Hitting the Ground Running: Cowboys vs. Bears Week 3 Review
What a difference two weeks can make. After a sluggish week one performance, the narrative machine kicked into high gear speculating whether or not the Cowboys blew their fourth overall pick; whether Ezekiel Elliott was more Trent Richardson than Todd Gurley. As they say, wins are the ultimate salve and after a resounding performance against a reeling, injury-ravaged Bears team, the Cowboys run game is showing signs of life.
At 2-1, Dallas is still in contention for the divisional crown, but in the drunken teenager of a division that is the NFC East, that was almost assuredly always going to be the case. In reality, there isn’t very much that can be drawn from a win against a lowly opponent who was starting their backup quarterback and were down multiple starters on defense. Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t any insight to take away, more so that expectations need to be tempered.
One of the more encouraging things seen against the Bears was the continued progression of Dak Prescott (19-24 for 248 yard, no interceptions, one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown), who has gotten a longer leash to work with after the check-down party that was week one. Even more heartening has been the rookie’s slow and steady growth and accuracy with the deep ball. After living on a steady diet of passes that barely passed the line of scrimmage against the Giants (5.0 yards per attempt), Prescott brought this figure up to 9.7 against Washington and 10.3 versus the Bears. As with everything, this should be taken with a grain of salt based on the competition but it’s an interesting development nevertheless. Adding a vertical element to his repertoire will only pay dividends for the neophyte, as it will make defensive coordinators account for more of the field.
The turnaround has also benefited one of the Cowboys’ most frustrating players of the past few seasons in Morris Claiborne. Nobody would have blamed you for skepticism when the OTA/training camp reports of his ascension started to trickle out, after four years of underachieving it might have felt like a bridge too far. Now, those reports have checked out on the actual gridiron and it can be confirmed: Morris Lee Claiborne has found his groove and is shining. On Sunday, Claiborne would play various fronts for Rod Marinelli’s defense; in zone he would neatly wrap up pass catchers finishing tied for the team lead for solo tackles; in his few man-to-man snaps he would play a large role in limiting Alshon Jeffery, be it in off-coverage or pressing him at the line – in fact, Jeffery’s longest reception against Claiborne was Sean Lee’s fault in actuality as he ran directly into the young corner while he was right on Jeffery’s hip.
However, as can be expected, all roads lead to the run game when discussing Dallas’s success against Chicago. While the superficial numbers in weeks one and two may have looked impressive, they were almost entirely volume-driven; that production was not what the Cowboys envisioned when they drafted Elliott fourth overall. On Sunday, however, the light went on with the Hero in a Halfshirt tagging the Bears for 140 yards on 30 carries, vaulting himself into second place for rushing yards (274) behind only LeGarrette Blount’s 298. It was partially because of the level of competition, of course, but the rookie showed something he hadn’t shown much of in his first two forays into NFL action: patience and vision. He allowed his blocks to develop between the tackles and knew precisely when to bounce it outside when the creases didn’t develop. One also has to wonder whether or not the injury to second-year guard La’el Collins didn’t end up being a matter of addition by subtraction, as the line looked noticeably better when he was replaced with veteran Ronald Leary.
The night wouldn’t be without complications, as star receiver Dez Bryant would go down with what has been diagnosed as a hairline fracture in his knee. Frankly, this diagnosis is a lot less catastrophic than what could have been considering how dreadful the hit was that caused it. As it stands, it’d be unlikely to see Bryant play for the next few weeks. Secondary receivers Cole Beasley, Brice Butler and Terrance “forgets how to run out of bounds” Williams will have to step up in his absence.
Up next, a trip to San Francisco to take on the struggling 49ers.