Report Card and Snap Counts: Cowboys ruining curve after road grading Panthers’ defense

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Another week, another strong early showing for the 2021 Dallas Cowboys. Dallas has passed almost every test to begin the year, this time proving their offense is on a different level, dismantling a previously undefeated team and No. 1defense which had stymied their opponents thus far. Dallas instead comfortably hung over 400 yards of offense on them in a variety of ways, giving plenty of reason for optimism in the season to come.

But it wasn’t just the offense that earned Honor Roll honors, as multiple units on the defense also featured A+ players. The Cowboys added two more turnovers to their league-leading eight, giving them 10 through their first four games.

Here’s how the Cowboys graded out in Week 4, along with the playtime percentage breakdown.

QB Dak Prescott: A

Dak Prescott: 61 snaps (100%)

For the fourth time in his career, Dak Prescott posted a 4:0 TD-to-interception ratio, along with a surgical 188 yards on 14 of 22 passing, while taking zero sacks. The Panthers were blitzing early and often, forcing Prescott into quick decisions and to extend plays with some improv.

He also made Carolina pay when he had the time, connecting with Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson for deep 35 and 23-yard scores respectively. All told, Prescott finished with an 88.1 QBR, reflecting how efficient and productive he was against a defense that was among the league’s best through the first three weeks of the season. He also chipped in 35 rushing yards, 21 coming on a 3rd and 11 scramble, showing he’s still got the wheels.

Running Backs: A+

Ezekiel Elliott: 46 snaps (75%)
Tony Pollard: 18 snaps (30%)
Connor McGovern: 10 snaps (16%) – 3 at fullback

Building on his strong Monday night performance, Elliott stayed eating, setting a season-high with 143 rushing yards on just 20 carries. He averaged 7.2 yards-per-attempt, constantly breaking off chunks of yards on the ground on first and second down. Elliott also recorded his longest run since his rookie season, nearly scoring on a 47-yard third quarter gain.

Dallas almost had equal success running Pollard, who took 10 carries for 67 yards, and came close to housing a couple runs himself. He also had a great blitz pickup to give Prescott enough time and room on his TD pass to Cooper. With both Elliott and Pollard firing on all cylinders, there may be no better RB duo in the NFL.

Wide Receivers: B

CeeDee Lamb: 49 snaps (80%)
Cedrick Wilson: 35 snaps (57%)
Amari Cooper: 29 snaps (48%)
Noah Brown: 21 snaps (34%)
Malik Turner: 2 snaps (3%)

It was another relatively quiet week for Dallas receivers, despite the team generating 433 total yards and scoring 36 points. Amari Cooper led all Cowboys receivers with 69 yards, hauling in all three of the passes thrown his way. Cooper’s touchdown catch in the third quarter was a thing of beauty, beating Carolina CB CJ Henderson with a double move and dragging his toe in-bounds.

For the second week in a row, Cedrick Wilson found the end zone, scoring his fourth career receiving touchdown. CeeDee Lamb caught only two of his five targets for 13 yards, but also drawing a defensive pass interference penalty and will surely have bigger games as the season wears on.

Tight Ends: B

Dalton Schultz: 48 snaps (79%)
Blake Jarwin: 33 snaps (54%)
Jeremy Sprinkle: 14 snaps (23%)

The Cowboys lucked out by maintaining possession on two Schultz could’ve-been fumbles within a couple plays of each other near the end of the first quarter.

On the first, the call on the field was reversed to rule Schultz down by contact before he fumbled. Non-reviewable forward progress denied Carolina from recovering another Schultz fumble after he was power slammed by Panthers DB Jeremy Chinn. Dallas would end up scoring on that drive, although Schultz was also stopped inches short on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt to cap off an eventful drive for the fourth-year TE. Schultz would still finish with six receptions for 58 yards and one touchdown.

Jarwin also scored his first touchdown since Week 9 of the 2019 season, cutting inside on a choice route for the easy TD over the middle.

Offensive Line: A

Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, Terence Steele: 61 snaps (100%)
Connor McGovern: 10 snaps (16%) – 7 inline

The Dallas OL kept Prescott clean in the face of heavy pressure, an especially impressive performance considering the Panthers entered the game leading the league in both sacks (14) and QB pressures (46). The group also opened up huge rushing lanes, allowing Dallas to churn out 245 yards on the ground.

It’s no coincidence the Cowboys running game took off once Martin returned to the field, as Dallas once again had great success running behind him to the right and up the middle.

