3 reasons the Cowboys could make a run at the NFC East
After a win against the Redskins on MNF, John Breitenbach explains why it's not time to count the Cowboys out just yet.
3 reasons the Cowboys could make a run at the NFC East
Dallas kept themselves firmly in the divisional mix by beating Washington on Monday Night Football. Their “W” set up a three-way tie atop the division, with the Cowboys just one game back at 4-8. It won’t be easy for them to overtake the three teams above them without their starting quarterback, but they certainly have a chance. Despite playing a sloppy game where they lost three fumbles, the Cowboys’ defense was good enough to stymy Kirk Cousins almost completely, and come away with the road victory. Here are three reasons for optimism moving forward.
Dez is back
Dez Bryant didn’t have his best game against Washington (+0.4), but he still came up with a huge grab down the sideline to set up a Cowboys’ field goal. Although he’s yet to get back to his best (+1.5 grade so far this year), Bryant is capable of winning games even with Matt Cassel at quarterback. He was our fourth-graded wide receiver in 2014 (+22.3) with an impressive 16 touchdowns. Bryant is capable of catching passes he has no right to get near, which is fortunate, considering who is throwing him the ball.
With all due respect to the Cowboys’ other receivers, none are capable of changing games on their own. Terrence Williams (-2.2) has taken the majority of snaps this season, and done a decent job. Overall he’s caught 35-of-63 passes for 554 yards, three touchdowns, and four drops. Slot receiver Cole Beasley (-3.4) has also featured more prominently this year. Again, he’s serviceable, but not a game-changer. While Beasley is a useful weapon for moving the chains, he’s not likely to generate big plays. He’s had a solid season, though, catching 39-of-53 passes for 392 yards, three touchdowns, and two drops. Moving on, Devin Street (-2.4) has caught just six balls and had a crucial fumble against Washington last night. The Cowboys have found a way to keep defenses off balance with their use of Lucky Whitehead (+1.4). He’s only caught a handful of passes, but has generated some yardage on the ground, on end-arounds, in particular (+3.0 grade on the ground).
Dallas have enough specialists who can contribute, but they were floundering without their elite receiver. Now he’s back.
Talent in the trenches
The Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, despite Doug Free’s regression (-13.5) and La’el Collins’ rookie inconsistencies (-4.0). The unit currently holds the second-best pass blocking efficiency ranking in the NFL, behind only the Raiders. They’ve allowed just eight sacks, 10 hits, and 86 hurries over the course of the year. Free and Collins have accounted for 45 of those pressures, and have a combined -6.5 pass protection grade. While the Cowboys are by no means dominant across the board, they have three of the very best on their line.
Great offensive lines require a stud left tackle. Tyron Smith (+35.4) is a stud left tackle, having the best year of his career. Smith has the highest grade he’s ever received in a single season, and there are still four games to go. In pass protection, he’s allowed just four sacks, three hits, and seven hurries, which leaves him third amongst tackles in pass blocking efficiency. Smith has graded negatively just once this year, and holds the best run blocking grade by some margin at the position (+23.8). No other tackle has a run blocking grade of higher than +13.0.
Equally as proficient at their respective positions, Travis Frederick (+22.5) can probably claim to have been the best center in the league since he was drafted in 2013. He holds the best pass protection grade this season, having allowed just one hit and seven hurries. Frederick also holds the best run blocking grade amongst centers (+16.6). Finally, guard Zach Martin isn’t quite as dominant relative to his peers, but is still an excellent player. He’s only our third overall guard (+23.3) behind Richie Incognito and Marshal Yanda. Martin has allowed a sack, two hits and nine hurries for a PBE of 97.8 (fifth-best). He also holds only the 11th-best run blocking grade (10.9). It’s rare, however, that guards are equally as a proficient in the run game as they are in pass protection, but that’s Martin’s greatest strength. He’s one of just two guards with grades of +10.0 or better in each facet of play. The Cowboys’ ability up front is one of the major reasons they could overcome the loss of their starting quarterback.
The linebacker position has changed significantly in recent years, with more of an emphasis on coverage with the arrival of heightened athletic talent at tight end. In Sean Lee and Rolando McClain, the Cowboys have two of the better players in that regard at their position. Lee has a +12.0 grade in coverage, which is second overall. He’s allowed just 23 catches on 31 targets for 195 yards, no touchdowns, one pick, and three pass deflections. Without him, this Cowboys’ defense looks a shadow of the unit they are capable of being under Rod Marinelli.
Rolando McClain, meanwhile, was always thought of as a two-down thumper coming out of Alabama. Since his return from retirement, however, he’s shown some impressive coverage skills. Overall, he’s allowed just 14-of-20 targets to be complete, no touchdowns, one pick, and one pass deflection. After a slow start this year, he’s recorded a +7.4 grade over the past four weeks. The Cowboys are one of the few teams with linebackers capable of covering tight ends and running backs in the intermediate passing game, as they proved last night against Jordan Reed.
Dallas’ odds of making the playoffs aren’t high—losing your starting quarterback for most of the season is a blow few teams are capable of overcoming. However, there are some reasons for hope, as outlined above. They have a favorable division record, and just knocked off the team that was in first place. Don’t count them out just yet.