Winners and Losers of Dallas Cowboys' Week 1 Performance
It's hard to call a Week 1 game critical, but for the Dallas Cowboys, it certainly was. The team hosted their most bitter rival in the New York Giants, who twice defeated them last season. With a much tougher schedule (particularly in the second half of the season) and a pending Ezekiel Elliott suspension hanging over their heads, it was important that the team got off to a fast start.
That's exactly what they did. The Cowboys stifled the Giants' offense, holding them to just three points and 233 total yards of offense (46 of which came on the final drive of the game). While the defense performed well, the offense looked sluggish at times throughout the game. They totaled nearly 400 yards of offense but only managed to score one touchdown and 19 total points.
For the most part, there were not many so-called "losers" for the Cowboys, as no one particular player struggled. However, there were quite a few impressive performances from the Cowboys, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Here are the biggest winners and losers from the team's Week 1 victory.
Winner: Running Back Ezekiel Elliott
It's been quite an offseason for Ezekiel Elliott to say the least. But on Sunday night, Elliott looked like the best running back in the league once again. Against one of the best run-defenses in the NFL, Elliott racked up 104 yards on the ground and 140 yards total. However, the raw stats don't express how well he played.
According to Pro Football Focus, Elliott forced six missed tackles and totaled 77 yards after contact on the ground. He finished with an overall grade of 82.4, which gave him the second-highest score of the week, just behind Kareem Hunt (85.9) of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Elliott will likely be the subject of a lot of legal discussion over the upcoming days, weeks and months, but let's not forget how special of a running back he is. If the Cowboys want to repeat their 2016 success, it will have to be on the shoulder's of Elliott once again. He's the heart and soul of the Cowboys offense and could be an MVP candidate once again if he's on the field for all 16 games.
Loser: Running Back Alfred Morris
After beating out Darren McFadden (inactive in Week 1) in camp, Alfred Morris was the team's No.2 running back last night. Despite not playing many snaps (just six, according to Pro Football Focus), Morris was thoroughly unproductive. While Ezekiel Elliott averaged 4.3 yards per carry against the Giants, Morris rushed for just one yard on four carries.
Against the Giants' fast defense, Morris ran sluggish and didn't show much explosiveness. He's not a great receiver (just 50 catches in 79 career games) and doesn't contribute at all on special teams. Therefore, he needs to be a dominant runner, specifically in between the tackles if he wants to justify his spot on the active roster.
While he was a Pro Bowl player in Washington, Morris just hasn't been able to recreate that kind of success in Dallas. In his 15 games with the Cowboys, he's averaged a pedestrian 3.3 yards per carry. Morris will likely get another shot to be the No. 2 running back against Denver this weekend, but if he's unproductive once again, look for McFadden to replace him sooner, rather than later.
Winner: Linebacker Jaylon Smith
It's hard to find a bigger "winner" from Sunday night than linebacker Jaylon Smith. After missing all last season, Smith played in his first game in his career and did not disappoint. He started at middle linebacker for the team and managed to play 36 snaps, after just playing 27 total in the preseason, according to the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith finished the game with an overall grade of 74.7, allowing him to finish as a top-30 linebacker for Week 1. Smith totaled seven tackles (four solos) and would have forced a fumble if an official would not have prematurely blown the play dead. He was flying all over the field and finally looked healthy.
The encouraging news for the Cowboys and Smith is that he should only get healthier as the season goes on (as of training camp, his nerve still wasn't 100 percent regenerated) and as he gets more experience adjusting to the NFL game. If Smith can continue progressing at this rapid pace, he could be one of the best defenders on the team by season's end.
Loser: Wide Receiver Brice Butler
Brice Butler's performance on Sunday Night Football was a microcosm of his NFL career. On the first drive of the game, quarterback Dak Prescott audibled twice to eventually free up Butler in the middle of the field on a dig route. If Butler were to catch this pass, the Cowboys, at worst, would have the ball on their opponent's 30 yard-line with a new set of downs. With a clean catch, Butler might have even had a chance to score.
