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Tale of the Tape: 10 plays that stood in Cowboys week one loss

What did the All-22 viewings tell us about the Cowboys game plan in week one.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’re a ways removed from the Cowboys 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in week one of the 2020 season. Thanks to the NFL holding out on the coaches film until Thursday morning, we’re a few days late reviewing the All-22 of the Cowboys 20-17 loss. We’ve waited long enough, let’s dive in.

Play 1

The Cowboys defense was shredded on the first series of the game, and that was thanks to the Rams use of wide-zone, play-action, and het-motion. They use all three of these concepts on the play above to expose the Cowboys weaknesses on defense. The Rams show a jet-motion, wide-zone, play-action look that completely pulls both linebackers out of the play, to pick up a large chunk of yardage on first down. Because of the play-fake, both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch crash down-hill, and five-to-seven yards to the play-fake side before noticing the receiver leaking out the opposite way. This is one of the first plays of the game, and Sean McVay started the game off taking advantage of the Cowboys recklessly aggressive linebackers.

Play 2

The Cowboys offensive game plan had many warts in it on Sunday night. Lack of pre-snap motion, creativity in route-trees, and lack of usage from Tony Pollard was very concerning, but it wasn’t all bad. Loved this concept from the Cowboys on the first series of the game to create an easy gain through the air. The Cowboys use a mesh-concept with Ezekiel Elliott and Blake Jarwin to scheme Elliott easy yards. Blake Jarwin does an excellent job of pulling his man away from the play-side, while holding the free linebacker in the middle of the field. Really smart from Moore to use CeeDee Lamb out of the backfield on a wheel route to clear out the left sideline to allow Elliott some room to work with after the catch. This creativity is what we hope to see more of going forward.

Play 3

While some may disagree, I thought Dak Prescott played extremely well on Sunday night, especially in the first half, and when play-calling wasn’t setting him up with consistent third downs. Prescott and Gallup didn’t connect much in week one, but when they did, they were very efficient. Really nice play from Prescott here, to deliver an accurate ball, with plenty of velocity while taking a hit from Aaron Donald. Gallup does an excellent job of attacking the ball aggressively in the air, and slipping the Ramsey tackle attempt to pickup a nice chunk of yardage. Unfortunately, a ticky-tack block-in-the-back penalty took a lot of the yardage away, but still a really nice pitch-and-catch from Prescott to Gallup, a connection that will need to get going for the Cowboys sooner rather than later.

P.S. you may have saw this play on the internet showing Aaron Donald throwing Elliott like a ragdoll, but the closer we look, the more we see that Elliott gave Prescott enough time to get this football out. In a press conference earlier this week, Mike McCarthy noted this as a win for Elliott in pass protection.

Play 4

Another excellent play from Prescott early in the game to slide in the pocket, avoid pressure, and allow Lamb enough time to become open in his route. For his rookie debut, Lamb was fantastic for the most part. He showed the ability to create separation out of the slot against man and zone coverage, and caught everything thrown his way. Lamb didn’t do anything special after the catch, but showed some explosiveness in the open field, and throughout his routes to keep Cowboys fans very excited moving forward.

Play 5

In a 20-17 loss, you maybe thought a lot of this would be negative (trust me we have some negative things to touch on), but Ezekiel Elliott was absolutely fantastic on Sunday. Both through the air, on the ground, and in pass protection - Elliott looks like he’s in the best shape of his career, and looks to have the burst back that many questioned in 2019. Elliott caught multiple targets from Prescott in week one, but this is his most impactful play through the air. Elliott’s ability to make multiple Rams miss in the open field was extremely impressive, and he shows the burst and change of direction skills to pick up big yards after the catch.

Play 6

Jaylon Smith struggled mightily in week one. In the running game, passing game, and taking on blocks - it was all ugly for Clear Eye View. After a training camp where many were optimistic about Smith’s development, he had one of his worst games of his entire career, where he graded out as PFF’s fourth worst linebacker in all of the NFL. In the play above, Higbee wins off of his release getting Smith to get wide with his base, allowing Higbee a clean release to the inside with an easy slant. Higbee doesn’t do anything special with his release work, Smith just gets far too aggressive with outside foot, and is unable to recover to defend the inside move. If Smith continues to struggle in coverage, teams are going to continue to match their tight ends up with him when the Cowboys are in nickel defense.

Play 7

Tony Pollard was one of the best offensive players for the Cowboys in week one. That’s why it’s an absolute crime that he only saw 10 offensive snaps on Sunday. In back-to-back snaps in the first half, Pollard combined for 24 yards on a very nice six-yard run, and a great run after the catch for 18. Pollard needs to be a important part of the Cowboys offense moving forward, especially with Blake Jarwin out for the season. With both Pollard and Elliott playing some of their best football, 20-personell should be used a ton going forward with no real threat at tight end.

Play 8

The Cowboys had a lot of issues on third down offensively in week one. Whether it was due to bad play calls, poor execution, or in some cases bad luck, it’s an issue that needs to be fixed sooner rather than later. This sack took the Cowboys out of field goal range. Connor Williams looks to be the main culprit, but upon further review it looks as if he trips over Joe Looney’s foot in his backpedal. Ezekiel Elliott steps up to take on what looks to be a blitzing linebacker, but the linebacker ends up bluffing, and Elliott ends up not blocking anyone on the play. Zeke’s read was probably the correct one, but due to Williams allowing Brockers through that quickly, there’s just nothing Prescott would be able to do in this situation. If Williams can hold up, or Elliott can get a hat on Brockers, Michael Gallup is coming wide-open across the middle of the field. Prescott see’s Gallup, and starts to fire, but see’s Brockers and the dropping linebacker and eats the football for the sack. Tough to blame anyone in this situation, but if something does go right, this could have been a big-play for the Cowboys offense.

Play 9

Another excellent play from the pocket from Dak Prescott. Dealing with pressure all night, Prescott showed the ability to navigate the pocket to create throwing windows that normally wouldn’t be there, and to step away from pressure all night long. This is a tight-window throw for Prescott, and Dak shows the ability to throw across his body, while also getting his base in-line to deliver an accurate ball with plenty of velocity on it.

Play 10

We continue to discuss the CeeDee Lamb fourth-down play call all week, but in reality this play was more important to the Cowboys win/loss percentage than the fourth-down play call. This is a first down if Dalton Schultz catches the football, but he’s unable to make the catch, and that forces the Cowboys to go for it on fourth down a few plays later, which knocked all the air out of the Cowboys sails. Prescott looks to hit Schultz third in his progressions, and delivers an accurate football in the right throwing window, but Schultz is unable to haul it in. I talked about this with some twitter followers all day, but this is the exact spot you want to throw the football in, due to the linebackers positioning in coverage. Another issue with this play is I’m not a fan of the route-concept of having Lamb run his slant into Schultz’s area, where another defender is put into the play-picture due to the receiver spacing between CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz.