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Four lessons learned from Cowboys loss to the Saints

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If you learn more from your mistakes than your successes, the Cowboys should be a lot smarter now.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints
Ouch.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys hit a big stumbling block in their quest to repeat as NFC East champs. The painful 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints was covered in warts, but adversity can tell you a lot about a team. There was plenty of that, and here are some of the things we may have learned.

Kellen Moore is still a first year OC, and Sean Payton is one of the best coaches in the league

OK, that’s a little bit of Captain Obvious stuff there, but this was absolutely a case of Jason Garrett and his staff getting rings coached around them. The Saints had a brilliant defensive plan to stop the Cowboys’ offense, and the horses to do it with. 257 yards of total offense is not going to win many NFL games, and that is all Dallas could muster. Worse, 32 yards came on the next to last play of the game, when Dak Prescott was deep in his own end of the field with just seconds left and hit Randall Cobb against a secondary that was in full prevent mode.

The biggest thing in stopping the Cowboys was that the New Orleans defensive line largely dominated Dallas’ vaunted offensive line. There were no holes for Ezekiel Elliott, and Prescott may have only been sacked once, but he was under constant pressure with little time to read the field. And that sack was a crusher, coming as the Cowboys still had a remote shot to get in position for a potential game winning field goal. Only La’el Collins had a good day at work, and now Tyron Smith is expected to miss at least one game with an ankle injury, caused by Prescott rolling into him on the sack making it doubly disastrous.

On the flip side, the Saints got about as much as possible out of Teddy Bridgewater, with some major help from Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. The Cowboys limited them to just 12 points, but that was still too much. And repeatedly, the Dallas defense could not get off the field fast enough, as New Orleans had a lopsided time of possession margin to keep the ball away from Prescott and company.

There is still a conservative streak in the Cowboys

And it is a mile wide. This was a notoriously hostile environment, and Dallas started all but one of its possessions at or inside their own 25. What we saw in these circumstances was a sudden reversion to the run-on-first-down frustrations that we suffered last year. After two consecutive successful first down passes, Prescott handed the ball off to Elliott on the next seven chances. Elliott was repeatedly stopped for little or no gain as the team tried futilely to attack the middle of the line. That put them behind the chains, with predictable results given the way the Saints’ defense was mauling them. There were very few shots taken downfield as well. Part of the credit for that goes to an outstanding effort by the New Orleans secondary, plus that lack of time Prescott had.

Making things more frustrating was that Dallas still had that third-quarter magic going. On the one possession they managed to have that period, they marched sharply down the field to score their only touchdown, and had the only meaningful long play of the game, a 35-yard completion to Blake Jarwin to the New Orleans 2. That featured three first down passes. Unfortunately, the magic deserted them after that, especially on third-down attempts.

The first three weeks of the season created real hope that this was a different kind of Cowboys offense. That took a major hit in this game. We now have to wait to learn how they respond, and what things look like going forward.

The defense also seemed to be relying on the bend but don’t break concept we have seen established over the past few years. And as they failed to get off the field quickly on too many series, that was also a failure.

Zeke may have a fumble problem

This was the concluding paragraph in John Owning’s Monday film study of the game at the Dallas Morning News.

Side note: This is Elliott’s seventh fumble since the start of last season -- most in the NFL among running backs over that span, according to PFF. He is an outstanding back, but he must do a better job of securing the ball. It’s too early to say Elliott has a fumbling problem, but it would be dishonest to say it wasn’t a disconcerting trend.

Yes, that is disconcerting. And Elliott’s fumble killed a drive in a game where those were too few and far between. Part of the number is that he carries the ball a lot, although not so much this year. Still, a team that still focuses on running the ball cannot afford a feature back who loses the handle.

Some good news about some Cowboys players.

It wasn’t all bad. Despite the losing effort, a handful of Cowboys showed they could be very valuable going forward.

Robert Quinn was the star of the game for the Cowboys, notching two sacks, having a third nullified by penalty, batting down a pass, and adding three quarterback hits. He is turning into one of the best offseason acquisitions outside of the draft in the last decade for the team - and he has only played two games for them.

Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith were flying all over the place, with LVE leading the team with 11 tackles. Smith added nine, including a sack, and had another tackle for a loss. The linebacking corps is in good shape.

La’el Collins continues to earn his new contract, as he was probably the best offensive lineman on a day when things went poorly for the group as a whole. He largely nullified Cameron Jordan, who only got three tackles and one quarterback hit on the stat sheet.

Jarwin saw relatively few snaps, but was the second leading receiver for the team, only one yard off of Jason Witten’s 50. Plus, you know, he didn’t have a drive-killing fumble, either. He had the biggest catch of the day, setting up that lone touchdown. The team needs to find ways to get him more involved.

The first two lessons here are really the biggies. While there were some failures of execution, Prescott actually performed fairly well. This looks like it falls mostly on the coaching. If they can learn from this debacle, we may be back to good times soon. If not, this is going to be a long, nerve-wracking season.