Breaking down the Cowboys ahead of Thursday’s game against the Saints.
Editor note: This is the first piece by former Giants scout Tom Rudawsky. He will be contributing to the site with these weekly breakdowns, draft coverage and more.
The general: The Dallas Cowboys are 7-4, currently holding a two-game lead in the NFC East over Washington. They are coming off a home loss on Thanksgiving to the Las Vegas Raiders. After a 6-1 start, Dallas has lost three of its last four, with all three of those losses coming against the AFC West. They are led by veteran coach Mike McCarthy, who’s in his second season leading the franchise dubbed “America’s Team.” McCarthy was the long-time coach of the Green Bay Packers from 2006-2018 and won Super Bowl XLV.
COVID outbreak: On Monday, McCarthy tested positive for COVID-19, meaning he will miss Thursday’s game. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will serve as Interim HC. In addition to McCarthy, coaches Joe Philbin (offensive line), Jeff Blasko (assistant offensive fine), Harold Nash (strength and conditioning coordinator), and Kendall Smith (conditioning coach) will miss Thursday’s game due to COVID-19 protocols. Starting right tackle Terence Steele will be out Thursday as well due to COVID-19 protocols. Standout receiver Amari Cooper returned to the team facility Monday after missing the last two games due to COVID-19 and is expected to return to the lineup Thursday night.
McCarthy spoke to the media Monday and said meetings will be held virtually Tuesday and Wednesday as well leading up to the team flying to New Orleans on Wednesday. McCarthy said testing will be ramped up this week as well. Despite the myriad of issues facing the Cowboys this week, per Bet MGM, they are four-point favorites.
Scouting the offense: This is a high-powered offense led by MVP candidate QB Dak Prescott, and the statistics back it up: they lead the league in yards per game (419) and are second in the league in points per game (29.6). What makes them so hard to defend is their ability to control a game offensively both on the ground and through the air, as they rank among the league’s top seven teams in both passing yards per game and rushing yards per game. However, the Cowboys have struggled to run the ball of late, and it’s greatly hurt their offensive output. Former No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t eclipsed 51 yards in four-straight games for the first time in his career. During last Thursday’s game against Las Vegas, the Cowboys totaled only 64 yards on the ground on 20 attempts. No. 2 runner Tony Pollard had more carries than Elliott, who is currently dealing with a knee injury.
Despite the recent struggles, the Cowboys still feature one of the league’s best 1-2 punches in the aforementioned Elliott and Pollard. We all know about the power running of Elliott and the physical tone he sets for the Cowboys running game but having Pollard behind Zeke is a real luxury for this offense. He’s a perfect complement to Elliott due to his burst to take creases and ability to explode through the line of scrimmage and into the second level of the defense. He gets north-to-south and has very good play speed. He’s continued to develop and allows Dallas to keep Elliott fresh and manage his workload. The Dallas offensive line has been a staple of their success over the last decade. Right guard Zack Martin is one of the best in the league when healthy. Stalwart left tackle Tyron Smith has played at a high level but has been plagued with injuries over the last couple seasons, including missing Weeks 9-11 this season with an ankle injury. Smith returned to the lineup on Thanksgiving and barring a setback in practice this week, should be ready to go Thursday night against the Saints. It will be essential to New Orleans’ success that they build a wall defensively with their front four and limit Dallas’ success on the ground.
Prescott has been playing at a high level in his return from a gruesome ankle injury that knocked him out most of 2020. He is accurate, confident and a player that makes you defend the whole field due to his mobility and arm talent. He’s got one of the best stables of offensive weapons in the league by his side as well. A few weeks ago, the Cowboys welcomed the return of Michael Gallup off injured reserve, who is the No. 3 receiver in a corps that features standouts Amari Cooper and Ceedee Lamb. However, any of those three can play like a No. 1 and all possess separation ability and are reliable, QB-friendly targets due to their size and athletic ability. Lamb operates mostly out of the slot and is a second-year player with all the traits you look for in a Receiver: Route running, straight line speed, explosiveness and catch-point skills to win 1-on-1 contested catch situations. TE Dalton Schultz has taken another step this year as well, and is on pace for career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. The Saints secondary faces a unique challenge defending the Cowboys plethora of weapons Thursday night.
