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Point-counterpoint: Biggest worry for the Cowboys against the Falcons

There are problems already for the Cowboys in Week 2.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons
Let’s have a little less of this, OK?
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t take long for some real concerns to emerge about the Dallas Cowboys. The 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams revealed more than a few warts on what was supposed to be a very strong team. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle are looking for the biggest problems facing Dallas this Sunday as the Atlanta Falcons roll into AT&T Stadium, sitting at 0-1 like the Cowboys and just as hungry for a win.

David: In last week’s edition of point-counterpoint, I argued this defense would start out stronger than the offense. While I was technically correct, the Cowboys didn’t give me warm fuzzies on Sunday night. They got bullied at the line of scrimmage and didn’t have much of an answer for the Rams’ passing attack. So you can imagine my concern when I look at the Falcons, who scored 25 points and put up 506 yards of offense on a defense that, unlike Dallas, actually did trade for Jamal Adams.

It’s not that the Falcons are necessarily Super Bowl contenders, or even playoff contenders, but that offense is no joke. Their top three receivers all went for at least 100 yards, Matt Ryan finished with 450 total passing yards, and even Todd Gurley was looking good before Atlanta went away from their running game. This is really the last offense I want to go up against if I’m Mike Nolan right after that flat start against the Rams.

Tom: Lots of possibilities, and that is certainly one. But I have to go with injuries as my biggest concern. They will enter the Falcons game missing four players who were projected starters at the start of camp, DT Gerald McCoy, RT La’el Collins, LB Leighton Vander Esch, and TE Blake Jarwin. That’s 18% of the starters, and we’ve played 6% of the season. Do the math, and this obviously can’t continue.

But you cannot prevent injuries. They are the most random factor in football. All you can do is come up with depth or replacements. People may be all excited about signing free agents - but if they are on the market at this late stage, it might be advisable to ask, why? The Cowboys have already had to dip into their backups, with Trysten Hill becoming the starter in McCoy’s place and Terence Steele filling in for Collins. Hill was, at the least, a pleasant surprise, arguably playing the best game of any DT for Dallas. Steele was less satisfactory, with some notable issues late in the game. Now they have to find more. I’d guess Francis Bernard is going to get the roster spot most of us thought he’d earned in camp. But I wonder how they’ll handle the loss of Jarwin? Perhaps they just roll with two TEs?

It’s a lot to worry about. It is a game of attrition in many ways, and right now, the Cowboys are losing.

David: I’m not too worried about the tight end position since Dallas has so many other weapons that even Jarwin was an afterthought of sorts. Sunday night showed that Kellen Moore is serious about getting more targets for these running backs, so losing Jarwin really doesn’t hurt as much as many expect. Steele on the other hand, I don’t think I need to bring up the last time Dallas faced Atlanta with a backup tackle. And now the Falcons have two edge rushers - Takk McKinley and Dante Fowler - who are considerably better than Adrian Clayborn, and they combined for 1.5 sacks last week.

That said, the rest of this Falcons defense is not exactly stellar. They surrendered 38 points to a Seahawks team that averaged just under 24 points a game last year, and let Russell Wilson complete over 88% (!) of his passes without a single takeaway. If it weren’t for all the injuries, we might be looking at this as an opportunity for the Cowboys offense to get back on track and start #Team40Burger in proper fashion. But the offensive line woes could throw a wrench in that plan.

Tom: Yeah, but is #Team40Burger really a thing? The play-calling from Kellen Moore really didn’t give any indications of that. We can hope that Dak Prescott will have more time without Aaron Donald lining up against him, but as you said, the Falcons are not without their own pass rushers. And the problems along the offensive line go deeper than Steele, as none of the Cowboys linemen graded out well. Mike McCarthy can talk about needing to get timing down all he wants, but this has to improve.

Maybe if Prescott has a bit more time, he can take some more shots downfield. That just did not happen until the last ditch and ultimately futile deep ball to Michael Gallup, which was of course called back due to an award winning acting job by Jalen Ramsey offensive pass interference call. Despite that it was a nearly perfectly thrown ball. Had they uncorked that a couple of times earlier in the game, we would likely be writing very different things this week.

But Moore needs to be something other than Jason Garrett 2.0.

David: How dare you, Thomas! #Team40Burger is as real as the sun that rose this morning, and it will never die! In all seriousness, we may be overreacting to this first game a bit. Moore showed enough last season to suggest he really does believe in things like play-action, pre-snap motion, and passing more on early downs. It’s more likely that they didn’t want to put too much on the offense right out of the gate with no preseason games to get the players adjusted. No Collins or Travis Frederick probably played a role in that line of thinking, as well.

At least that’s the hope, because the idea that Moore is just a younger version of Jason Garrett is wildly depressing. But now they have a game under their belt and are facing a pretty below average defense this week. Let’s see how they fare against a team that doesn’t feature two of the best defensive players in the entire league before we get ready to sell the team.

Tom: Our best hope may be that the real problem underlying all this was the extra stress of the COVID restrictions. McCarthy has intimated that they were still working the bugs out, which could well have led to some conservatism and a limited playbook for the game, plus more rust that still needed to be knocked off. And just maybe the Rams are indeed one of the NFC powerhouses, and we can hope to get on track and meet them again in January.

That all remains to be seen, of course. Get a win over the Falcons this Sunday, and the world will look a lot rosier for Cowboys fans. If not, well, we will be talking about these issues for a long time.