It was a strange and unexpected game in may ways, but the end result was pretty much what we saw coming. The Dallas Cowboys lost their Sunday Night matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles 23-9. But unlike the last loss, this one at least left us with some positive things.
With the rash of quarterback injuries, the Cowboys had to roll with seventh round pick Ben DiNucci at quarterback. It was a rough day to be a passer, as there was a very stiff wind that at times played havoc with the ball when it was in the air. Many anticipated that this would be another humiliation of the Cowboys after their embarrassing loss to the Washington Football Team last week, where there were times it looked like the team had just quit.
What we got instead was a fighting, clawing effort from Dallas. With DiNucci having his struggles through the air, they surprisingly got a major boost from their defense. It didn’t hurt that Carson Wentz was very sloppy with the football as he often is. Unfortunately, that is a huge disparity in quarterback experience and, at least at this point for DiNucci, talent. The Eagles didn’t have many good drives, but they did manage to get touchdowns while Dallas was settling for field goals, or trailing by more than three, failing to convert fourth downs to keep drives alive.
The Cowboys managed to stay in it until late in the fourth quarter. Dallas was trailing by six and were threatening from the Philadelphia 31, when the Eagles brought an all out blitz and knocked the ball loose from DiNucci. The ball was ruled live, although replay certainly made it look like it should have been ruled down. Rodney McLeod scooped it up and ran to the end zone, putting the Cowboys in a 13 point hole, that would shortly grow by 2.
You can’t really ask much of a team that is down to their third string quarterback, not to mention the devastation of the offensive line. But until there was just over five minutes left in the game, they hung in. While it was not a pretty performance for DiNucci, and he clearly showed his inexperience, you can also see why the team thinks they may have something in him. And the team really put up a much better fight than I, for one, expected.
It was clear on the first drive of the game that the staff was digging deep into the playbook. After the Eagles deferred on the coin toss, the Cowboys went 49 yards in nine plays to set up a 49 yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein. In those nine plays, we saw a double reverse and a wildcat snap to Ezekiel Elliott as Kellen Moore seemed to be trying everything he could pull out to help DiNucci in his first start. The wildcat would show up more, with Elliott getting two more, and Cedrick Wilson taking the snap on another just in the first half.
That initial possession would stall, but Greg Zuerlein would kick a 49 yard field goal to get the Cowboys on the board first, which was actually a good sign given the situation. However, you never want to settle for three when you can get seven, and it was not the only time they would have to call on the kicker to get something out of drives.
The defense opened up the game having problems with the run, as Boston Scott had runs of 19 and 17 yards early. For a while it looked like the Eagles should not even try to throw the ball, just handing it off and defying Dallas to stop them. But they insisted on throwing, and Wentz was holding the ball too long. He lost the ball on a sack in the first quarter, would lose it again on a fourth down play in the second, and then threw an interception to Trevon Diggs, the first of his career, just before the two minute warning of the first half. All were plays where Wentz would have been better advised to just get rid of the ball and hope to come back and get it the next time around.
Amazingly, following another interception to end the second half opening drive of the Eagles, the Cowboys had a four to one advantage in takeaways, but only netted three points total off them. After the first fumble by Wentz, which set Dallas up at the Philadelphia 25, DiNucci lost the handle himself, as Terence Steele got beaten once again and Brandon Graham blindsided him. That led to a depressing 10 play, 83 yard touchdown drive. At that moment, with just two seconds left in the first quarter, it looked like we would see another collapse.
Then something happened. The defense started playing some football. They got a lot tougher against the run and had the turnovers, which thanks to Zuerlein, gave Dallas its first halftime lead of 2020 at 9-7. After they got a fourth down stop at their own 45, with just 29 ticks to half, it looked like they would not get anything as the drive stalled out at the Philadelphia 41. A strange run call that forced a timeout certainly made things a lot harder. It looked like they would just have to punt it away and settle for trailing by just one. But Zuerlein, kicking into a stiff wind, drove the ball low, and amazingly it corkscrewed between the uprights. looking like it never got more that about 15 feet above the turf.
They should have added to the lead after getting that fourth takeaway, but they went a bit too deep in the playbook. Fletcher Cox just blew up a reverse that pushed them back, and Zuerlein wasn’t able to duplicate his earlier field goal into the wind.
The run defense wasn’t the only thing that seemed to come together. Diggs was getting picked on early in the game, but his coverage got noticeably better, and his diving interception in the end zone was just a great play, to be followed by another that stopped the Eagles on the opening drive of the second half. It goes without saying this was his best game of the year. Anthony Brown was also generally good in coverage. DeMarcus Lawrence was his typical self, giving his full effort all over the field and getting a sack. And the return of Sean Lee seemed to help, even in limited snaps. Leighton Vander Esch had a much better outing than he has in the previous games.
There was plenty of strange stuff in the game, including a deliberate safety and a pooch kick that almost paid off, but just missed as the Eagles managed to get possession to kill even the slightest chance of just getting some consolation points. But there were positives, as at least some things started to click. DiNucci showed some growth in the game, with some apparent chemistry developing between him and Dalton Schultz, and Michael Gallup as well. And the defense was worlds better. We still may not see another win this year. But we shouldn’t feel ashamed of this performance. Sometimes, the adversity is just too much.