A game that most assumed would be a battle between two of the NFL’s best offenses quickly turned into an ugly performance across the board. Luckily for Kansas City, the Dallas Cowboys seemed determined to prove they could put up an uglier performance. It was eerily similar to watching the 2020 Cowboys, especially on offense.
It is difficult to dwell on this game since most of us wanted to forget about it the minute we turned off the TV—but playing against a decent team such as the Chiefs reveals a lot about a team. So although it might be painful, what did we learn?
The injuries are starting to hurt
Based on wins above replacement, the Cowboys have been affected by injuries more than 22 other teams in the NFL. But up to this game, it appeared as though Dallas was just fine using the “next man up” mentality. Well, on Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys injuries finally got to them.
Outside of Dak Prescott, what would you say were the two most glaring issues for Dallas on Sunday? It would be difficult not to answer the offensive line and dropped passes. It is not a coincidence that these mistakes occurred with injury-riddled positions.
Between Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys were missing a collective 94 receptions for 1,323 yards, including 430 yards after the catch, with only four drops on 133 targets. With the four drops in the Chiefs game alone, the Cowboys were missing their reliable wide receivers.
And the injuries were even more apparent on the offensive line as the Cowboys allowed five sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, and a quarterback pressure on 38% of Dak’s throws. What makes these stats even worse is that the Chiefs are the 31st ranked team by PFF pass-rushing grade.
This takeaway is not an excuse for Sunday’s performance. The Cowboys played like a bottom ten team, especially on offense. We learned that Dallas is not the unstoppable team that can power through injuries like we might have thought.
Health is becoming a serious issue, and with Lamb and Cooper both possibly missing the next game, it doesn’t project to get any better. The postseason is only eight weeks away, which is closer than it seems. The Cowboys need to get healthy before then.
It is impossible to prevent injuries in football. At this point, we have to hope that Dallas gets lucky with injuries in the regular season. Because Sunday proved that an unhealthy roster affects Dallas, as it does the rest of the league. Injuries affect a team, this is not a hot take, but the Cowboys have been disproportionately affected and it is starting to show.
Adjusting the offensive line seems like the wrong move for now
Whoever thought that substituting Connor McGovern for Connor Williams was the wrong move might have been correct. This headline isn’t an attempt to play Monday morning quarterback; I’ll admit that I believed it was the right decision as well.
Connor Williams had given up ten pressures, one sack, and had a solid win rate in run blocking. The issue was he had committed 13 penalties on the year, 10 of which had been accepted. Contrast this with Connor McGovern, who, in his first start, allowed one sack and three quarterback pressures. At least he wasn’t penalized this week.
But the primary reason for this takeaway is that the offensive line looked utterly lost. Despite the McGovern stats listed above, he finished with the third-best pass-blocking grade on the Dallas line in week eleven.
You know it's not your day when Zack Martin gets beat for a sack. Only happens a couple times per season— John Owning (@JohnOwning) November 22, 2021
Dak Prescott seemed to have a target on his back against a Chiefs defensive line that essentially changed the game. The offensive line played horribly across the board, and you can reference the stats from the last takeaway as proof.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the offensive line’s worst performance of the season came a game after Dallas changed the personnel. Looking at this game in a vacuum, it appears the Cowboys made the incorrect decision.
It is possible that the offensive line needs more time to get comfortable in their new roles, or maybe even Tyron Smith’s absence remains the primary reason for the line’s woes.
We shouldn’t completely write off the McGovern move yet. Joe Philbin deserves the benefit of the doubt. But all we can say for now is that the move away from Connor Williams caused Dak a lot of pressure on Sunday. It was a complete disaster, but it is only one game, so we can’t form a definitive conclusion yet.
We might not know who the 2021 Cowboys are until January
Just a quick preface for this takeaway; the sky is not falling and everything is okay. The Chiefs are a decent football team, and this was a much different game than the Broncos’ performance. With that said, we have yet to see the full potential of this roster.
You have to play the schedule you’re given, and the Cowboys have beat up on bad teams, which they should have done. Dallas currently has faced the third hardest strength of schedule, so the Cowboys are not the 2020 Steelers. This is a good football team, and their 7-3 record is not a fluke.
But we have yet to see the ceiling of this team. Beating the now 7-4 Patriots was a solid victory, as was the Chargers game. However, the win in New England seems to have occurred before the Patriots hit their stride.
This is not a genuine problem, but it would have been nice to clarify the question marks surrounding this team after what we saw in 2020. How good can this team be? What type of team can the Cowboys beat? Can we get a win against a team we might see in the postseason?
