It wound up a 34-17 defeat for the Dallas Cowboys at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. It would have been worse, except for an Amari Cooper touchdown catch on fourth and goal late in the game. But this was really all about one element of the game, the running of the Ravens versus the so-called run defense of the Cowboys. And in the end, it really was no contest.
Sadly, before the game even began, one of the most anticipated elements was the latest victim of the interminable pandemic. Dez Bryant did not get to face his old team as he had a positive test for COVID-19 about a half an hour before kickoff and was sent home. It was extremely disappointing for all concerned, none more than Bryant himself.
Yea I’m going to go ahead and call it a quit for the rest of the season... I can’t deal with this— Dez Bryant (@DezBryant) December 9, 2020
The Cowboys didn’t get blown out early in this game the way many feared, and kept it to a seven point deficit at halftime. But though they would post a three and out on the first Ravens possession of the second half, the suspect Dallas run defense, which had been badly abused already, started really getting worn down. After the Cowboys missed a long field goal, the Ravens mounted a nine play, 57 yard drive where they only threw two passes, an incompletion and the 20 yard scoring strike to cap it. With a fourteen point lead at that time, not throwing anymore would not have been a bad strategy for John Harbaugh to pursue. Mike Nolan just had no consistent answers to the dominant run game he faced.
After all the postponements and delays caused by the COVID cases of the Ravens, they were pretty much back up to full strength for this one, outside of Bryant, of course. No player was more important to them than Lamar Jackson, who repeatedly broke containment or carried it on designed runs to gain big yards, nearly always resulting in a first down. The Cowboys’ pass rush never could seem to corral him when he did drop to pass, and it was not clear that Baltimore even needed to throw the ball. Jackson would wind up with 94 yards rushing on the night - and he wasn’t the team leader, with Gus Edwards getting 101. Just for good measure, J.K. Dobbins chipped in 71.
The game leaves the Cowboys two wins behind the NFC East co-leading New York Giants and Washington Football Team. While there were at times some encouraging signs, the physical attack of the Ravens eventually wore Dallas out, and they just looked exhausted and demoralized by the end.
Several disturbing trends also showed up from the beginning of the game, and the negative things deserved being mentioned first. First, the Cowboys were unable to punch the ball in once the got into the red zone, which also wasted the possible impact of the first quarter interception by Darian Thompson on a tipped ball. It set Dallas up at the Baltimore 34, but after getting to the 13, Andy Dalton was wide on a throw to Michael Gallup. Had it been on target, it had a good chance of being a touchdown. Instead, the Cowboys had to settle for a Greg Zuerlein field goal.
Then on the ensuing Ravens possession, the run defense just broke down, more than once. First they were gashed by Dobbins for 18 to get the ball onto the Dallas side of the 50. Then on 4th and 2, they somehow forgot to account for Jackson, who burst right up the middle for a 37 yard touchdown. It was almost like they didn’t remember just how good he was at running the ball. This was something that would return later in the game, as in the second quarter Edwards would also go straight up the gut for 36.
However, Dalton found Gallup on the next possession to retake the lead. After a brilliant 66 yard kickoff return by Tony Pollard and a 14 yard completion to CeeDee Lamb got them into the red zone for the second time, Dalton had time and Gallup brought it in for the TD despite pass interference being called on Marlon Humphrey.
More bad news was not long in coming, however, as the Ravens got their own interception off a deflected pass after the Cowboys had held and, following a false start, Justin Tucker uncharacteristically missed a 36 yard field goal. It only took Jackson one play to score on a 38 yard pass to Miles Boykin. Thompson, who was the hero after his pick, looked like he blew the coverage to leave Boykin wide open.
At halftime, the Ravens had already amassed 161 yards, with Jackson, Edwards, and Dobbins all having runs of 30 or more yards. The Dallas defense did stiffen in the red zone, with the two Baltimore touchdowns coming from outside the 20. But those big plays were the real issue. The run defense was seen as a majjor weakness for the Cowboys, and that was certainly true. The Ravens would go on to get almost 300 yards on the ground, which pretty much made this an unwinnable contest for Dallas. There were some missed opportunities for Baltimore as well that could easily have turned this into even more of a rout.
The Cowboys offensive line, however, held up well for most of the game. They didn’t surrender a sack until the fourth quarter, with Dalton generally having time to throw. It was a solid performance from the most beleaguered unit Dallas has. Dalton aided his own cause with getting the ball out quickly and pretty accurately when needed.
Overall, the situation at halftime was not as dire as it could have been, with the Cowboys just down by seven. They almost had a shot to tie it, as Dalton launched a Hail Mary on the last play of the half that CeeDee Lamb got his hands on in the end zone, but he was unable to haul it in. But we wound up with another late collapse from a team that just doesn’t have any answers at the moment.
One player who had an unexpectedly good game was wide receiver Noah Brown. Twice he caught passes to convert third downs, and his 19 yard catch in the fourth quarter was the longest play the Cowboys had to that point. He has long seemed like a player that the team should have gotten more out of, and in this one at least he showed up and looked good.
Greg Zuerlein had one of his worst performances, however. He was one of four on field goals, and would have kept the game within range if he had just been more accurate. He even failed on another attempt at the infamous watermelon kick that won the game against the Atlanta Falcons.
In any case, we are back to Team Tank, barring a sudden turnaround by the Cowboys. And that just doesn’t seem to be very likely at all.