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Five takeaways from the Cowboys’ shameful loss to the Broncos

Sunday was an odd day across the NFL, and it was only exacerbated by the Broncos dominating the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. It was a weird game, but there is a lot to learn.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

That was the most disappointing and embarrassing performance we have seen from the Dallas Cowboys in quite some time. The only solace Cowboys fans can take is that seven of the thirteen games on Sunday involved the underdog winning. Week nine was an odd one, but that does not excuse what we saw from Dallas.

It is hard to extrapolate much from this game. Obviously, this was a bad performance across the board, but this will likely be an outlier in an otherwise promising season. With that being said, Denver exposed every weakness the Cowboys have, and we can’t dismiss what happened.

The run defense is concerning but not hopeless

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

Fresh off the best defensive game the Cowboys have had this season, nearly every player on the Cowboys’ defense decided to take a rest day against the Broncos. Javonte Williams and a 28-year-old Melvin Gordon looked like elite running backs against a Dallas defense who couldn’t stop anything.

But it was even worse than you might think. Gordon and Williams both landed in the top seven running backs by yardage in week nine, with Javonte Williams finishing with the third-most rushing yards at 111.

How did Denver run rampant on a Cowboys defense that only allowed 88 rushing yards per game coming into this week? Well, Dallas refused to tackle. Behind Gordon’s and Williams’ eleven broken tackles, the duo combined for 114 yards after contact. If you were to just take the Broncos’ yards after contact as one rusher, it would have been the third-best rushing performance on the week.

It was abysmal, but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the run defense is terrible yet. Dak Prescott had the worst game of his career, and no one is worried about him. Give the run defense a little more time to prove if last week was just an outlier.

It wasn’t all horrible. The Cowboys were the sixth-best team against the run on first down in week nine. They obviously collapsed after first down, falling as the fourth-worst run defense on second and third down.

But again, this was just one week after the Cowboys finished as the ninth-best run defense in the NFL during week eight. And that was facing Dalvin Cook. This is not to excuse what happened on Sunday. It was a pitiful performance against the run, and no one seemed like they cared enough to bring down the ball carrier.

Maybe the run defense for the Cowboys is not good. But this was a lousy game across the board, and we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the defensive line cannot stop running backs when they have done a decent job all season. They are obviously on a much shorter leash now, but let’s wait a couple of weeks before forming concrete assumptions.

Micah Parsons anchors this defense

Denver Broncos v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys defense has an average age of 25 years old. They are a young and relatively inexperienced group. But that does not change the fact that once the Cowboys went down 16-0, the only defender that played like they wanted to win was Micah Parsons.

This is the second game in a row where Parsons looked like he was playing a different game than every other defender not named Randy Gregory. He is an exceptional talent and will be the cornerstone for this squad for years to come.

You’ve probably heard about his stats from week eight, given he was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. But week nine was arguably more impressive.

Parsons finished with a PFF pass-rushing grade of 88, with the second-highest Cowboy in this metric being Carlos Watkins at 61. This was on the back of Parsons’ eight solo tackles, 2.5 sacks, and an average depth of tackle of only 1.7 yards past the line of scrimmage. Parsons has also seemed to improve his coverage ability, allowing a 75.7 passer rating against the Broncos.

The rookie linebacker was quite literally doing it all. But all of those stats don’t even include the most impressive aspect of his performance on Sunday. Once the Cowboys had dug a hole for themselves, the entire defense seemed to quit. That is, except for Parsons, who continued to play like it was a tie game in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. The heart that Micah Parsons showed on Sunday was incredible.

To spoil the rest of the article, this was the only positive headline that came out of Sunday’s performance. Number 11 is special, and he is turning into the best defender the Cowboys have.

Diggs is an opportunistic corner, and that is okay

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

We move from the best performance against the Broncos to arguably the worst. Trevon Diggs struggled against Teddy Bridgewater and Tim Patrick, which has brought out some interesting opinions about the second-year corner. Yes, Diggs is opportunistic, but he is still good.

Last Sunday, Diggs was about one completion away from allowing a perfect passer rating. If we look at some of his statistics on the season, it is similarly discouraging. He is giving up 19 yards a reception, the second-worst in the league; he has also allowed three touchdowns and committed ten penalties.

