NFL

Dak, depth and defense – could complete Cowboys be contenders?

By Sports Desk October 09, 2021

So far, so good, Dak Prescott. At least from a personal perspective, though, it was a similar story through four weeks in 2020.

The Dallas Cowboys quarterback set a record-breaking pace last year, his 1,690 passing yards comfortably the most by any player over the first four weeks of a season since 1960. In fact, in at least the past 40 years, no QB can match that total across any four-game span.

Going back to 1960, only Jameis Winston had previously thrown for 450 yards in consecutive games. Prescott became the first to do so in three in a row against the Atlanta Falcons (450), the Seattle Seahawks (472, a career high) and the Cleveland Browns (502, another career high) in Weeks 2, 3 and 4.

Yet the Cowboys were only 1-3, and when Prescott went down for the year against the New York Giants in Week 5, any hopes of recovering their season were dashed. Dallas went from averaging a league-leading 509.5 total net yards and third-ranked 31.5 points per game through Week 4 to 325.9 yards and 22.5 points over the rest of the year — ranking joint-21st and 25th.

In 2021, however, they are 3-1 heading into another Week 5 matchup with the Giants, despite having played three other 3-1 teams. And although Prescott has again been outstanding, this year's Cowboys do not look quite so fragile.

'The best I've ever played'

Of course, Dallas' excellent start begins with the man under center. Prescott is back this season having finally signed a four-year, $160million extension, and he is quickly proving worth that investment.

Although his 1,066 yards pale next to last year's early efforts, the 28-year-old has thrown 10 touchdown passes, up on 2020's nine and the second-most ever at this stage of a season by a Cowboys QB, behind Tony Romo's 11 in 2007. Only Don Meredith (twice — in 1966 and 1968) has bettered Prescott's 116.9 passer rating to this point.

After three TDs and no interceptions in the Week 3 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, Prescott said he had gained "a different perspective" from his spell on the sidelines. "I feel like I'm playing the best I've ever played," he added. He then had four TDs and no interceptions versus the Carolina Panthers in Week 4.

Prescott is undoubtedly excelling — he has delivered a well-thrown, accurate ball with 84.7 per cent of his passes this year, third among QBs with 100 or more attempts — but he is also getting help. In the Panthers game, he did not take a single sack. His seven for the year are fewer than 21 other QBs through four weeks.

Indeed, the Dallas number four said coming into the season offensive linemen Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, who all missed at least large chunks of 2020 through injury, were "the most important" members of the offense.

Of the 32 pressures Prescott has faced this season, 20 came in the opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Martin was on the COVID list. He has won 57 of 58 pass protection attempts, allowing only a single hurry. Smith has won 90 of 93 attempts, giving up a sole adjusted sack. The Cowboys still have the suspended Collins to come back in.

Even when Prescott is pressured, he is performing well, getting the ball out quickly and accurately, his 2.84-second release time the fourth-fastest under duress (minimum 10 attempts) and his 81.3 well-thrown percentage the fourth-best.

Having top-level talents to give the ball to makes the job easier, though.

Sharing the ball around

Prescott completed at least 80 per cent of his passes in consecutive weeks against the Los Angeles Chargers (85.2) and the Eagles (80.8), while the Cowboys also put up more than 150 rushing yards in both matchups (198 and 160). The 1984 San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana, had been the last team to achieve that feat in back-to-back games.

That statistic speaks to the threat Dallas pose on offense this year.

Through the air, Prescott has had three outstanding weapons to target at the start of this season. Wide receivers Amari Cooper (22) and CeeDee Lamb (20) and tight end Dalton Schultz (20) have each made at least 20 catches, making the Cowboys the only team to have three players reach this mark through four weeks in 2021.

In just Lamb's second season in the league, he and Cooper have already established themselves as one of football's premier wide receiver duos — they are one of seven pairs of team-mates to each have 250 receiving yards at the position through Week 4 (258 for Cooper, 264 for Lamb).

Against the Panthers, when Lamb was limited to just two catches, four other Cowboys caught TD passes — among them breakout star Schultz, who has three scores in four games after four in his first three years in the league.

Two of those prior four TDs came in the first four games of 2020, though, with Prescott targeting Schultz with 28 passes, leading to a career-high four-game span of 219 receiving yards. Of those, 105 yards came after the catch, showing his power as he ranked fifth at TE in the NFL. So far this year, his 131 yards after the catch trail only Travis Kelce and George Kittle — good company to be keeping.

Crucially, however, Dallas also have multiple options on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott looks back to his best and is boosted by having Tony Pollard emerge as an effective alternative.

"We've got some younger guys who can play and produce, so it's not necessary for Zeke to run the ball 25, 30 times a game," head coach Mike McCarthy said in July. "When you get to December, January football, you want him to be in top form to be able to run the ball 25, 30 times if needed."

Elliott is certainly being used more efficiently; his 342 rushing yards fall well short of the Week 4 marks set in 2016 (412) and 2018 (426), but only in the latter year (5.84) has he averaged more yards per carry than this year's 5.34. The 26-year-old's four rushing scores are his most at this stage of a season. He still played a key role against Carolina, with 143 rushing yards his most in a game since 2018.

The Cowboys are difficult to stop, with Pollard (4.29) and Elliott (4.00) ranking third and fourth among running backs for yards per carry on plays where run disruption occurs and defenders get the better of the O-line. It is easy to see why Dallas are now running the ball on 47.0 per cent of plays, fifth-most in the league, easing the burden on Prescott.

Young defense delivering

This outstanding offensive production would all count for little if the Cowboys were not also showing improvement on the defensive end. The reasons for their 1-3 start in 2020 were the 430.5 total net yards (third-most) and league-high 36.5 points allowed per game.

Happily, with Prescott returning and faith in the offensive options, the Cowboys were able to focus almost solely on defense in the draft. Their first six picks, including 12th overall selection Micah Parsons, were on that side of the ball.

Linebacker Parsons has quickly established himself, leading the team with 2.5 sacks and 32 sack yards while registering 13 pressures on 46 pass rush attempts — a strong 28.3 per cent. At defensive tackle, third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa has been similarly impressive, pressuring at a 21.4 per cent rate and registering an adjusted sack on 7.1 per cent of plays when lined up on the interior. With Jaylon Smith released, fourth-rounder Jabril Cox could also now get an opportunity.

The undoubted star of the season so far, however, is second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. Dallas have registered 10 total takeaways, only behind the Buffalo Bills, and Diggs' five interceptions — at least one in each game, including a pick-six against the Eagles — account for half of them. Since 1960, only three players have had more interceptions heading into Week 5; since 1980, just two have had a longer streak of games with picks to start a season.

As a team, the Cowboys had 10 interceptions in the whole of 2020, with Diggs, then a rookie, contributing three.

The Cowboys have now given up 24.3 points per game, tied for 16th in the league, but they have allowed just six points — from two field goals — in the fourth quarter of one-score games, giving Prescott every opportunity to win the game.

Unlike the QB, the key men in the defensive unit are largely too young to have worked with former Cowboys coach and current Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but on the evidence of this season so far they will relish making life hell for his man Daniel Jones on Sunday.

In their last game against weak NFC East rivals until a kind end to the schedule starting in Week 14, the Cowboys will look to lay down a marker, extending this strong start and encouraging hopes they can be a genuine contender this year. Getting Jones off the field and allowing Prescott, Elliott and Co to get to work should ensure they do that.

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