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Cowboys lesson learned: The limits of next man up exposed in loss to Chiefs

The Cowboys reached down into their depth, and it didn’t come through.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

We tried to convince ourselves that the Dallas Cowboys could go into the game against the Kansas City Chiefs missing even more key pieces to their roster and come out with a win. That turned out to be a bit delusional. What we wound up getting was an illustration that if you constantly rely on your backups, sometimes they are just not going to get the job done. There is a reason they are backups, after all.

It also is worth noting that the Chiefs may not be as washed up as some thought they were while they were getting things together earlier in the season. They still have not returned to being the offensive juggernaut we have seen in recent years, but their defense is making some key strides. Now they have reclaimed the lead in the AFC West and will be heavily favored to at least get into the playoffs. In the jumble that is the AFC, they even are suddenly in the thick of things for the top seed.

Which is where the Cowboys could have been if they had pulled off a win after the Green Bay Packers stumbled against the Minnesota Vikings. But we need to put that aside for now. While Dallas still has a fairly comfortable two and a half game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles who seem to be figuring some things out in the NFC East, they will need to get back on the winning track soon to make sure they don’t find themselves challenged down the stretch.

That is going to be influenced, perhaps greatly, by how soon they can get some of their key players back. They came into the game without Tyron Smith, Amari Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Neville Gallimore. And by the start of the second half, CeeDee Lamb had been lost to the concussion protocol. We now face the annual short week before Thanksgiving, and only Smith looks likely to have a chance to return. Cooper is not going to clear the COVID protocols before then, and we won’t know about Lamb until he is further evaluated. The defenders all are seemingly being brought along slowly for the five-game stretch to end the season when they will face four division games to determine who gets that automatic bid for the playoffs.

That may not be an insurmountable problem for them, even after the Chiefs loss. After all, they did hold Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and the just returned Clyde Edwards-Helaire to just 19 points and four of twelve on third-down conversions. With any offensive production at all, Dallas could still have won the game.

But the offensive absences really seemed to doom them. Cooper is just too valuable for the team, and the loss of Lamb halfway through further compounded the issue. There were multiple drops. Only Dalton Schultz and Ezekiel Elliott were reliable targets for Dak Prescott, and Elliott was mostly used in dumpoffs and swing passes where he gained little or even no yards.

Prescott did not help his cause as he seemed off and sometimes indecisive. He appeared to be affected by the wind in the game as well, with some balls sailing and others held up depending on the direction he was trying to move the team. Now he has to attempt to get back on track against the Las Vegas Raiders in just four days, with a receiving group that likely will consist of Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, and Malik Turner, plus Schultz, Sean McKeon, and Jeremy Sprinkle. At least wind will not be a factor in AT&T Stadium.

However, let me suggest that the real problem for this game was on the offensive line. That starts with Terence Steele, who was at times beaten badly and seemed confused. But he was not the only one having issues. La’el Collins still looks like he is getting the rust knocked off. Even the normally outstanding Zack Martin was beaten for a sack, something that almost never happens.

And this was Connor McGovern’s first game starting at left guard. There were communication and assignment issues on that side of the line. He will hopefully improve with a full game under his belt, but this raises a question concerning the wisdom of making the switch from Connor Williams, at least at this point. For much of the week, the team appeared very hopeful that Smith would be able to play, but the decision was made late in the week to hold him out one more game. With that uncertainty, the switch from Williams may have been a bit premature. It had to have affected the timing and teamwork required along the line. Now we will likely face yet another shuffle on the line as Smith returns. He should be a steadying influence for McGovern, but this turned out to be a bad week to make the move.

The result was five sacks of Prescott, including one with a fumble. He also threw two interceptions as he faced unrelenting pressure. Chris Jones was almost unstoppable from his DT position, accounting for three and a half of the five sacks. Now Dallas has to face Maxx Crosby and the rest of the Las Vegas pass rush. They have been more productive there than Kansas City has this season, although the Chiefs have been coming on over the past few games.

Joe Philbin has done a remarkable job with the various combinations he has been forced to put on the field this season. But this was perhaps the biggest aspect of the game where the next man up did not carry through. He has to get this fixed with the shortened week, or Prescott could once again find himself under constant attack.

The line also played a role in the ineffectual running game which did little to help the offense. Outside of a gadget play with Tony Pollard taking a direct snap and scampering for 31 yards, it just did not produce. Elliott did seem to start making more consistent gains late in the game, and after the scare when he rolled his ankle. But it was too late then as the Cowboys were trying to climb back with a two score deficit they failed to overcome.

Last man up certainly did not come through, but for many of the positions, that is all Dallas has for the next game. This is a major challenge. Fortunately Derek Carr is not Mahomes, but he has led his team to five wins. Like the Cowboys, the Raiders are coming off their own loss, a solid drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals. It is a big challenge for both teams. We hope that Dallas will be the one that rises to the occasion.