When the Dallas Cowboys lose a game, we look to the stats for where they can improve, and areas that offer hope for the next game. But in the simply abysmal 49-38 loss to the Cleveland Browns, it is hard to come up with either. The picture the numbers paint is a muddled and difficult to understand story of despair, sort of like if Hieronymus Bosch painted a football game. And after regarding that horrific composition, you are even more confused than you were before.
But since Halloween is drawing near and horror is kind of part of the deal, let’s go ahead and dive in.
307 rushing yards allowed
If you insist on finding one thing that made this game unwinnable for the Cowboys, this is my suggestion. That number is absurd. And the Cowboys defense gave those monstrous numbers up with Nick Chubb, the leading Browns rusher coming into the game, missing most of the afternoon with an injury. Yet after he went out, time and again Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson would gash the defense, with both averaging 6.5 yards a carry or better. Additionally, Odell Beckham Jr. put the final nail in the coffin with a 50-yard touchdown run at the end of the game where Aldon Smith almost made a great play, but the entire rest of the defense was headed the other direction, allowing Beckham to dance into the end zone.
That is as complete and total a failure of a defense as you are likely to see. The Browns’ passing game was quiet for most of the day, outside of the gadget play where Jarvis Landry found Beckham for a wide open, 37-yard touchdown for the first score of the game. Baker Mayfield only threw for 165 yards, with a long of 16. He did have two touchdown throws, but they were obviously in the red zone, and came when the Cowboys were looking for a run.
No, the Cleveland passing game wasn’t centerstage, because their ground game generated a decent day’s worth of offense all by itself. It pounded the ball and kept the Dallas offense on the sidelines for much of the game. Meanwhile, the Cowboys defense was, to put it mildly, pitiful.
Lol not a single DAL defender finished with a PFF grade over 60.5 vs CLE. Brandon Carr and his one snap received a 60.3.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 5, 2020
4 players received a grade lower than 40: Trysten Hill, Joe Thomas, Jaylon Smith & Trevon Diggs.
Admittedly, PFF grades are not the definitive word on player performance. They do, however, provide some useful and mostly objective indications. That is a total damnation of the players, and points to the problem possibly being something other than talent. Like, say, coaching.
Whether you are looking at the raw numbers or the video, it is clear that the Dallas defense is just lost out there. They are getting beaten because they are not in the right place and not maintaining discipline. This comment particularly trenchant.
The Cowboys have chosen to play a style of defense that is structurally unsound and vulnerable to almost any offensive plan of attack bc it asks each player to have too many responsibilities.— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) October 5, 2020
Yes, the players are making mistakes and not coming even close to expectations. But the more times they are completely in the wrong place and look absolutely lost as to what to do, the more you have to question the coaching. Mike Nolan is beginning to bring to mind the Rob Ryan days, when similar problems drove us to distraction. Something needs to give, either in the way of coming up with a plan that the players can handle, or mini-housecleaning after the season. The excuse of no preseason and limited camp is not valid for this. If you don’t have the time to prepare your system, you have to come up with a system you can make work.
The turnover cluster strikes again
There was an interception late in the game, but it came when it was probably too late already for the Cowboys. What really put the Cowboys in a deep hole (again) were two plays. Note the times:
11:23 remaining in the second quarter, Dak Prescott is sacked and fumbles, with the Browns recovering at the Dallas 34-yard line. Cleveland will take only four plays to score a touchdown to retake the lead at 21-14.
9:22 remaining in the second quarter, or 2:01 later, on the first play after receiving the kickoff, Ezekiel Elliott has his longest run of the day for 24 yards, but has the ball punched out before he is down, and the Browns have the ball right back at their own 49. This time it takes six plays, and the Cowboys are quickly down by fourteen points, while Cleveland has now scored more points in a first half than they had since 1991.
They would pad the score even more before halftime, but that sudden burst of scoring just seemed to shell-shock the Cowboys. And it was far too familiar, as a similar sequence of three fumbles in a span of less than seven minutes in the first quarter of the Atlanta Falcons game also put Dallas in a huge hole. That game should have also been lost if not for a remarkably bad job by the Atlanta hands team on an onside kick that really should not have worked.
