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Crunching Cowboys stats: Reopening the wounds from the Broncos loss

Trying to understand what went wrong for the Cowboys and how it might be fixed.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After an unmitigated beatdown like the Dallas Cowboys suffered at the hands of the Denver Broncos, any examination of the numbers and stats is just painful. It is still necessary when you are looking for what might be done to stop the bleeding and get back on track for the next game. So gird those loins, this won’t be pretty.

The disappearance of the offense

One thing that jumps out is that there were two distinct phases of the game. The first was the bulk of time, until the last 6:32 of the fourth quarter. That was while Denver was building their 30-0 lead. At that point, they went into a prevent defense that was willing to let the Cowboys work down the field while using clock to get 16 meaningless points.

If you just look at what had transpired to that point, it is a total picture of futility. The Cowboys of course were scoreless, but the ineptitude of the offense was staggering. To that point, they had converted exactly one of thirteen third downs, and zero of the four fourth-down attempts. During that time, Dak Prescott was only able to complete eight of 23 passes with an interception, including a few drops. Add in how the Broncos were able to stop the run the way they planned, and it bore zero resemblance to the high-powered offense the Cowboys had come to rely on.

The gross numbers are just as grim. Prior to the two touchdown drives on their last two possessions, Dallas amassed just 150 yards of total offense. That is in 52:28 of game time, or a pace of less than 50 yards a quarter. The third quarter, while there was still some faint hope of coming back, was the nadir, as Dallas gained a pitiful 13 yards.

The blame is widespread, but as with so much of football, it started up front with the offensive line. Terence Steele’s move to left tackle was rough, to put it mildly. Run blocking clearly did not get the job done across the board, but with the way Prescott was dodging pressure until the Broncos backed off to let the clock wind down, the pass protection was the worse problem.

When one linemen was deemed responsible for well over half the pressures allowed you have a clear issue that must be corrected. There is no assurance that Tyron Smith will be back, and given how cautious the staff has been all season with injured players, it may be more likely he sits at least another game to try and have him available down the stretch. During the game, Steele was often left on an island in pass protection. This seems a failure of the coaching. He needed more help than he received. There has to be a suspicion that the staff overestimated the impact of trading Von Miller away. The defensive line of Denver more than rose to the occasion, and Dallas paid the price.

At least we can take a meager amount of comfort in the clear rock of the line in pass protection as Tyler Biadasz had yet another game without surrendering a pressure.

The defensive collapse was just as egregious

It must be remembered that by the end of the game the Broncos had three backup offensive linemen on the field. While the Cowboys did have four sacks of Teddy Bridgewater, that was more a tribute to the one bright spot of the game, Micah Parsons and his two-and-a-half sacks. Most of the time, Bridgewater had plenty of time to find receivers, and he did. Over and over again, including the beautifully thrown 44-yard touchdown to Tim Patrick. He would finish the day completing 19 of 28 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown. Far too many of those completions were on third down, with Denver converting eight of fifteen, or 53.3%. That will win you a lot of ballgames.

249 yards is still somewhat average as a volume stat. What truly killed the Cowboys was giving up 190 yards on the ground, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. While that is not an exceptional average, it masks how many of those helped sustain drives. With a few short yardage conversions mixed in, the Broncos ground things out and wore down a defense that was forced to stay on the field a very, very long time. Once again going back to the portion of the game before the meaningless Dallas scores, the defense was on the field for 39:12. By the end of the game, they would have spent 41:12 trying to staunch the bleeding. They were worn down, and it showed.

Of course, tiredness was not the only reason for such a lack of focus.

This was also the second game in a row when the Cowboys failed to notch a single takeaway. The defense had remarkable success in the first six games of the season in taking the ball away. Without that, they needed to be fundamentally sound and get the assignments right. In both counts they clearly failed. Part of that has to go on coaching and play-calling. It all works together. In this case it was a compounding of issues that snowballed.

That last part is a fitting summation of the entire game. Offensive ineptitude stressed the defense, which allowed points to put more pressure on the struggling offense. Add in the misfortune/lack of understanding of the rules on the blocked punt, and almost everything that could go wrong, did.

If there was one stat that did work out in the Cowboys’ favor, it was that there were no reported injuries likely to impact this week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Even that was put at risk as Prescott stayed on the field to the end of a game that was lost long before the clock ran to zero. It was a calculated risk that may have been to try and help Prescott find some rhythm that was sorely lacking earlier in the game. He certainly looked better on the final two possessions, even if it was against a soft defense.

He needs to be much better on Sunday. So does the entire team. Sometimes after blowout losses, coaches make a show of burning or otherwise throwing away the video. That may not be the literal case for Dallas this week, but mentally they need to find a way to do so and get themselves right. With things still tight in the NFC for seeding, and the fact that the NFC East is not in the bag yet, the Cowboys just cannot afford a repeat of the last game.