The Cowboys record their first win in 2021, but what can we take away from this last-second victory?
It took 642 days, but the Dallas Cowboys have finally beaten a team over .500. The Cowboys now hold a 59% chance to make the playoffs, and while it is still early, they are the team to beat in the NFC East.
Not to say that Dallas played a perfect game on Sunday, there are still areas the team needs to improve. But the Cowboys took a major step forward against the Chargers. So what can we take away from week two?
Dan Quinn has drastically improved the defense
No, the Cowboys do not boast an elite defense. Through the first two weeks, Dallas’ defense ranks 17th in terms of EPA per play allowed. The good news is that defensive mediocrity is an incredible turnaround from 2020.
On Sunday, the Cowboys held the Chargers to just 17 points. Last season under Mike Nolan, the Cowboys held their opponent to less than 20 points only twice. The two teams they managed to contain in 2020, the Eagles and the Bengals, finished with an offensive rank of 27th and 30th according to Pro Football Focus, respectively.
Even after the Cowboys game, the Chargers fall as the ninth-best offense in the NFL. While there was luck involved in Dallas holding Los Angeles to 17 points, this type of performance would have been a miracle in 2020. Consider the fact that Dan Quinn was missing three starters, including his best defender, and there are reasons for Cowboys fans to be hopeful about defensive improvement in 2021.
It wasn’t all pretty. Trevon Diggs seemed to struggle in coverage, allowing six receptions on nine targets for 121 yards. But with his early interception, he only allowed a 70.1 passer rating. With Herbert’s career average being 96.7, if this was a “down game” for Diggs, it wasn’t horrendous.
The defense falling middle of the pack after facing Tom Brady and Justin Herbert is incredible. With one of the best offenses in the NFL, an average defense will almost guarantee the Cowboys a playoff spot. While it is still early, Dan Quinn represents a significant upgrade over Mike Nolan.
Tony Pollard is officially the best running back the Cowboys have
While this has been a highly debated topic since last season, the argument is over. Tony Pollard is the better running back. It is a tough pill to swallow considering the financial investment into Ezekiel Elliott, but Elliott now represents a sunk cost.
The argument for Elliott has been that defenses have to stack the box when he is on the field, which is true. According to Next Gen Stats through two weeks, Pollard was expected to rush for 5.8 yards per carry, with Elliott projected to run for 4.2 YPC based on defensive scheme. Defenses do overload the box against Elliott.
However, Zeke has turned that expected rushing production into 3.9 yards per carry through the first two games, while Pollard has ripped off 7.7 yards per attempt. Pollard is well above his projected baseline, whereas Elliott is struggling to reach it.
Pollard splitting time with Zeke is only hurting the team. Despite receiving only sixteen carries, Tony Pollard ranks second in the NFL in 15+ yard runs, eighth in yards after contact per attempt, and first in rushing yards per attempt among running backs. Where does Zeke fall in those stats? The $90 million running back ranks below 30th in every category except for runs over 15 yards, of which he has one.
In an ideal world, the Cowboys would still have the 2016 version of Ezekiel Elliott, who could take over a game. But that is simply not the case anymore. Dallas has to recognize this fact and trust Pollard with more carries.
Special teams is a real problem
Greg Zuerlein hit the game-winning field goal, redeeming himself from last week. That was a high-pressure kick, and we can all celebrate how clutch Zuerlein was in the final seconds. However, the heroics of this field goal should not distract from the fact that special teams played poorly once again.
This ineptitude on special teams was not as drastic as in week one. But the Cowboys still had 30 yards of special teams’ penalties, the highest in the NFL during week two. To put those 30 yards into perspective, three teams had fewer penalty yards on all three sides of the ball than the Cowboys had on special teams alone.
Even if you take away the roughing the punter call, which was questionable, the Cowboys still had two penalties for 15 yards on special teams. That would’ve been the fourth-most penalized team on special teams by yardage during week two. John Fassel’s squad is not disciplined through the first two games, and it is costing the Cowboys.
Dallas currently ranks 27th in special teams production according to PFF. After finishing second in this metric during 2020, there is cause for concern. Special teams cannot continue to hold the Cowboys back, especially if Dallas wants to contend in January.
Kellen Moore’s impact cannot be understated
There needs to be a ban on Tony Romo suggesting that Kellen Moore will be a head coach next season. Are we not allowed to have talent on our coaching staff without it being ripped away from us? At the very least, we should appreciate Moore while he is here.
Kellen Moore recognized the Chargers’ inability to stop the run, and he trusted the offensive line to push Los Angeles around. Running behind Zack Martin, who didn’t miss a beat, the Cowboys finished with 198 rushing yards on 31 attempts. Even CeeDee Lamb lined up as a running back. Moore is able to exploit the weaknesses of a defense as well as any other coach in the NFL.
How do the Cowboys move down the field so masterfully? You can’t be stopped on third down if you never see third down. Dallas currently lands as the fifth-best team by percentage of offensive plays that occur during third down.
Even when the Cowboys face third down, they have the third-best conversion rate. The result is a team that has seen the most first downs in the NFL, which is impressive considering they are the third most penalized team on offense.
The one aspect of Dallas’ offense that needs to improve is red-zone efficiency. Scoring a touchdown on just 42.9% of their trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line is well below the league average. If that singular statistic improves, this offense could average over 30 points a game.
The Cowboys have only punted four times through two games. That should tell you all you need to know about Kellen Moore. He is turning into an offensive mastermind, able to change the game plan week-to-week to dominate the defense he faces. Please don’t ever leave us, Kellen Moore.
Micah Parsons is a freak of nature
It is still early, but Micah Parsons is playing like the defensive rookie of the year. In case you don’t know who he is, Parsons was the player that made the Chargers’ backfield his temporary home during week two.
Of every player in the NFL, no player had more quarterback pressures than Micah Parsons this week. In the 27 pass-rush snaps that Parsons played in, he pressured the quarterback on eight of them. The rookie linebacker finished with a win rate of 36% in the pass rush in week two. For comparison, Aaron Donald finished with a win rate of 33% on Sunday.
To say that Micah Parsons is the defensive rookie of the year so far is not an opinion. Parsons leads all defensive rookies in quarterback pressures, hits, and hurries. Even more impressive, he accumulated those numbers despite only pass rushing on 25% of snaps in week one.
The Cowboys’ first-round pick is currently second in terms of defensive PFF grade by a rookie, which includes the down game that Parsons had in week one. With DeMarcus Lawrence injured, Micah Parsons is the best defender Dallas has.
Playing off the edge against the Chargers, Micah Parsons proved he is a disruptive force no matter how the Cowboys use him. Parsons is a big reason the Cowboys rank as an average defense despite playing two great quarterbacks.
Throw away all of the stats, records, and playoff chances; it just feels good for the Cowboys to win a close game against an evenly matched opponent. Dallas has another important game against the Eagles next week, so we cannot get complacent. But let’s celebrate a Cowboys victory for a little.