It’s time for the Dallas Cowboys to put that totally ugly and disgusting performance against the Denver Broncos behind them. They now face an Atlanta Falcons team that comes into the game with a 4-4 record, just like the Broncos did. But Atlanta is something of the opposite of Denver, as they have won three of their last four, including last Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Saints. The Broncos had gone 1-3 coming into AT&T Stadium. To get the win this Sunday, Dallas has to clean up just about everything from a game where it all seemed to go wrong. Here are the biggest things that we need to see from Dallas, both individually and collectively.
Dak has to get back to being Dak
We can’t really say why Dak Prescott looked nothing like he had in the first esven games of the season. Perhaps he needed more work to shake off the calf injury and find his rhythm, which may have contributed to the decision to keep him in after the game was for all intents over. It was an emotionally stressful time for him as he lost his grandmother and faced the anniversary of his mother’s passing in short order. But in any case, he made too many uncharacteristic mistakes, both mentally and in execution. If you want a good breakdown of some of those, Mark Schofield put together an excellent and highly instructive video analysis for us.
Perhaps we saw Prescott begin to get his feet under him both literally and figuratively due to that criticized decision to keep him on the field. Although the Broncos were very interested in just running out the clock with full knowledge the Cowboys did not have time to come back, on the last two drives we saw things start to click. The hope is that will continue through a week of practice and into the Falcons game.
If it does not, the questions will grow about what is wrong with the quarterback. From his history in Dallas, he should bounce back. Hopefully it will be with a vengeance as he has done before following bad performances. The race for seeding in the NFC is now a real dogfight. The Cowboys currently sit in the fourth seed. If the playoffs were to begin today, they would face the Los Angeles Rams. That is hardly a preferred outcome. We still have nine weeks of the extended season to change things. For that matter, we are still a ways off from seeing Dallas lock up the NFC East. The focus needs to be on winning, one game at a time. For the Cowboys, the most important element of that is Prescott. They need him to be his old self. Right now.
The defense has to stiffen
For the first six games of the season, Dan Quinn’s unit was feasting off of turnovers. Unfortunately that often masked some deficiencies. With a sudden drought of takeaways the past two games, they have needed to rely on fundamentals and getting their assignments right. Against the Minnesota Vikings, they did a good job, although there were certainly some plays that Kirk Cousins just missed receivers. Nonetheless, the Dallas defense stood tall despite no interceptions or recovered fumbles.
Against the Broncos, they fell right on their face. They suffered sixteen broken tackles, six more than in any previous game this year. As Bob Sturm noted at The Athletic, a large part of that was players going for the strip rather than the tackle, while too many others seemed to be waiting for someone else to bring the ball carrier down. This was most damaging against the run. There was a clear issue with not sealing off the edges as well. The absence of DeMarcus Lawrence continues to take its toll as he is one of the best defensive ends in the league at setting the edge and making tackles in the run game. Things would undoubtedly have been worse had Micah Parsons not made another argument on the field for his eventual crowning as defensive rookie of the year. He had ten tackles and 2.5 sacks.
We discussed the specific areas that the Cowboys need to address on Sunday against the Falcons on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
He and fellow linebacker Leighton Vander Esch were also nearly the only defensive players who had a good game. Conversely, Trevon Diggs had one of his worst. He was flagged twice and out of position on at least a couple of more plays. Sturm also pointed out one of the big gains after contact where he seemed absolutely disinterested in making a tackle.
This should be a week where Quinn hammers his players about getting the ball carrier to the ground first and foremost. They need to quit playing for the strip or interception and focus on stopping the play for as little gain as possible. If they do that, the takeaways will likely come anyway.
Make the offensive line situation work
The Cowboys had a serious issue with Tyron Smith unavailable for the game. They elected to move Terence Steele to LT and bring back La’el Collins at RT. This has been widely criticized as Steele gave up nine pressures on the day. However, given that Collins has taken zero snaps at LT since joining Dallas, while Steele is hoped to become the primary swing tackle with experience at both positions, there is logic to what the coaching staff did.
Expectations are that Smith will be out at least one more week as he deals with what is described as a bone spur. This is one condition with which I have personal experience, and if it is the same thing, there is nothing that can be done than to use a walking boot and rest the ankle as much as possible. The fact that Smith is expected to be doing rehab is encouraging, but does further indicate the offense will have to come up with some way to improve things this week.
There are ways to get Steele some more help in pass protection, and hopefully Prescott snapping back from his bad day will alleviate things to some extent as well. But the failure to run the ball effectively also was an issue that relates directly to the line. That is one place where the opponent may matter, because the Broncos are much better against the run than the Falcons. Denver has given up the eighth fewest yards on the ground in the NFL, while Atlanta has yielded the eighth most. That alone may help the running game be more productive. In turn, that should make going after the passer more difficult for the Falcons, especially when Kellen Moore dials up some play-action.
In any case, the team still has to make this combination work on the offensive line. How successful they are will directly relate to the chances of winning this game.
The other star players have to step up
Prescott obviously struggled with off-target throws and questionable decisions, but he also was let down by some bad performances elsewhere. Diggs has already been mentioned, and Jayron Kearse made some uncharacteristically bad plays, but the offense more directly hurt the quarterback. In particular, Amari Cooper and Tony Pollard, two of the most sure-handed receivers in the league over their first seven games, both had big drops that would have at least extended drives, and in Cooper’s case might have led to a desperately needed touchdown.
This indirectly relates to the overall way the Cowboys as a team seemed to lose their focus in the game. In the first half, the sudden way the Broncos got up two scores took some of the fire out of Dallas. Then the technically muffed punt on what should have been a big play after Malik Turner got through for a block killed a chance to get right back in the game at the start of the second half. Furthermore, it wasted one of the few good stands by the defense. You could almost feel the deflation of the Cowboys’ players. Two plays later, the most crushing run play of the half occurred as Javonte Williams once again broke free from would-be tacklers for a 30-yard gain that led to a field goal to further stretch the lead.
Dallas needs to recapture the fire that helped build the six-game win streak and get another one started. That is largely incumbent on the players, particularly the best ones.
Get over the early game blahs
This is one that is more difficult to understand. But for some reason, the Cowboys tend to be flat when they have a 1 PM ET kickoff. Perhaps it is tied in some way to having so many late or prime time games. That is no excuse, however, because there are going to be some early games every season, with six this year barring a game being flexed later on. They already have won one against the Carolina Panthers, so they do know how to do so. The Falcons game is going to be another, and Dallas must not come out as flat as they were.
In truth, they did show some fire early against the Broncos, with perhaps their best defensive series of the entire game the first time Denver had the ball. But the offense was able to do nothing, with consecutive fourth-down failures bracketing that stand.
There is no real way to explain what this is about, although the fans in the stands may be part of the issue. Many Cowboys fans sell their tickets to fans of the opponents, leading to the embarrassing games like last Sunday when the visitors have a very vocal and effective support system.
The players and coaches cannot control that. What they can take responsibility for is their own preparation and focus. That was sorely lacking last game. They have to try and change that if they want to stay in the thick of things in the NFC.