He ran a beautiful route and was able to separate from the cornerback, but he dropped the ball on a perfectly thrown pass on second down. The Cowboys failed to convert on third down and were forced to punt inside their opponents' territory. On a drive that should have produced a field goal at worst, the Cowboys came away with zero points.
But later on in the game, Butler made a fantastic diving catch as he beat cornerback Eli Apple down the sideline. While the catch was amazing, it's the drops and the lack of attention to detail that often make him an afterthought among the Cowboys' top receivers.
Luckily for Butler, the Cowboys seem OK allowing him to fail, because they know about his play-making potential, as we saw in this contest. If Butler ever wants to seriously consider challenging Williams for the Z receiver spot, he needs to become more consistent from play to play. He's got the talent to do so; he just needs to put it all together.
Winner: Linebacker Sean Lee
Despite Sean Lee not forcing a turnover or a sack in this contest, this might have been his best performance in recent memory. With the Cowboys' defense missing multiple players due to injuries and suspensions, Lee was assigned the task of leading this ragtag defense. No player was more dominant on Sunday night than Sean Lee.
Aside from holding the Giants to just three points on offense, Lee finished the game with eight total tackles (seven solos) and six stops, according to Pro Football Focus. Their numbers also point to Lee being a dominant force in the passing game, allowing just 31 total yards on 11 targets.
With so many young players around Lee, it was incredible how he was able to lead this defense to one of their best performances of the past few years. Over the team's last 33 regular-season games, they've allowed less than 21 points per game. As long as Lee is on the field, the Cowboys will have one of the better defenses in the entire NFL.
Loser: Defensive End Taco Charlton
Calling on a rookie defensive end who played just 26 snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus, is a stretch. However, when comparing Cowboys' defensive end Taco Charlton to some of the other rookie pass rushers (namely T.J. Watt, who had two sacks and an interception in his debut), it's not hard to be a little disappointed.
Charlton failed to record a single tackle on Sunday night against one of the worst offensive lines in the entire NFL. While it's not fair to panic or call him a bust, the Cowboys do need him to step up in the next three weeks as they try to replace David Irving's production as he serves a four-game suspension.
Charlton is just a raw defensive end who is learning how to use his long frame and athleticism to beat NFL tackles. It's going to take him a while to get used to the speed of the NFL, but in the meantime, Cowboys' fans shouldn't expect much production early in the season.
Winner: DeMarcus Lawrence
If Sean Lee was the best player on the field on Sunday night, DeMarcus Lawrence was easily No. 2. The Giants had no way to block him as he racked up three tackles for a loss, two sacks and five total tackles on just 35 total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
After a disappointing 2016 campaign where Lawrence recorded just one sack in nine games, it was nice to see him back to full strength. Lawrence missed four games due to a suspension and three more due to a back injury in 2016, but it appears he is over both of those issues.
At the young age of 25, Lawrence is scheduled to hit free agency after this season. But if he continues to play at this level, the Cowboys will have no choice but to pay their best pass-rusher on the team. While Lee runs the defense, the Cowboys' defensive success might depend on the health and the play of Lawrence.
Loser: Orlando Scandrick
Orlando Scandrick's play doesn't deserve the "loser" tag, but it is unfortunate that he may miss a few weeks due to a fracture in his hand, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer. Scandrick is the leader of the Cowboys' secondary and is easily their best cornerback. Without him on the field, the Cowboys will likely be forced to play younger, inexperienced players at his spot.
If Scandrick were to miss time, expect rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis to see more action as Nolan Carroll and Anthony Brown become the team's starters on the outside. With the Denver Broncos next up on the schedule, the Cowboys could have their hands full with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders against their young secondary.
Hopefully, Scandrick won't be out long and the Cowboys can survive these next few weeks without him. Nevertheless, it's a massive loss for the Dallas secondary.