It was a win. That is the good news after the Dallas Cowboys beat the New Orleans Saints 27-17 on Thursday Night Football. But for America’s Team, there are almost always qualifiers, and those are plentiful. It was the definition of an ugly win, with plenty of disturbing aspects. The final five games will set the tone for the almost certain postseason appearance. Fortunately, Dallas now has the long week after TNF to work on things. Here are the major issues, and what the team can do to fix them.
Get the offensive line straight
Things are supposed to get better when the starters come back after injury or suspension. Instead, the performance of the line with Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both in place has been far more ragged than earlier, when at least one was missing. Add in the so far unsatisfactory results of swapping Connor McGovern in for Connor Williams, and things are something of a hot mess.
This is one place where there may be an obvious cause that should be better soon. With the outbreak of COVID on the coaching staff, both offensive line coach Joe Philbin and his assistant Jeff Blasko were not available in New Orleans. That had to have severely limited the ability to make in-game adjustments, and certainly affected the preparation leading up to the contest. Hopefully the extra three days between games will have them back in place before the upcoming game at the Washington Football Team. There is also reason to hope that keeping the lineup stable for another week will itself yield improvement. Things really must improve here, because it affects the next couple of items on our list.
Find a running game
Here is a great example of how volume stats can not just fail to tell the whole story, they can outright lie. The Cowboys had 146 yards running the ball, which is normally quite satisfactory for a game. But one of those plays was a backwards pass to CeeDee Lamb for 33 yards to set up the first touchdown, which counted as a run only in a technical sense. It was functionally a very good screen pass. The other was the only really successful running play of the game, the 58-yard touchdown run by Tony Pollard.
The rest of the total on the ground was a grand total of 55 yards on 22 attempts, or a completely unsatisfactory 2.5 yards a carry. Almost all of those were between the tackles, where there was little to no room against the very good run defense of the Saints. It is notable that the big Pollard burst and the Lamb run were just about the only time the plays went outside the tackle.
It is tempting to put a lot of blame on the line, but play selection has to be criticized here. For some reason, Kellen Moore has seemed far more conservative than he was during the six-game winning streak, when he was unpredictable and inventive. This was most glaring late in the game, when twice the offense went three and out after the defense handed them the ball on interceptions. They ran on first down both times, and on second down once. A common comparison made during and after the game was to the days when Jason Garrett was clapping on the sidelines. If that gives you a bit of PTSD, you are justified.
The conservative game plan may well have been a partial reaction to the absence of Mike McCarthy and calling on defensive-minded Dan Quinn to fill in for him. If so, it was a mistake. Quinn proved to be quite capable of handling things. In any case, Moore has to open up his playbook if the lack of a ground attack is to end.
The passing game sputtered as well
Dak Prescott only passed for 238 yards, completing 26 of 40 attempts with one touchdown and an interception. The pick came when a clear hands to the face was missed by the referees, but he was under a lot of pressure from the New Orleans pass rush throughout the game, even though he was only sacked once. That may be the reason he looked off still, in turn pointing again to the problems with the line.
This was doubly disappointing because the Saints game saw the return of Amari Cooper. There was a lot of excitement of finally having him on the field with Lamb and Michael Gallup. Things did not go great, and that has raised concerns about just how potent the passing game truly is.
Well, that actually may be a real reason for hope the remainder of the season. While Gallup played 91% of the offensive snaps and Lamb was on the field for 89%, Cooper was not fully up to speed in his first game back. He only was deployed 34% of the time. Noah Brown was the third wide receiver on the first two unsuccessful possessions for Dallas, both three and outs. Cooper did not take the field with Lamb and Gallup until their third series.
That could be a portent of good things to come, because it was by far the best Cowboys offensive series of the entire game. After two failed runs to start it, Cooper made an immediate impact with a 41-yard catch and run (21 yards after the catch) on third-and-seven. That was soon followed by the Lamb 33-yard run to the one-yard line, and the drive was capped by a patented Gallup toe-tapping touchdown in the corner of the end zone.
Had Cooper been able to play more, or just given more opportunities, it may have been a different passing attack for Dallas. There is every reason to think he will be able to stay on the field more in the coming weeks, with as salutatory an impact. It may also go a long way to making Prescott feel more comfortable passing. The Football Team is finding its way on defense, but having those top three targets all out there should help counter their pass rush. It should also encourage Moore to open up the playbook more.
Big play defense
This is a good news/bad news situation. The defense came up huge at times, notching four interceptions, including the big-man tuddy by Carlos Watkins that effectively sealed the outcome, plus two sacks, six tackles for losses, and six QB hits. But they also gave up seven plays of more than 20 yards, including the embarrassing 70-yard touchdown pass to Deonte Harris that briefly gave the Saints hope in the fourth quarter. It was feast or famine for the defense.
At least some of that may have been because Quinn was on the sidelines filling in for McCarthy rather than up in the booth. That should resolve itself. The Harris score was arguably from playing too soft with a 17-point lead late in the fourth. And like with Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence was only in for about half the snaps, 53%. This was probably more than was originally planned after his extended stint on IR, but his impact was huge.
DeMarcus Lawrence finished with a team-high 6 pressures vs. NO while also recording a 24.1% pass rush win rate (2nd-best on DAL). #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/BmSGjrvG9c— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 3, 2021
Any lack of conditioning was not at all evident to the eye, but he still is not quite up to full speed. That should just get better, and Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore are both expected back soon, possibly both at Washington. An already fierce pass rush should just get better, and the run defense should solidify as well.
But those big lapses have to be curtailed. Once again, getting more of the best players on the field could go a long way to achieving that goal. Meanwhile, Micah Parsons continued to insert himself in the DPOY conversation with another sack and a couple of QB hits, while Trevon Diggs also kept himself in contention for post-season awards with his ninth pick of the season, still leading the NFL. And Jayron Kearse continued to be the biggest free agent pickup of the year with his spectacular diving interception that showed Gallup is not the only player that knows how to drag those toes. (Also note the assist from Parsons, who somehow was not credited with a pass breakup on this play.)
Some great camera angles on that Jayron Kearse interception pic.twitter.com/jBM7Sd6Xc2— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 3, 2021
There is still an additional concern, however. Taysom Hill was a force running the ball, gaining 101 yards with his legs. But he was clearly not successful as a passer overall with the four picks, including the one to Watkins that was thrown right to the delighted defender. To only win by ten points seems a bit of an underachievement for the team as a whole, with the failure to shut the Saints down even more falling on the defense.
Still, that is all something that more games with a fuller compliment of the best defenders should make better. On both sides of the ball, there are plenty of reasons to think the arrow is pointing up. And again, this ten-day break should also work in the Cowboys’ favor.
Four of the final five games are against the NFC East. While those often go in unexpected directions, there is no real evidence any of the rivals are better than Dallas. What the Cowboys need to do is get these items checked off. They have a great opportunity to do so and go into the playoffs strong.