The frustrating loss by the Dallas Cowboys was clearly a two act play. In the first half, Dallas was totally in charge of the Los Angeles Rams, scoring on every possession, forcing the Rams to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, and returning to the formula that saw so much success in 2016. There was only one real problem, and that was the performance of the special teams, which had been so good last week. First, they gave up a 66-yard kickoff return by Pharoh Cooper, which set up one of the field goals. Then Ryan Switzer muffed a punt at the Cowboys’ 18-yard line, which led to the only touchdown the Rams could muster in the first half. It was an oddly inconsistent couple of plays from a part of the team that had been doing so well.
It turned out to be a harbinger of what would happen in the second half, as both the Dallas offense and defense, which had done so well to open the game, suddenly regressed. Instead of scoring drives, the Cowboys sputtered. Instead of bending but not breaking, the defense yielded a long touchdown in the third quarter and allowed Los Angeles to get field goals on all their subsequent drives. It was a steady accumulation of points on their part while Dallas was only able to muster one touchdown drive in the second half, flipping the game on its head.
This has become a disturbing trend for the Cowboys. They had a mirror image performance against the Arizona Cardinals, following a somewhat inept first half up with a strong finish to win the game. When the team is on, it is capable of playing very good football. The real problem so far this season is that the team is just not able to be good week in and week out, or even series to series. Perhaps the most consistent performance of the season, the opening win against the Giants (which still had some red zone struggles) was followed by the blowout in Denver. They bounced back to win in Arizona, then stumbled at home on Sunday.
Defensively, it is tempting to point to the absence of Sean Lee as the easily-fixed culprit. He may have well made the difference in a game that turned on just a handful of plays, but he also has had a history of injuries throughout his career. His loss for the week was certainly aggravated by also not having Anthony Hitchens, who looked like the best defender Dallas had in training camp. But if you are going to win or lose in the NFL based on one player, in most cases you will eventually fail. The pass rush, which was starting to raise real hopes, was largely absent. The secondary had too many breakdowns, although they still played well in the red zone. The most damage was done by the Rams’ running game in the second half. After being held to only 48 yards on the ground before halftime, it racked up 120 yards afterwards, moving the chains and burning the clock. This was where L.A. definitely exploited the drop-off in ability with Lee out of the lineup.
The special teams breakdowns have been mentioned, and were really just a couple of unfortunate, but high-impact, mistakes. Where there is no real explanation is the offense. For the first 30 minutes, they looked like the team that put together an eleven game winning streak a year ago. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, they were back to being unable to do what they are built to do. As Bob Sturm pointed out in his Morning After article, Dallas had five consecutive first down runs in the second half that gained a total of five yards. That meant five consecutive series where the offense was behind schedule, getting forced into passing to make more yards. Of course, the defense knew that they were having to take to the air, and were able to adjust accordingly. For any team, starting out behind the down and distance goals five times in a row is very, very difficult to overcome. This year, it has been nearly impossible for the Cowboys.
The question now is whether this is all fixable. If there is a real concern, it is that the offensive line just does not look like it did a year ago. And this is not only the new pieces. Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin just don’t seem to be winning the battles on the line consistently. That may be attributable to the addition of La’el Collins at right tackle and still trying to figure out if Chaz Green or Jonathan Cooper will be the left guard moving forward. But things just do not look right across the line, and that could be a massive issue, given how much Dallas has invested in that line. The players are all still relatively young and should have years of high productivity ahead. If that is not true, the Cowboys are in deep, deep trouble. Last year, the O line was the rock everything was built on. This season, it is hard to know from play to play if there is going to be another breakdown in the blocking. It does make it look like the problems with the running game are not due to Ezekiel Elliott. No one can thrive when he is being met in the backfield. And good holes lead to success running the ball - just ask Alfred Morris.
It is also hard to not have some nagging doubts about Dak Prescott. He has started to demonstrate a peculiar trait: If you want to stop him, give him time in the pocket.
Dak Prescott excelled when blitzed, completing 10 of 14 passes for 118 yards, 2 TDs and a 136.3 passer rating. However, when not blitzed, he only completed 10 of 22 passes for 134 yards, a TD, an INT, and a 61.6 passer rating.
It looks like the idea of a “sophomore slump” may not have been as far-fetched as we thought coming into the season. The coaching staff needs to sort out what is going on. Prescott needs to be as capable of finding his targets when he is well-protected as when he is on the run from the pass rush - which logically should be easier. At least there are some things they can do since Prescott and the team believe this to be more about technique and getting the reads right than a skill-set problem. (We certainly should hope that is true.)
Meanwhile, Scott Linehan also needs to figure out why Cole Beasley and Jason Witten have been all but erased the past couple of weeks. Opposing defenses are crowding the middle of the field against the pass, which fits fairly well with loading up the box to slow the run. That leaves passes to the outside of the field as the only way to move the ball, and from the beginning that has been one fairly clear weak spot with Prescott as quarterback. If teams are going to devote their effort to clogging up the middle of the field, the offense has to find a way to make them pay on the boundaries.
It is notable that Dallas opened up with a deep pass to Dez Bryant to start the game. That looked like it was intended to loosen up things for the offense, and it seemed to work until halftime. But it certainly appears that Wade Phillips made the adjustment to tighten things back up in the second half, and that was probably the biggest coaching move of the game.
All of these problems go back to that lack of consistency. There are individual plays and long stretches where the Cowboys can handle these challenges, but they are having a great deal of trouble doing it for four quarters. Until this team can find a way to put together a full game’s effort, no matter who is healthy, it will have problems winning. The margins between being a good team and a bad one are very close in the NFL, which is why you see surprising results every week. It is also why the Rams went from worst scoring offense in 2016 to the best so far this season - and the vaunted New England Patriots, after having the best scoring defense in the league a year ago, are now sitting dead last in the same category. If you don’t maintain a high level of performance in the NFL, you will be exposed - sooner than later.