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Position Analysis: What a colossal mess the Cowboys special teams unit was vs. Patriots

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The Cowboys special teams unit was incredibly sub-par in their 13-9 loss to Patriots.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

[Each week we will look back at the game to focus on a single position group and how they performed. Whether it’s high-praise for the Cowboys biggest contributors to another victory formation, or the scapegoats for any potential losses, we’ll spotlight one personnel grouping for review.]

The Cowboys have several areas deserving of blame and the coaching staff has been receiving most of that heat. However, if you want to talk about on-field failure, no unit failed more in Foxborough than the Dallas Cowboys special teams unit. Going into this game, special teams was mentioned as the Cowboys’ weakest unit and the Patriots showed them just how weak it was.

Here is a look at the Cowboys’ special teams unit for the 2019 season:

Punt/ Kick Returns Against

RET. AGAINST PUNT RET TOT YDS YD/RET KICK RET TOT YDS YD/RET
COWBOYS 12 120 10 23 567 24.7
NFL RANK 4th 14th 29th 23rd 27th 24th

Punt/ Kick Returns Production

TEAM PUNT RET TOT YDS YD/RET KICK RET TOT YDS YD/RET
COWBOYS 17 95 5.6 13 163 12.5
NFL RANK 22nd 28th 27th 28th 32nd 32nd

The Cowboys average starting field position is at their own 26-yard line, that ranks 32nd in the NFL. For one, the Cowboys don’t return many kicks or punts at all but to only manage one-yard of position over a touchback is just sad. It’s not just something that began this season either, there is two-year’s worth of depreciation here:

Going into this game, special teams was one of the Patriots’ strengths with an average starting field position at their own 36-yard line. This game played out exactly has these numbers would predict.

With a downpour, Bill Belichick wanted to use the elements to his advantage by making the Cowboys field kicks and punts. Dallas received the opening kick at the 25 after the touchback but it was all downhill from there. After forcing a three-and-out, the Cowboys would receive their first punt at their own 19. This Cowboys drive would stall at the NE-32, driving against the wind, Brett Maher’s 46-yard attempt would hit the upright, no good. The Patriots would begin at their own 36, another field position loss for Dallas.

Thankfully, Robert Quinn would save the day with a third-down sack on Tom Brady, forcing the punt. Dallas’ next drive would begin at their own 20, as the punt went the distance for a touchback. The Cowboys’ offense could only get to their own 30-yard line after a tripping penalty on Tyron Smith ruined this drive. It gets worse because the momentum shifted in this game drastically on the Cowboys’ punt:

The Patriots quickly took advantage of the blocked punt that set them up nicely at the Dallas-12 yard line. Tom Brady finds the rookie WR N’Keal Harry in the endzone for the score.

The Cowboys are down 7-0 but the real cost is at 10 points due to a missed field goal and blocked punt. In a game like this, with terrible weather, the team that can avoid mistakes is often going to win. The Patriots allowed the Cowboys’ miscues to dictate this game and that’s all it took for New England. This touchdown would be the only touchdown of the game.

MUFF #1

After the score, the Patriots would kick to the Cowboys and Tony Pollard would muff the catch. It wasn’t a turnover, Pollard would recover the ball but again it cost the Cowboys in field position, as they would begin at their own 18. On this offensive possession, Blake Jarwin would recover his own fumble and two plays later, Dak Prescott is picked off by Stephon Gilmore at the DAL-29. New England would run the ball a few times to no avail before Nick Folk would extend the lead to 10-0.

MUFF #2

On the ensuing kick, Dalton Schultz would muff the catch but actually gain five yards of field position for the Cowboys. The Cowboys offense would stall but this time Brett Maher’s field goal attempt was good to cut the deficit to seven points. The Pats would miss their next field goal attempt and Dallas would add another three points but it feels like a loss when you settle for three at the NE-9.

Back-to-Back Penalties on a Punt?!

Late in the third quarter, still a 10-6 game, the Patriots outsmarted the Cowboys in embarrassing fashion. On 4th and 13 from the DAL-40, the Patriots elect to not put a return man in the backfield. Instead, everyone is up near the place of the punt. Naturally, this scares the Cowboys after already seeing one punt blocked and Dallas draws a delay of game penalty. Backed up to the DAL-35, Ventell Bryant is called for an illegal motion setting them back another five yards.

By the time the Cowboys punt, it travels an ugly 32-yards and the Patriots fair catch it at their own 38-yard line. New England would add their final points of the game with another field goal. Once again, the Cowboys special teams unit makes several mistakes that cost them dearly.

Closing out this game, the Patriots would continue to dominate field position. The next two possessions for the Cowboys would begin at their own 11- and 8-yard lines respectively. The Patriots knew that the Cowboys struggle with field positioning and used it to beat them by making them drive the whole field against their stout defense. The Patriots defense is excellent but this game was lost by the Cowboys mistakes. It’s been the trend for the Cowboys as they can’t help but hurt themselves in tight games. It was a colossal failure by special teams that laid this one up for New England.