We’ve had a few days to mull over the Dallas Cowboys losing to the New Orleans Saints in disappointing fashion. As Dallas now prepares to face the Green Bay Packers and try to get back to their winning ways, here are some thoughts about where things could be headed.
Welcome to the dogfight
It was a loss, but it hardly means doom and gloom is the order of the day. The Cowboys now sit at 3-1, which makes them one of seven three-win teams in the NFC. Five others, the Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, and the Packers have the same record, and the San Francisco 49ers are the only undefeated team left, but have already had their bye week and are 3-0. Lurking just outside that group are the somewhat surprising Detroit Lions, at 2-1-1.
With most of the season still ahead, the NFC is shaping up to be a real melee. Although a lot is going to change, at the moment the Cowboys are still in very good shape, given the divisional structure of the league. The North and West have started out top-heavy, with three teams in each division in early contention for those automatic playoff spots. The Saints may have the easiest path ahead in the South, although the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both showed signs of life last week.
In the East, Dallas already has a win over the New York Giants, who now are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles at 2-2. The advent of Daniel Jones as the heir to Eli Manning has given the Giants a bit of a spark, but the Cowboys already have one win over them. The Eagles have frankly not looked that good so far, having to come from behind against Washington, the only 0-4 team in the conference, and losing to the woeful Atlanta Falcons. But they do have a lot of talented, if somewhat older, players and Carson Wentz can be very good, if inconsistent.
But we shall not tally those domestic fowl while still within the shell. Divisional games are always unpredictable. The Cowboys have to take care of business first and foremost. Some of the other teams in good position for the playoffs are going to see defeats with so many games yet to come against one another. Dallas just has to get back to winning and things will take care of themselves.
It is certainly going to be interesting going forward.
Faith in the offense still alive
Some days, it just seems that everything goes wrong. Against the Saints, that kinda sums up what happened to the Cowboys’ offense.
Fumbles by key players. A running game that can only be described as impotent. A game plan and play calling that were wrong in multiple ways. Some uncharacteristically bad reads by Dak Prescott. And perhaps most importantly, and potentially the most threatening, the offensive line was dominated and beaten repeatedly.
That’s a lot to fix, and the injury to Tyron Smith just makes it worse. Now they face the Packers, and recent history shows us just how problematical that team and Aaron Rodgers (middle name: Freakin’) can be.
The Packers have gotten to 3-1 as well, but they have not dominated anyone. In their lone loss to the Eagles they had all kinds of issues. They are coming off a long week after that Thursday night contest, so they had some extra time to heal and work on their own issues.
Still, Kellen Moore is off to an impressive start as a rookie offensive coordinator, despite the flop in the Big Easy. The Cowboys are talented, perhaps better on offense than they have been in a decade or more. And they are proud. That pride took a grievous wound last Sunday.
While Green Bay has a better defense than it has of late, it is still not as imposing as what the Saints fielded. I may be overly optimistic, but I think the Cowboys will get things sorted out and have a much better showing on offense. Add in that it is a home game, where Dallas finally is feeling an advantage, and this effort should look a lot more like the first three weeks than the last one.
The defense may be breaking out
While there weren’t many bright spots for the Cowboys last Sunday, one thing the team did very well was rush the passer. They got five sacks, by far the best job of getting to the quarterback all season. Robert Quinn has been a beast, accounting for two of the sacks. He should have had another, but it was erased by a penalty. And Antwaun Woods returned to practice in a limited fashion, which is a positive. On the flip side, DeMarcus Lawrence, who has been another force even if he has not accumulated as many stats, was held out. Reports are that he has a bone bruise in his knee to go along with a shoulder issue. That “bone bruise” is actually more concerning because it can sometimes lead to a microfracture problem depending on severity, and those can sometimes affect careers.
The linebackers had another good day, led of course by Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch led the team in tackles, with Smith close behind, and the latter added a sack of his own as he is being used more as a blitzer. Another nice wrinkle has been putting him as a 3-tech, where he has been effective rushing the passer from a standing position.
The secondary finally got a pick courtesy of Chidobe Awuzie tracking down a ball that went up in the air off Ted Ginn Jr’s hands. They did not give up a single pass play of over 20 yards. That last has to be viewed in light of the game plan that the Saints probably had with Teddy Bridgewater as their quarterback, but it is still a notable accomplishment.
Add that to the four times the defense held New Orleans to field goals once they got to the red zone, and we could have some good things coming. Hopefully that continues against Green Bay.
The offensive line is the biggest concern
Not everything is beer and skittles.
Cowboys’ expected first-team offensive line today: LT Cam Fleming, LG Xavier Su’a-Filo, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin and RT Connor Williams.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 2, 2019
Williams moves from LG to RT for La’el Collins (back), who is day-to-day. Martin (back) could be a limited participant today.
Hopefully, La’el Collins will be back before the week is out, so at least four of the five starters will be back in their normal places. But Tyron Smith is not expected to play this Sunday, meaning the team will have to roll with Cameron Fleming at LT. That is not optimal.
But it may force some more creativity in protecting Prescott and opening holes for Ezekiel Elliott. Hopefully, we will also see a much bigger dose of Tony Pollard than the measly two snaps he had on offense in New Orleans. The team went 7-1 down the stretch to make the playoffs last year without Travis Frederick, and some time missed by Smith and Connor Williams as well. It should not be easy, but this team can overcome if they take the right approach and put in the effort on the field. They at least seem to understand the problem.
Of the performance of the offensive line as Ezekiel Elliott averaged 1.9 yards per rush _ second-worst of career _ vs Saints, Travis Frederick said: “There weren’t very many plays when we were all doing our job at the same time.’’— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) October 2, 2019
Yes, it was disappointing, and a missed opportunity to grab the undisputed lead for the one seed. But the NFL has a goal of parity in the league, and outside of the uncanny and possibly deal-with-the-devil performance of a certain team in the northeastern part of the country, there just aren’t any dominant teams. Especially in the NFC. All teams have bad games at times, and that was certainly one against the Saints.
There is still a certain sense of panic for some, who think that the loss revealed fatal flaws and deficiencies.
The next game will tell us a lot, but there is still a lot of the season to play out even after that. At the least, let’s temper the worries until we see how this team responds. They were in a much tougher spot last year, and found a way.