Defensive Line: A

Micah Parsons: 68 snaps (97%) – 16 on defensive line
Chauncey Golston: 49 snaps (70%)
Tarell Basham: 43 snaps (61%)
Osa Odighizuwa: 41 snaps (59%)
Randy Gregory: 37 snaps (53%)
Justin Hamilton: 31 snaps (44%)
Brent Urban: 30 snaps (43%)
Quinton Bohanna: 17 snaps (24%)
Austin Faoliu: 13 snaps (19%)
Azur Kamara: 10 snaps (14%)

The Cowboys defense had just four total sacks through their first three games. They sacked Sam Darnold five times in Week 4, with Gregory leading the charge. He earned his first two sacks of the season and finished with four total QB hits in what was one of his best games yet as a pro.

Joining in on the sack party was Basham, earning his first as a Cowboy, and Parsons, who’s up to 2.5 on the season. Rookies Odighizuwa and Golston also each split a sack to force Carolina off the field during the Cowboys’ big third quarter, rounding out a suddenly deep pass-rushing corps.

Linebackers: B-

Micah Parsons: 68 snaps (97%) – 52 at linebacker
Leighton Vander Esch: 40 snaps (57%)
Jaylon Smith: 28 snaps (40%)

Somewhat interestingly, Dallas began the game by utilizing Parsons as an off-ball linebacker alongside Vander Esch, rather than starting Smith. The LB rotation seemed deeper, but not particularly any more effective. Parsons didn’t have much impact at first, not recording a tackle until the second quarter. The play that stood out the most was when he bounced off DJ Moore on the way to a 29-yard gain.

However, the more involved Parsons became, the better he got. He took down Panthers RB Chubba Hubbard for a short gain just before the two-minute warning in the first half, but really shined when Dallas used him more as a pass rusher in the second half.

Vander Esch led all Cowboys LBs with five tackles.

Defensive Backs: A-

Anthony Brown: 69 snaps (99%)
Jourdan Lewis: 60 snaps (86%)
Trevon Diggs: 50 snaps (71%)
Maurice Canady: 20 snaps (29%)
Nahshon Wright: 1 snap (1%)

Diggs’ interception streak extended into another week, now up to five picks on the young season. Diggs seems single-handedly responsible for all the positive turnover regression the Dallas defense is currently experiencing,

However, it was somewhat odd when the game broadcast announced Diggs was later taken out of the game for “player management” reasons. He remained on the sidelines even as the Panthers turned the contest into a one-score game in the fourth quarter. It was a curious look, but after the game it was announced Diggs was apparently dealing with back tightness.

Kearse finished with two TFLs while literally lining up everywhere. Of his 67 snaps, 17 were on the DL, 20 were as a box safety or linebacker, 12 were at free safety and another 16 were in the slot. He even played boundary corner on two snaps.

Brown recorded three pass defenses, while also allowing a 55-yard Brandon Zylstra reception late in the fourth quarter to set up Carolina’s final TD. Still, it was one of the few big plays given up by the Cowboys secondary, which seems much more formidable with Diggs roaming around and snatching passes.

Special Teams: B

Luke Gifford: 24 snaps (83%)
Nahshon Wright: 22 snaps (76%)
Jabril Cox, CJ Goodwin: 19 snaps (66%)
Nick Ralston: 16 snaps (55%)
Maurice Canady, Jeremy Sprinkle: 15 snaps (52%)
Azur Kamara: 14 snaps (48%)
Noah Brown: 13 snaps (45%)
Malik Turner: 12 snaps (41%)

Special teams had a solid day, with Greg Zuerlein making all of his kicks and Bryan Anger downing two punts inside the 20. And for once, it wasn’t Dallas who missed a long field goal attempt to set up the opposing team with good field position.

Panthers K Zane Gonzalez pushed a 54-yard field goal attempt wide left, setting up Dallas at their own 44. Four plays later, the Cowboys were in the end zone and hardly looked back.

Coaching: B+

It’s hard to complain too much with the results and showings Dallas has delivered thus far, but Mike McCarthy’s in-game coaching decisions again raised some eyebrows.

He declined a face-mask penalty against the Panthers in the second quarter, expecting his defense to get the ensuing stop on 3rd and 12. Instead, WR Robby Anderson promptly picked up 13 yards to convert the third down, on the way to Carolina scoring their second touchdown of the game. McCarthy also aggressively opted to go for two from the one-yard line after a Panthers penalty during the XPA, although they were stopped just short.

Neither of these choices were egregious decisions by the head coach, moreso just noteworthy.

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