The whipsaw of emotions continues for fans of the Dallas Cowboys after their 24-13 flop against the Seattle Seahawks devastated the optimism coming into the game. While their 1-2 record hardly eliminates them in a division where the top two teams sit at 2-1, that nauseating display of ineptitude makes it hard to believe this team has what it takes to get back on track - if it ever was on track.
If they are to salvage something from this mess, the team has to find answers. Those will have to come from coaches and players alike. There were plenty of things that demand correction from the game, and here are some that the stats highlights - or lowlights.
3-13 vs 7-16
Those are the third down conversion rates for the Cowboys and Seahawks, respectively. The failure to get a fresh set of downs is hardly a new development for Dallas, as that started last season. The lack of progress here is one of many things that show the Cowboys face a double-barreled problem. Coaching and play-calling failed on multiple occasions on both sides of the ball, and many players made mistakes that cost the team.
One thing that most didn’t see coming was how the Seattle staff looked a step ahead of the Dallas defense. A lot made an assumption that having Kris Richard on their staff would work to the visitors’ advantage, but the actuality seemed to be that Pete Carroll’s crew had excellent anticipation and counters for Richard’s calls. It was the first bad game for the Cowboys’ defense, undermining a faith that it could help carry the team while the offense tries to work out its manifold issues.
303 to 295 total yards of offense
This was surprising to see, because the impression was that the Seahawks really out-gained the Cowboys all game. But Dallas actually had more yards, although that got padded a bit late when Seattle backed off and let them gain meaningless yards while using up clock they couldn’t afford to waste. Still, that 295 yards is hardly a big day at the offense for an NFL offense. It just points out the huge gap in efficiency, with the winners obviously making those yards count while the losers squandered multiple opportunities. That is one thing that points to the disparity in the performances of Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson. Mark that down as a huge concern for Dallas, with no ready solution in sight.
Making things even worse is that the Cowboys also had a superior yards gained per play average, 5.2 to 4.4. While the defense had some breakdowns, there is still an argument to be made that they played well enough to win the game, but the offensive mistakes by multiple players were too much to overcome.
3 big errors for Zeke
There were three huge mistakes by Ezekiel Elliott, who is not normally that prone to such. First, he dropped a pass on third down where he had at least a chance of making it to the sticks. The ensuing Seahawks drive led to their first touchdown. Second was a play that really seemed to take the wind out of Dallas’ sails. Prescott had scrambled to his right to avoid the pressure he was under on almost every pass play and found Elliott open down the sidelines for an apparent touchdown. But Elliott had stepped out of bounds for no reason other than bad awareness of the sideline and it was called back. The Cowboys settled for a Brett Maher field goal, and just seemed to lose confidence in themselves from that point. And finally, on the longest play of the game for the Dallas offense, Elliott let the ball get knocked loose, killing any faint hopes of mounting a comeback.
It also can be argued that he also made big errors in pass protection, so it is even worse.
The argument about coaching vs. play execution is going to rage on, but it is hard to figure out how those plays by Zeke could have been avoided by better coaching. That does not excuse the coaching staff in other areas, but it also is not something where different faces or play calls on the sidelines would have had any impact.
His own mistakes wasted his first big day rushing (127 yards). That is one faint glimmer of hope going forward, but a lot of other things have to get straightened out for it to mean anything.
That’s the turnover differential, and that in itself was enough to basically guarantee the L for the Cowboys. While the defense has generally played well, the dearth of takeaways has continued from 2017. And that was not the only thing the defense failed at.
Minus 3 again
As in the sack differential. While the Cowboys have their issues getting things to work properly with their offensive line, the Seahawks were supposed to be a mess there. But they protected Wilson much better, only allowing two sacks and seven QB hits (plus another roughing the passer penalty that last year would have been a textbook hit, but that fiasco of a rule is another story). Meanwhile, the Cowboys offensive line had another bad day, particularly Tyron Smith. Prescott was sacked five times and hit ten more. His protection is not good, and that again made him jumpy and uncertain.
Prescott is now the focal point of the offensive woes. He needs to play better, he needs more help from those around him, and he needs Linehan to find ways to make him less vulnerable. Whether that is even possible is now a very real question. Former Dak supporters are now being forced to wonder if the Cowboys committed to him too early on too little evidence. He has to either start making throws he has shown little ability to do, or Dallas may be in real trouble at the position.
9 to 5
That’s the number of solo tackles respectively for Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee (both had 11 total counting assists). Each had close to the same number of defensive snaps, 36 for Lee and 33 for LVE. After his bad outings in the first two games, Lee was coming on strong before reportedly injuring his other hamstring. Now he looks to miss one or more games going forward.
This may be the one bit of genuine good news from this mess, because there is a legitimate argument that Vander Esch is playing better than the General. Last season, the defense was unable to stop opponents when Lee missed games. Now, that is no longer a concern. Jaylon Smith, who had eight combined tackles, seems to be quite capable at the MIKE position, and now with LVE able to step in and handle the WILL while Damien Wilson and Joe Thomas fill in at SAM and spot duty elsewhere, the linebacking corps may not miss a beat without Lee. If Vander Esch does get the start in the coming game against the Detroit Lions, he will look like a pretty good mid-first-round investment.
It’s Elliott’s number, and also his yardage for the most he or any Cowboy gained on the day on a single play not involving a penalty or fumble to the other team. And that run is the only play that exceeded 20. This was yet another regression by the Cowboys to the problems of the first game. It has to be considered whether the long pass to Tavon Austin in the team’s lone win was a fluke that this offense just can’t duplicate.
This is the biggest problem for the team, although it may be founded on bad O line play and inept game-planning/play-calling. It certainly is not helped by dropped passes.
However, the pass receivers managed to average 8.8 yards per catch. If you take out Austin (0.7 yards per catch on three receptions) and Elliott (3.7 per, also on three catches out of eight targets, another troubling stat), the average yards gained per catch for the remainder of the receivers jumps to 11.9.
If you are not in third and very long, that is more than enough to sustain drives. Is that an indication that the receiver situation may not be as dire as we thought? The flip side, unfortunately, is that it is just more indication of the problems with QB play and play-calling.
The big takeaway is that there is not one silver bullet to solve the woes in Dallas. The different problems feed on one another, and it is hard to fix one in isolation. This may be a long season.
Hope is not gone, but it is dimming. The Lions game now looks much like the first Giants one, a must win. If the stats don’t get a lot better - well, you don’t need a mathematics degree to figure that one out.