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Tale of the tape: Play calling, execution, injuries, and coaching all hold blame in Cowboys 22-24 loss

After reviewing the All-22, what went wrong in week six for the Cowboys?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After the third consecutive loss, Cowboys Nation has hit rock bottom, and rightfully so. From the coaching staff, to the front office, to the players on the roster, not a whole lot is going right for the Cowboys.

Going into the Jets game, we all knew it wasn’t going to be a cake walk with Tyron Smith and La’el Collins unlikely to play, but we didn’t know that Randall Cobb would be inactive, and Amari Cooper would only play three snaps before taking himself out of the game. While the injuries for this team certainly hurt them, it’s not an excuse to get manhandled by the winless New York Jets for a majority of the game. Let’s take a look at the All-22 to see what went wrong from the execution on the field, to the poor game plan on both sides of the football.

The Cowboys defense has been a major disappointment through the first six games of the season. After having a very nice game against the Saints, there was hope this defense would get back to the level it played at in 2018, but in no way has that happened. The play of the linebackers have been a serious issue so far in 2019. Leighton Vander Esch has struggled in space and getting off of blocks; Jaylon Smith instincts have failed him on many occasions.

The play above shows the lack of instincts Smith is playing with so far. As always, linebackers have to trigger to the play-fake (that’s why play-action is so successful), but Smith gets completely turned around here and is unable to recover to disrupt the passing play going over his head. Smith, athletically, just doesn’t seem right. He’s currently having serious issues changing directions and breaking down in space to make tackles. The Cowboys paid Smith to be a top linebacker in the NFL over the offseason, and so far he has not lived up to those standards.

Speaking of instincts, let’s get to Sean Lee. Lee has had a rough start to the 2019 season. Struggling both in run defense and pass defense, Lee’s new role as the SAM linebacker is one the Cowboys may want to reconsider and moving him back to his natural position. Lee normally has some of the best instincts you can find out of any linebacker in the NFL, but so far that hasn’t been the case. This is the first play of the drive from the Jets offense, after Ezekiel Elliott walked into the end-zone to cut the lead to five for the Jets. The Jets gain all the momentum, and get into excellent field position immediately with a 30-yard strike from Sam Darnold.

Sean Lee’s lack of awareness here is the only reason Sam Darnold has a window to let this football go. It looks as if Lee starts to react to Darnold, who looks to be tucking the football to run. If this is the case, Lee has to let Darnold commit before abandoning the zone in coverage. Lee either was either expecting Darnold to run, or saw something flash to his right and started to break that way, either way, this is a play a veteran Sean Lee cannot make, especially given the down, distance, score, and time left on the clock.

Personally, it’s very easy to get a grasp on the offense by what they do on their first couple of plays. In the first three weeks of the season, the Cowboys used primarily 11 and 12 personnel, Sunday afternoon they opened the game up in 13 personnel and ran a dive straight into a pile of white jerseys for a gain of two. Something Kellen Moore talked about a lot this offseason was spreading defenses out, and using certain personnel packages to get opposing into defenses into numbers that can’t allow them to have numbers on the Cowboys blocking. This is the exact opposite of that idea, and has a lot to do with why the Cowboys ground game was inefficient against the Jets.

Here is a running play used later in the game, that shows the right way to run the football in 2019. The offense comes out in 12 personnel with two tight ends attached to the line of scrimmage. The motion before the snap shows that the Jets are in man coverage, which means that the Cowboys will have seven blockers to block seven defenders on this play. They also motion Tavon Austin as the sweep-player to pull a defender away from the play-side, and hold the right defensive end as well at the snap.

While this run did pick up a nice chunk of yardage, this is one Ezekiel Elliott probably kicked himself on when reviewing the tape. This play has six all over, but Elliott doesn’t use proper vision or patience to allow Frederick to block up the only defender between the ball and the goal line. Elliott’s vision is normally top notch, but this was a poor decision to cut this football back inside, with the leverage he and Frederick have on the Jets defender.