It’s bad enough that the Cowboys have already lost nine turnovers this season while only getting two takeaways. But the way they keep doing so in rapid succession, resulting in sudden two score swings in the game, is just crushing.
If you look a little closer, you also see something disturbing. Against the Falcons, the Cowboys actually held them to field goals twice after lost fumbles. The defense was fighting hard and made stops that would prove to be important in the one point miracle win. But facing the Browns, the defense barely slowed them.
Getting worse is not the trend you want.
If you know it’s inevitable, why wait?
One bit of good news for the Cowboys was the return of left tackle Tyron Smith, who appeared solid. Most of the pressure seemed to come from the opposite side where Myles Garrett played. And the most impactful pass rush was on the Prescott fumble, when Garrett just overpowered Terence Steele. Steele was soon replaced by Brandon Knight, and a bit lost in the details is that the 24-yard Elliott run that led to disaster and pretty much shut down the ground game came right behind Knight. He was not perfect in pass protection, but he seemed to stand up better than Steele.
Which is exactly how most expected things to go going into the game, many thought that the Cowboys should put their best five linemen out to start the game - Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, and Knight. Instead, the went with veteran Joe Looney at center and Steele, who had started the preceding games at RT. Looney was hurt on the very first play from center, putting Biadasz in where he seemed to acquit himself well. But it took a strip sack and a seven-point deficit to decide to make the switch from Steele. Why?
This is on the coaching staff. We have to assume they saw the same thing in the video from the Seattle Seahawks game. They even prepared for having Knight take over for Steele.
Brandon Knight has started the past two weeks at left tackle. But with Tyron Smith expected to return Sunday vs. Browns, there is a strong likelihood Knight will flip sides and start at right tackle, source said. Team took extended look at this combination in practice.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 3, 2020
Yet when the game started, the decision was to start Steele and keep Knight as the de facto swing tackle.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy told @Boys_Vox in pregame radio show he "wouldn't be surprised" if Brandon Knight enters game at some point. But Terence Steele will be the RT starter vs. DE Myles Garrett and the Browns.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 4, 2020
That had impending train wreck written all over it. It was an example of a pervasive element of conservatism that so many coaches, including Mike McCarthy, just can’t shake. While Knight was playing better, he had not been at RT. There, Steele was a known quantity. Coaches just feel safer with those known quantities.
The Cowboys need the best eleven players they can put on the field every snap, especially to start the game. They failed to do so by starting Steele. Looney may have been the same thing that was fixed for them by happenstance, and an argument can be made that giving Darian Thompson the starting nod in the secondary before quickly yanking him for Donovan Wilson, who would go on to lead the team in tackles, falls into that category.
Dallas needs better from everyone in the organization, starting at the very top.
1,690 passing yards
That is the total for Prescott and the Cowboys for the first four games. They are AVERAGING 422.5 yards per contest. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb are indeed on track to each have over 1,000 yards receiving, Dalton Shultz is not that far off, and Cedrick Wilson would project to be over 500. It is an historically productive passing game that, should it maintain this pace, shatter previous records.
And it is being absolutely, completely, foolishly wasted by a team that is doing almost nothing else right. The running game has not been very good, although in the last three games the score pretty much dictated it be abandoned. The defensive problems have been touched on above. Special teams have not created any field position, and somehow managed to turn an extra point into a two-point conversion for the opponent through a sequence that was actually comedic if you weren’t a Cowboys fan.
It’s just four games into the season, and incredibly, Dallas is just half a game out of the lead for the NFC East “crown” and a playoff berth. But this is starting to feel like a broken team already. They have a chance to at least shake the losing doldrums this week against a similarly dysfunctional team, the New York Giants. But just beating a team that is suffering through offensive struggles that seem all too familiar, just like a certain face on their sidelines, will not really solve much in and of itself.
If they lose, just dive over the railing, because this ship may be headed for the bottom.