6 Biggest Takeaways from Dallas Cowboys' 1-1 Start

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2020

6 Biggest Takeaways from Dallas Cowboys' 1-1 Start

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys' 2020 season has already been a roller coaster ride with both games coming down to the final drive.

    Last year, the Cowboys went 1-6 in one-possession contests. With a 1-1 start in those scenarios, they can take pride in their resilience, though this club has its shortcomings, especially on defense.

    Critics have questioned lead skipper Mike McCarthy's decision-making. On a positive note, he's pulled away from the painfully conservative nature of the previous regime.

    Though several of McCarthy's play calls on crucial downs haven't worked out in the Cowboys' favor, the offense has the talent to execute in critical situations. With more time and experience, the team's gambles should pay off.

    Following an improbable 40-39 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, let's examine the biggest takeaways from the Cowboys' start.

Mike McCarthy Brings Aggressive Offensive Approach

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    Head coach Mike McCarthy
    Head coach Mike McCarthyRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    In Week 1, head coach Mike McCarthy showed a high level of confidence in the offense, keeping the unit on the field for three fourth-down attempts. The Cowboys moved the chains only once, but the philosophy sent a message to the players.

    Quarterback Dak Prescott commented on a 4th-and-3 pass to CeeDee Lamb at the Los Angeles Rams' 11-yard line that came up a yard short of the sticks, per The Athletic's Jon Machota.

    "I love the play call," Prescott said. "We just weren't able to get it."

    McCarthy explained why he went for it instead of attempting a field goal that could have tied the game at 20 early in the fourth quarter, per Machota.

    "The conservative play there is to kick the field goal," McCarthy said. "I just felt really good about how we were moving the football. ... Analytics would tell you to go for it there, but there are other factors into that. You have to look at your variables and trust your players."

    Former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett had been criticized for his conservative play-calling with talented offensive groups. The fanbase has witnessed a different approach from McCarthy, though it would surely like to see more success.

    Dallas has converted just one of five fourth-down attempts. Perhaps that mark will improve as the players find their rhythm following a condensed offseason.

Offense Must Compensate for Defense's Struggles

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    Quarterback Dak Prescott
    Quarterback Dak PrescottRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    The Cowboys have issues on defense. The team has placed Leighton Vander Esch (collarbone), Anthony Brown (ribs) and Sean Lee (hernia) on injured reserve, which chips away at the starting lineup and depth at linebacker and cornerback.

    In Week 2, Dallas allowed 39 points to Atlanta. The Cowboys turned the ball over four times in the first quarter, which gave the Falcons short fields for scoring drives, but the defense also had some lapses in pass coverage.

    Falcons wideout Julio Jones has a hamstring injury and only caught two passes for 24 yards. Calvin Ridley, though, shredded the Cowboys secondary, recording seven catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns. Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst exposed Dallas' suspect intermediate coverage with shallow crossers.

    Despite trailing until their game-winning field goal, the Cowboys hung around with their offense. Prescott threw a touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz and crossed the goal line on three rushing attempts.

    Through two weeks, the Cowboys defense has allowed a 50 percent conversion rate on third downs (ranked 23rd). If that unit struggles to stall drives, Dallas will need to push when it has the ball.

    With McCarthy's aggressive approach, Prescott must move it through the air while mixing in handoffs to running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys have to score in bunches until they fix their issues on defense.

Injuries Have Slightly Hurt Pass Protection

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    Left tackle Terence Steele blocking Atlanta Falcons edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr.
    Left tackle Terence Steele blocking Atlanta Falcons edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    After final roster cuts, the Cowboys placed right tackle La'el Collins on injured reserve with a hip injury. There is no timetable for his return. Left tackle Tyron Smith missed the previous outing because of a neck injury.

    In place of their first-string tackles, the Cowboys have started two undrafted players on the perimeter. Rookie Terence Steele has filled in on the right side, while second-year pro Brandon Knight manned the left side.

    According to Football Outsiders, Dallas ranks ninth in pass protection, down from second in 2019. Prescott has taken four sacks. Steele has allowed a sack and been whistled for three penalties, per Pro Football Focus.

    For the most part, Knight held his own, though the Cowboys have called on Elliott to stay in the backfield for added pass protection since he's solid in that aspect. Dallas, however, shouldn't feel comfortable with Prescott attempting 86 passes without its starting tackles.

    Prescott will need to stay upright for the Cowboys to compete in high-scoring games with the defense struggling to make stops.

Aldon Smith Is Back, Playing Like He Never Left

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Aldon Smith hasn't performed like a player who missed four seasons. In fact, the Cowboys used him on 74.0 percent of their defensive snaps in his first game back since November 2015. He saw a slight increase last week (81.3 percent).

    Smith has registered 16 tackles, two quarterback hits and a sack as arguably the Cowboys' best defender. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan lined him up on the end, on the interior and even at inside linebacker, where he showed some strong-arm power against the Rams.

    During his time with the San Francisco 49ers, Smith stood up and rushed from a two-point stance, which has helped shorten his learning curve in Nolan's multiple-front defense.

    Smith looks fresh without much rust. The 30-year-old could lead the team in sacks. The Cowboys need him to provide a push for a line that's lacked a consistent punch at the point of attack.

DeMarcus Lawrence Adjusting to Mike Nolan's Scheme

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    Edge-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence
    Edge-rusher DeMarcus LawrencePaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Opposite Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence has been a non-factor in the front seven. He's yet to record a quarterback pressure. To make matters worse, McCarthy said the two-time Pro Bowler suffered a knee injury Sunday.

    If Lawrence misses time, his absence would compound the Cowboys' slow start. He talked about taking cues from Smith in an adjustment period under Nolan, per Machota.

    "Coming into this season, I never played standing up," Lawrence said. "I always had my hand in the ground. Just talking about the footwork and the fundamentals of playing this defense, it helps me out a lot."

    In August, Dallas signed defensive end Everson Griffen. With Smith's impressive performances, Lawrence could round out a fierce pass rush if he picks up the new wrinkles. The Cowboys need that to happen. They're tied for 20th in quarterback pressures (15).

Top of 2020 Draft Class Looks Promising

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    Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb
    Wide receiver CeeDee LambKyusung Gong/Associated Press

    It seems as though the Cowboys made the right choices with their top two 2020 draft selections.

    In Week 2, Lamb caught six passes for a team-leading 106 yards. He recorded a crucial 24-yard reception during the final drive, which preceded Greg Zuerlein's game-winning 46-yard field goal.

    The Oklahoma product's big-play ability has translated from the collegiate ranks to the pros. He's averaging 15 yards per reception with a combination of deep routes and yards after the catch.

    On the other side of the ball, cornerback Trevon Diggs has played every snap. McCarthy spoke with confidence about the team's decision to leave the former Alabama standout on the field (h/t Machota):

    "I don't have any hesitation on playing [Diggs], no disrespect to Julio or any of their wide receivers," McCarthy said. "He's earned the starting position at [cornerback] for so many good reasons. He'll line up and play, and the game will unfold the way it does. He's a very impressive young man."

    Diggs made a solid third-down stop on Rams running back Malcolm Brown late in the fourth quarter, though the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs with one last chance to tie or take the lead.

    Rookie third-round defensive lineman Neville Gallimore has only played 20 defensive snaps and needs more time on the field for an early assessment. On the bright side, Lamb and Diggs have played well considering they went through an offseason without OTAs and preseason games.