Monday, October 23, 2017

The Morning After - Cowboys 40, 49ers 10 (3-3)

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) gets past San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (90) during the second quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) gets past San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (90) during the second quarter of an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)
It used to be far more difficult to head out to San Francisco (Santa Clara) to deal with those 49ers.  

In fact, it almost always meant a loss -- except for some pretty memorable playoff victories at their place on January 3, 1971, at Kezar Stadium (the final game ever played at that old jewel) or January 17, 1993, at Candlestick Park.  Otherwise, in all the regular season meetings, the Cowboys went out there 10 times before 2005 and lost seven, often rather easily.  
But, it has now been 21 seasons since Steve Young beat Troy Aikman at Candlestick on November 2, 1997, and ever since then, the Cowboys have run right through those 49ers in all four meetings in the Bay Area.  The previous three have taken all 60 minutes to put one in the win column for the visitors from Texas, but Sunday was as one-sided as any between the two rivals as the Cowboys pummeled the down-and-out 49ers by a name-your-score final of 40-10.  
This one likely will only be remembered for a few more days as the demolition met no resistance whatsoever from the 49ers who appear to be a team dead-set on getting that top pick in the upcoming draft.  They have 3 dozen new players this season and appear to need about 3 dozen more new ones for the next time they plan on being a competitive NFC threat in 2019 or so.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys destroyed an opponent (win by 15+ points) for the first time since opening night in 2017 after doing such a deed 5 times in 2016 in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott's freshman campaigns.  Things came very easily that year and there were few traces of doubt in anyone's mind with the ferocity of this offensive machine.  That clearly has not been the case so far.
But, Sunday, we saw it again.  In fact, if you wish to be fair, there have been signs of the machine for three consecutive games now.  Perhaps the first two were sabotaged by defensive shortcomings and fourth-quarter moments that did not quite give the ending that many were hoping for.  But, against the Rams, Packers, and now 49ers, the offensive results should have people satisfied with a team trying to prove it can contend.
1,349 yards of offense -- 732 yards passing and 617 yards rushing -- all totaling an impressive 101 points scored from the offense.  That is a trend that has shown dominance on the ground to the tune of 5.9 yards per carry over 105 running plays and dominance in the air as the QB who is making this all go has 61-97 for 737 yards with 9 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions.  The throw to Jason Witten in the second quarter for the touchdown was absolutely silly.  You could not toss it in there better from 3 feet than he did from the 25-yard line to the back of the end zone.  Dak doesn't miss throws like that very often, and this one was perfect.   All told, the still-improving Dak Prescott posted a 108.5 passer rating and an absurd 9.3 percent TD rate (meaning he threw 9 touchdowns in 97 attempts!) in a 3-game stretch where his team won only 1 game.
But, we know this offense and its personality.  We know that the QB is best when he is making you pay for sitting on the run and his use of play-action.  We know that the passing game is a fantastic counter rather than the lead-punch.  For anyone who sees this team going to the next level, it is based on the fact that this running game was doing things last year that doomed the opposition in the film room.  
Those opponents knew they weren't chasing the Cowboys out of their plan.  They knew that they could try alignments set on stopping the run and the Cowboys would laugh and hand Zeke the ball again.  For some reason, the Cowboys were not quite as stubborn in those first 3 weeks where they ran for only 3.8 yards a carry.  Perhaps their RB was not quite in game-shape or the transitioning of the OL with 2 new starters was hitting some bumpy roads.  Or, perhaps they were going against three pretty salty defenses to start the year.  Whatever it was, now that the running game is back to its customary 5 yards plus per handoff, everything has snapped right back to 2016 form for this offense.  That darned suspension talk won't go away, and as the calendar turns to November, that should make everyone nervous, but with all the pieces on the board, the Cowboys offense looks the part again.  There is no reason they can't take their ground and pound to any stadium in January and leave with their W.
It is fair to point out that during this stretch where the offense has scored 101 points in three games, they have also taken two losses home with them.  I won't put 100 percent of the blame of that on the defense's inability to slow down the Rams or the Packers offenses, but I think we could probably offer them over 80 percent.  
Sunday, the return of Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens meant that for all intents and purposes, the Cowboys finally had their best 11 on the field at the same time for the first time this season.  Chidobe Awuzie could still be added to that group when he gets right, but we had not seen David Irving and Sean Lee on the same field until Sunday.  There is no question that Irving is breaking out and Demarcus Lawrence is balling out in combination like we have never seen.  The team's sack output - now at 21 - is off the charts compared with the rest of the team's post-Wade Phillips/DeMarcus Ware era. And it continues to rise at a very promising rate.   Lawrence at 9.5 sacks is now just a half-sack behind the league leader, Calais Campbell with 10.  Lawrence is already at his career high and has had a sack in every single game so far this season.  Irving looks even more disruptive in 2017 than he did in 2016 when he led the team in splash plays.  He is 24 years old and just finding his powers.  If you have two defensive players at this level doing this well, it seems fair to feel like opposing passers are going to be under duress quite a bit.
Beyond that, after crunching a very poor 49ers offense repeatedly that featured Carlos Hyde and 10 other professional football players, there is little to learn from this test.  The 49ers are just not very good and have a rookie QB who was making his first start.  We assume that San Francisco is planning to get their next franchise QB in the spring of 2018, but that is their problem.   There is not a ton to learn from the defensive performance and with the level of challenges that the next four weeks will bring, that is fine.  The team will continue to face stiff offenses that likely will show that this defense needs more talent and probably a better scheme disposition, but let's see how they hold up in Washington and at home against Kansas City with their full complement of defenders.   Perhaps the fortunes of this defense hinge on the healthy of Sean Lee.  Gulp.
The schedule makers put the 49ers on the list of road games and they instantly stuck out as the easiest of the eight road trips that Dallas will make this year.  They had to get this game.  I can only imagine the level of panic if they would have fallen to 2-4 with the Elliott suspension continuing to loom.  
But, they took care of business.  Elliott and the running game demoralized the 49ers defense with gashing runs all day long.  There was no suggestion of mercy as the Cowboys could have named their score.  Zone runs, man runs, zone reads, power plays, traps.  They were all there and they all worked.  Then, the screen from Pittsburgh last November was dusted off and shown to score on a 72-yard rumble that demonstrated the ability of the offensive line - with both guards Zack Martin and Jonathan Cooper leading the way with nice blocks -  and Elliott in full sprint.  WR Noah Brown should also be recognized for his fine work on that play, and they were  sailing with open waters, 27-3 with almost an entire half of garbage time yet to come.
Sure, there are still some concerns and sure, the 49ers stink.  But, if you are looking for signs that the Cowboys may be finding another gear on the back of its powerful offense, I think this uncomfortable stretch with 2 sour home losses has actually helped them find their groove again.  
The true tests await, but in the NFC where everything is as wide open as ever, I sure like what the Cowboys have shown me recently.  501 yards of total offense in Santa Clara is the most in the Prescott/Elliott era for any single afternoon.  
We don't know what is around the next corner, but that level of dominance on Sunday is a sign that this team plans on playing in January.  
However, finishing October in Washington will be next.  

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