldon Smith. If the sack production doesn't improve soon, opponents will continue to zip up and down the field against a defense that also struggles in coverage.
- The secondary continues to struggle.The Cowboys' defensive backfield is unquestionably the team's weakest link without an established playmaker in the group. The unit's play continues to disappoint with Chidobe Awusie, Jourdain Lewis, Trevor Diggs, Daryl Worley, and Xavier Woods unable to stick with the Falcons' explosive WR corps in zone or man. Although each defender enjoyed a flash moment during the game, the lack of coverage showed up repeatedly on critical downs. Whether it was Calvin Ridley spinning Awusie and Lewis around like a top on the perimeter or Hayden Hurst exploding through the middle of the field, the Cowboys' secondary looked overwhelmed and outmatched against the Falcons.
- Mike Nolan is unable to find the right combination.
The key to building a successful defense is carefully matching the proper scheme with the right personnel. The Cowboys' defensive coordinator can't get the defense on track due to the personnel flaws that are exposed when he dials it up or scales it back as a play-caller. If Nolan sits back in zone with a four-man rush, Ryan repeatedly found open receivers running through zones with minimal harassment. When Nolan decided to bring pressure, the Falcons' receivers escaped coverage to snag passes while running away from defenders. The conundrum makes it hard for Nolan to look at his script and come up with an effective answer to slow down an offense that was on fire for most of the game.
- Jaylon Smith and Joe Thomas are solid at linebacker.
The loss of LVE prompted many observers to question how the Cowboys would reshuffle the deck on the second level. Smith and Thomas handled their business by combining for 25 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a pass defensed as starters. Smith made the calls but continuing to make plays as a sideline to sideline pursuer from his original spot. Thomas flashed instincts, awareness, and toughness roaming the tackle-to-tackle box. Overall, the effort and production were solid from a pair of defenders counted on to make big contributions as hit, run and chase defenders.
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