Man, that sucked. The Dallas Cowboys were outplayed, outhustled, and overmatched in the embarrassing 23-0 debacle against the Indianapolis Colts. They still remain prohibitive favorites to win the NFC East and go to the playoffs, but this was a big bump along the way. They say that you learn more from failure than success, so here are a bunch of lessons from this mess.
It ain’t over yet - and that is not necessarily a good thing
The fact that the Cowboys still have an overwhelming likelihood of taking the division was a point that was emphasized continuously leading up to this game, and that is still true. But as Dave Halprin pointed out, Washington’s victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars kept their very slim hopes alive. They could still win out, and get to nine wins, which means that Dallas has to win at least one of the last two games to ensure they take the NFC East.
Jason Garrett has a very good track record of getting the team back on track after defeats, but this is a big one. The Cowboys still have chances to lock things up without getting some help, and they need to get it done. If there isn’t a real bounce-back against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that huge comeback this season may all go to waste.
Adversity can be a problem
For five games, the Cowboys have seemed able to rise and overcome whatever came their way. But as Michael Strawn posted earlier, they had not been playing from behind much in the five-game winning streak. This is not the first time I have referred back to this piece, because it strikes me as important. They have done very well and been in control in those five games even though they were all close. When the Colts blocked that field goal end the first possession of the game, Dallas did not respond well. The defense was suddenly very porous against the run. Marlon Mack would go on to have 139 yards and both the Indy touchdowns. This was a reversal for both teams, as the Cowboys came into the game ranked third in the league against the run, while the Colts were 24th running the ball.
This is a familiar refrain for the Cowboys. A team that doesn’t do something particularly well comes in against them and suddenly looks superb at it, while Dallas seems to forget how they had done so well. Which leads to the next point.
The pass rush just wasn’t there
Zero sacks. Andrew Luck either had lots of time, or was getting loose to either find a receiver or just go pick up some yards himself. Oddly though, he didn’t exactly kill the Cowboys through the air, only amassing 192 yards passing. Dak Prescott actually had more. But Luck did have one nice long completion to T.Y. Hilton, while Prescott’s longest pass of the day was only for 18 yards.
Third down problems came back in a big way
It was on both sides of the ball, too. The Colts were able to just keep driving to get points by converting an outstanding 8 of 12 third downs, while Dallas only managed 4 of 12. That was the biggest offensive difference in the game. It led to five scores for them, and the Cowboys of course could manage exactly zip.
It looked a lot like execution was the big issue for the Cowboys, as they missed several chances. The first was the dropped pass on the goal line by Jamize Olawale. The blocked field goal leading to the touchdown had already punched Dallas in the gut, and that failure to score and even things up really took the rest of the wind out of their sails.
The red zone is still a nightmare for Dallas
They only got inside the Colts’ 20 twice, and of course came up completely empty. Again, you can argue playcallling as the culprit, but in this game, execution sure looked like the real issue. The Cowboys have not had much success all season down close. If there is one thing that just has to be fixed if they make the playoffs, that is it. There are no easy games once you get to January.
Fourth down disasters
Jason Garrett was certainly playing to win, electing to go on it five times on fourth down. But the team only converted one of those. Three were just failed plays, and the other was called back on a penalty. Dallas had been pretty clutch in these up to this point, but it just evaporated against a fired-up defense.
Coop was taken out of the game
Give some credit to Matt Eberflus, who coached a heckuva defensive game. But it didn’t look like the plan was focused on getting Amari Cooper the ball, either. Cole Beasley and Blake Jarwin both had as many receptions (four) as Cooper, while Ezekiel Elliott led all receivers with seven, most of the safety valve variety. Maybe the Colts just had Cooper blanketed, forcing Prescott to go away from him. But with Elliott also held under 100 yards rushing, there just wasn’t any real offensive firepower. Cooper was starting to look unstoppable. That just got shattered into tiny little pieces.
Also, Michael Gallup was shut out completely, with his only targets being wiped out by penalties.
It is a bunch of bad news from this game. Indianapolis was the best team the Cowboys have faced outside the Saints. They didn’t show much at all. Now they have to knuckle down and get these many issues fixed. We’ll find out in a week if they can.