Dak Prescott was vetoed in his bid to take the field against the Minnesota Vikings with a calf strain suffered in the Dallas Cowboys' harrowing overtime victory over the New England Patriots in Week 6, and that meant it was the Cooper Rush show at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 8. The news of Prescott's unavailability instantly made the Vikings favorites, particularly when considering the weapons Kirk Cousins has on offense and how the Vikings defense was playing to that point.
In the end, none of the latter two points mattered, because the Cowboys defense mostly played lights out and gave Rush enough opportunities to overcome some early errors and help deliver some late-game heroics. In this week's iteration of CBS Sports' "Stock up, Stock down" series for the Cowboys, it's time to acknowledge just how dominant the defense has become, but not without overlooking how the usually prolific offense didn't let Prescott down with Rush at the helm.
So let's talk about it.
[Note: This list is unranked.]
A backup QB isn't tasked with lighting up a scoreboard, but instead to be ready at a moment's notice and deliver a win.
That's precisely what Rush was asked to do, and only 90 minutes ahead of kickoff, as the Cowboys worked to the last second to determine if Prescott would be a go. Having prepared all week for the possibility of a start against the Vikings, it was Rush's moment to either shine or decline, and after a first half of doing the latter, he battled through and did the former -- when it mattered most for the Cowboys. He wasn't perfect, and he got help from cornerstone players (which is what cornerstone players are paid to do), but racking up 325 yards and two touchdowns to only one interception after having attempted only three passes in the NFL prior is damn sure good enough to raise your stock.
COOPER 🎯 COOPER— PFF (@PFF) November 1, 2021
From one Cooper to another, it was the Cowboys biggest receiving weapon who ultimately buried the Vikings.
Despite continuously battling a hamstring injury that saw him leave the game to do his own rehab in real-time, Cooper returned to deliver death blows to Minnesota as if there was nothing wrong with his leg at all. A phenomenal 33-yard pinball grab helped set up the Cowboys to land the go-ahead touchdown at the end of regulation, with Cooper doing the honors on that as well. With the game on the line, Cooper let CeeDee Lamb know who the big dog is in the WR room, then let the Vikings know that dog doesn't need to bark when his bite is so vicious.
.@AmariCooper9 stay workin' 💯#DALvsMIN | 📺 : @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/mAOCDrkw4A— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 1, 2021
Another week, another big play or two from Elliott.
It wasn't his most dominant performance, rushing for 50 yards on 16 carries, but without him on the field, Cooper's 33-yard touchdown results in a field goal attempt by Greg Zuerlein to hopefully force overtime -- Zuerlein having already missed one kick on the evening. Elliott would have none of it. On third-and-11 from the Vikings' 21-yard line, Elliott caught a short pass from Rush and broke not one, not two, not three but four tackles en route to a critical first down. Rush and Cooper (yes, I know how odd that sounds) took care of the rest, but there might not have been a rest to take care of if not for Elliott.
🗣FEED 🗣ZEKE!!!#DALvsMIN | 📺 : @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/kmbua41yZI— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 1, 2021
Wilson has become quite the silent killer for the Cowboys.
In the absence of Michael Gallup, the veteran wideout has become Johnny on the Spot, often providing big plays at the most pivotal moments in games. It was no different Sunday, when Wilson provided the usual boost to the Cowboys offense, but also as a quarterback. It's not the first time he's been asked to throw a pass for Dallas, but the composure it took to roll out, keep his eyes downfield and deliver a perfectly-placed spiral to Lamb was a thing of beauty. And when he went back to his usual role as a receiver, all he did was give Rush an impressive 84 receiving yards on three catches -- including a 73-yard touchdown to open up the second half.
Keep pushin' 😤 #DALvsMIN | 📺 : @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/kVGzNNMKAS— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 1, 2021
Speaking of Lamb, the Cowboys ordered another serving in Minnesota, and they got it.
It's always a great problem to have when you're a team with so many talented wideouts that each wants to make the big play, just as wonderful as it is to see it done with no ego whatsoever, but rather in a playfully competitive fashion. So when Lamb conceded to the greatness of Cooper, it was as much a nod of respect as a willingness to do whatever needs to be done to get the Cowboys a victory on any given week. And besides, it's not like Lamb's day was quiet -- his 112 yards (second behind only Cooper) on six catches helping to gas the Vikings defense.
.@cedwilson95 givin' options! 🙌#DALvsMIN | 📺 : @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/H0aYXoY2II— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 1, 2021
Pay the man.
Gregory has been a man possessed since returning from suspension and ultimately a battle with COVID-19 in 2021. Despite not having All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence to help guarantee one-on-ones across the board, Gregory has feasted on opposing quarterbacks with a mountain of QB pressures and his five sacks through five games played just one shy of his career-best mark set in 2018. Considering there are still 10 games remaining in the regular season, there's a very real possibility Gregory turns in a double-digit sack season -- giving the Cowboys two war daddies on the edge -- just ahead of contract talks opening with the Cowboys in the offseason.
Randy Gregory with the cross chop and bicep grap— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) November 1, 2021
nice#SNF #DALvsMIN #SKOL #CowboysNation #CowboysHalloween pic.twitter.com/HtVIab1Y8Y
Parsons continued his campaign for 2021 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in bullying the Vikings.