Diggs is not a lockdown corner, but that is no reason to turn on him. Very few cornerbacks are.

Even with two straight games without an interception, Diggs has more interceptions by himself than 15 other NFL teams. This is in addition to having more interceptions than pass break-ups, which means that if Diggs has a chance to get his hands on the ball, it is going the other way.

Sure, Diggs isn’t going to eliminate the best receiver on the team. He will give up yards, specifically yards after the catch, and he is prone to the occasional bad game. That much was proven on Sunday. But the value of an interception far outweighs a few completions.

Marcus Peters is a similarly opportunistic corner, and few would argue that Peters was a bad player in his prime.

Diggs is not the best player on this defense, and he will not be a corner that opposing quarterbacks avoid entirely. But if he is able to get his hands on the ball, it can completely change the game. For reference, imagine the Patriots matchup without Diggs’ late-game heroics.

Diggs is opportunistic, and Sunday proved that. However, opportunistic is not synonymous with bad. We can be upset with how Diggs performed on Sunday without diminishing the talent and game-changing ability he brings to the roster.

The ceiling for this team has not changed

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This is less of a takeaway from the game and more of a reassurance for those panicking. Whatever you thought to be the potential of this team going into Sunday should not have wavered. The Broncos game was horrendous, abysmal, embarrassing, and any other negative synonym you want to throw in there. But games such as those happen.

If you don’t think the Cowboys are a contender anymore, it’s not like the other “contenders” haven’t lost an embarrassing game this year. Tennessee lost to the Jets, Buffalo lost to Jacksonville, Green Bay got blown out by New Orleans, Arizona lost to a Green Bay team without any pass-catchers, and the Rams got embarrassed at home by the Titans.

Even good teams lose; it’s part of the game. For example, here are the last five Super Bowl winners and a few of their regular-season losses:

  • The 2020 Buccaneers lost to the 8-8 Chicago Bears
  • The 2019 Chiefs lost to the 7-9 Colts
  • The 2018 Patriots lost to the 5-11 Jaguars
  • The 2017 Eagles lost to the 9-7 Seahawks (who didn’t make the playoffs)
  • The 2016 Patriots lost to the 7-9 Bills

It was a difficult game to watch, and no one is saying the Cowboys played well or raised their expectations on Sunday. But no team is unbeatable, and this was a case of a poor day.

This team is still the third-best in the NFL according to PFF, fifth-best by EPA per play, and fifth by DVOA. Dallas’ Super Bowl odds have only fallen from 10% to 7%, which is more of a result of seeding than actual expectations.

It is all about how this team responds. If they shake it off and come out against the Falcons as if last week never happened, then whatever you believed about this team before week nine should stay consistent. It is okay to have a bad game, but good teams respond, so let’s hope the Cowboys come out in week ten ready to play.

Kellen Moore struggles with fourth-down play calls

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Kellen Moore is great at a lot of things. However, calling plays on fourth down is not one of them.

On third down, the Cowboys are converting at a rate of 46%, one of the best in the NFL. But on fourth-down plays, where the situation is actually more favorable for the offense, they convert at a rate of 36%—one of the worst fourth-down conversion rates in the NFL.

Moore has been excellent at being bold in his play-calling; he is willing to air it out and trust his talent to make plays. But in fourth-down situations, he seems to get oddly conservative. For example, the Cowboys are passing 57% of the time on first through third down. Even in the 43% of runs, Dallas seems to get creative with outside sweeps and motions.

But when it comes to fourth down, it seems like an old unnamed Dallas head coach is calling the plays. The Cowboys run it 50% of the time on fourth down. There is no motion or outside run; it is simply a power right up the middle.

Moore has been an excellent play-caller for the Cowboys, and we should not think less of him because of his fourth-down decisions. But it is weird to see a great offensive coordinator become uninspired in high-pressure situations.

There is no way around it; a mediocre Denver team beat down the Cowboys. The Broncos deserve all the credit for running Dallas out of their own stadium. But McCarthy needs to pull a page from Dan Campbell’s book, literally bury the tape and move on.

This is where we learn about who the 2021 Cowboys are. Are they a team that can overcome adversity and rebound, or are they a slightly above average team that has just been over-performing this whole time? While it is much more likely the former, only time will tell.