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Special teams and defense are making things hard for the Cowboys offense

The Cowboys have two-thirds of their team playing poorly, putting everything on the offense.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the box scores, the Dallas Cowboys offense hardly seems to be a problem. Dak Prescott became the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for over 400 yards in back-to-back games on Sunday. By eclipsing that mark in terms of yards for the sixth time in his career, he now has more of those performances than anybody to ever play for America’s Team. That’s certainly impressive in a vacuum, but if you lose, nobody cares.

Assessing where things stand after three games, the offense isn’t the problem, right? Dallas is managing to put up enough points to win (at least against Atlanta and in Seattle); the defense and special teams are the heavier anchors weighing down this ship.

What is particularly unsettling about the other two phases of the game is that one of them seems to be a disaster just one year after the same type of problems plagued them. The hiring of John Fassel was supposed to turn the special teams group to one of the tops in the league, and the vaunted pass rush that we heard all about throughout the lead-up to the season is absent outside of Aldon Smith.

The offense needs help.

Tony Pollard is costing this team with his kickoff returns

There is no question that Tony Pollard possesses a level of talent that we have all wanted to see utilized. It makes sense to try to find ways to put the ball in his hands given that handoffs are typically Ezekiel Elliott’s and his alone. But through three games, it sort of feels safe to say that we have seen enough.

Pollard has been a disaster on kickoff returns (where he’s seen the majority of work), specifically over these last two weeks. He had an absolutely unacceptable gaffe on his first return of the day against the Seahawks and didn’t take another kick out of the endzone afterwards. It’s probable words were exchanged on the Dallas sideline.

This simply cannot happen. Pollard muffed the kickoff, collapsed to the 1-yard line, and set the Cowboys up with literally the worst field position possible in the game of professional football. Dallas ran the ball on first down (laughs in pain) to try to get out of harm’s way, but the damage was done. They took a safety, gave up the ball, and to the defense’s credit in this particular instance, forced a Seahawks punt before the offense scored their first touchdown of the game.

Nothing else has been this bad from Pollard obviously, but he is not good at this particular job. The Cowboys won against the Falcons, ironically in large part thanks to some special teams heroics, but he was similarly flawed from a decision-making standpoint there as well.

Starting point for each of Tony Pollard’s kickoff returns in 2020

  • Dallas 27-yard line (ball landed at the Dallas 6-yard line)
  • Dallas 32-yard line (ball landed at the Dallas 5-yard line)
  • Dallas 13-yard line (ball landed at the Dallas 0-yard line)
  • Dallas 17-yard line (ball landed at the Dallas -5-yard line)
  • Dallas 26-yard line (ball landed at the Dallas -2-yard line)
  • Dallas 24-yard line (ball landed at the Dallas -7-yard line)
  • Dallas 1-yard line (ball landed at the Dallas -2-yard line)

If we remove the obvious inflater that is the final return Pollard is averaging 22 yards per kickoff return... that is still not very good. What’s more is that Pollard has brought out four kickoffs that have landed inside of the endzone. To his credit he managed to get one past the 25-yard line, but a 25% success rate is hardly anything to pound your chest over. This isn’t the football of a time ago, this is 2020. Touchbacks start at the 25-yard line. It is very difficult to try and surpass that naturally as evidenced by Pollard’s efforts (or whatever you want to call them). This is an extremely inefficient way to handle this particular issue which is surprising from a coach like John Fassel.

Greg Zuerlein had an incredible onside kick last week and followed it up with an award-winning field goal that gave the Cowboys a much-need dub, but that isn’t enough to mask how terrible this phase of the game has been for the team through almost a quarter of the season (let’s not forget he missed a field goal in his first game with the team, a contest they lost by three points). The disaster of last year has spilled over into this one despite a lot of significant overhaul. That’s not good news for anyone.

The defense is doing a terrible job of flipping the field

As if the starting field position the Cowboys offense is being afforded by their special teams wasn’t bad enough, the defense is hardly doing anything to offer up any contribution themselves. Where are the turnovers? This unit was supposed to be more aggressive in 2020, right? They were going to take chances and some of those would translate into takeways. That’s what we were told.

Allow me to show you the starting field position for every Cowboys drive this season. Every single one.

Starting field position for every Cowboys drive in 2020 (result):

  • Dallas 25-yard line (punt)
  • Dallas 20-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (missed FG)
  • Dallas 27-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 32-yard line (punt)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (punt)
  • Los Angeles 39-yard line (FG)
  • Dallas 35-yard line (turnover on downs)
  • Dallas 12-yard line (punt)
  • Dallas 9-yard line (turnover on downs)
  • Dallas 23-yard line (punt)
  • Dallas 24-yard line (fumble)
  • Dallas 13-yard line (fumble)
  • Dallas 13-yard line (turnover on downs)
  • Dallas 32-yard line (fumble)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (FG)
  • Dallas 26-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 17-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 24-yard line (turnover on downs)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 24-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 46-yard line (FG)
  • Dallas 20-yard line (FG)
  • Dallas 1-yard line (safety)
  • Dallas 35-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 20-yard line (punt)
  • Dallas 20-yard line (punt)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 20-yard line (INT)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (end of half)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (fumble)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (punt)
  • Dallas 6-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 11-yard line (TD)
  • Dallas 6-yard line (FG)
  • Dallas 25-yard line (INT)

The two best points of starting field position for the Cowboys came in Week 1 against the Rams and in Week 2 against the Falcons. The former was thanks to a Chidobe Awuzie interception (hey-o!) and the second was thanks to the famed watermelon onside kick. That’s it.

Not counting the end-of-half possession against Seattle, the offense has had 36 true possessions this season. They have started one of those on the positive side of the 50-yard line. Simply unacceptable.

Consider that the Cowboys offense started drives on their own 6-yard and 11-yard lines late in the game against the Seahawks and turned those into touchdowns (they even scored on another drive that began on their own 6-yard line right after that). The offense is hardly flawless and Dak Prescott can’t do things like throw interceptions near the end of the first half, but this see-saw is tipped in one way. Defensively the Cowboys deserve credit for not falling totally apart after all of the fumbles against Atlanta and for forcing a punt after Tony Pollard’s whoopsie, but they must be held to the same standard as everyone else.

Sacks aren’t everything in the NFL, but think about this. Aldon Smith is the team’s current leader in that department with four sacks three games in. Literally all defensive players outside of him combined have two (Everson Griffen and Antwaun Woods each have one).

Pressure must be generated. Turnovers must be forced. Help must be given.

That has to happen or else this is simply going to be more of the same.

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