Dallas appears to have a defensive playmaker in Donovan Wilson
Andy Dalton was playing his best football at the time of victory, and it helped the Cowboys win a football game for the first time in 43 days.
Before the winning run, Dalton was sufficient and that was good enough to keep the Cowboys in the game. Remember, the backup quarterback’s first job is not to lose the game.
But for a man like Dalton, who has been a beginner for a decade and wants to start again, the standard is actually higher.
That said, he made some of his best passes on the game-winning drive.
He delivered a perfect pass to Amari Cooper in fourth and sixth places, then threw Dalton Schultz a nice ball for 10 yards to Minnesota 4.
Now he almost caught an incline in the next game, but he delivered Schultz a perfect pass for the game-winning touchdown on third-and-goal.
He only completed two passes for more than 20 yards, so the offense was not explosive. But it was productive and he managed to involve Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup to varying degrees.
• Zack Martin, one of the NFL’s top guards, started his 103rd game with the correct tackle for the first time. It’s a shame it took so long.
The Cowboys eventually benched Terence Steele, the NFL’s worst starting device. Pro Football Focus rated him 78th out of 78 tackles.
The uncovered rookie-free agent had allowed 33 pressures and seven sacks while being fined five times.
Injuries bumped him into the line-up and he was not appropriate against the run or against the pass, but coach Mike McCarthy had been reluctant to bench him.
So far we know: Martin will be a good real attacker, so it’s an upgrade. Connor McGovern, who was elected in the third round in 2019, shouldn’t be worse than average as he replaces Martin on the right.
These two moves alone improve the Cowboys’ offensive line – and that was shown against Minnesota when Dallas scored 31 points, shot 180 yards and only allowed one sack.
• Having played the last two preseason seasons, Donovan Wilson showed signs of being a playmaker.
Now that he gets the chance to play more regularly, these traits show up in the regular season. He’s the guy who’s on the ball.
Wilson had his best game as a professional against Minnesota with nine tackles, two forced fiddles, one fiddly recovery, and half a sack.
It flashed in the first quarter and tore the ball from Kirk Cousin’s grip as he released it. Dallas turned the turnover into a 30-yard drive and touchdown for a 6-0 lead.
Late in the first half he gave Dalvin Cook a perfect tackle, which led to a fumble. Jaylon Smith’s subsequent 21-yard return resulted in a field goal at the end of the first half that gave Dallas a 16-7 lead.
This defense needs as many playmakers as possible on the field. Wilson should no longer share the position.
• Ezekiel Elliott, who used a rare room to run for the first time since September, had his best game of the season.
It’s amazing what happens when the line of scrimmage is sufficient and the quarterback can perform routine throws.
Elliott ended his career drought of nine straight games without a 100-yard excursion. This is a player who had 26 100 yard games in their first 64 games.
He entered the game on Sunday at pace for career lows in yards, carry, and average per carry.
But he won 103 yards on 21 runs against Minnesota and was at his best in the fourth quarter when he had eight runs for 55 yards, including runs of 15 and 18 yards.
That’s how the cowboys wanted to use it all season, but they couldn’t because they played so much from behind.
• CeeDee Lamb played like he was trying to prove something to Justin Jefferson and the rest of the NFL.
Jefferson, as he should, got a lot of love for being the best rookie recipient. And it was an excellent Sunday with three catches for 86 yards and one touchdown. Each of his catches lasted more than 20 meters.
Jefferson was the most prolific rookie receiver, but let’s face it, if Dak Prescott hadn’t broken his ankle five games ago, Lamb’s numbers would be comparable.
Against Minnesota, Lamb caught four passes for 34 yards, ran twice for 12 yards, and had punt returns of 18 and 20 yards. His four yard touchdown catch was a fantastic jump and spin catch that is one of the most acrobatic in franchise history.
He also showed his toughness, delivering a nice block on an Andy Dalton scramble, trying to run over defensive linemen and linebackers.
He will be a star. It’s only a matter of time.
• Leighton Vander Esch, DeMarcus Lawrence and the Run Defense did a good job at Dalvin Cook if you think about it.
Cook averaged 119.3 yards rushing and 5.5 yards per carry. Against Dallas, he won 115 yards averaging 4.3 per carry. He was among the leaders with five runs of 20 yards or more, but his longest run on Sunday was 16 yards.
Still, he showed why he’s one of the best defenders in the game after Dallas kept him at 37 yards with 12 runs in the first half. But he and Minnesota’s offensive line took over in the second half, specifically the third quarter.
Cook ran for 40 yards nine times in the third quarter when the Vikings briefly took control of the game. On Minnesota’s last two trips, he had two contacts for four meters.
• It looks like the cowboys finally figured out how to use Tony Pollard.
He had five transfers for 60 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown that gave Dallas a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter.
In the last five games, Pollard has 39 transfers for 204 yards, an average of 5.2, and three runs of 20 yards or more.
In the first five games of the season, he only carries 13 times for 62 yards.
Pollard is the perfect complement to Elliott’s bruise style. He’s a changer with a jetpack and if he gets a wrinkle he’s gone.
He was a player who made great things in college and now he’s doing it in the NFL.
• It was nice to see the cowboys’ offense return.
In the last four games, the Cowboys had scored two touchdowns in 43 possessions.
They scored four touchdowns in 10 possessions with no two knee-downs at the end of the game.
The Cowboys scored 31 points, almost equal to their 41 points in the last four games. Four different players scored a goal, and Elliott ended a five-game drought without a touchdown.
• The Cowboys implemented their last four two-point games because Kellen Moore was at his most creative side.
Against Minnesota, the Cowboys had taken a 22-21 lead in Pollard’s 42-yard touchdown run, and it took them a two-point game to take a three-point lead.
Well, Elliott took an inside surrender and when it was about to be tackled he tossed it to Lamb, who stepped right into the pylon to convert the game.
Dallas is 4 out of 6 in two-point games this season, and Moore deserves a lot of credit.
• Mike McCarthy was determined to balance the balance this week.
After all, he said before the game that Dallas had to run the ball 30 times to win. They ended up with 31 runs and 32 passes.
It’s the kind of balance the Cowboys haven’t been able to achieve much this season from spending so much time playing from behind.
Without Prescott, a run-pass balance closer to 50-50 is conducive to profit.
That’s one of the reasons Dallas has finally moved Martin from the right guard to the right tackle.
The test for this engagement came in the fourth quarter after Minnesota took the lead at 21-16.
After a nine yard completion for Schultz on the first descent, Elliott ran into the middle for three. He then won 15 yards on a patient run between tackles, followed by a 6-yard run around the right end.
The next game, Pollard shot 42 yards for a touchdown.
Five games, 75 yards, and all but nine yards on the floor. Point made.
Jean-Jacques Taylor, a former SportsDay columnist, is the host of the JaM Session Podcast, which can be heard Monday, Thursday, and Friday on Apple, Spotify, and anywhere you get your podcasts.
More cowboys coverage from the Dallas Morning News can be found here.