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Dallas Cowboys

5 things we learned about Cowboys through midpoint of season

Oct 29, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) carries the all as Washington Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith (94) defends during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys hit a rough patch a quarter of the way through the season, losing three games in the span of four weeks to the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams and Denver Broncos.

Dallas headed into its bye week after a depressing 35-31 loss to the Packers with a 2-3 record. Many questioned whether the offensive line was overhyped, and many wondered if the defense was good enough for Dallas to even get to the playoffs. Some even wondered if Dak Prescott was in the midst of a sophomore slump.

Fast forward to the Cowboys’ 28-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs — the only team to beat the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles — and many of those questions have ceased. The offensive line is operating at similar levels to last year; the defense has held their last three opponents under 20 points, and Prescott has emerged into a legitimate MVP candidate.

The Cowboys (5-3) are currently playing their best football of the season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few things that we’ve learned about Dallas as they head into the second half of the season.

Sean Lee is more valuable than anyone thought

To understand how important Sean Lee is to the Cowboys, just look at their record without. Dallas has lost their last five games without Lee patrolling the middle of its defense dating back to 2015, giving up 139.2 rushing per game (97.37) with Lee), 4.76 yards per carry (4.07 with Lee), and 28.2 (20.4 with Lee) points per game.

Linebackers aren’t typically viewed as inherently valuable pieces to a team, but Lee is one of the rare exceptions. Lee’s quickly diagnose a play allows him to limit his false steps and flow quickly to where the ball carrier is designed to go. He takes great pursuit angles and possesses impressive short-area quickness. Moreover, he displays a good ability to take on and disengage from opposing linebackers.

In coverage, Lee is a valuable asset in zone or man coverage. As evidenced against Kansas City, Lee has the ability to cover running backs out of the backfield or even a tight end on occasion. In zone coverage, he gets good depth on his drops and rallies well to the catch point.

It’d be difficult to find a defender who is more important to his team than Lee.

Dak Prescott is an elite QB

Since he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Dak Prescott is tied for third (with Matt Ryan) among QBs in total touchdowns (49)– just behind Aaron Rodgers (57) and Drew Brees (50). He’s sixth in QB rating (102.4), third in adjusted net yards per attempt (7.6) — which has a very strong correlation to winning — first in rushing touchdowns (10) and first in wins (18).

It’s time to stop judging Prescott through the lens of a young quarterback. He’s graduated passed that. In such a short time, Prescott climbed the NFL’s QB hierarchy, passing quarterbacks with (sometimes) decades more experience and knowledge of playing in the NFL.

Sure, Prescott has been blessed with a very good situation in Dallas, as Dallas possesses the best offensive line and running game in the NFL — which are the best friends of every young QB.

But focusing on Prescott’s supporting cast ignores the difficulty and brilliance in Prescott’s play. His ability to win pre- and post-snap along with inside and outside of the structure of the offense makes him almost impossible to defend, which is a huge reason why the Dallas offense ranks fourth in DVOA after Week 9, per Football Outsiders, and has scored 28 or more points in six straight games.

At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, Prescott is blessed with some impressive physical gifts. He is abnormally difficult to bring down because of his balance and strength, and he is one of the most dangerous runners, especially in the red zone, among QBs.

While Prescott’s physical ability is impressive, his intelligence and mental processing are what really make him stand out among his peers. While most young QBs struggle to handle all of the mental components of being the signal-caller, Prescott has thrived. He is adept at identifying and reading coverages, looking off defenders, adjusting the protection and going through his progressions.

It’s time to take the kid gloves off. Prescott is one of the best QBs in the NFL — regardless of age.

DeMarcus Lawrence’s hand technique is the best in the NFL thus far

Like how a boxer uses his hands, footwork and angles to forcefully attack and bludgeon the body and head of his opponents, DeMarcus Lawrence uses those same traits to dominate and embarrass opposing offensive linemen.

Lawrence wasn’t blessed with elite athletic traits; instead, he is an artist with his hands and the nuances of pass rushing, employing a wide variety of techniques and footwork to be successful.

And boy has he been successful.

Lawrence currently ranks second in the NFL in sacks (10.5), seventh in QB hit (7), ninth in hurries (24), third in total pressures (42) and fifth in pass rushing productivity (14.5), per Pro Football Focus. After his blistering start to the season, Lawrence’s production has slowed; however, that has more to do with the added attention he’s receiving than his level of play — which has still be outstanding.

One would be hard-pressed to find an edge pass rusher who is playing with hand technique than Lawrence right now. This play epitomizes how incredibly well Lawrence is playing right now:

Not only is the physical ability on this play outstanding, but it’s Lawrence’s ability interweave his physical and mental abilities.

