5 Takeaways from Cowboys' Win, Andy Dalton's Return in Week 5

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistOctober 13, 2020

5 Takeaways from Cowboys' Win, Andy Dalton's Return in Week 5

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys picked up a divisional win in Week 5 over the New York Giants to move the needle to 2-3 through five weeks. 

    In the process, though, the Cowboys lost starting quarterback Dak Prescott to a season-ending ankle injury. Normally, losing a franchise-tagged passer who set a historical statistical pace over the first four games of the season would be a death blow to the season. 

    But things are anything if stereotypical for Jerry Jones' Cowboys, a franchise that happens to have one of the league's best backup quarterbacks in Andy Dalton. The veteran came up big in the clutch and now joins a big list of moving pieces (such as injuries and gradual improvements) that play a role in shaping the season-long outlook. 

    Here are the biggest takeaways from the Cowboys' performance in Week 5 and Dalton's sudden stepping into the spotlight. 

Ezekiel Elliott Has the Talent to Overcome Bad Line Play

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Maybe chalk this one up under the obvious column, sure, but Ezekiel Elliott just showed he can more than be the workhorse who carries the Cowboys offense. 

    Sunday, Elliott rushed 19 times for 91 yards and two scores, good for a 4.8 per-carry average. He also caught one of his two targets for 14 yards. 

    That seems like standard-fare Elliott for longtime watchers, and indeed, even now he's up to 364 yards and five scores on a 4.1 average. But it was especially impressive Sunday considering the ravaged state of the offensive line in front of him by a unit that featured a rookie at center and two undrafted players at the tackle positions. 

    In short, this won't be a case of defenses constricting and hammering Elliott into irrelevancy. He's still managing to overcome an inexperienced offensive line and should continue to do so. That line could, in theory, still improve if at least Joe Looney can return at center soon. 

    And this is critical because of the next point.

Cowboys Still Have the Best QB in the NFC East

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Bold? Maybe not. 

    Andy Dalton was a second-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 who feasted when the surroundings were great. An eventual botched management of the offensive line in front of him by a front office with questionable decision-making soured Dalton's reputation nationally, but he's still the guy who had a borderline MVP season in 2015, has multiple playoff appearances and a career 62.0 completion percentage with 204 touchdowns and 118 interceptions. 

    All Dalton did when called upon Sunday in the wake of the Prescott injury on short notice was put up his 25th game-winning drive since 2011. 

    There were some cobwebs to shake off, of course, like the sack on his very first play and the fumbled snap. But it was pretty safe to say Dallas had signed the best backup quarterback in the league this past summer, and it's safe to say he's better than the odd battle going on in Washington, the struggling-to-develop Daniel Jones in New York and the mechanically lost Carson Wentz. The last name is the most debatable, but Wentz has his team at 1-3-1, having completed just 60 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and nine interceptions. 

    Things aren't going to be perfect with Dalton, especially if the offensive line struggles. But he's built for this sort of environment and will now fully prep as the starter each week in a division lacking quality play at the position. 

The Defense Should Improve

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    It looks bad on paper. 

    Dallas, after weeks of defensive struggles, gave up 34 points to a Giants team that was winless and hadn't scored a touchdown in two consecutive games. 

    While it's not smart to make too many excuses for such a performance, seven of those points were scored by the Giants defense and 10 more came via short fields because of offensive or special teams miscues. Technically speaking, the defense still held the Giants without a passing score and New York runners managed a 3.3 average on 27 attempts. 

    Consider how the quarterback change makes life easier on the defense, too. The offense shouldn't play at such a blinding, stat-happy pace with Dalton under center, which should equate to less time on the field (barring turnovers, but Dalton's had an interception percentage above 3.0 just twice since 2011). 

    At the same time, the unit should keep getting healthier. Anthony Brown came off of injured reserve and returned a fumble for a touchdown. And while Trysten Hill is now out with an injury, players like corner Chidobe Awuzie and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch could be able to make it back eventually. 

    Either way, a steady uptick in play, possible returns and a friendlier complementary offense could mean good things for the defense. 

The Offense Still Has an Embarrassment of Riches to Ride

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Generally speaking, it'd be easy to think a Cowboys game that featured just two catches for 23 yards by Amari Cooper was a struggle-filled mess of a loss. 

    Not Sunday. 

    Against the Giants, it was breakout rookie CeeDee Lamb catching eight of his 11 targets for 124 yards. It was Michael Gallup inhaling all four of his targets for 73 yards. It was Cedrick Wilson grabbing all four of his chances for 22 yards. 

    And now it's Lamb leading the team in receiving outright and Gallup sprinting past everyone with his per-catch average of 20.5 yards. Six different targets have at least 12 catches on the season, and five of them have at least two plays of 20-plus yards. 

    With Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy at the controls, the game plans are bound to adapt more to suit Dalton's skill set, meaning more slants and things closer to the line of scrimmage, if not behind it.

    Maybe this isn't the best outright supporting cast of Dalton's career (he at one point had prime A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Eifert), but it's very close. Expect high efficiency numbers and plenty of breakout plays from a talented cast of weapons. 

The NFC East Runs Through Dallas

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Saying the NFC East belongs to Dallas this year isn't the biggest compliment in the world. 

    But getting to the playoffs is all that matters. 

    The rest of the division is a disaster zone. The Giants haven't won a game, and Daniel Jones has thrown two scores with five picks. Washington, 1-4, has benched first-round product Dwayne Haskins, has been blown out in four consecutive weeks and as a team just passed for 70 yards in a 30-10 loss. 

    Then there are the Eagles, a 1-3-1 squad boasting a tie with Cincinnati and a win over a San Francisco team hobbled by injuries. The three losses were by nine or more points, Wentz is a mess, and DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Jalen Reagor, multiple starting offensive linemen and more have been hurt and/or have yet to play at all. 

    The Cowboys, on the other hand, are 2-3. They needed last-second miracles for those wins but came within at least seven points of strong Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks teams. Even a loss to 4-1 Cleveland is apparently a not-so-terrible outcome. 

    Dallas, now buoyed by an established former starter under center, still gets New York again, Philadelphia twice, Washington twice and bad teams like 1-4 Minnesota and 1-3-1 Cincinnati, plus a decently placed Week 10 bye. 

    Will the Dalton-led Cowboys play prettier wins than Sunday's game? Maybe not, but the division is theirs if things slow down and even out.