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Cowboys looking for answers against the Eagles

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Debating the outcome of what has become a crucial test for Dallas.

NFL: DEC 09 Eagles at Cowboys
With O line issues, the Cowboys have to find a way to protect and unleash Dak.
Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s a big game this week as the Dallas Cowboys host the beloved Philadelphia Eagles in a game that will give one of the two teams control of the NFC East. Both are coming off disappointing losses and sit at 3-3. Our Michael Strawn and Tom Ryle take a look at things and what the Cowboys have to do to keep this from getting perilously close to a lost season.

Tom: Well, the last three games have given us plenty to worry over. Let’s start with the offense. Play-action has all but vanished from the game plan, and the dreaded first down run has reared its ugly and unproductive head. The big question is, can Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott find some of that mojo that was producing 31+ points a game the first three weeks?

Michael: Nothing has frustrated me more these last few weeks than watching the Cowboys offensive schemes revert back to the stale, unimaginative, conservative, predictable and ultimately losing ways of the past. The percent of play-action plays has declined all six weeks, from 47% in week one (3rd in NFL) to only 14% in week six (26th in NFL, tip of the hat to TrueBlueDCFan for that tidbit). At the same time we’ve seen the percent of first down runs increase, the return of the dreaded “four verticals to the sticks” concepts, and fewer and fewer complementary routes.

Considering the Cowboys and their newfangled offensive ways led to the best offensive start in team history it’s utterly baffling they would decide “Hey, let’s go back to what we were doing last year”. I’ve said it before and believe in my soul that Jason Garrett handcuffed Kellen Moore in New York after watching the team lose due to five turnovers the previous weeks.

If that’s indicative of how this relationship is going to work - Garrett robotically retracing his past steps to failure - then nothing will have really changed with the hiring of Kellen Moore.

Tom: Huh. Well, let me say this:

You hit just about all the same notes I have been singing. This is either going to be a case of the Cowboys finally learning their lesson or having to suffer the same consequences we saw the past three games.

I do still think execution has to be addressed, but that is hard for the staff to compel. Get this offense doing what they were able to do at the start of the season, and I suspect the individual performances will come in line.

I certainly wouldn’t point fingers at Dak Prescott. I think he has been the best part of the offense to date, and has been let down badly at times by his receivers, plus is under more pressure and having to work on some new chemistry due to injuries.

Michael: Okay, I’m worrying we experienced some kind of mind-meld as I’m in total agreement. I can’t in any way blame Dak Prescott for the team’s woes. Our own Conner Livesay authored an outstanding article outlining the multiple instances where Prescott did what was needed to make plays against the New York Jets, but was undone by dropped passes, penalties and questionable actions by (checks notes) future HOF tight end Jason Witten.

I gave Dak a “B” grade for his game Sunday; yet upon further review I’d give him an “A”. Why? Well, he had an 89 passer rating and threw for 278 yards and ran for a touchdown while:

  • Getting beaten up behind a patchwork offensive line
  • Suffering five drops from his receivers
  • Having multiple big plays (including a touchdown) negated by penalties
  • Missing out on potential big plays due to things like Witten giving up/getting confused on what should have been a long touchdown pass

Were the Cowboys not in the midst of a three-game losing steak, Prescott would be the toast of both Dallas faithful and the league as a whole. Consider Dak’s rankings on the season in various categories:

  • 1. Rating: 6
  • 2. QBR: 1
  • 3. Comp %: 7
  • 4. Passing yards: 1
  • 5. ANY/A: 2
  • 6. QB Rush yards: 6
  • 7. QB Rush TDs: 5

Prescott is on pace to finish with over 5,000 yards passing, 34 total touchdowns while putting up top-five efficiency metrics.

Tom: No arguments there.

But this has not just been about the offense dropping off. The defense has a lot to answer for.

Maybe it’s recency bias, but the pass coverage has me just gritting my teeth. That 92-yard touchdown they surrendered to Sam Darnold and the Jets was a back-breaker. It was an inexcusable lapse, and then they let them march right down the field to add another TD before halftime. It was soft play that has to be stopped.

Some more interceptions to pad their, um, two so far this season would be extremely helpful. If I see one more defender have a ball bounce off his back, I may throw up.

The pass rush needs more production as well. I think the ends, particularly DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn, are doing fine, but the middle of the D line has to get more of a push.

Michael: Again, I’m in agreement. The debacle on Sunday wasn’t the offense, it was the defense giving up 24 points and a 114 passer rating to the Jets. Unfortunately, the pass defense isn’t the only problem - the rush defense has repeatedly let this team down.

Against New Orleans the defense couldn’t get off the field in the second half because the Saints effectively ran the ball. Then we had the complete fiasco against the Packers when a team known for having zero running game gashed the Cowboys for 120 yards and four rushing touchdowns.

It’s nauseating. The interior defense has been the problem. The defensive tackles are simply getting pushed around or coaxed out of position. Meanwhile, the Cowboys were widely regarded to have the best trio of linebackers in the league going into the season. Any fair, objective analysis of that group today would put them in the bottom 10, if the not the bottom five.

It’s hard to understand how Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee have become a major weakness on the defense, but that’s where we stand at this moment. Had you told me that back on September 10th I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

Combined, the weak pass and rush defense has left the Cowboys’ offense to do the heavy lifting for the team.

Tom: And there is still one more area that is going very badly, and it has become a pet peeve of mine: They are losing the field position battle. As I’ve referenced before during this week, the Cowboys remain the only NFL team this season that has not started a single drive past the 50 yard line. That is influenced by the lack of turnovers and the bend-don’t-break aspect of the defense when they really need three-and-outs, but it also highlights the less-than-mediocre performance of the special teams. The Cowboys are just not getting any kind of returns on either kickoffs or punts, and are yielding too much.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Brett Maher has had a few too many misses. If he had made the one he didn’t against the Jets, that may have put Dallas over the top.

This is a real mess in many ways. And with so much riding on this game, the Cowboys have to find some answers, stat.

Michael: Sigh. Those are the “hidden yards” Bill Parcells talked about so often. It makes it really difficult for the offense when you’re always starting from your 25. I’m reminded of what my mother told me so often growing up: “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement”. The Cowboys have a ton of room for improvement. The good news is they also have the ability to make that improvement.