The rookie first-round pick was a Visa card on Sunday night, as he was everywhere the Vikings wanted to be. Parsons racked up a team-high 11 combined tackles, and while that itself is impressive, even more so is the fact 10 of them were solo. The next closest player in that category was safety Jayron Kearse, who had six on the night. Parsons isn't simply a linebacker on defense, the title feeling too small for what he brings to the table. The NFL should create a new category for a talent like his: weapon.
It's over, only it isn't at all.
The historic streak of interceptions has come to an end for Diggs, but you can bet he's still got several more in him before this season is all said-and-done. The former second-round pick didn't steal the show Sunday, which is rare, but if you watch the film you'll see he still sort of did. An early penalty notwithstanding, Diggs helped shut down a dangerous Justin Jefferson, who was held to only 21 receiving yards on two catches with only four targets. It wasn't the cleanest outing for Diggs, but it was still impactful.
A lot of what goes into the playing at the NFL level is psychological.
Brown probably knows this better than most, having to constantly combat some down moments that have seen him allow or nearly allow big plays -- escaping one by Jefferson on an overthrow by Cousins -- with big plays in key moments. Brown shook off the near-miss on Jefferson for what might've resulted in a touchdown and himself halted two third-down attempts by Cousins and the Vikings offense, adding five tackles to a mostly stellar defensive outing by the Cowboys. With the return of rookie second-round pick Kelvin Joseph from injured reserve, the longer Brown can play well, the harder it'll be for the rookie to overtake him in 2021.
What a pickup by the Cowboys.
When safety Donovan Wilson went down with a groin injury that put him on injured reserve, Kearse stepped in and stepped up to levels few expected outside of himself and probably defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Kearse has become a definitive starter for the Cowboys -- be it as a safety, a linebacker in big nickel packages or both -- ascending from a guy who also helped out on special teams (62% of special teams snaps in Week 1) to one the Cowboys find too valuable to risk him there (zero special teams snaps in the past two games and only nine total since the opener) and whom they trust to relay the defensive play calls (as he did against the Vikings). He's currently on a one-year deal, but it smells like a re-up soon cometh.
When you're doing your best to impress the coaching staff so that you can hopefully raise your defensive snap count, making egregious errors on special teams won't help your case. Anae had a brutal offsides penalty on fourth-and-five against the Vikings after the Cowboys defense forced a punt, and Cousins took advantage of it by leading his offense to a field goal that made it a seven-point game in favor of Minnesota. The Cowboys went on to win, but with points at a premium in Week 8, this mistake might've cost Dallas a victory. Anae was waived Tuesday and cleared waivers one day later, expected to re-sign to the practice squad for some much-needed development.
Up, down, round and round goes Vander Esch. His talent is undeniable, but he's beginning to look a bit out of place at times, and it's probably because he's not seeing the bulk of the defensive snaps he did prior to Parsons being drafted. In what's become a contract season for Vander Esch, and having now seen the team release Jaylon Smith, there's a lot of pressure on the wolf hunter to start hunting wolves again. Vander Esch is an All-Pro talent, as he's literally shown before, but the time is now for him to start showing it again. A lot of his game is based upon momentum, so now he has to adapt to generating it with less playing time than he's accustomed to.
Things aren't going how Jarwin planned since returning from a torn ACL suffered in 2020. He's now seen Dalton Schultz effectively become TE1, and he's now put at least two bad misses on film this season as far as run blocking goes. Jarwin is still a potentially lethal weapon for Prescott, but Schultz has become that as well, and the potential of a returning Sean McKeon shrinks the margin of error for Jarwin that much further. Now dealing with a hip injury suffered in Minnesota, he'll have to get better quickly to prevent McKeon from reminding the Cowboys of how promising his camp was prior to injury.
Your stock has to go down when you're suspended for five games, because that's just how it goes. What makes it even more challenging for Collins is in how, at least for now, backup tackle Terence Steele remains the starter on the right edge -- the Cowboys now experimenting with Collins at guard and possibly placing him at left tackle in the event Tyron Smith can't play in Week 9 with a bone spur in his ankle. Spin it however you/they'd like, but it's clear Collins is in the doghouse with the Cowboys and needs to get his stock up desperately. Playing well at a position he hasn't taken reps at since college would do the trick and, yes, that's as challenging as it sounds.
Things haven't gone well at all for Nsekhe since signing a one-year deal with the Cowboys this past offseason. The team hoped he'd be an upgrade over Cam Erving, whom they parted ways with in free agency, but Nsekhe has since delivered a mostly uneven camp and preseason before unfortunately missing time this season with a heat-related illness. By the time he was healthy enough to return, Terence Steele had already stolen the show in the absence of Collins, and Nsekhe was tasked with remaining a backup -- asked to step in on Sunday against the Vikings when Tyron Smith left with a reaggravated ankle injury. It was his chance to step up, but Nsekhe instead got stepped over by the Vikings pass rush, leaving the Cowboys no choice but to move Steele to LT for Week 9 and reinsert Collins as starting RT.
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