Jerry Jones must love it when a plan comes together. After Tony Romo broke a bone in his back in late August, ensuring he would miss at least the first six games of this season, the Cowboys’ hopes to contend in the NFC East race rested on a pair of rookies. It would be up to running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott to carry Dallas in Romo’s absence and help it avoid the same sort of spiral it fell into after Romo fractured his collarbone last November.
Through Week 5, the rookies have done more than keep the team in the hunt. With Elliott carrying 15 times for 134 yards with two touchdowns and quarterback Dak Prescott again playing spotlessly, the Cowboys clocked the Bengals 28–14 on Sunday to improve to 4–1. Dallas has asserted itself as a real player in the NFC title picture.
Selecting Elliott with the no. 4 overall pick in the 2016 draft was a divisive move, considering how much success even washed-up backs like Darren McFadden have found playing behind the Cowboys’ stellar offensive line in recent years. Due to his draft status, Elliott’s first contract included the most practical guarantees of any running back in the league before he ever played a professional snap. Justifying that kind of capital would require a running game unlike any the league had seen in years — a ground attack so potent that it could hammer defenses into submission on a weekly basis. So far, that’s exactly what Dallas has done.
After two uninspiring showings to open the season (in which Elliott averaged just 3.27 yards per carry), Dallas has pummeled opponents on the ground. The Cowboys were leading the league in rushing DVOA before Elliott averaged an absurd 8.93 yards per carry against Cincinnati. They’ll almost certainly retain that title this week, and there’s a chance they won’t relinquish it all season.
What Elliott has done in the past three weeks rivals any great stretch in recent NFL history. Only three other backs in the past 10 years have run for at least 130 yards in three consecutive games in a season. Two of them — Chris Johnson in 2009 and Adrian Peterson in 2012 — went on to win the AP Offensive Player of the Year award. With one more outing of 130-plus yards, Elliott would become just the eighth back since 2011 to hit that mark in at least four games in a given campaign.
One previous player to do it was former Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, a reminder that this type of output is expected from a talented back rushing behind Dallas’s dominant offensive line. The Cowboys’ big boys up front manhandled the Bengals’ front seven on Sunday, with the starting five showing off both its potential heights and its depth. A bulging disk in Tyron Smith’s back had cost the All-Pro left tackle the past two games, and he returned with a vengeance against the Bengals. At left guard, Ronald Leary has stepped in for La’el Collins (now on the IR with a toe injury) and has somehow been an improvement.
The left side of the line was excellent against Cincinnati (Smith remains the class of NFL left tackles when healthy, and Leary stuck to Bengals defenders all afternoon), but the true joy for line nerds is watching center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin work together in the run game. Their combination block on Elliott’s first touchdown of the game — a 13-yarder with 11:09 left in the first quarter — is the stuff clinic tapes are made of. Martin gave just enough help on nose tackle Domata Peko before moving to the second level and wiping out linebacker Rey Maualuga.
This offensive line will have an advantage against just about every front seven it’ll face, but the group’s success goes beyond that. Some of the wrinkles that coordinator Scott Linehan has included with Prescott under center have made the running game nearly unstoppable. On that same 13-yard score, Prescott’s option to pull the ball meant the Cowboys didn’t even have to worry about blocking defensive end Carlos Dunlap. That left five Dallas linemen to take out five Bengals defenders; given the Cowboys’ wrecking crew, that situation is going to end poorly for any defense.
Prescott’s ability as a runner has vaulted the Dallas ground game, but what’s allowed the Cowboys to approach their 2014 level of dominance — when they finished 12–4 and fourth in offensive DVOA — is his performance as a passer. By nearly every metric, Dallas’s 2016 passing game has been among the most efficient in football. The Cowboys came into Week 5 ranked fourth in passing DVOA. Only two quarterbacks — the Vikings’ Sam Bradford and the Bears’ Brian Hoyer — have a higher completion percentage than Prescott’s 69.0.
The Cowboys’ plan for Prescott has been close to perfect. Through four weeks, he had attempted deep passes (20-plus yards in the air) on only 6.1 percent of his dropbacks, the lowest rate in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Playing without a healthy Dez Bryant (who missed a second straight game with a knee injury) contributed to that, but for the most part Dallas has given Prescott an approach tailored to his strengths.
The passing game has been built on intermediate throws to the likes of Jason Witten and Cole Beasley that take advantage of both Prescott’s accuracy in that area and his knack for being patient in the pocket and letting receivers work the underneath areas of the field. Two straight plays in the second quarter offered the perfect example of how Dallas can put drives away with terrifying ease even without leaning on the ground game.
On a third-and-3 from the Cincinnati 45-yard line, Prescott dropped back, slid just a bit to his left while keeping his eyes downfield, and delivered a dart to Jason Witten about 16 yards past the line of scrimmage (below). Witten rumbled for 15 more, all the way to the Bengals’ 14. On the very next play, Prescott escaped the pocket to his right and, without ever lowering his gaze, hit Beasley for an easy 14-yard touchdown.
