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With the score tied 7-7 heading into the second half, the Dallas Cowboys were still stuck in the same mud that held them down during a 42-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 2. In particular, the running game that took the NFL by storm last season looked listless in the opening two quarters of Monday Night Football.
Ezekiel Elliott struggled in Denver, posting a career-low eight rushing yards on just nine carries and it looked like he was on his way to another slow outing Monday night. The runway for Elliott hasn't been quite as smooth as it was in 2016. Turnover on their offensive line, including La'el Collins' move to right tackle, took its toll on the team's once historic run blocking.
In 2016, Elliott averaged 0.6 yards before a defender closed within one yard of him, eclipsing the league average rate of 0.3 for running backs. Through Weeks 1 and 2, Elliott averaged -0.63 for a massive falloff from the standards set in the previous season.
The situation looked even more dire in the first half of Week 3 with Elliott averaging a ghastly -2.4 yards before a defender came within a yard of him. The Cardinals knifed their way into the backfield as the once vaunted Cowboys line continued to sprout leaks. Not all at the fault of his front five, the Cowboys star back wasn't creating yards on his own. Outside of a play where he took off for a 30-yard scamper, he averaged just 2.3 yards after a defender closed within a yard of him (NFL average - 3.6). Yet, when Dallas emerged for the final two quarters of action, the run game at least began to stabilize.
Elliott averaged -1 yards before a defender closed within a yard in the second half. While it wasn't up to their 2016 standards, it was an improvement on what the offensive line showed in the first half. Even better, Elliott started to make more plays on his own, something we're much more accustomed to seeing from the young back. Elliott averaged 4.5 yards after a defender closed on him in the second half, which was in line with the 4.52 he posted in a 100-yard rushing effort in Week 1 and a massive improvement from his 0.9 average against Denver.
Elliott wasn't the only offensive player to pick up his play in the second half. Dak Prescott made two throws to wide receiver Brice Butler that were daggers to the heart of the Arizona defense. Both passes checked in as tight window throws (less than one yard of separation for the receiver from the defender covering him) for Prescott. He totaled 59 yards and touchdown with a perfect passer rating on that pair of tosses.
The overwhelming power of the running game and the hyper efficiency of Prescott were the primary catalysts for an NFC-best 13-3 finish for the Cowboys last year. Through the first two and a half games of the 2017 campaign, neither were quite up to the same standard. In the second half of their Monday night win, we were reminded in spurts of just how dangerous this scoring unit is when firing near the height of their powers.
While the offense came to life in the second half, one player was a constant force for the Cowboys all night. Fourth-year defensive end Demarcus Lawrence had a game for the ages with a three-sack effort against the Cardinals. Lawrence had just nine career sacks coming into the 2017 season, as injuries and a suspension have rendered him unavailable far too often for Dallas since his drafting back in 2014.
Lawrence has fully come to life this season and showed it on the national stage Monday. He posted a dominant pressure rate 29.2 percent on his 41 pass rushes, besting the league average of 9.4 percent by a wide margin.
As the Cardinals tried to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter, Lawrence showed himself to be a true difference-maker. The Cowboys gave up 4.4 yards per play when he was on the field in the second half, and 6.3 when he was on the sideline. Playing in a contract year, this game will certainly come up when Lawrence finds himself at the negotiation tables. Rarely does one player show himself as a true offensive game-wrecker, but that's exactly what Lawrence was on Monday night.
The Cowboys extended their Week 2 doldrum performance two more quarters against the Cardinals. Dallas looked unrecognizable in the first half as a team that offered their stud running back no push and a passing game without a counterpunch. Prescott and Elliott stabilized their play and more than held up their end of the bargains in the final two quarters to guide their team to a safe 2-1 record.
Even better, and perhaps most importantly for a defense in need of one, it appears the Cowboys have an emerging star on their hands in Lawrence. On a night where the rookies from the 2016 storybook will get the headlines, Lawrence deserves the most credit for the team's road win.