A loss to the Philadelphia Eagles could’ve been enough to close the book on the Dallas Cowboys’ 2018 season. Instead, the Cowboys pulled out a desperately needed 27-20 road victory to stay in the NFC East race.
There’s still climbing to do — especially after Washington improved to 6-3 with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — but Dallas is back in the mix at 4-5. The Cowboys have a real shot at catching Washington too if they play the way they did Sunday night.
The key for the Cowboys is to do what they did against the Eagles: Dominate time of possession.
In the win against the Eagles, the Cowboys were on the field for 33:22 of game clock, compared to 26:38 for Philadelphia. That’s especially impressive considering the Eagles entered the game with an average time of possession of 33:46 — the best in the NFL.
It was just the third time this year Dallas has been on offense for more time than its opponent. The Cowboys are 3-0 in those games.
Dallas is designed to win time of possession more often than not. While they haven’t done that consistently yet in 2018, the win over the Eagles showed that the Cowboys have the elements to get that job done.
Here are the three most important steps for the Cowboys to keep winning the ball control game:
1. Feeding Ezekiel Elliott is top priority
It’s no secret that a steady ground attack is the most significant part of the time of possession battle. If you can run, the clock will be on your side and the opposing defense will struggle to get off the field.
So when Elliott racks up 151 rushing yards, two touchdowns, and 36 receiving yards, it’s obviously a good sign for the Cowboys.
The once-terrifying Dallas offensive line used to clear the way for those kinds of numbers on a weekly basis. But the group has taken a step back in 2018 and is still missing center Travis Frederick, who announced in August that he was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease.
The good news for the Cowboys is that Elliott doesn’t need much room to make big plays. Get him out in space and he’s particularly special:
The Cowboys offensive line also looked like its old self in the second half against the Eagles. Against a defensive line with Fletcher Cox and Michael Bennett, Dallas bulldozed ahead and cleared the way for Elliott.
Cowboys offensive line is gashing the Eagles this second half— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) November 12, 2018
But that’s not that new. Elliott has been an Eagles killer throughout his career so far. Many of the best performances came against Philadelphia:
Ezekiel Elliott vs. Eagles— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) November 12, 2018
10/30/16: 148 total yards
12/31/17: 141 total yards
11/11/18: 187 total yards, 2 TD pic.twitter.com/QhmTfD0dDE
Elliott has topped 100 yards four times so far in 2018, and the Cowboys won three of those games. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan hasn’t been dependable about committing to Elliott, but when he does, it usually yields positive results.
2. The Cowboys are tough to run against
If running the ball is the most obvious way of controlling possession, stopping the run is the clear second. Dallas happens to be pretty stellar at it.
Through nine games, opponents are averaging just 3.6 yards per carry against the Cowboys. The only team holding teams to a lower average are the Chicago Bears and it’s just by a one-hundredth of a yard per carry.
The Eagles’ banged up running back group found a couple big plays on the ground Sunday night. Josh Adams escaped up the right sideline for 29 yards and Corey Clement had a burst for 11 yards. But Philadelphia’s other 14 attempts went for just 31 yards.
Dallas’ defensive line deserves credit for shutting down opposing running backs, but the stars leading the way for the run defense are the team’s duo of young linebackers, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
The defensive play of the game for the Cowboys came in the final minutes when a screen pass for the Eagles appeared set up for a big gain. Vander Esch sniffed it out, blew past a pair of Philadelphia offensive linemen, and made the tackle for a 5-yard loss.
While it wasn’t a run play, it shows the kind of downhill ability that Vander Esch brings, which has made it difficult to find running lanes against the Cowboys.
Dallas is No. 3 in the NFL in both total defense and points allowed per game. It hasn’t forced many turnovers, but Vander Esch is ready to help with that too:
The Cowboys defense isn’t going to allow many lengthy drives, especially with its young linebackers. That’ll give the Dallas offense plenty of opportunities to do its own damage.
3. Dak Prescott just has to do enough to move the chains
The Cowboys have converted 36 percent of their third-down attempts in 2018. That’s No. 24 in the NFL.
But against the Eagles, the Cowboys converted eight of 16 third-down attempts and their only fourth-down try. The Eagles turned four of 10 third downs into firsts and failed on each of their two fourth downs.
The key to that success for Dallas was a 26-of-36 performance from Prescott — the first time since last November that he finished a game with a completion percentage over 70. With Elliott grinding defenses down, the Cowboys don’t need Prescott to do much. Just make the plays when they’re there, and don’t throw interceptions.
That was the formula for Prescott during his Offensive Rookie of the Year season in 2016. He didn’t have prolific numbers, but he completed 67.8 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions. A year later, his completion percentage dropped to 62.9 and his interception total spiked to 13.
So far in 2018, Prescott has thrown five picks. He threw two interceptions each in losses to the Seahawks and Texans, and one more in a loss to the Titans. Against the Eagles, Prescott didn’t make those mistakes.
It helps that he now has Amari Cooper added to the mix. After finishing with five receptions for 58 yards in his Cowboys debut last week, Cooper added another six receptions for 75 yards against the Eagles.
His presence opened up the Cowboys’ other receivers to make plays too. Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and Cole Beasley each had receptions of at least 20 yards against Philadelphia.
If Cooper helps Dallas get the version of Prescott who kept drives alive against the Eagles, the Cowboys are in business.
The biggest thing for the Cowboys moving forward is consistency
When Dallas checks those three boxes, the team wins time of possession and wins games. The best example was the 40-7 mauling of the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 6. The Cowboys finished that game with 38:50 of possession — the most they’ve had in any game since a blowout win against the Browns in 2016.
The problem is that nothing about the Cowboys offense has been consistent.
The demolition of the Jaguars was followed by losses to Washington and Tennessee that saw Elliott stuffed for 94 yards in the two weeks combined.
Games against New Orleans and Washington before the end of November will test the Cowboys’ ability to recreate their strong showing against the Eagles. But easier matchups against the Falcons, Buccaneers, and Giants mean Dallas has a shot at finally stringing together wins and momentum.
The win Sunday showed what the Cowboys can do when things are clicking. It just can’t happen once every three games.