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Dallas Cowboys' New Big 3 Puts NFC East on Notice

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystNovember 12, 2018

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 14:  Dak Prescott #4 hands off the ball to Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at AT&T Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  The Cowboys defeated the Jaguars 40-7.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys' game day started like any other: Continued rumors of Jason Garrett's potential firing led to a report from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport that stated owner Jerry Jones and executive vice president Stephen Jones already "have an affinity" for Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley. 

By day's end, the Cowboys earned a decisive 27-20 victory over the rival Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field to provide a flicker of hope, not only for Garrett's continued employment beyond this year but for the rest of the regular season. 

The talent found on Dallas' roster, particularly at the skill positions with quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, provides hope in both the short and long terms.

The trio showed exactly why during Sunday's performance. 

"We didn't hang our heads down," Prescott told reporters regarding last week's loss to the Tennessee Titans. "We picked our heads up. We looked at each other, locked arms and kept moving forward. I knew we were going to give ourselves a great chance to win this game." 

They did, because the offense went back to what it does best: leaning on Ezekiel Elliott.

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Elliott is an absolute workhorse. Although, the gracefulness seen within his game shows he's not just a ground-and-pound option. 

NFL @NFL

ZEKE GOING UP! 📺: @snfonnbc #DallasCowboys https://t.co/1Y2Stho0cH

Elliott is a premier playmaker. His hurdle will be the subject of many a discussion, yet it's just one facet of the bell cow's repertoire. 

On the ground, the 23-year-old back carried the ball 19 times for 151 yards and a score. He sliced through the Eagles' talented defensive front and kept the Cowboys ahead of the chains. It's often been argued that Elliott's production is due, in part, to playing behind one of the league's most gifted front fives. That's no longer the case. 

At one point, replacement players filled all three of the interior spots. Joe Looney continues to start in Travis Frederick's absence. Xavier Su'a-Filo took over at left guard after rookie Connor Williams required knee surgery this week, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer. At right guard, a big scare occurred when Zack Martin's legs were rolled up by right tackle La'el Collins. The four-time Pro Bowl honoree hobbled off the field and to the locker room before an eventual return. 

Yet, Elliott wasn't slowed. This is both a testament to his ability and an indictment of the Eagles defensive front. But the 2016 fourth overall pick thrives when the odds are stacked again him, as NFL Next Gen Stats noted: 

Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats

No running back has been more effective against 8+ defenders in the box than Ezekiel Elliott since 2016. @EzekielElliott and the @dallascowboys will face an Eagles defense allowing 2.6 YPC against runs when stacking 8+ defenders in the box this season. #DALvsPHI #DallasCowboys https://t.co/iTtmXaN1Dq

Despite consistently stacked boxes, Sunday marked the fifth time Elliott's rushed for 150-plus yards, which paces the league in that span, per ESPN Stats & Info. Dallas' lead back already has four 100-yard games this season, and his 831 rushing yards rank second overall behind the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley. 

The running back is also one of Dallas' best options in the passing game. Elliott caught six passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. He's now amassed 140 or more scrimmage yards in every contest versus the Eagles, according to NFL Research

At one point, an argument could (and probably should) have been made that Elliott was the Cowboys' best offensive weapon in both phases of the game. But that's no longer the case. 

Dallas' much-ballyhooed trade of a first-round pick for Cooper has already paid dividends. The team's newly minted WR1 led his squad Sunday with 75 receiving yards. In fact, Cooper has been the team's leading receiver in his first two contests since the trade. 

On the surface, 133 receiving yards over the last two weeks aren't all that exciting. His usage and, yes, reliability within the passing game create a ripple effect throughout the entire unit. Defenses must account for Cooper now at all times. Coverages will rotate in his direction, and his presence on the field affords other receiving options more space. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 11:  Wide receiver Amari Cooper #19 of the Dallas Cowboys makes a catch for a first down against cornerback Rasul Douglas #32 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on November 11, 2018 in Ph
Elsa/Getty Images

Obviously, the Cowboys are never going to be viewed as an explosive aerial attack with their current crop of wide receivers. But Cooper provides the legitimate threat they were sorely lacking throughout the season's first half. The attention Cooper demands creates chunk plays for an offense that had become too attached to methodically working its way downfield. Four different receivers had receptions of over 20 yards against the Eagles' depleted secondary. 

How successful Cooper, Elliott and the supporting cast ultimately are depends on the scheme's triggerman. Prescott must feed all of them. 

The quarterback's play tends to border on lackluster and promising. His latest performance firmly fell in the latter category. 

Prescott is far from a finished product, but he does present a unique skill set if properly used. At times, the play-calling from offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could (and should) be questioned, because Prescott isn't a true pocket passer. Yes, he can win from the pocket, but he's not yet consistent enough in that area of his game. Instead, his usage should vary. Provide the young signal-caller with run-pass options. Get him out on the edge. Let his athleticism take over if there's nothing available. That's not always the case.

However, Prescott performed well with multiple strong throws throughout the contest. He completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 270 yards and a touchdown. He ran for one more score. This is what everyone came to expect after such a promising rookie campaign. It's been far too sporadic.

Of course, there are still questionable plays Prescott continues to make. For example, he tends to leave the pocket far earlier than he should, which often results in a sack. 

Those flashes are still bright enough to make the Cowboys an intriguing team despite their 4-5 record. The Washington Redskins own a two-game lead in the division, but their standing could vanish quickly over the next two weeks after facing the AFC South-leading Houston Texans and the Cowboys the following week. Two contests against the Eagles won't be easy, either.

Dallas' next opponent, meanwhile, is the Atlanta Falcons, who are coming off a surprising loss to the Cleveland Browns. If the Cowboys can close the gap entering Week 13, they'll have a difficult three-game stretch against the New Orleans Saints, Eagles and Indianapolis Colts before finishing with two weak opponents in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Giants.

Despite all of the early-season disappointment, the division is still there for the taking. Everything swirling around the organization can take a backseat to its most redeeming quality: an offensive core rife with young, enticing talent. That extends to a homegrown defense that also has a few difference-makers in defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, cornerback Byron Jones and rookie standout Leighton Vander Esch.

Big D often stands for drama. It surely will again with another loss. Right now, the Cowboys' potential is obvious, though, and it starts with its three offensive stars.

"When you're feeling low and you're seeing the Grim Reaper and then come in and have your team perform the way these guys did, I promise you it's a special feeling," Jerry Jones said, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. "It is a lift."

     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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