The Dallas Cowboys‘ championship prospects look bleak after Dak Prescott’s devastating injury in week five. Regardless, the season marches on, and they’ll have to regroup to host a tough Arizona Cardinals team. What could the Dallas Cowboys’ week six game tell us about how the rest of their season will pan out?
Will the defense be below-average, or league worst?
This game is going to be an extremely tough test for the Cowboys’ defense, which is why it should be a good indicator of future success (or failure). The Cardinals’ strengths on offense will allow them to attack the weaknesses of the Cowboys’ defense.
It all centers around second-year quarterback Kyler Murray. After winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors the previous season, Murray was a popular sleeper pick for MVP coming in to 2020. While the Cardinals’ overall performance may be disappointing to some (despite the 3-2 record), Murray has looked fantastic. Through his first five games, he has a 69.6% completion percentage, along with 1299 yards, eight touchdowns and 7.2 Y/A.
He’s not just an arm
These stats are impressive enough, and the Cowboys’ secondary will have it’s hands full. What makes Murray such a matchup nightmare for the Cowboys’ defense, however, is his dynamic rushing ability. He already has five rushing touchdowns through the first five games of the year, to go along with 296 rushing yards on 41 attempts (which, interestingly enough, leaves him at exactly 7.2 Y/A rushing as well).
Not only can he score with his legs, but he’s also excellent at keeping plays alive. He can use his quickness and agility to escape pressure and continue to look for an open man downfield. While he struggled on these kinds of throws last season, he looks to have improved over the offseason. This is probably due both to his continuing development and the addition of the best receiver in the league in DeAndre Hopkins.
Going against a talented and extremely mobile quarterback will be a great litmus test for the Dallas defense. So far, they have struggled in every phase of the game. While rushing defense has been the worst part, their passing defense has been dreadful as well. Their secondary looks confused and doesn’t communicate well, and the pass rush has been lackluster for a majority of snaps this year. Murray could find himself with all the time in the world to throw, meaning he’ll be able to find open receivers all day. If he can’t find anyone open, the Cowboys’ linebackers will have a hard time stopping him from picking up yards himself.
Not all is lost
If, however, the Cowboys’ can put up at least a decent showing against the Cardinal’s offense, there could be reason for optimism for the remaining games on their schedule. And despite the putrid performance so far, there is some hope the defense can turn it around starting in week six.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be returning to action after recovering from a fractured collarbone suffered in week one. The Wolf Hunter has been desperately missed so far this year, although Joe Thomas has filled in admirably. The range and tackling ability Vander Esch showed in 2018 (and showed still in 2019, although inconsistently) will be key to minimize the threat of Murray’s legs. If he and Jaylon Smith can perform to their 2018 standards, it will provide a huge boost to the Dallas defense overall.
Although he is unavailable this week, Randy Gregory will be returning to the defensive lineup in week seven. Gregory has had a complicated road to reinstatement by the league, but has returned to practice and looks great according to Ezekiel Elliot (who has to block him occasionally in practice). Gregory could give the Dallas pass rush a much needed boost, as his 2018 season saw him post six sacks, seven Tackles for Loss (TFL), and 15 QB Hits in 14 games overall. If the Cowboys defense looks improved in week six, there’s a chance for it to look even better in week seven and beyond.
Can the offense produce with Andy Dalton?
Andy Dalton is now your starting QB of the Dallas Cowboys. His signing was considered a great move in the offseason, and it looks even better now. Not many backups in the league have the experience and the accolades that Dalton does.
To start, Dalton has a 70-61-2 record over nine seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals. Over that time, he amassed 31,594 passing yards and 204 touchdowns. This isn’t your average league backup who has bounced around five teams in six years and has maybe a full season’s worth of starts under their belt. Dalton has legitimate starting experience, and would probably start over a few teams’ QB1.
Not only does Dalton have experience, he has winning experience as well. Despite their current reputation the Bengals actually used to be a consistently decent team. They reached the playoffs in five straight years between 2011-2015 before the wheels started to fall off. They won at least 10 games four times in that stretch and won two AFC north titles.
2015 was by far the best year of Dalton’s career. He went 10-3 before a broken thumb ended his season. In those 13 games, he posted a 66.1% completion percentage, 3,250 yards, 25 touchdowns (to just seven interceptions), and a QBR of 106.3. These numbers had him among the MVP discussions prior to his injury.
To be fair, in 2015 Dalton had elite offensive weapons around him. A.J Green was in his prime. Him, Marvin Jones Jr., and Mohamed Sanu made for one of the best receiving trios in the league. The backfield featured Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard, who each rushed for over 700 yards. Tyler Eifert had not yet been decimated by injuries and posted 613 yards and 13 TDs.
A new hope
Guess what? The Cowboys’ offense boasts extremely similar talent. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup have been the best receiving trio in the league in 2020. Any one of them could be the WR1 on a good amount of teams this year. CeeDee Lamb especially has impressed, quickly showing himself to be an explosive playmaker who looks more like a three year vet than a rookie. Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard make an extremely dynamic duo in the backfield. Both can make plays in both the rushing and receiving game, and Elliot is the best pass-blocking back in the game.
This stable of weapons is by far the best that Dalton has had at his disposal since his 2015 campaign. I doubt even the most optimistic fans expect him to return to that form for the Cowboys in 2020. However, there is legitimate hope that the offense can continue to produce with Dalton at the helm.
This game will tell us a lot about what to expect for the rest of the year, simply because the Cowboys will most likely need to air it out as they have the last five games. The Cardinals’ offense is going to put up points, forcing the Cowboys to match them blow for blow. If they can stack up against an excellent Arizona offense and come out on top, Cowboys fans can expect them to still be legitimate contenders for the NFC East title this year. If they come out and fall flat on their face…well, there’s always next year.