After analyzing the Cowboys' 31-28 win over the Vikings Sunday, here are 10 quick takeaways from the game.
Andy Dalton comes up big in the clutch.
The veteran quarterback might not rank as a four-star player at this stage of his career, but he came up big when the Cowboys needed him against the Vikings. Dalton directed an 11-play, 61-yard game-winning drive with a handful of clutch throws that kept the drive alive. He dropped a dime to Amari Cooper on fourth-and-6 that moved the Cowboys into scoring range. He followed it up with a couple of darts to Dalton Schultz to close the game out. The 2-yard scoring strike showcased Dalton's poise and composure as he waited for the big-bodied tight end to come free on the drag route. The Cowboys don't need the veteran to play like a superstar to win games, but they can make a playoff push if he is consistent and steady at the position.
Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore are figuring it out.
It has taken the Cowboys a few games to find their offensive identity without Dak Prescott, but it appears the team has finally figured it out. The Cowboys utilized a balanced game plan (31 rushes; 33 passes) to control the game while alleviating pressure on Dalton and the offensive line. The run-centric approach enabled the Cowboys to avoid the negative plays and miscues that have plagued the offense throughout the season. If Moore and McCarthy will continue to embrace a conservative game plan built around the running game and high percentage passes, the Cowboys could sneak into the playoff as the NFC East champs.
CeeDee Lamb is a human highlight reel.
The rookie pass-catcher didn't post big numbers, but he continues to dazzle as a playmaker on the perimeter. Lamb's acrobatic touchdown catch is the latest addition to his highlight reel. The spinning-twisting-turning grab was a jaw-dropper that will go down as arguably the catch of the year. Lamb's concentration, hand-eye coordination, and agility separate him from others as a jump-ball specialist. With the rookie also displaying explosive playmaking skills as a runner and returner, the Cowboys have a star in the making in No. 88.
The reshuffled offensive line deserves a game ball.
Credit the coaching staff for moving Zack Martin to right tackle to solidify an offensive line that's underperformed for most of the season. The All-Pro held his own on the edges and helped a reshuffled front line control the trenches against the Vikings. The Cowboys rushed for 180 yards and surrendered only one sack in 64 offensive snaps. The solid play at the line of scrimmage enabled Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to make their mark as runners and kept Dalton upright in the pocket. The overall effort from the front line (Cam Erving, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Connor McGovern and Martin) was a big part of the offense's success against the Vikings.
The Elliott-Pollard 1-2 punch in the backfield could be special.
The Cowboys' renewed commitment to the run was fueled by the emergence of Elliott and Pollard as a formidable tandem. The two-time NFL rushing champ and the second-year pro perfectly complement each other as rotational players in the backfield. Elliott is the workhorse runner tasked with doing the dirty work between the tackles. He excelled in that role against the Vikings with 103 rushing yards on 21 carries.
Pollard ripped off 60 rushing yards on just five attempts as the Cowboys' change-of-pace back. He scored on a 42-yard run that displayed his explosive stop-start quickness and burst as an outside runner. Moreover, Pollard's big-play potential exploited a beleaguered defense that was worn down from Elliott's punishing inside runs.
With the Cowboys starting to lean on the running game with consistency, the Elliott-Pollard combination could prove problematic for foes down the stretch.
Donovan Wilson is a baller.
The second-year pro continues to reward the coaching staff for inserting him into the starting lineup with his strong play. Wilson finished the night with a pair of forced fumbles as part of a nine-tackle effort that also included a half-sack. Those numbers are certainly impressive but they don't truly reflect his impact as an enforcer on the third level. Wilson is a big hitter with a knack for delivering the kind of teeth-rattling shots that prompt pass catchers and ballcarriers to reconsider venturing between the hashes. Moreover, the young defender's smashing skills have added some physicality and toughness to a defense that desperately needed a jolt.
The Cowboys can't cover Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
Despite walking away with a win, the Cowboys' secondary remains a concern after watching the Vikings' top pass-catchers have their way on Sunday. Thielen and Jefferson combined for 209 receiving yards on 11 catches with three scores. The Cowboys couldn't contain either receiver in man or zone, and the pair's playmaking prowess enabled the Vikings to march up and down the field in the second half.
Anthony Brown, in particular, had a tough time staying close to either receiver and his struggles contributed to the bevy of the big plays produced by the Vikings' passing game. The veteran defender simply lacked the speed, agility and technique to maintain his leverage in coverage. Thielen torched him on a deep over route for a 51-yard gain and followed it up with a one-handed catch for a 2-yard score. Jefferson took him to the cleaners on a post-corner that resulted in a 39-yard touchdown.
With the Dalvin Cook and the Vikings' running game commanding so much attention, the Cowboys were unable to throw a blanket on Thielen or Jefferson.
LVE makes a difference.
The presence of No. 55 in the lineup changes the way the Cowboys perform on defense. The former Pro Bowl linebacker is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker with the speed, quickness and burst to track down runners all over the field. Leighton Vander Esch led the team in tackles (12) and set the tone for their run defense with his non-stop motor and overall physicality.
John Fassel has to tighten up the special teams.
The Cowboys' special teams units have been a mixed bag this season with a handful of gaffes overshadowing some explosive plays. Against the Vikings, the bad version of the kicking game showed up with the team giving up a fake punt for a potential first down before a penalty nullified the gain. The "creeper" tactics featured the cornerback rushing the punter off the edge with Jaylon Smith assigned to cover the gunner (Kris Boyd). The mismatch was identified and exploited with punter Britton Colquitt firing a pass out to Boyd for a 23-yard gain. Although it was reversed due to an illegal shift, it is another example of the Cowboys failing to take care of business on a special teams play.
The Cowboys are playing with more effort and urgency.
McCarthy and Mike Nolan dismissed questions about the defense's effort earlier in the season, but it is apparent that something has changed with the unit. The Cowboys' defenders are flying to the ball with more energy and urgency than they displayed during the first few weeks of the season. The increased intensity has resulted in the team creating more takeaways and playing better against the run. The collective effort from the group has reduced the number of leak outs on running plays and helped the Cowboys contain a dangerous running game.
Considering how the Browns ran for 300-plus yards utilizing a similar scheme, the Cowboys' improved performance is a direct result of the defense _finally _playing with more effort and urgency between the lines.