Fate apparently decided to make a little karmic withdrawal on Sunday morning as I awoke to a text asking if I’d like to attend the Cowboys’ game against the lowly Detroit Lions. (I am an anxious ball of nerves awaiting what misfortunes might lie ahead of me in the coming days to balance the scales.) The seats weren’t great, but, hey, they were free. Our end-zone corner sightline high atop section 402 wasn’t ideal, yet even from up where the O2 runs thin and the pitch of the ceaseless stairs risked snapping a certain out-of-shape fortysomething’s underused Achilles’ tendons, it was easy to see that QB Dak Prescott, returning after a five-game absence, was, shall we say, pretty rusty.
As he rolled left off play action on the Cowboys’ first play, Dak spotted a wide-open Noah Brown streaking down the sideline. The quarterback then sailed a pass five yards above Brown’s head. The next play would be a two-yard run stuff, followed by a sack. From the jump, it felt like the offense was poised to continue the frustrating malaise it’s seemingly been mired in going back to the middle of last year.
A handful of three-and-outs and a fumble at the goal line later, and the Cowboys limped into the locker room at the half trailing Detroit 6-3. Prescott did manage to get his wheels back late, however, ultimately finishing 19/25 for 207 and a TD on the way to a 24-6 victory.
Sadly, the lopsided final score was far from representative of the flow of the afternoon. Though he said his surgically repaired thumb wasn’t an issue — “I didn’t even think about it,” he said in the post-game presser — Prescott’s ball placement was consistently suspect and the flight on the ball smelled faintly of waterfowl.
The thumb also can’t account for some of his decision-making. He threw dangerously into double coverage a number of times. The jumpy, impatient Dak that tends to pop up like an irritating yard mole more and more lately reappeared. Perhaps the offense’s overall toothlessness was no more evident than on a particularly hair-pulling drive in the third quarter. It started with a dazzling 52-yard punt return by former Horned Frog and last year’s USFL league MVP KaVontae Turpin. The Cowboys would again go three and out, shamefully punting on a drive that started in Lions territory.
However, Dak’s decidedly Cooper Rush-like performance was helped along to victory by the same exact things that kept Rush afloat over the last month: a dogged commitment to running the football and elite level defensive play. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for 139 yards rushing with Zeke mixing in two TDs on the ground while the defense came alive in the second half, forcing five turnovers (three fumbles and two interceptions).
The game saw the emergence of rookie D-end Sam Williams, who had three tackles and two sacks and forced one of the fumbles. Travon Diggs added one of those INTs to his already ridiculous ball hawking resume. (The other was caught by Jourdan Lewis, who was seen on crutches in the tunnel after the game, suffering a Lisfranc fracture on the intercepting play. He is out for the remainder of the season.)
LB/DE Micah Parsons also continued his DPOY campaign on a play in which he chased down a streaming Lions’ TE T.J. Hockenson, tackling him just shy of the goal line, saving a touchdown. (Detroit lost a fumble on the next play.) Parsons initially bit on QB Jared Goff’s play action and headed toward the line before realizing his error and turning upfield to use his unreal make-up speed to burst past several other Cowboy defenders and run Hockenson down. Without that play, we may be looking at a very different outcome in the game.
The only deficiency on the defensive side of the ball continues to be in their ability to stop the run. The Cowboys look to change that, however, as they have flipped a sixth-round pick for a big ol’ space eater in defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins from the Raiders. The former second-round pick will add some much-needed size up the middle of the line and should help close off some previously open lanes for opposing runners. It’s a nifty move that could make this already elite defense even better.
If there was one lesson to be learned by Dak and the ’Boys from the Cooper Rush era, it’s that No. 4 doesn’t need to be the hero anymore. Prescott said as much himself after the game, though those old tendencies showed themselves on Sunday. The Dallas QB’s average depth of target was more than 12 yards per attempt. That’s Patrick Mahomes-type territory and more than doubles Rush’s in his time starting. Yet it still took nearly half a dozen turnovers to mount just 24 points against the league’s worst defense.
Does it really matter, though? At some point this season, there will likely be a game in which Dak will have to sling it around in some sort of Chiefs/Bills-type shootout, but don’t expect it to happen often. With this defense, 20 points is going to win you most games. Dak might be sitting in the saddle, but, for now, the defense is holding the reins.