The Cowboys needed big plays from their offense, defense and even on special teams to secure the 41-33 win at AT&T Stadium.
Here are 10 quick takeaways from the game.
McCarthy has the team trending in the right direction.
It has taken the Cowboys a little longer than expected to play their best football but McCarthy should be encouraged by his team's effort over the past few weeks. The team has played with more effort, urgency, and intensity on each side of the ball. In addition, they are beginning to play complementary football with the offense, defense, and special teams units working together. Although there is still plenty of work to do with each unit, particularly with the defense struggling against the run, the Cowboys are beginning to gain confidence and form an identity under McCarthy.
If the Super Bowl-winning coach can keep the team's momentum rolling over the next two weeks, the Cowboys could look back at this streak as the launching point for something special in 2021.
Welcome to the Tony Pollard Show.
The second-year pro has flashed big-play potential in recent weeks with his production leading to a bigger role on offense and in the kicking game. With Elliott sidelined with an injury, Pollard took advantage of an opportunity to showcase his talents as a multifaceted playmaker with 132 scrimmage yards and a pair of scores on 18 touches. The Memphis product displayed outstanding speed, quickness, and burst with the rock in his hands as the Cowboys made a concerted effort to get him touches early and often on the perimeter. Considering Pollard also closed the game out with a 40-yard score with a little over two minutes left, the Cowboys should continue to feed No.20 with or without Zeke in the lineup.
CeeDee Lamb steps up.
The rookie pass catcher took full advantage of his opportunity to serve as the No.1 option in the passing game against the 49ers. Lamb tallied 85 receiving yards on five catches while displaying the soft hands and crafty route-running skills that made him a hot commodity on draft day. In addition, the rookie displayed outstanding hand-eye coordination and awareness on a scoop-and-score return on an onside kick. Lamb's overall effort and production should encourage the coaching staff to give more touches in the team's upcoming "win or go home" games.
No Zeke, no problem.
The loss of the All-Pro running back was expected to slow down an offense that's sputtered for most of the season but the strong contributions of Pollard, Lamb, and Andy Dalton enabled the Cowboys to roll up nearly 300 yards of total offense. Although Elliott's rugged running skills would've come in handy in a couple of situations, the Cowboys were able to maintain enough balance to keep the 49ers' defense on its heels. Most importantly, the offense was able to avoid negative plays and turnovers by utilizing a controlled attack that put the ball in the hands of their young playmakers. The Cowboys' offense is built around the talents of Elliott but his absence enabled some complementary players to thrive in leading roles.
The Cowboys' offense shows off some creativity.
Credit Kellen Moore for adding some wrinkles and window dressing to the Cowboys' game plan. The second-year offensive coordinator featured a couple of new pre-snap motions to disguise some of their top plays while also showcasing a few new concepts designed to get the ball to Pollard. The creativity added some juice to an offense that needed it without their top playmaker in the lineup. If Moore can continue to tap into his creative side with all of his weapons available to him, the Cowboys' offense could keep it going down the stretch.
Special teams come through when it counts.
John Fassel and the Cowboys' much-maligned special teams units came up big against the 49ers. The punt team forced a Richie James' fumble that set up the Cowboys' first touchdown. The coverage teams not only contained the 49ers' returners on kickoffs and punts, but they played with an energy and enthusiasm that charged up their teammates on the sidelines. In addition, the Cowboys were able to put up strong numbers in the return game (31.0-yard kick return average and 13.0-yard punt return average) that enabled them to flip the field in the kicking game. With Lamb's 47-yard score adding to the totals, Fassel's units won the day as the Cowboys relied on a complementary football approach to notch their fifth win.
The turnover frenzy continues.
Mike Nolan has made producing more turnovers a top priority since taking over the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. After producing seven takeaways in the past two games, the message has finally resonated with the defense. Against the 49ers, the Cowboys forced two fumbles and snagged a couple of picks to post a plus-four in the turnover margin. The uptick in turnovers coincides with improved effort and hustle from a unit that's finally playing with urgency between the lines. If the defense continues to knock the ball loose and swipe errant passes, the Cowboys will keep stacking Ws in the win column.
The run defense remains a problem.
The Cowboys' leaky run defense remains a major concern after seeing another team rush for 150-plus yards on the ground. The 49ers had their way with the Cowboys at the line of scrimmage as they featured a run-heavy game plan that exposed leaks along the frontline. From the off-tackle handoffs to the tosses to the edge, the 49ers' running backs were able to find creases and seams with defenders jumping in and out of gaps due to undisciplined eyes. The lack of gap integrity has been an issue since the beginning of the season and it continues to show up in games against run-centric teams employing zone-based schemes. The Cowboys struggle getting off blocks at the point of attack and the linebackers' inability to plug the correct gaps leads to breakouts from runners. Although the Cowboys limited to explosive runs on the ground, it is hard to win consistently against teams getting four-plus yards (4.2) on each rushing attempt.
Jourdan Lewis shows off his versatility and value.
The fourth-year pro has quietly put together a solid season for the Cowboys as a Swiss Army knife-like defender in the secondary. Lewis is at his best playing in the slot due to his quickness, instincts, toughness, and competitive spirit. He challenges receivers at the line and finishes with urgency to the ball. In addition, he is an excellent tackler with a surprisingly physical game for his size. Against the 49ers, Lewis showed off his entire repertoire while compiling six tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a PBU. The veteran played with infectious confidence and swagger that's desperately needed in an underperforming secondary.
Knock it down!
It didn't impact the outcome of the game but Nolan and his defensive assistants must correct the Cowboys' Hail Mary defense. The 49-yard touchdown from C.J.Beathard to Kendrick Bourne on the game's final play resulted from a lack of effort and execution from the 11 defenders on the field. The pass rush was lackadaisical in their pursuit of the quarterback with Randy Gregory and Aldon Smith giving less than an ideal effort on the play. The secondary allowed the 49ers' receivers to have free access at the line and the lack of disruption enabled the four receivers to reach the end zone on the jump ball effort. In addition, the Cowboys' defender didn't put their bodies on the 49ers' receivers and their misjudgment of the ball resulted in Bourne snatching the ball in a crowd. Although the Cowboys got away with the mistake this week, the failed execution of the Hail Mary could cost them down the road.
The Cowboys will take on the Philadelphia Eagles in their last home game of the regular season on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 3:25 p.m. A limited number of tickets are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!
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