Now let’s go back to the bad way to run the football, and one of the many reasons I believe Jason Garrett has taken back some control of the Cowboys offense. Does this play look familiar? If not, let me remind you. Cowboys at Rams. NFC Divisional Round playoff game in 2018? Yep. This is a similar concept the Cowboys tried to run on 4th and 1 in the Cowboys divisional round loss to the Rams back in January. Another 13 personnel run that results in a negative play for the offense. These are plays that Dak Prescott checked out of in weeks one, two, and three, but for some odd reason didn’t do last week, even though the numbers suggest to do so. The two negative plays I’ve shown above just give me a little evidence that Kellen Moore is losing more control of the playbook, than he had in the first few weeks of the season.

There’s two plays from his game I don’t think we’re talking about enough. Let’s start with the one on the defensive side of the ball. Maliek Collins does everything right on this play, other than drawing the horse-collar flag that would allow the Jets to find the end-zone just a few plays later. On third down, Collins has to see that Darnold has no chance of advancing this football for a touchdown, and cannot attempt to drag Darnold down but the back of his jersey. This was a four point play for the Jets offense, and in a game where the Cowboys ultimately losses by two points, could have been the difference between a win and a loss.

At the time, this didn’t feel like a big deal. But just a few plays later, Brett Maher misses a 40-yard field goal, and the Cowboys hopes of making a comeback just became a whole lot harder. Watching the All-22, it’s hard to see what Witten does wrong here, so I had to go back to the broadcast angle to see if it gave a better look, and boy did it.

You will notice Witten slow his momentum just a bit to take a peek at the incoming safety at about the five-yard line. When doing so, he slows the speed of his route, but also loses track of the football, which takes time too relocate. That time slows his route momentum down which makes the football just out of reach, but would have been right on the money if Witten continues the same momentum throughout his route stem and tracks the football all the way in once it leaves Prescott’s hands. This was a seven-point play, in a game where the Cowboys offense struggled mightily to get into the end zone.

For the most part, Dak Prescott played a really good football game in the 22-24 loss given the circumstances. Prescott took a beating for most of the afternoon, but kept getting back up and somehow kept making some incredible plays both inside and outside of the pocket. Here’s a nice third-down pickup where he uses his legs to create a throwing window while also knowing he’s going to take a big time shot. Without showing the threat of his legs, the dropping linebacker is going to disrupt the throwing window to Cedrick Wilson, but as soon as he gets out of the pocket, the linebacker makes the decision to attack Prescott. Dak beats him with his arm threading the needle to Wilson for a nice pickup and Wilson does an excellent job of maintaining concentration throughout the bobble to haul in this pass and move the chains.

Prescott made a handful of really nice throws on the day that didn't’ end up counting due to drops, penalties, or the situation that happened with Jason Witten. Here’s a really nice throw under pressure that ends up not only not counting, but costing them five yards due to the illegal formation. This is excellent ball placement from Dak to Austin, who does a really nice job on his route, but again, it’s all for naught. Both backup tackles had their struggles throughout the entire game, but so did interior as well. This offensive line as a unit has not lived up to standards so far this season and if the Cowboys want to get back on track they will need to improve.

Second-year wide receiver Michael Gallup had an uncharacteristic day. After Amari Cooper went down in the first series, the offense needed Michael Gallup to step up in a big way, and while he still put up solid numbers, he did have two drops on the day, and another ball that went off his hands in the middle of the field that wasn’t charted as a drop due to the difficulty of the catch. If Amari Cooper is going to continue to miss time with his quad injury, Gallup will need to be a bit more consistent catching the football, something he has normally done in his tenure with the Cowboys.

It’s been four weeks since we’ve had a positive film review, and the Cowboys head into the biggest game of the young season as they’ll host the Philadelphia Eagles for sole possession of the NFC East on Sunday night. Let’s hope next week, this is a little bit more positive.

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