Scouting the defense: Defensively, the Cowboys have made major improvements from a year ago, as defensive coordinator (and interim HC for Thursday night) Quinn has come to Dallas after six seasons as the head coach of the Falcons. They have jumped to 13th overall in points allowed this season (22.7 per game) after ranking 28th in 2020 with 29.6 points allowed per game. They possessed one of the league’s worst defenses a year ago and made that the primary focus of the offseason, as they drafted eight (yes, eight) players on defense in April. Despite the improvements made overall, the defense struggled mightily Thursday against the Raiders, allowing a staggering 509 total yards. Las Vegas possessed the ball for 39 of 60 minutes and was comfortable offensively the entire game. The Cowboys pass rush allowed Carr an average of 2.85 seconds to throw and getting pressure on the QB hasn’t come easy of late. Though, they are expected to get impact performer DE Demarcus Lawrence back in the lineup – Lawrence missed the past 10 games due to a fracture in his Foot.
A big key to their improved defensive play has been their ability to generate turnovers, as they are tied for sixth in the NFL with 19 forced turnovers. Two young players have stepped up and taken on major roles: second-year CB Trevon Diggs and rookie LB Micah Parsons. Diggs is leading the league with eight interceptions, and has been a ball hawk on the perimeter for Dallas. He has very good size and length for the position with fluid movement skills and good play speed. However, he is very aggressive and can be beaten with double moves, something Sean Payton surely has noticed. Like all cornerbacks, he will give up his fair share of catches and yards, but his ability to generate takeaways has been huge for this defense.
LB Micah Parsons, the Cowboys first-round pick in April, is a transcendent talent, and he’s allowed Quinn to be very multiple along the front seven, playing both on the edge at defensive end and at inside linebacker at times this season. He has out-performed even the highest of expectations that anyone could have placed on him. Thursday against Las Vegas he registered his ninth sack of the season, which set the record for most sacks by a Cowboys rookie with six games remaining in his campaign. He is a player with a rare athletic and physical skillset and has been the best overall player on the Cowboys defense this year. He feels like a shoo-in for defensive rookie of the year. Protecting the football and winning the turnover battle will be huge for a struggling Saints offense Thursday night.
Scouting special teams: For the Cowboys special teams unit, it’s very much a St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams circa 2012-2019 reunion as coordinator John Fassel, kicker Greg Zuerlein and long snapper Jake McQuaide all were with the Rams from 2012-2019. Fassel is in his second season with the Cowboys and has a reputation for having tricks up his sleeve to be able to pull off a fake at any time, from any point on the field. This is something Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi is certainly aware of, having faced Fassel many times over the years.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein has been up and down this year, as he is 19-24 on FG attempts and 22-25 on Extra Points. His 3 missed extra points is already tied for his career high. He remains a kicker with a big leg and an ability to drive the ball in the kicking game, as he possesses a strong 78.7 touchback percentage – the best mark of his career.
Punter Bryan Anger is in his first season with Dallas, signing a one-year contract with the Cowboys in April. He’s been with four teams since his entry into the league in 2012, and also possesses a powerful leg, as he’s posted career-best marks in average (49.4) and net average (44.8) this season.
Matchup to watch: LB Micah Parsons vs. Saints offensive line, Taysom Hill, Alvin Kamra
With Taysom Hill reportedly set to start at QB Thursday night and Alvin Kamara looking likely to return, maximizing production on the ground figures to be a big part of the Saints offensive game plan, thus making the rangy and explosive Parsons a player the Saints must try to slow down. Parsons is never out of a play with his straight-line speed and ability to close on the ball from the back side. Parsons is also a major threat to the aerial attack as well, as he is Dallas’ best pass rusher. The hope is that banged up Terron Armstead (knee) and Ryan Ramczyk (knee) are manning the Tackle positions for the Saints, but Parsons will certainly stress whoever is suited up with his get-off and explosiveness, along with his ability to bend and flatten the edge to get to the Quarterback. No. 11 in white is most definitely a player the Saints will need to be keyed in on Thursday Night.