Even without Bryant, the Dallas line, running game, and coaching staff can act as an ideal incubator for a young quarterback. At this point, though, it might be time to consider that Prescott’s performance transcends the game plan and the talent around him. During these first five games, it’s often looked as if Prescott was propping up the rest of the Cowboys offense, not the other way around.
It’s likely that with Romo healthy, this Dallas passing game could be even more effective than it has been, but Prescott’s threat as a runner has made the league’s most formidable ground game even more so. When Romo returns — he’s reportedly aiming for an October 30 matchup with the Eagles following the Cowboys’ Week 7 bye — there’s a chance that some around the team could push for Prescott to retain the starting job. In a way, it’s an enviable scenario for head coach Jason Garrett. The Cowboys have a quarterback who has turned them into a top-five offense and lifted them to a 4–1 start — oh, and they also have Tony Romo.
Romo was a borderline MVP candidate the last time he was on the field for an extended period of time, but by handing the offense over to him, Dallas would risk upsetting the scoreboard-exploding equilibrium it has reached with Prescott. If the Cowboys knock off Green Bay to go into their bye week at 5–1, coaches throughout the league will be envious of Garrett. But it’d be just as easy to understand why some wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.
For now, though, talk of Garrett’s decision and what this offense would look like with Romo is mere speculation. What the Cowboys offense has gotten out of Prescott isn’t. The results are real, and they’ve helped transform Dallas into a legitimate contender in the NFC.
The Starting Lineup
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. A combination of the familiar and the unexpected helped the Falcons turn in their best performance of an already excellent season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan came into Denver with a flawless game plan. Through four games, the two weak spots for an otherwise nightmare-inducing Broncos defense were its struggles stopping the run (23rd in DVOA) and running backs in the passing game (18th in DVOA). The Falcons picked at those scabs all day in a 23–16 win.
Atlanta’s backs averaged a combined 4.1 yards per carry on their 29 rushes, and Tevin Coleman — who was unsure if he would play in the high altitude due to sickle cell trait — roasted Denver’s linebackers to the tune of four catches for 132 yards. On a first-and-10 with 11:01 left in the fourth quarter, Coleman cooked Todd Davis on a simple vertical route from the slot for 49 yards. With Coleman’s speed (at his pro day, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds), the 230-pound Davis never stood a chance.
The Falcons’ decision to eschew Julio Jones and lean on their pair of stellar backs and a much-improved line has turned this group into what we can now safely call the NFC’s most dangerous offense. On Sunday, though, it was the success of head coach Dan Quinn’s defense that really turned heads. Through four weeks, Atlanta had recorded a league-worst four sacks and ranked 30th in adjusted sack rate. But the front four treated Denver’s offensive linemen like they were turnstiles: The Falcons finished with six sacks and 10 quarterback hits.
Last year’s first-round pick, Vic Beasley, led the charge, racking up 3.5 sacks. He annihilated Denver backup right tackle Ty Sambrailo to the point that Fox color commentator John Lynch wondered if Sambrailo (who missed two months this summer with a hyperextended elbow) was healthy enough to play. Game-long implosions from offensive tackles happen, and there’s a chance that Beasley — who came into the game with five sacks in his career — can credit his monster outing to facing a lineman in quicksand and a rookie quarterback (Paxton Lynch) who kept holding onto the ball. But if the Atlanta pass rush can show signs of life, it would mean the weakest part of the Falcons’ roster is no longer limiting Quinn’s defense.
2. Oh hello, Tom. In his first game back, Tom Brady (who finished 28-of-40 for 406 yards with three touchdowns) unearthed the pieces of New England’s passing game that had been buried without him.
Rob Gronkowski looked like his old self, dragging and stiff-arming helpless Browns defenders into oblivion while racking up 109 receiving yards; Chris Hogan — Chris Hogan! — emerged as the deep threat with 106 of his 114 yards coming on just two catches; and the tight end combination of Gronk and Martellus Bennett finally showed glimpses of its linebacker-incinerating power in a 33–13 rout.
Bennett had three touchdowns on the day; two came on plays that involved him and Gronkowski working in tandem on the same side of the field. On a 37-yard bomb in the third quarter, the threat of Brady going to Gronk up the seam held Cleveland’s safety inside and allowed Bennett to work down the right sideline for an easy score. On a simple 5-yard pitch and catch in the opening minutes of the second quarter, a double-teamed Gronkowski gave Bennett the entire right side of the end zone with which to work.
With Brady back, that duo is set up to be horrifying.
3. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (25-of-40 for 317 passing yards with two scores) had some magnificent moments in a 34–31 win over the Chargers, but none of them stack up to this:
That’s some real spur-of-the-moment ingenuity: “They’ll never look for me here.”
Carr’s short-lived game of hide-and-go-seek ended with a sack by Joey Bosa. The no. 3 overall pick from the 2016 draft was excellent in his NFL debut, totaling two sacks, a couple of more hurries, and an additional tackle for loss. That’s a tiny bit of solace for a San Diego team that’s beyond cursed.
4. No piece of jazz music can match the impromptu creativity that the Chargers have shown in blowing leads this year. Every week is a new riff on misery.
