An overtime game is, by definition, close. The Dallas Cowboys managed to end regulation tied with the Houston Texans before they lost due to a combination of failed execution and, in hindsight at least, a really bad coaching decision on fourth-and-one.
But the truth is, it wasn’t really that close, as the Texans outgained and outplayed the Cowboys almost the entire game. Only some really boneheaded calls of their own plus some big defensive plays at just the right moment kept Houston from winning it pretty handily. They moved the ball up and down the field, mostly at will, while the Cowboys had the same problems with third down conversions and settling for field goals that we have seen all season.
It was a hot mess of a performance by the Dallas offense, and it showed that there is a clear way to shut them down. You slow down the run game and rush Dak Prescott relentlessly. It is the biggest weakness they have, and Houston exploited it almost to perfection.
Ezekiel Elliott only had 54 rushing yards in the game, which put the pressure on the passing offense. That is still not working well, especially on the road in front of a hostile crowd. It is not just one thing, either.
First is that Prescott is not handling the pressure well. He tends to be inaccurate and indecisive with the ball, or misses what look like better options to throw the ball. With the Texans pass rush coming at him hard all game, the improvement of week four evaporated. The first interception off the hands of Tavon Austin came on a pass that, while possibly catchable, was clearly too high and too far in front. Had that ball been on target where Austin did not have to leap for it, not only would it not have gone over to Houston, it would have been a first down and Austin had a lot of room to use his speed and elusiveness. Too many other passes from Prescott were much the same. Though they were in the strictest sense balls that could be caught, they required the receiver to adjust way too much. It was especially frustrating to see him failing at this while Deshaun Watson was escaping similar hard rushes, but throwing accurately and making big plays.
Meanwhile, the receivers certainly did not help at times. There were notable drops, at least two of which killed drives in a game where just one more score could have delivered the win for the Cowboys. The wide receivers as a group are just not having an impact. Ezekiel Elliott once more had the most catches with seven, but with only 4.3 yards gained on average, that did not help. Clearly the Texans were ready for the screen pass to him, blowing it up when they tried.
Surprisingly, the best receiving threat for the Cowboys may now be tight end Geoff Swaim. He had 55 yards on three catches. That is still far too low a total for your top receiver, but he did have the one long play when he was used in a screen pass. That caught Houston a bit off guard, and Swaim showed again that he can run very effectively after the catch. And Rico Gathers had the third longest catch of the game to excite his fans.
But all that is not enough with the wide receivers not doing much at all. And now there is a bit of dissension emerging over just who is the problem there. Allen Hurns is disputing the claims that the wide receivers are just not getting open.
“If you want to go back and watch film,” Hurns said, ”it comes down to on a majority of snaps, of course not every snap you’re going to win across the board, but are you creating separation? As far as today, of course we left some plays out there. I’m not saying we’re always perfect, we’re always open. That’s not the case. But I feel like for the majority of the snaps, we’re creating separation. If I’m not open, [Cole Beasley] is open. It rotates. It’s not always where all three receivers are not getting open.”
That certainly looks like some tension in the locker room, which is never a good thing.
Things don’t stop with the quarterback and the receivers, though. The offensive line is also letting the pressure come through far too quickly. Joe Looney has done a much better job filling in for Travis Frederick than expected, but you still have to question if he and rookie Connor Williams are not making things a little too easy on the pass rush. In any case, Prescott was under fire all game. He was only sacked twice, but took six hits and evaded several other rushes with his mobility. It was exciting to see him do his own spin-move escape from J.J. Watt to find Tavon Austin for a 44-yard gain, but that was more an exception, as a moving Prescott was usually not making connections.
Meanwhile, let’s throw some shade at Scott Linehan. One of Prescott’s sacks came just before the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, and it looked like a really bad play for the situation. The pass rush had been coming hard all game, limiting the time to get a throw off, but this play involved a double fake on play-action. If it had decoyed the defense, it might have worked. But there had been no indication prior that the Texans were biting on those fakes, and by the time he was able to look downfield, all Prescott could see was that pass rush bearing down on him. It still seems too much like Linehan is determined to run plays without taking the situation into account. A slow developing pass play was the last thing the Cowboys needed or even seemed capable of doing.
So that is how you thwart the Dallas offense. A good pass rush plus the ability to keep Elliott from gashing you. And that is a big problem, because in the next six games, Dallas faces Jacksonville, Washington (twice), Tennessee, and Philadelphia - all teams that have been very solid doing just those things so far this season. That is shaping up to be a really hard stretch, and if the Cowboys don’t find some kind of solution, the season could be pretty much done for by mid-November.
No sugarcoating here. Not only is this a huge vulnerability for Dallas, there is no evidence they can fix it effectively. A dynamic wide receiver is not available at the local PlayerMart, and as much as you may want to fire Linehan and Jason Garrett, that wouldn’t turn things around in mid-season. Brace yourselves. The rest of the NFL knows how to stop the Cowboys, and way too many of them are fully capable of doing it.