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The Dallas Cowboys’ Cooper Rush should have come out dressed up as Dak Prescott during Sunday’s Halloween meeting with the Minnesota Vikings, because the backup quarterback didn’t miss a beat during his team’s 20-16 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The fact Rush played as well as he did speaks positively of the entire Cowboys roster and how much growth it experienced from last year to this season. That growth now places them squarely in the Super Bowl conversation.
In Week 5 of last season, Prescott suffered a catastrophic ankle injury. Now 385 days later, the 28-year-old signal-caller is nursing a calf injury that kept him out of the lineup after a red-hot 5-1 start.
Rush threw for 325 yards and two scores in his first career start. According to NFL Research, the former undrafted free agent became the first quarterback since 1984 to throw for 300-plus yards in a win while making his first start on the road during a primetime contest.
The juxtaposition between the current squad and last year’s iteration is nothing short of staggering.
Andy Dalton took over for Prescott during the previous campaign. Aside from a 377-yard-passing outburst against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16, the Cowboys struggled to generate any consistent ball movement with the veteran behind center. Dalton averaged 6.5 yards per attempt in his 11 appearances. Granted, the offensive line was a mess because of injuries. The team greatly struggled on defense, too. But the situation showed Dallas couldn’t plunk just any quarterback into the cockpit and find any consistency.
Sunday’s performance showed the exact opposite could happen based on how the Cowboys are currently constructed.
In this particular case, the franchise signal-caller should return to the lineup sooner rather than later. Rush doesn’t need to be anything more than a middle reliever, who eats up a few innings while waiting for the closer to emerge from the bullpen. Like any good pitcher, Rush can trust those around him to do their jobs in a team effort to keep rolling along with a winning record.
The game-winning drive encapsulated how much talent is currently found on the Cowboys’ rosters and why they continue to play well despite some adversity.
After the Vikings kicked a go-ahead field goal, the Cowboys got the ball at their 35-yard line with 2:51 left to play. Rush threw the ball 10 straight times. Amari Cooper took over from that point. The four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver had two spectacular snags during the game-winning drive.
On the drive’s second play, Rush targeted Cooper on what looked like a possible back-shoulder throw, but the ball wasn’t perfectly placed. Instead, cornerback Bashaud Breeland tried to make a play on the ball while falling backward. Somehow, Cooper’s concentration never wavered, he tracked the deflected pass and the receiver came down with a highlight-reel worthy grab.
Six plays later, Cooper capped the drive and secured the last-minute victory by beating one-on-one coverage in the end zone, showing tremendous body control by going up and over cornerback Cameron Dantzler and coming down with the game-winning grab.
“We’re confident. I think we know we can overcome anything,” Cooper told reporters after the game.
Cooper led all receivers with eight receptions for 122 yards. But he didn’t single-handily take over the contest. Rush completed passes to seven different targets.
CeeDee Lamb finished with six catches for 112 yards. Cedrick Wilson managed three for 84, including a 73-yard touchdown connection. However, Wilson’s best play of the night had absolutely nothing to do with his wide receiver skills. Instead, he went back to his high school days when he played quarterback with the best pass of the night.
Wilson took a smoke route, rolled to his right to avoid pressure and threw a rope to Lamb for a 35-yard completion.
When a team has multiple playmakers, the goal is to get the ball in all of their hands and let them work. That’s exactly what the Cowboys did through the playcalling of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Dallas knew it had an advantage with its talented wide receivers and took full advantage.
The Vikings chose to play off-coverage in an attempt in hopes of Rush eventually making a mistake. The backup-turned-starter made one with an interception. Otherwise, he picked apart Minnesota’s secondary based on what was available to him. Moore took exactly what the Vikings gave his quarterback and exploited the approach.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 85.9 percent of Cooper and Lamb’s combined 234 receiving yards came against off-coverage. When the Cowboys decided to take shots down the field, Rush capitalized. His 224 passing yards when making throws with 10 or more air yards is a season-high by any Dallas quarterback. The fifth-year signal-caller also flourished with 139 passing yards when facing pressure.
Keep in mind, Tyron Smith left the contest with an ankle injury. No problem. The team inserted veteran swing tackle Ty Nsekhe and kept moving the ball. Dallas also has La’el Collins as yet another option. Moore even sprinkled in a diamond formation with two of the big backup linemen on the field to pave the way for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Dallas’ dynamic duo did fare quite as well with 76 combined rushing yards but they’re both vital in the passing game with Elliott’s blocking and both serving as receiving threats.
The Cowboys’ offense is loaded with weapons and they don’t need an MVP-caliber quarterback pulling the strings to be effective. But they have one and he’ll be back soon enough.
The defense is every bit a part of the team’s continued success. Last season, Dallas finished in the league’s bottom 10 in total defense. Opposing offenses can still move the ball on Dan Quinn’s group but the overall level of performance has increased exponentially.
Minnesota managed 278 total yards with an almost full complement of skill position performers, plus a rapidly improving rookie Christian Darrisaw at left tackle. The Vikings finished 1-of-14 on third down, though.
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Dallas flies to the football and it’s playing a far more sound brand of defense. The group didn’t prove to be as opportunistic this week as it had been during previous contests but the unit features difference-makers at all three levels with Randy Gregory, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs.
Parsons is well on his way to winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He led all defenders Sunday with 11 total tackles and four tackles for loss.
Mike McCarthy’s squad overcame and advanced. They’re as dangerous as anyone in the NFC, especially with Prescott in the lineup. Don’t look now but the Cowboys’ QB1 could be back in the lineup in short order, which means Dallas will be scary good.
“For sure. I was getting prepared to play this game,” Prescott told reporters when asked about playing next weekend against the Denver Broncos. “I’m a guy that takes it day-by-day … I’m going to celebrate this win with the guys and worry about rehabbing and getting everything back in order tomorrow.”
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.
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