Philip Rivers — who passed for 359 yards with four touchdowns on 30 freaking attempts — was amazing yet again, but if a second-half fumble by Melvin Gordon wasn’t enough to doom San Diego, rookie punter Drew Kaser was there to finish the job.
Kaser punted once the entire game. It traveled 16 yards. Then, with a chance to tie the game with a late field goal, this happened:
I’m sorry, Chargers fans. I don’t know what else to say at this point. Let me know if you need a hug.
5. Not to be outdone, the Ravens seemed determined to find a way to lose on Sunday. With 6:20 left in the third quarter, Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley — who has been absurd so far this season — intercepted Kirk Cousins inside the Washington 15-yard line and looked like he might score. Then he started playing a game of bocce ball near the goal line.
That play, which resulted in a touchback, combined with a botched fake field goal and a game-winning touchdown pass being overturned and ruled incomplete, made the Ravens’ 16–10 loss their second brutal defeat in a row. These are the types of games that get an offensive coordinator fired.
6. Give Andrew Luck time, and the magic will come. Luck was sacked five times in the Colts’ 29–23 win over Chicago, bringing Indy’s sacks allowed total to 20. At this rate, Luck is on pace to get sacked 64 times — that would be the highest total for any QB not named David Carr since 1986.
The rest of the Colts roster is a mess (the defense allowed noted gunslinger Brian Hoyer to throw for 397 yards), but every so often, the combination of Luck and T.Y. Hilton — the league’s fourth-leading receiver through five weeks — is going to be enough.
7. The Titans played their best game to date in a 30–17 win over the Dolphins, and it was thanks to the two things they do best. On offense, DeMarco Murray has been resurgent, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and trailing only the Cowboys’ Elliott in rushing. His performance at Miami was no different. Murray gained 47 yards on his first seven carries, including a nifty 13-yarder in the first quarter that required him to spin off one tackler before outrunning another to the edge.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee has assembled a solid unit (it ranks 13th in defensive DVOA) on the foundation of three talented players along the front four: Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, and Jurrell Casey. That trio finished with two sacks apiece while obliterating a Dolphins line that was missing left tackle Branden Albert and left guard Laremy Tunsil.
The Titans have left plenty to be desired on offense during their 2–3 start, but their most lopsided loss of the year came in Week 1’s 25–16 defeat by the Vikings that featured two defensive scores for Minnesota. Given what Tennessee does well, it should be in most of the games that it plays in 2016.
8. There were a few head-scratching fakes Sunday, but none more frustrating than Jeff Fisher’s decision to call for a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from his own 23-yard line. His thinking was that Los Angeles trailed Buffalo by four points with less than four minutes remaining in regulation and might not have gotten the ball back in what turned out to be a 30–19 loss. What’s maddening is that on the Rams’ previous drive, Fisher elected to kick a field goal from the Bills’ 4-yard line while down 23–16, meaning that the Rams still needed a touchdown. Clearly, with L.A.’s high-powered offense, Fisher figured he would get another shot that was just as good.
9. Even when Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay passing game aren’t playing at their planet-destroying peak, the Packers have enough on both sides of the line to squeeze out wins. The Giants’ high-priced front four was nowhere to be found in Sunday night’s 23–16 loss, finishing with no sacks and just three QB hits. On the flip side, Green Bay’s pass rush tormented New York’s offensive line, with Nick Perry adding three more quarterback hits to what has already been a career year for the 2012 first-round pick.
10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Matthew Stafford surviving this shot from the Eagles’ Connor Barwin.
Against Philadelphia’s front four, a quarterback is likely to face conditions that are less than ideal. When Stafford did on Sunday, he was up to the task. His 14-yard scramble on a second-and-12 late in the first quarter helped keep the Lions’ scoring drive afloat, and both his touchdown throw to Marvin Jones and his drive-saving toss to Golden Tate that led to Detroit’s game-winning field goal came on throws with ridiculous arm angles — something Stafford showed mastery of in a 24–23 win.
11. I have come here to bury the Jets. Their 31–13 loss to the Steelers puts them at 1–4, squarely three games behind New England in the AFC East. But what’s even more depressing for the Jets is the way they looked while getting thrashed by Pittsburgh. A handful of drops by Steelers receiver Sammie Coates — dealing with a lacerated hand — were all that kept this one from becoming truly embarrassing.
The Jets couldn’t muster any semblance of a pass rush; without one, a cornerback group that included waiver claim Darryl Roberts and fourth-round pick Juston Burris stood little chance against Ben Roethlisberger and Co. A year ago, head coach Todd Bowles’s team finished 10–6 in part because of remarkable injury luck. No defense in the league was healthier in 2015, and on offense the Jets got at least 13 starts out of their top two receivers and four of their five starting offensive linemen.
Darrelle Revis and Eric Decker were ruled out before Sunday’s game, and then both linebacker David Harris and center Nick Mangold — the two longest-tenured players on the roster — had to be pulled because of injuries. Coming into the fall with one of the oldest rosters in football, the Jets’ margin for error was virtually nonexistent. Based on what’s happened through five weeks, their season may already be over.