On this rush, Lawrence knows that Anthony Sherman (No. 42) is going to chip him as the fullback exits the backfield, so, after initially selling his speed rush for three steps, Lawrence begins to attempt a beautiful inside swim move to avoid the chip and beat Mitchell Schwartz. However, with Schwartz’s balance comprised and Sherman out into his route, Lawrence shifts back outside to beat the Chiefs right tackle.

Unfortunately for Lawrence, Alex Smith got the ball out relatively quickly, leaving him unable to cash in on his impressive move.

Ultimately, Lawrence has staked his claim as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods look like the gems of the Cowboys’ rookie class

Typically, the best rookies in the NFL are the ones who are drafted the highest. The reason is as obvious as it seems — better players usually get chosen higher.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t been the case for the Cowboys. While first-round pick Taco Charlton has been slowly developing into a competent NFL defensive end and second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie has been sitting out because of injuries, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods have become integral parts of the Cowboys defense.

Drafted with an eye toward the slot, Jourdan Lewis has firmly established himself as the No. 3 CB — he typically comes in and plays right CB while Orlando Scandrick slides down to the slot, leaving Anthony Brown at left CB. Lewis excels when he can get his hands on opposing receivers and “feel” the receiver’s route. He’s also very adept in zone coverage, especially when tasked with playing a deep third in Cover 3.

Lewis has been sparsely targetted thus far this season, as opposing QBs have targeted once every 8.3 coverage snaps — most among rookie CBs. Furthermore, Lewis allows just 0.76 yards per coverage snap — second among rookies and behind only Marshon Lattimore, who may be a top-three CB in the NFL already. In run support, Lewis has been phenomenal, illustrating that he has no fear to stick his nose into the fray (even tackled Todd Gurley in open space).

Woods, on the other hand, has been given the same volume of opportunities as Lewis, registering just 189 defensive snaps thus far (Lewis: 371). Initially, Woods played mostly in the slot because of injuries, performing admirably, but has since returned to the position he was drafted to play — safety.

While Woods has shown that run support is his Achilles Heel, his ability in coverage is too good to be ignored. Whether he is playing deep or in the box, Woods has been exceptional in coverage. He takes proper angles, trusts his eyes and has impressive burst.

The story has yet to be totally written on Woods and Lewis. In fact, they aren’t even out of the prologue of their (hopefully) long careers. Still, the next chapter for both likely entails starting spots on Dallas’ defense.

Not bad for a third- and a sixth-round pick.

The offensive line is just fine

Much was made about the struggles of the offensive line to start the season.

With Doug Free and Ronald Leary gone, La’el Collins and Chaz Green initially stepped in to replace them — just not at the positions they had been accustomed to playing with Dallas. Green, who spent most of his time at tackle, replaced Leary at left guard while Collins, who played the previous two seasons at left guard, replaced Free on at right tackle. Many wondered aloud if Dallas’ days with a top-tier offensive line were numbered, as even the Cowboys’ trio of All-Pro offensive linemen — Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick — had some struggles to start.

Since then, the Cowboys offensive line has put those concerns to rest, reclaiming their spot as the best offensive line in football, as they have rushed for more than 130 yards in each game since Week 4. The All-Pro trio is back to their dominant ways, and Jonathan Cooper usurped Green at the left guard spot after Green missed time with an injury.

Smith has played remarkably well for a man dealing with a nagging back injury (and now a groin injury to go with it). In the run game, Smith masterfully performs blocks that 95 percent of other offensive tackles would even try. Smith his a size and athletic freak who has one of the most adept hand use in the NFL.

Martin has had some uncharacteristic stretches this year, but he’s still been among the best guards in the NFL. Martin is equally dominant in the run game and pass protection, showing an impressive toolkit to deal with any type of defender coming his way. With Frederick sliding to help Cooper in pass protection on most snaps, Martin is left on an island to deal with defenders one-on-one. Yet, he leads all guards in pass blocking efficiency and total pressures allowed, per PFF.

Frederick, who had a rough stretch to start the season, has returned back to his dominant ways as of late. Frederick is incredibly strong and surprisingly fleet-footed for a man his size. He is the leader of the offensive and sets the tone for everything they do.

Collins has played a murder’s row of edge defenders to start the season. And while it has been rough at times, Collins has performed as well or better than one could expect given his situation. Collins is still inexperienced on the right side, and it shows in the consistency of his pass sets. Still, Collins battles on every snap and has gotten more and more comfortable each game.

After taking a beating from Aaron Donald in Week 4, Cooper has been exactly what Dallas needed at left guard. Much like Leary, Collins’ best trait is his play strength at the point-of-attack, which allows him to create movement off the line of scrimmage in the run game. In pass protection, Cooper’s intelligence, experience, and anchor allow him to be successful.

As the offensive line has more time and game experience this year, it has gotten better. The Cowboys appear ready to make a second-half run, and the offensive line is one of the biggest reason why.

 

— Follow John on Twitter for more NFL insight and analysis

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