Cowboys midseason grades: Defense leads the way as Dallas earns near-perfect marks through first eight games
The Dallas Cowboys have exceeded every expectation since losing their season opener 19-3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their defense showed signs that they could be the dominant, Micah Parsons-powered dynamo that they have become, but the offense turning things around largely behind unproven backup quarterback Cooper Rush for five games while Dak Prescott healed from his fractured right thumb is downright impressive.
Dallas' 6-2 start to the 2022 season has all but extinguished the flames around head coach Mike McCarthy's seat, making it more and more likely that he is not keeping the head coach's chair warm for former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton in 2023. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn certainly deserves plenty of credit for the team's success. However, the team as a whole staying together after Prescott's injury, something that didn't happen in McCarthy's first season in 2020, is a testament to the growth the head coach has had living under the microscope that is life as Jerry Jones' head coach.
Below are the Cowboys' grades through the first half of the season on offense, defense, special teams, coaching and, finally, as a team overall.
The offense being the lowest-graded unit in Dallas this season is shocking considering this team led the NFL in points per game (31.1) and yards per game (407.0) in 2021. However, the Cowboys have felt the effects of Amari Cooper's absence more than they would like to admit combined with Prescott's five-game absence. In total, Dallas still has a slightly above-average attack, averaging 22.9 points per game (14th in the NFL), which is a win for a team that started a backup for the first extended stretch of his career. Even with the Cowboys scoring their season-high in points a week ago in a 49-29 Week 8 win against the Chicago Bears, the only numbers where there's a tremendous difference between Rush's five starts and Prescott's three is the situational football, third down and red zone.
The Cowboys' passing game is overwhelmingly one-dimensional through their first eight games with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb's 73 targets representing 31.6% of the entire team's targets. That figure makes Lamb the third-most relied upon receiver in the entire NFL, narrowly trailing the Rams' Cooper Kupp (33.1% team target percentage), the reigning Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP, and the Dolphins' Tyreek Hill (32.5% team target percentage), the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL on an annual basis.
The two players Jones decided to pay instead of Cooper this past offseason, tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver Michael Gallup, haven't looked like themselves yet in 2022. Schultz ($10.9 million on the franchise tag) has dealt with a nagging knee injury, and Gallup (five-year, $57.5 million extension) is still working to clear the final mental hurdle from a torn ACL he suffered in 2021, according to head coach Mike McCarthy. Gallup has 12 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown in five games.
The good news for the Cowboys is Prescott looked more like himself in his second start back from a fractured thumb, completing 21 of 27 passes for 250 yards, two passing touchdowns and an interception. He also had a 7-yard rushing score on the game's opening possession. The Cowboys could not be stopped to begin their game against the 3-5 Bears, scoring a touchdown on each of their first four possessions for the first time since Week 16 of the 2014 season against the Indianapolis Colts, a game they won 42-7.
Plus, backup running back Tony Pollard showed he can do it all, starting in place of an injured Ezekiel Elliott: 131 rushing yards and a career-high three rushing touchdowns on a career-high 14 carries. Pollard's performance made him only the sixth player in Cowboys history with more than 100 rushing yards and three rushing downs in a game and the first to do so since Julius Jones against the Seattle Seahawks in 2004. He is only the third player to accomplish the feat this season, joining Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs and New Orleans Saints tight end Taysom Hill.
The Cowboys' passing game lags well behind the Cowboys' running game, but with Prescott's and Gallup's continued recoveries, there's a path to better days for the Dallas aerial attack.
The Cowboys defense is the definition of good vibes. Parsons has categorized some of his conversations with Quinn as "father-son talks" and said how much he doesn't want to let him down. Quinn has referred to himself as playing a "crazy uncle role" when leading his defense, and the Dallas DC appeared to get emotional a couple weeks ago at his Monday morning press conference when talking about how much he believes in his group. For good reason, as the Cowboys are a top-five unit in most defensive categories.
The Cowboys bringing in another inside linebacker in former four-time Pro Bowler Anthony Barr on a one-year, prove-it deal has paid major dividends between Barr's play and how the move allowed Parsons to move from playing predominantly as an inside linebacker as a rookie (55.2% of snaps in 2021 per PFF) to being an edge rusher along the defensive line in 2022 (76.4% of snaps per PFF).
Besides his positional flexibility, Parsons showcased his agility and ball-carrying skills in avoiding Bears quarterback Justin Fields and the entire Chicago offense en route to a 36-yard fumble return touchdown, the first score of his career.
The only reason the defense has an A- instead of an A or A+ is because they have revealed one glaring weakness: their struggles stopping the run. Dallas has allowed 135.1 rushing yards per game, 25th in the NFL. Playing the Bears, the NFL's top ground game by over 20 yards (averaging 188.4 rushing yards per game), inflated their league ranking from 19th to 25th as Chicago continued to run despite trailing by multiple scores, but it's been an issue beyond just Week 8. Jerry Jones acknowledged this by acquiring defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and a conditional 2024 seventh round pick from the Las Vegas Raiders in exchange for a 2023 sixth round pick a few days before the trade deadline. If the Cowboys can improve their ability to stop the run, there's no reason why they can't have an A defensively by the end of the regular season.
Special teams: A
The return of kicker Brett Maher (15-17 on field goals, 4-6 on field goals of 50+ yards) has stabilized their kicker position after a couple rollercoaster seasons with an aging Greg Zuerlein in 2020 and 2021. Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger continues to be steady, and new return man KaVontae Turpin averages 14.7 yards per punt return, the third-highest in the NFL.
Football Outsiders.com ranks every special teams unit relative to league-average play in the same situations, and the Cowboys have the second-highest rating in the NFL behind only the Baltimore Ravens, who are led by a former special teams coach in head coach John Harbaugh and the most accurate kicker in NFL history, Justin Tucker (91% field goal percentage). That's about as good as it gets.
The Cowboys nearly earned an A in the coaching department between how they managed to stay afloat during Prescott's five-game absence and their defense's stellar play. It's nitpicking, but there were two areas, one on each side of the ball, that dragged their grade down to a B-plus.
Offensively, running back Ezekiel Elliott plays 61.6% of the Cowboys' offensive snaps while Tony Pollard, whose 6.3 yards per carry is the most by any running back in the NFL this season, plays 46.8% of the Cowboys' offensive snaps. Pollard needs more action because he is the most explosive running back in the league on per carry rate.
Defensively, the gap between the Cowboys' pass defense (178.4 passing yards per game allowed, fourth-fewest in the NFL) and their run defense (135.1 rushing yards per game, eighth-most in the NFL), is too big. Dallas has the talent on defense to be better at stopping the run. If the Cowboys coaching staff corrects these two areas, they will have done an otherwise near-perfect job.
Being able to go 6-2 with the face-of-the-franchise quarterback missing five games while having one of the best defenses and special teams units in the NFL deserves the entire league's respect. If the Cowboys offense can increase their scoring with their top players improving their health and their run defense can begin to trend in a positive direction, Dallas will have one of the most complete football teams in the NFL. Read More