Dallas Cowboys vs Detroit Lions Standouts, Notes, and Observations

Dec 26, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) leaves the field after the game against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium. Dallas Cowboys won 42-21. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 26, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) leaves the field after the game against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium. Dallas Cowboys won 42-21. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys took on the Detroit Lions is this Week 16 match-up. After reviewing the game, here are this week’s game notes, standouts, and observations

  • The Dallas Cowboys offensive game plan was designed with a strong pass-rush in mind. Scott Linehan very clearly wanted to keep Dak Prescott on the move and force the Detroit defense to track a moving target. Dak threw from inside the pocket, rolling right, and rolling left. Expect to see much more of this in the playoffs when the teams typically field better pass-rushes.
  • The Lions are a pass-heavy team devoid of a respectable running game. At least that’s what the scouting report said. The Cowboys completely ignored the running game letting the Lions attack with rare balance early. RB Zach Zenner collected 38 yards on 3 carries, converting 3 first downs and scoring a touchdown on the first drive alone. The Cowboys defensive linemen were caught in games/stunts and spread out wide, abandoning their gap responsibilities. This trend would continue through the first half and appeared to be more of a product of scheme and attention, than ability.
  • Randy Gregory was not surprisingly a target of the Lions running game. Weighing in at 245lbs and lacking experience, Gregory is seen more as a pass-rush specialist than a balanced defender. Still, Gregory was not the sole problem and the Cowboys defense as a whole was to blame for their inability to stop the run.
  • Many expected the Cowboys to use kid gloves on Gregory and simplify his responsibilities but the Dallas Cowboys did anything but. Rod Marinelli even had Gregory drop into coverage in some zone blitz situations. This type of exposure is needed if the Cowboys want to lean on the second year DE in the playoffs.
  • The Dallas Cowboys depth in the secondary came to the rescue once again. After losing starting CB Anthony Brown to injury in the first quarter, the Cowboys used the versatility and depth of their safety corps to adapt. Byron Jones moved inside to the slot and J.J. Wilcox replaced him on the backend. It’s not an even swap but it’s more than most teams can boast and a luxury for the Cowboys.
  • The falloff in zone coverage is significant when J.J. Wilcox replaces Jones at FS. Jones has turned into one of the NFL’s best as a deep zone safety and uses his wits to get in position and athleticism to fill in the blanks. Jones continues to progress and has been invaluable this season when dealing with injuries.
  • I spoke of Rod Marinelli’s trickery and unpredictability a few weeks ago when he unleashed the 3-man rush on the Cowboys defense. The strategy at face value is dangerous since every QB in the NFL can pick a defense apart if given the time in the pocket. The reason Marinelli gets it to work is because he disguises it so well. On the Lions first possession in the 3rd quarter, the Cowboys showed blitz, then only rushed three. This confused the defense and resulted in a sack for Maliek Collins. Later DE Benson Mayowa logged a sack from the DE position when the Cowboys only rushed three.
  • The next play was much the same, rushing only three and still forcing Matthew Stafford from the pocket. Stafford would force the ball into tight coverage (courtesy of an extra coverage player) and a J.J. Wilcox interception.

Related Story: Unpredictability Helping Rod Marinelli's Defense

DL Jack Crawford hasn’t had a good season but he did well on Monday night. Joining him in the positive score column is DT Collins , DE Benson Mayowa, and DL extraordinaire David Irving who was consistently disruptive for the second week in a row.

I’m not sure how Orlando Scandrick can be so bad at catching a football, but he amazes me season after season. Scandy is notorious for dropping easy picks and he did it again to end the half when a ball was rocketed right to him. Because playing catch is hard, Scandy dropped the pick, letting Detroit punt and depriving the Cowboys of a go-ahead FG to end the half. Missed opportunities like this are unacceptable but not surprising. Before the season I broke down what to expect from Scandy this season and for the most part, he’s delivered on those expectations…

  • Dez Bryant did a good job of beating coverage Monday Night, Dak just wasn’t always looking his way. One particular play with 1:22 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Dallas was on the Detroit 25 facing a 2nd and 7 and Dez beat single press coverage getting open for an easy TD down the sideline. Dak never looked his way and was locked in on TE Jason Witten the entire time, forcing a low incomplete pass.
  • I have a feeling something was said because on 3rd and 7 Dez ran the same route and Dak threw the ball (amidst much tighter coverage I might add) resulting in a highlight TD and halftime equalizer.
  • In the third quarter Dak dropped a perfect dime on Terrance Williams, floating it in the air and allowing his target to run underneath it in stride. The pass of the night was made possible by exceptional play-action.
  • Running the zone read doesn’t have to result in big hits to the QB. It’s great that the Cowboys are sticking with QB run plays as long as Dak knows not to risk his health by sustaining a big hit. The jury is out on that caveat since Prescott did a little of each – playing it both safe and dangerous Monday night.
  • As for support cast receivers (anyone not named Bryant, Witten, or Cole Beasley), both Terrance Williams and Brice Butler made some big time catches with a significant degree of difficulty.

Next: Cowboys: Should they rest or should they play?

  • I loved the idea of resting Zeke Elliott late in the game. Keeping him fresh for the playoffs is imperative – rookie rushing record be damned. Just watching the visionless running of Darren McFadden lets us know how important Zeke is to this attack.