Dallas entered their week 10 contest against the Atlanta Falcons on a wave of confidence, having soundly beaten three teams in three weeks and playing at peak form. They exited the contest with their confidence shattered and their playoff hopes in tatters. It was an anemic performance with every unit being outplayed. The team has little time to lick their wounds as the league-leading Philadelphia Eagles and their 8-1 record are in town next Sunday. Let’s check the grades:
The Cowboys knew they’d be without Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith. The expectation was the remaining members of the (allegedly) best offensive line in the league and a three-headed running back committee would be able to make up the difference. They weren’t close to meeting the challenge.
We’ll get to Chaz Green’s debacle at LT, but the truth is the entire OL struggled throughout the game. There were no running holes regardless if it was Alfred Morris, Rod Smith or Darren McFadden running the ball. Add Green’s turnstile performance at LT and the entire offense was reduced to Dak Prescott running for his life.
The defense looked reasonably good until Sean Lee left the field. It then reverted into the unit that looks very similar to the record-setting (bad) 2013 squad. The first four drives without Lee resulted in three touchdowns and a field goal and a 20-point lead for the Falcons.
Honestly, the only bright spot among players or units was Anthony Hitchens. He ended with 10 total tackles, five solo tackles and a tackle for loss. It seemed like more as he made a number of standout run stops with big solo hits.
Otherwise the defense was completely helpless, as it has been every time Lee hasn’t been on the field. That’s a major problem because Sean Lee is in his 8th season and misses exactly one of every three possible games. If your defense depends upon Sean Lee and melts in his absence there’s a 33% chance of a melting.
I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. The coaching staff sees something in Chaz Green that no one else seems to. First they wanted him to win the LG position and only gave the spot to Jonathan Cooper when Green predictably came up lame. In his place Cooper has performed markedly better than Green ever did.
Against the Falcons, Green was the starting LT and proved from snap one he was wholly inadequate. Falcons’ DE Adrian Clayborn beat Green clean with an outside speed rush to derail the Cowboys’ first drive with a sack. He would go on to record six sacks in the game.
Most coaching staffs would quickly recognize Green was overmatched and adjust their strategy. Options included:
- Provide help with tight ends and running backs
- Put Green in a rotation with Byron Bell to give each player a stamina edge over Clayborn
- Replace Green with Bell
Jason Garret and Scott Linehan instead went with option D, which was to repeatedly leave Green on an island against a vastly superior opponent who single-handedly disrupted the entire Cowboys offense. Yes, Green did get help on a few plays. But every single sack allowed came without help from tight ends or running backs. Most amazing is each sack came on the exact same rush approach, a simple speed rush around the edge.
This is yet another chapter in Jason Garrett’s biggest weakness as a head coach which is his inability to make in-game adjustments to obviously failing gameplans. It’s one of the worst coaching jobs I’ve ever observed and there’s absolutely no excuse for him not making adjustments.
Not until midway through the fourth quarter did Byron Bell enter. The game was already decided at that point so this was an empty gesture. I was further bothered by the decision to leave Dak Prescott in to absorb the abuse given him by the Falcons defense. There was no reason, after having been hit a dozen times, he was still taking snaps in a hopeless game late in the fourth quarter.
I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a worse coaching performance in the Jason Garrett era. Someone wrote yesterday the next few weeks would test Garrett’s leadership; he badly failed the first section of that test.
I imagine there are a lot of Seattle Seahawk fans snickering right now. They’ll tell you that what Dak Prescott endured Sunday is what Russell Wilson has been dealing with all season long (and they make a good case). Prescott simply had no chance. The running game was non-existent except for one drive and thus the offense was constantly facing 2nd-and-3rd-and-long situations. Prescott managed a few plays with his arm but most plays came from him running the ball (42 yards on six rushes). The Cowboys managed only two drives of 50 yards (50 and 52). It’s hard to grade Prescott adequately because he was put in unfavorable positions and running for his life throughout the day.
OFFENSIVE LINE: F
There’s just no sugar-coating what happened to Chaz Green. The Dallas Cowboys have played 874 games in franchise history. In those games no defender has ever recorded six sacks in a game. This was historical stuff happening Sunday. Add three holding penalties on the 41 plays when Dak Prescott dropped back to pass 11 of them ended with a sack or a holding penalty. That’s 27%, which is a mind-boggling number. The offense surrendered nearly as many sacks Sunday (8) as they had the previous 8 games (10).
The OL also couldn’t open holes against a Falcons’ run defense that had been decimated by the Carolina Panthers for 201 yards the previous week. Add it all up and the (allegedly) best offensive line in the NFL had a dreadful day.
RUNNING BACKS: C
Again, hard to grade because they had few real opportunities. Alfred Morris had one good series in the second half when he ripped off runs of 14, 20 and 11. Other than those three runs, however, he ran eight times for eight yards. Rod Smith and Darren McFadden combined for 12 yards on four carries. Again, none had big holes but it would have been nice to see any of the three cause a whiff or break a tackle.
