Why the Dallas Cowboys are a real Super Bowl contender
Sunday night’s game between the Eagles and Cowboys showed why Dallas is a real Super Bowl contender this season — even though rookie quarterback Dak Prescott played poorly, they were still able to get the win against a good Philadelphia team.
The caveat to that of course is that Prescott did play well in overtime, and made a very Tony Romo-esque play to score the game-winning touchdown, but overall the game was an uncharacteristically low note from Prescott in this rookie season that has been nothing but highs.
Prescott’s numbers reflect the defensive game plan the Eagles came with. They elected to come after the rookie in a way we haven’t seen for several weeks, and Prescott was actually under pressure more (23 dropbacks) than he was kept clean (21). The Eagles blitzed 14 times this week, which was both the highest total and highest percentage of pass-rushes of any game they have played this year.
This season they have blitzed on average 21.3 percent of their passing plays, but against Prescott this week they upped it to 30.4 percent and actually came with six or seven rushers on eight snaps.
Whether they saw something on tape when it comes to Prescott’s play under pressure this season is hard to tell, but coming into the game he had the league’s seventh-best adjusted completion percentage under pressure and the fifth-best completion percentage overall.
Whatever their reasoning, it was a strategy that worked, because this week Prescott completed just 36.8 percent of his passes when pressured, for a passer rating of 49.7. His average yards per attempt figure was less than half that when he was kept clean, although he did add a further 32 yards rushing on scrambles by taking off from the pocket and making plays with his legs.
Prescott did make some big plays at key moments, and the fact that he made some mistakes shouldn’t be a surprise seeing as how he is a rookie. But the bigger takeaway from this game was that when Prescott did struggle, the rest of the team stepped up.
Ezekiel Elliott has been largely riding the coattails of the best run-blocking line in the game this season. Heading into the game only five running backs had gained a lower percentage of their rushing yardage after contact than he had. He was finishing runs well, but this line has been opening up lanes and he has just been accepting the bounty.
Against the Eagles, however, things were different. Elliott had 96 rushing yards, but 89 of them came after contact and he needed to break seven tackles on 22 carries to get them. It was by far his best-graded performance of the season because he was doing the majority of the hard work himself, chipping in with 52 yards on four catches as a receiver. He was only kept in to pass block seven times, but it resulted in plays like the one seen here.
Zeke doing work in pass pro. pic.twitter.com/6Db3zoAiL0
— Matt Claassen (@PFF_Matt) October 31, 2016
We know the offensive line will be OK, and Elliott stepped up when needed, not to mention the effect wideout Dez Bryant coming back into the lineup had, but the defense performed well also.
The Cowboys only pressured Wentz 12 times, but they got home and sacked him on four of those plays. Five of the 12 plays featured multiple defenders getting pressure on the same play. Tyrone Crawford won his matchup against the Eagles’ struggling right tackle, notching two sacks, a hit and a hurry, and the coverage once again outperformed expectations.
The Cowboys only allowed 202 yards through the air, and former first-round cornerback Morris Claiborne was once again excellent, allowing just 30 yards on seven targets. Claiborne, after years of disappointing, is now a top-10 cornerback in PFF grades with a score of 84.4 over the season and 83.2 against Philadelphia.
For a while this season it seemed like Dallas was only winning because Prescott had made the team his own and was carrying them to victory — but Sunday night’s win over the Eagles was something else. Prescott showed his first real struggles of the season, and while he came through in the clutch, it was the rest of the Cowboys that kept them in the game and put them in position to take a critical division lead.
The Cowboys are likely to have strong QB play down the stretch whether it comes from Prescott or Tony Romo (owner Jerry Jones has said that Prescott will start next week against the Browns), but the biggest tick in their contending credentials is that it looks like they don’t need it to still come up with a critical win.