With the Cowboys facing the eighth hardest strength of schedule over the rest of the year, there is a chance that these questions aren’t answered until the Cardinals game. Even then, that game might be all but irrelevant.
So it is possible that we don’t know what type of team the Cowboys can beat until January. And that is alright because once again, you have to play the schedule you’re given. But beating up on the Chiefs would have been the perfect clarification we all needed, which is part of the reason this loss is more discouraging.
We know the Cowboys have a top ten offense in the league, a good defense, and they are destined to at least compete in January. Outside of those facts, everything else is up in the air.
With a 94.8% chance to make the playoffs, a 17.4% chance to make the Super Bowl, and a 9.4% chance to hoist the Lombardi, the ceiling is a championship. But we might not get to see that ceiling manifest itself in the regular season. Which is frustrating, but it is no reason to panic.
The rushing game has gone downhill
Before Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard fans interpret this takeaway as a commentary between the two, the rushing game has gone downhill across the board. The Cowboys simply aren’t running as efficiently as they once were.
Going into the bye week, the Dallas rushing attack was electric. The Cowboys were ninth in the NFL by rushing EPA per play, running for 164 yards per game at 5.1 yards per attempt. The first down rushing was particularly impressive, as the Cowboys were ripping off over 100 rushing yards on first down alone.
Since then, the running game has just not been there. Over the last four games, the Cowboys are 29th in the NFL by rushing EPA per play, rushing for 88 yards per game at 3.9 yards per attempt. The first down rushing efficiency has similarly fallen, as the Cowboys are only averaging 50 rushing yards on first down since the bye.
Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott were at a 90.3 and 75.1 PFF grade entering the bye week, respectively, and since then, they have fallen to 68.4 and 60.4.
The running game is part of the reason for the decline in overall offensive efficiency. Not in the sense that the Cowboys need to “establish the run,” according to Troy Aikman. Sorry Troy, but that was ridiculous.
Instead, Dak Prescott needs help on the ground. Picking up 4-5 yards every time your running back touches the ball goes a long way in helping your quarterback convert short-yardage situations. The Cowboys do not need to “establish the run” to succeed, but Prescott can’t keep doing it all.
It is worth noting that Tyron Smith missing time is the commonality between when the rushing attack was working and when it is not. Smith will presumably be back for Thanksgiving, and hopefully, the ground game gets back to what it was.
It is time for us to believe the defense is top ten in the league
This was a horrendous performance, but at least the game wasn’t all bad. The Chiefs, despite their lackluster start to the season, still have an explosive offense. And after the first three drives, the Cowboys’ defense essentially shut them down.
Going into week eleven, the Chiefs were a top-five offense. For reference, they were second in the league by EPA per play, fifth by passing EPA per play, third by the percentage of drives that end in a touchdown, dead last by the percentage of drives that end in a punt, and fifth by offensive DVOA. Kansas City had turnover problems, but their offense was always top-five in the league.
At the very least, it was the best offense the Cowboys have faced since week one. The Dallas defense showed up by holding the Chiefs to 4/12 on third downs, forcing four punts, 19 points, zero passing touchdowns from Patrick Mahomes, and seven yards per passing attempt. All while generating two turnovers and three sacks.
Cowboys LB/DE Micah Parsons has tied DeMarcus Ware's franchise rookie record with eight sacks on season. It took him less than 10 full games.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 21, 2021
The Cowboys’ defense answered the call. There is a reason that Dallas was competitive in this game going into the fourth quarter despite not scoring a touchdown, and it is because of Dan Quinn.
It was a disappointing game, but not because of the defense. While many expected a shootout, Micah Parsons, Dorance Armstrong, and Jayron Kearse ensured this game didn't get out of hand.
Here are the Cowboys current defensive rankings by various outlets:
- 5th by EPA per play allowed
- 4th by defensive DVOA
- Tied for 4th by takeaways per game
- 6th by percentage of opponents drives that end in a score
- 8th by points per game allowed
It is finally time we believe in the defense. Dan Quinn has turned around the 2020 disaster of a defensive unit, and come Thanksgiving, that is something we can all be thankful for.
It was an ugly game, but luckily for Cowboys fans, we don’t have to ruminate on the loss for too long. In just a few short days, the Raiders will be coming to town, and Dallas gets a chance to redeem themselves.
The team is getting healthier, it is preferable to lose against an AFC team than an NFC team, and the defense played better than expected. There are reasons to be optimistic. But for now, it just hurts.