Why the Dallas Cowboys are a real Super Bowl contender

The rest of the Dallas roster stepped up even when Dak Prescott struggled in win versus Eagles.

| 1 month ago
(Tom Pennington, Getty Images)

(Tom Pennington, Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • 4everStars -n- DodgerBlue

    I hope he’s the real deal, but he’s turned the ball over in the last three games with multiple fumbles and picks. He’s been lucky as they recovered most of his fumbles and two picks were negated by a penalty and the other considered a fumble. He looked like a rookie during this game.

    I want to see him play well for the remainder of this season and next before I feel comfortable with him replacing Romo. He could be a mirage like RG3 and management would be stupid to try to trade Romo before they truly know what they have. Jerry Jones seems to be synonymous with stupid, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they tried in the offseason.

    • Clinton Wilfoster

      his turn overs have come on 3 hardest teams so no real issue

    • Fact Based Opinion

      Name me a QB that doesn’t have a turnover….

      • 4everStars -n- DodgerBlue

        They ALL do – even the greatest of all time! My problem is with the morons who call Romo to task for turnovers yet will excuse Dak. I want Dak to be the franchise quarterback, but I’d like to see him perform at a high level for more than half a season.

  • Backinmd

    Prescott is more athletic than Romeo and it shows so far ..Know it’s his rookie year but Prescott looks like the real deal in the NFL ..Romeo has been so injury prone the past three, four years although he still has some gas in his tank ..Unusual to have TWO stand out rookie NFL QB’s the same year – he and Wentz … Wentz reminds me of Big Ben – Steelers – but is farther advanced for a rookie …Remember all the naysayers rag about Wentz because he played for such a small school in N. Dakota ..Now if the Eagles could get a dominate WR .. Rookie 1st rd. WR they drafted in 2015 – Nelson Agholor — can’t catch a cold and looks like he doesn’t like contact …

  • Ellen Legree

    Prescott did well for a rookie I mean how many other rookies would have been able to take all that pressure Philly was giving him and still find a way to come back and win. No player always have a perfect game Prescott will get better and better as he continues to play each week. I can tell that he is special because when he threw the pick in the endzone, I seen the look in his eyes that he would redeem himself when he got back on the field. Prescott will have growing pain but let’s not forget that he is special and will be great.

  • https://www.officialamericasteam.com Barry Gipson

    Great chemistry off field translating on the field. Making plays when it counts. Going back to July I have said the Stars have aligned for this team. See you guys in Houston. #officialamericasteam

  • Mark Erickson

    Didn’t get to watch the game, but impressed with the gif of Zeke completely shutting down Mcleod!