WIDE RECIEVERS / TIGHT ENDS: B
Again (stop me if you’ve heard this before) very difficult to grade players who weren’t really given opportunities. Dez Bryant started with a couple nice plays early but ended up with only 39 yards on eight targets. (Bryant has now gone 15 regular season games without 100 yards after gaining 100+ three times in the first six games of 2016). Jason Witten ended up with 59 yards on seven targets but most came when Atlanta was happy to allow his short-yardage gains. Otherwise nothing much to note among the receiving corps.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C+
The defensive line was again disruptive in the run game with multiple tackles for loss but they were unable to get consistent pressure on Matt Ryan. The Atlanta quarterback threw for two touchdowns and compiled a 119 quarterback rating while being sacked only once. Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving simply weren’t able to finish plays as they have been recently.
As noted, Anthony Hitchens had a good game. Once Sean Lee exited, however, all the defensive problems from the Los Angeles/Green Bay games immediately reappeared. The Falcons, who had -2 rushing yards with Lee in the game, finished with 132 yards on the ground. Each of the Falcons’ four scoring drives after Lee’s injury featured long ground gains.
At this point you have to wonder about Jaylon Smith’s continued presence in the lineup. He’s a true weakness in the running game. He rarely finds the right hole and repeatedly runs himself out of plays. When he does choose right he takes poor angles and has poor tackling technique. Yes, replacing All Pro players is difficult. But the drop off from a Sean Lee-led defense to the version without Sean Lee is so stark and obvious it’s hard to believe the staff was comfortable with the backup plan. Smith probably should have been on IR for another season.
Again, the secondary started out well enough. But once Lee was out and the Falcons were able to get the running game going the secondary looked a lot like those 2013 units that couldn’t get off the field. The Falcons repeatedly converted on 3rd down, including four-for-four on the team’s four consecutive scoring drives. (The fact Atlanta faced only four third downs on four consecutive long scoring drives is probably the bigger issue, honestly).
Xavier Woods provided the one highlight, making a brilliant interception to set up the team’s lone touchdown. This was exactly the kind of ballhawking play Woods repeatedly made in college. He now has more turnovers (interception and a fumble recovery) than any other player in the team’s secondary. It’s really hard to understand why the staff insists on starting Jeff Heath ahead of Woods. Heath, by the way, suffered what looked like a concussion. Yet again, injury may force the Cowboys coaches to make the decision many observers have been clamoring for: more Woods and less Heath.
Jourdan Lewis also had a nice pass breakup on a late first-half pass that, had it been complete, would have set the Falcons up for a very makeable Matt Bryant field goal. But he also allowed Taylor Gabriel to get loose several times.
Orlando Scandrick, who has played well recently, had a poor game getting beat several time and multiple missed tackles. Anthony Brown’s descent from rookie surprise to second-year disappointment continues. While no one was getting targeted repeatedly, no one from the secondary was able to make plays when the game called for it.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
Mike Nugent has missed two field goals in his short time with the Dallas Cowboys. By comparison Dan Bailey had missed three field goals in his last 17 games. The missed Nugent kick was pretty much the nail in the coffin Sunday. Dallas trailed 17-7 midway through the third quarter when they had their best drive of the game. The running game got untracked for the only time all day as Dallas drove from their own 30 the the Falcons’ 12-yard line. A touchdown would create a three-point game and a field goal would bring the Cowboys within seven.
Instead Prescott was sacked for a seven-yard loss, a run play lost two yards, and a third-down screen pass gained a single yard because of poor blocking. Those lost yards proved very costly as Nugent bounced the short 38-yarder off the post. The team’s best drive of the day was undone by a special teams failure.
Otherwise a gutsy fake punt call by Garrett was negated by a questionable pushing off interference penalty on Brice Butler (it sure looked like the defensive back initiated the contact then stumbled on his own). In typical Chris Jones fashion he calmly followed up the failed fake by pinning the Falcons inside their own five-yard line.
(Seriously, what can’t Chris Jones do? We’ve seen him run for a first down, deliver head-flying tackles and now throw for a first down. The Cowboys need to unleash him the way the Rams have with John Hekker.)
Those good plays, however, were all undone by the missed kick at a crucial juncture in the game.
A disappointing game in every fashion. The Cowoys had four key players out with injuries (Elliott, Smith, Bailey, Lee) and their replacements all looked completley inadequate. This is the first time in a long time where I feel the coaches absolutely failed the players. The offense simply had no chance of succeeding with Chaz Green left out on an island against Adrian Clayborn yet the staff saw no reason to adjust their strategy. The Cowboys chances of making the playoffs now stand at 33% with games against Philadelphia (twice), the Seahawks, the Raiders and division tilts against the Giants and Redskins. A once promising season now looks in serious peril.