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Crunching stats: Ten things that stood out in the Cowboys’ loss to the Panthers

It was just not good, and the numbers bear that out.

Dallas Cowboys v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It could have been worse. But the Dallas Cowboys’ dismal performance against the Carolina Panthers was absolutely bad enough. The team had little offensive output, and the defense was unable to contain Cam Newton in the first half. It’s time to do a dive into the statistics of the game and try to learn a little bit about what went wrong - and if there are any signs of hope for the next game against the New York Giants and the rest of the season.

The offensive game plan was once again too stubborn.

This is not about creativity or adjustments. It is about a belief that this team can impose its will on opponents without having to adapt to what they are facing. If they had the offensive line of 2016, with Doug Free still manning right tackle while La’el Collins worked at left guard, then maybe that would still work. But with Travis Frederick out due to his illness, and a somewhat undersized rookie, Connor Williams, at LG, expecting to go in and just ram it down the throats of the Panthers with their outstanding defensive tackles and linebackers was foolish - or worse. Yet the first play of the game was Ezekiel Elliott running at right guard. For a loss of a yard.

It was one play in a game that saw a lot of problems for Dallas. But it was the one thing Scott Linehan has been so heavily criticized for: It was predictable, and the Panthers were ready for it. Actually, they were ready for it just by nature of their talent up the middle of their defense. Dallas tried to come out and show they could do what they wanted, and failed. That led to the next thing.

Third downs were unmanageable.

I didn’t have to do the work on this.

Folks, you aren’t going to win many games like that. It is called “getting behind schedule”. If you aren’t seeing a lot of 3rd and 5 or less, you are in trouble. Obviously, Dallas was.

That almost always tracks back to what happens on first down, and the Cowboys were boom or (mostly) bust there.

It was a few good plays and a bunch of failed ones on first down, which set the tone for the entire game. For the game, the Cowboys were only 2 of 11 on third down conversions, which kind of sums up things right there.

Some of the new tools were underutilized.

Rico Gathers was inactive, of course, and while that may have been his punishment for his arrest the day of the cutdown, we still don’t know if he can be a red zone weapon. Tavon Austin only saw the field for 10 plays and had just two touches, one of which was called back on penalty. Jamize Olawale, who seems to be much more than just a conventional blocking fullback, only saw six snaps. He was not targeted in the passing game, where he could be very dangerous.

They spread the ball around - but to poor effect.

Dak Prescott was disappointing, being off on many throws and generally indecisive throughout. But he did try to get the ball to ten different receivers, counting the play to Austin that was called back. That just emphasizes his own failures, unfortunately.

The offensive line was just as disappointing.

Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both had two penalties. The middle of the line, with Williams and Looney, just weren’t up to the task against the superb DTs of Carolina, especially Kawann Short, who got through for two sacks, two TFLs, and four QB hits. This is still very much a work in progress, but the returning starters should have been better, including Zack Martin. Six sacks, four TFLs, and 10 QB hits is far too much, and mostly falls on their shoulders.

The offensive struggles wasted a pretty good defensive effort.

The defense certainly wasn’t perfect. They failed to account for Cam Newton’s running ability too often in the first half, and he wound up the leading rusher for Carolina with 58 yards. They also had some really bad tackling, and there was a general sense of confusion at times.

But overall, they held Newton’s passing to only 161 yards, a 65% completion rate, a long of only 19 yards, and no touchdowns. They also sacked him three times, which is a good showing against one of the hardest quarterbacks to bring down. In total, Carolina only had 293 yards of offense, and of course they only put up 16 points. You should be able to beat any team that your defense holds to that. Admittedly, the Panthers may have gone into a very conservative mode after half as it became apparent how impotent the Dallas offense was. But still, the defense played good enough to win, at least based on the stats.

However, there was one odd stat line on D.

Sean Lee was credited with only four tackles (and just one solo), with a QB hit and a pass defended. That may be the worst stat line for him in his career for any game, and certainly for one where he was apparently healthy the entire way. He was off the field more than normal, only playing 88% of the defensive downs. But Jaylon Smith had a somewhat better game statistically, with four tackles, three solo, and one sack on a scrambling Newton. But what really stood out (and might be one sign of hope going forward) is that Leighton Vander Esch was not that far off from Lee’s production, with three tackles (two solo) - and he only played 25% of the snaps.

Meanwhile, Demarcus Lawrence was the star of the game, with some other good D line performances

You don’t often see defensive ends being the leading tackler for their team, but Lawrence did just that, getting six solo stops plus one assist for seven total, a sack, and a fumble recovery. In order of production, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton (yes, he was good in this game), Daniel Ross, Antwaun Woods, Dorance Armstrong, and Maliek Collins all had impacts on the game, including the sack from Collins. But Randy Gregory, who left the game early and was only on the field for 22% of the defensive downs, didn’t make the stats table, a very desultory result for his much-anticipated return to football, and one that now has both the mysterious “relapse” issue and his injury hanging over it.

The defensive backs were probably the best unit on the field for the whole team.

The passing numbers for Carolina bear this out, and they also represented four of the top eight tacklers (not always a good thing, since that means the front seven are not getting the job done). They may not have depth, but they seem very solid. Next week, however, they face a much more dangerous group of receivers on the New York Giants, so we will have to hold back a bit on just how good they are.

Things finally picked up late - but how much of that was effectively “garbage time”?

Particularly in the fourth quarter when they went no-huddle as they tried to get back into the game, the offense started to move the ball. Things loosened up for Zeke as they passed more, and he got two good runs plus the touchdown on the option play with Dak. And the defense, which could have been gassed, kept up things on their end, stopping the Panthers twice to give Dallas shots at tying the game. But had Carolina gone conservative in the faith that the Cowboys could not score? It is hard to say - but maybe the coaching staff can find something to use there.

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