What went wrong? The Dallas Cowboys were supposed to get a win against an 0-4 New York Jets team. Instead, they were horribly embarrassed and became the first team to lose to the other Big Apple team. Digging into the numbers from the game is unpleasant. But there are some things that quickly become evident that point to just what Dallas did wrong.
Offensively, they relied on the run - and paid the price
It was deja vu all over again. Once again, we were watching and pleading for the offense to do something besides hand the ball off to Ezekiel Elliott on first down. And, just like last season, we were frustrated again and again. And again.
I went through the play chart and looked to see just how many times they went with a run. It was infuriating and depressing.
In the first half, when the Jets had a good advantage in time of possession, mainly due to the first half drive when they held onto the ball for 7:54, the Cowboys stubbornly kept handing it off on first down. Up until they were down 14-3 with only 3:34 left before halftime, they had seven first down runs, against only two passes. And the runs weren’t really accomplishing much, as they only had a total of 37 yards on the ground. Repeatedly, they got behind schedule, even if you accept that a run of four yards or more on first down is a desirable outcome. Not until they had almost no time to work with did they have Dak Prescott throw on first down with regularity.
This was almost certainly driven by having Tyron Smith and La’el Collins replaced by Cameron Fleming and Brandon Knight at tackle. The problem was that Gregg Williams had his defense totally ready for this. He completely outcoached Kellen Moore and Jason Garrett. Go ahead and lump the HC and OC together, because Garrett had to have had some input into going with this very conservative approach.
The first half was bad enough. What they did after the intermission was just disgusting.
The Cowboys had the ball first after halftime. They were trailing 21-6, and it should have led to a sense of urgency. But they just continued to hand the ball off. That drive, which wound up only yielding a field goal, burned 7:10 off the clock and had five first downs. On them, they handed the ball off.
Every. Single. Time.
Admittedly, the running game was actually more effective, with Elliott getting 70 of his 105 rushing yards in the second half, but needing at least two scores at that point, they kept it slow and steady. Given how Williams was bedeviling them, it is mystifying to figure out what they were thinking.
Admittedly, Williams was using a heavy dose of blitzes, and for most of the game, the Cowboys’ best blitz beater, Amari Cooper, was on the bench with an injury. And there were again a bunch of drops. Since the wide receivers were down to Michael Gallup, Tavon Austin, and Cedrick Wilson, that might also affected things. But Gallup and Jason Witten were among the players guilty of not coming down with balls they should have caught.
Even with that, the team should have been mixing up things on first down more, but they didn’t. Even in the fourth quarter, when time was definitely against the Cowboys, they still insisted on running on first down. The first touchdown drive saw them hand it off on three of the five first downs.
It was bizarre clock management. They took too long to score until it was too late and largely abandoned the run, except for the Prescott touchdown. In the chess match between offense and defense, Dallas decided to play checkers.
One note here. Neither Prescott nor Elliott had what can be called poor performances, although there were certainly others around them. The problem was how they were clearly misused.
The pass rush was almost non-existent
As a matter of fact, the pass rush was really just one player, Robert Quinn. The Cowboys had only two sacks and two QB hits - all of which are found on Quinn’s stat line. Simply put, they wound up letting Sam Darnold beat them.
The Jets were supposed to have a vulnerable offensive line and the Cowboys made them look like a wall. DeMarcus Lawrence is clearly still not 100%. And to add injury to insult, Dorance Armstrong left the game after getting hurt. Admittedly, there was some quality evasion by Darnold, but it still was a simply pitiful display by what we thought was a strength of this team. You shudder to think what this would have looked like if Quinn had not been signed.
Oddly, the Cowboys won the sack battle, with Prescott going down just once, but he was beaten up in the game with eight QB hits. Given how difficult it was to complete passes, with at least half his incompletions on balls that should have been caught, Dallas really lost the pass rush competition.
The rest of the defense hurt the cause as well
The 92-yard touchdown was a real back-breaker, but it was just the most egregious time the defensive backs got exposed. Chidobe Awuzie had a poor game before he got nicked up, and Jourdan Lewis, who got the lone turnover in the game, clearly outplayed him. But Darnold finished the game with 338 yards and two touchdowns, which is rather ridiculous for a player who missed three games with mono.
The linebackers also had another bad game, although the Jets didn’t run all over the Cowboys. Of course, they didn’t need to when their aerial attack was going so well. But there were enough plays missed by the linebackers to contribute to the debacle. Leighton Vander Esch continues to look a step slow, leading to worries that he is dealing with something that has been undisclosed. And Jaylon Smith was very quiet, which is also very concerning. Sean Lee actually outplayed Smith.
The Cowboys actually won the turnover battle thanks to Lewis, but it was not enough. That in itself is disturbing.
Penalties again ruined things
Both teams were bad in this department, but the Jets survived the sloppy play and the Cowboys didn’t. The pick play that drew a flag and cost Dallas a touchdown was a bad call, but there were seven other flags that really hurt them.
This is an ongoing issue that there is no excuse for not cleaning it up. Again, the injuries may have contributed, but it still was something that could have made the difference in a two-point loss.
Three losses in a row
That is the big one. This team was supposed to have so much talent, and we were so excited by what we saw in the three wins. Now that has been absolutely squandered.
If you want solutions, sorry. This all makes no sense, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the coaching is, at the least, a huge factor here. The Cowboys just did not look ready to play against a team that turned out to have a much better performance in them than any of us believed. That is probably on us for getting overconfident. But the sloppy mess we saw on the field was on the Cowboys.
I’d love to end with a positive note. I just don’t have one.