Everybody has issues, as the saying goes. In the case of the Dallas Cowboys, it applies far too well. Just about every unit of the team has contributed to the two losses. Even the somewhat miraculous comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons was so stunning because the team had dug itself such a tremendous hole.
But what is the biggest issue facing the team? Is there one thing that the team could most benefit by fixing? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle have an idea. And as usual, their ideas differ.
Tom: OK, I’m going to cheat a bit and eliminate the offense right off the bat. While there have been some really big problems with turnovers, those are more a random thing, and largely on individual players. (Looking at you, Dak Prescott.) But the main reason the Cowboys beat Atlanta, and were even in the game to the end against the Seattle Seahawks, was a couple of pretty phenomenal performances by that side of the ball.
David: I agree with you there, the offense has been by far the best part of this team so far. They’re not perfect by any means but they’re also not the ones letting Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf get vertical with absolutely nobody there to contest. We knew this secondary was the biggest weakness on the roster - when you lose Byron Jones and still don’t address the safety position, what do you expect? - but I didn’t expect the secondary to be this bad.
I’m a little forgiving on the goal-line touchdowns where guys were wide open, because those play-action plays out of jumbo bunch formations are very hard to defend in short-yardage situations. But Lockett and Metcalf are the two guys on this Seahawks team you absolutely cannot get beat deep by and they let it happen time and time again. It doesn’t seem to have been a scheme issue, as Dallas looked to be playing a lot of Cover 3 and quarters, so I have to assume this secondary is just disadvantaged, both mentally and physically right now. It’s been real bad.
Tom: The defensive backfield is certainly having its struggles, but against Russell Wilson and that talented group of receivers, almost any secondary is going to get burned at times. For me, the worst problem is that special teams have not only failed to improve from last year - they probably have gotten worse.
Against Seattle, there were three special team plays in particular that had a tremendous impact on the eventual outcome of the game. The first was the missed extra point after Ezekiel Elliott’s one-yard plunge. The Cowboys had a chance to retake the lead late in the first quarter, but Greg Zuerlein doinked it off the right upright. That was a purely unforced error, and would later drive the decision to go for two, and fail. A second extra point would be blocked, which just increased the pressure to try and make up ground. Had the special teams delivered on both those supposedly routine kicks, the Cowboys would have had a one-point lead instead of a deficit midway through the second quarter.
Then there was the muffed kickoff, which I’m still incredibly miffed about. It was just a terrible play by Tony Pollard, who has generally been disappointing this season. And of course, instead of having the ball to open the third quarter and a chance get back to within one, or even tie it up, Dallas was almost instantly down 15. A difficult task suddenly became almost impossible - which is pretty much how it worked out.
David: I’m not entirely sure what led to those special teams blunders but I have much more faith in John Fassel to clean that up than I do in Mike Nolan to fix these secondary problems. That’s not necessarily a slight against Nolan, who I think is a really good defensive mind, but there’s just a ton of external factors hurting this defense’s back end. The injuries are obvious - the two cornerbacks who played the most downs (Trevon Diggs and Daryl Worley) on Sunday weren’t with this team last year - and it’s not exactly like the Seahawks are the least talented offense they’ll face. Their next six games feature threats like Baker Mayfield-Jarvis Landry-Odell Beckham Jr., Kyler Murray-DeAndre Hopkins, Ben Roethlisberger-Juju Smith-Schuster, and Jalen Hurts-Zach Ertz.
Schematically speaking, the Cowboys are between a rock and a hard place here. They ran such an aggressively bland defense last year and now Nolan wants to introduce variety into the coverage schemes. But with no offseason, he had to rely on much of what they’ve been doing the first two games, and as a result the Rams and Falcons both knew how to attack their secondary. Well, Nolan tried to switch things up this past week, and the result was players being confused on their assignments and getting caught out of position. So does Nolan go back to the bland vanilla Cover 3 on every play, or stick with the original plan and hope the players grow into it over the course of the season? Neither option is desirable right now, and thus the secondary is a massive Achilles heel.
Tom: At least with the secondary, I think there is a plan going forward. The pass rush is also starting to bear down, so that will help them. But I am at a loss about the special teams, and I’m not sure what Fassel can do. I’m pretty convinced he needs to get CeeDee Lamb off the punt returns, since it looked like he was shaken up a bit last week. His snap count certainly dropped off afterward, and the team was just fortunate that Cedrick Wilson was primed to break out. That may mean Wilson takes over the punt return job, which puts him at risk, but if you are choosing who to protect, you always go with the first-rounder over the guy you picked up in the sixth. I’m not sure who would step in for Pollard, but someone really has to. And they are stuck with Zuerlein.
I will say that so far they have not given up anything in the way of kick or punt returns. But they need to make a big play, instead of giving them up. The miscues have just been so damaging, and they are not ones you expect like you do when a really good passer hooks up with his receivers. So I still feel that the special teams are just a special Achilles’ heel for the Cowboys. It may not strike some as the worst problem you can have, but it’s the one that worries me the most.
David: There’s definitely a plan for the secondary, which is why I’m still confident in Nolan as the defensive coordinator. The question is how long it’ll take to get there. This isn’t going from point A to point B, it’s like going from point A to point Z. It’s going to take a while, perhaps the whole season, to get there. Special teams can be the difference between wins and losses, absolutely, but defenses are on the field much longer, so having a secondary that’s as much of a liability as this one is could incur a lot of damage on the way to point Z.
In a year where not only the NFC East is weaker than ever, but the conference as a whole is struggling (less than half of NFC teams are currently above .500), the Cowboys have a golden opportunity. But if their secondary continues to blow these games wide open, and not in the way you’d want them to, Dallas may end up blowing this opportunity altogether.