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Know Your Opponent: An Inside Look At The Dallas Cowboys


The Washington Redskins are on the road for the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys

Ahead of the final game of the year, spoke to beat writer David Helman about what to expect this weekend.

Question: The Cowboys were one of the hottest teams in the NFL to start the season, and now they're fighting for a playoff spot. How has the team handled that frustration of going from 3-0 to 7-8?

David Helman: They looked every bit like a Super Bowl contender through the first month of the season. That hasn't been the case ever since. This team has been completely unable to string together consistent performances all year. And there's definitely a level of frustration.

I think there's almost a level of disbelief that even if they win on Sunday, they need the New York Giants' help to get into the postseason. And I just don't think there's a single person on that team who thought that would be the case back in September. It's been one of the more baffling years in recent Cowboys history.

Q: This offense certainly has weapons everywhere and is the best in the league. How is it possible that a team who has the No. 1 offense is 7-8?

Helman: Like I said, it's baffling. They've got Pro Bowlers everywhere. At times they've looked like one of the best offenses in the league, and other times they've struggled when they've gone up against stout defenses like New Orleans, New England and like Philly last week. They've been unable to score points. They've been held at 10 or fewer points three times this year.

It goes back to the consistency. This is a team that will score 44 points one week against the [Los Angeles] Rams, who were a playoff contender at the time, and then turn around and be unable to score a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles. On the other side of the ball, the defense is as big a part of that as any. This was a unit that was top 10 in the league throughout the year last season. The stats will tell you they're pretty good this year, but they really haven't held up their end of the bargain.

We've played 15 games to this point. This is a team that's probably put together three all-around complete efforts in 15 games. And that's not going to cut it if you want to make the playoffs.

Q: This will be the third straight divisional opponent the Redskins have faced in as many weeks. How has this Cowboys team changed from their first meeting in Week 2?

Helman: I don't know if they've changed in their makeup. I know how many injuries Washington's dealing with. They have 22 people on IR. They've had to flop the quarterbacks, flop the running backs. The Cowboys really haven't had that problem. They lost [linebacker] Leighton Vander Esch at about the midpoint of the season, and obviously that's a big blow. But this team has been pretty healthy by NFL standards. They haven't had to put a ton of guys on IR.

They haven't lost starters for more than a week or two at a time, and that's what makes it all the more frustrating. The debate in Dallas right now is this: "Is this team actually talented?" I think there's a lot of talent on this roster. They just have not been able to utilize it on a consistent basis this season. So in Week 2 against that Washington team, I think they were playing up to their potential. They ran out to a 17-point lead in that game. They won pretty comfortably. We haven't seen that since then.

Q: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has certainly been dedicated to getting quarterback Dak Prescott weapons on offense. How has Prescott developed this year?

Helman: I really do think he has progressed this year. He's developed as a passer. He's shown that he can push the ball down field. I think he's averaging 8.5 yards per attempt, which is among the best in the league.

I think people probably make too big of a deal about his passing yardage. Some of those stats are hollow, but he really has displayed an ability to spread the ball, push it down field. There have been games where he's getting eight or nine receivers involved. He's using his running backs. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup are both obviously enjoying 1,000-yard seasons, which is pretty impressive, even by 2019 standards. You don't see that very often.

So I do think the passing attack has taken another step forward, but it's hard to argue that when Ezekiel Elliot and the ground game can't get rolling. I don't think Dak Prescott has developed into a quarterback that can do it all by himself, at least not yet. I think that's going to create some really interesting conversations in the offseason when it comes time for him to sign a new contract.

Q: Ezekiel Elliott has another 1,000-yard season, but he has looked a little up and down at times this year. He has six games where he has rushed for fewer than 70 yards. What do you think has been the cause of that?

Helman: I agree to a point. It's kind of blew up in my face last week against Philadelphia, but Zeke looked like he was rounding into form over about the last month and a half starting in late October and going until December. It seemed like he was gaining steam.

Maybe that's because he didn't have an offseason and he needed time to condition. Maybe that's because defenses were finally respecting the pass enough and they backed off of stopping the run, but he really was starting to look like the Zeke that we remember. But I do agree that for most of this season, for all of his stats, he didn't always look like this all-world running back that was top two or three in the league.

Philly committed to stopping the run last week probably because Dak's shoulder was hurt and Zeke wasn't able to get anything going. And that's kind of been a story this year, whether you want to put it on Zeke, whether you want to put it on the Cowboys' offensive line not being as good as it used to be. When defenses have sold out to stop the run, they've been able to do it.

Q: Switching over to defense, what is the outlook of that unit, and who are some players who have really stood out to you?

Helman: They traded for Robert Quinn in the offseason for a very small price, and they've gotten basically double-digit sacks out of him. He's been fantastic on the right side across from [linebacker] DeMarcus Lawrence. But really one of the stories of this season for the Cowboys is that their defensive playmakers have really not stepped up and answered the challenge.

DeMarcus Lawrence became the highest-paid player in Cowboys history in the offseason. He hasn't been bad; he's a good player. He's a well-rounded player. He defends the run well, but he only has five sacks on the year and hasn't forced as many takeaways as you would prefer from a pass rusher who's making money like that. He hasn't really put his stamp on the season.

Jaylon Smith is the same way. He signed a huge contract in August, and it looks like he's regressed for one reason or another. He hasn't had his best year. Byron Jones hasn't been bad by any stretch, but he's not a cornerback who gets takeaways. That can be the difference between wins and losses.

You can nitpick all you want on offense, but I would argue they've held up their end of the bargain far more often this season than the Cowboys' defense. I think it's a big part of the reason why they are where they are.

Q: Finally, what are so keys for each team heading into the season finale?

Helman: Last week, the Eagles were really beaten up, too. The Cowboys definitely had the talent advantage in that game, and they couldn't take advantage of it. It would be a cop out to say the Redskins are just totally banged up. But I do at the end of the day think the Cowboys have the talent to win.

I think with the amount of guys that the Redskins have sitting out of this game, I think you can lean on Zeke a little bit in the running game. It's going to depend on Dak's shoulder, but there should be plays there to make against the secondary that's missing three of its preferred starters. The plays were there last week against Philadelphia, and they just couldn't make them. So hopefully with another week to work on his shoulder, Dak can make those throws.

I just think this Cowboys offense can take advantage of an injured, depleted Redskins defense, especially at home. They've been a lot better at home than they have it on the road this year. The Redskins will get their shots, but I think the Cowboys' defense should be able to make enough plays to come out with a win. But based on what we've seen over the last month, I definitely don't feel confident about that.

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