Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, the Cowboys nearly complete the upset but lose in the final seconds in a game they could have won. Dallas fans should be tired of hearing that a heartbreaking loss is a “moral victory.” If the Cowboys want to be considered a legitimate contender, games such as the season opener need to be won.
With that being said, we should all agree that it was better than expected. Even if your outlook on the team hasn't changed, most people did not anticipate Dallas taking it to the final seconds against Tom Brady.
The ceiling for this team rose on Thursday night. Dallas could surprise a lot of people and contend for the NFC Championship. The keyword in that sentence is “could.” The Cowboys have not played to their “ceiling” since 2016, and there are sixteen more games to prove if they will change this trend.
Just remember it is still week one. If you are elated the Cowboys went toe-to-toe with the greatest quarterback of this generation, or if you are utterly disappointed in the ability to win in close games, don’t let it drastically influence your perception of this team.
Putting aside the outcome, there is a lot to digest after the Cowboys' loss to the Buccaneers. Looking at how the Cowboys performed statistically provides us with a more objective view of this team. So what are the main takeaways?
Dak Prescott is capable of single-handedly winning a game
Yes, the Cowboys lost, but it was not due to the arm of Dak Prescott. If anything, the only reason Dallas was competing in the final quarter is due to the performance of their $40 million quarterback.
Coming into this game, Ezekiel Elliott had carried the ball less than 12 times only twice in his career. In both of those games, the Cowboys lost by 25 points. Against the Buccaneers, Elliott only received eleven rushing attempts.
Any speculation that Dak is simply a “game-manager” was put to bed on Thursday night. Prescott proved that he has developed to the point where, if the Cowboys need him to take the game over, he can win it by himself.
What Dak brings is a steadiness to this offense. As seen above, after Dak went down due to injury, the offensive performance became sporadic. However, Prescott picked up right where he left off, providing this team with much-needed consistency.
In the 2020 Super Bowl, the Buccaneers defense held Patrick Mahomes to an expected points added (EPA) per play of -.132. Against the same defense, Dak Prescott carried this team to an EPA per play of .067.
That’s not saying that Dak Prescott is better than Patrick Mahomes. But against the Buccaneers, the Cowboys quarterback proved he can shoulder the burden if needed.
Special teams is a real issue
It's safe to say that John Fassel is not the most beloved figure in Dallas right now. Any NFL game is won on all three sides of the ball, but it is hard not to ask “what-if” with the special team's errors on Thursday night.
In a prediction for this game, I said that special teams needed to be perfect if we were going to win. As any fan watching the game knows, that was not the case.
Special teams isn’t a problem because of one bad game. The issue lies in the fact that there is little the Cowboys can do to improve upon their performance against Tampa Bay.
However you feel about Greg Zuerlein, finding a reliable kicker is a difficult task. Of all free agent kickers who attempted more than ten field goals last season, the Cowboys' best options seem to be Sam Sloman and Dan Bailey. With a 76.9% and 68.2% field goal conversion rate in 2020, respectively, these two candidates do not inspire a lot of hope. Finding a kicker you can trust is not easy.
There is a similar issue in the special teams' coverage units. In the season opener, the Cowboys allowed 30.7 yards per return on kickoffs and 10.6 yards per return on punts, both of which would have been bottom ten in the NFL in 2020.
Dallas does not have enough depth to equip the special teams' units with explosive athletes. The Cowboys lack athleticism with their backups, which is another issue that is difficult to fix.
John Fassel has a difficult road ahead in finding capable players who can aid in these issues. But if things do not change on special teams, the Cowboys could continue to lose games they should have won.
Kellen Moore knows how to handle the offensive line
While it may have seemed like the offensive line performed well against a dominant Buccaneer's defense, that wasn’t really the case. Against Tampa Bay, the o-line allowed 15 pressures on the quarterback, meaning that over 25% of Dak’s passes were thrown under duress.
Every lineman other than Connor McGovern and Tyron Smith finished with a Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade lower than the two tight ends. Of every player on the offensive line, only Smith and McGovern played well.
This is not a criticism of the front seven, remember they were going against the best defensive line in football. Instead, this demonstrates how good Kellen Moore’s play calling was. The Cowboys’ offensive coordinator is the reason the line looked decent when they didn’t play as such.
On Thursday night, Dak Prescott had an average time to throw of 2.39, which would have ranked fifth in the NFL in 2020. Kellen Moore didn’t give Tampa Bay the opportunity to get to the quarterback. The game plan was clear, let Prescott shoulder the burden without allowing the Buccaneers' defensive line to become a factor.
We are far removed from the 2014 Cowboys offensive line that could bully defenders and wear them down throughout the game. Instead of letting the d-line play a factor in an uneven matchup, Kellen Moore removed that aspect from the game entirely.
Dak is not going to throw the ball 58 times in every game this season. But on a week-to-week basis, Kellen Moore will take advantage of the defense however he sees fit.
Kellen Moore did not play into the strength of the Buccaneers and trusted his best weapons to make plays through the air. This was a brilliant performance by the Cowboys play-caller.
Quarterbacks now know who to target in the secondary
In 2020, nobody in the Cowboys secondary represented a defensive challenge, giving opposing quarterbacks the ability to pass to whoever they desired. However, that is no longer the case. Instead, Trevon Diggs, Donovan Wilson, and Damonte Kazee now present real threats in coverage. In fact, Diggs and Wilson allowed a 0.0 quarterback rating when targeted, with Kazee surrendering a 39.6 rating.
So why did the secondary look horrendous when three of their starters performed well? As anyone who watched the game can guess, it is because of Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis.
Tom Brady targeted those two players 20 times, with Anthony Brown allowing a passer rating of 152.1. Brady knew where the Cowboys’ weaknesses were, and he force-fed whoever was matched up against Brown and Lewis.
This has been the story of Brady’s career. There is not a significant difference between Brady’s performance against good defenses compared to poor ones. This is because the 44-year-old quarterback is masterful at picking apart weak areas in a defense.
The issue is that the rest of the NFL now knows the formula for passing on the Cowboys. Opposing quarterbacks can simply find the receiver in coverage against Brown or Lewis and it will likely spell success.
This is going to be a legitimate problem if Dallas does not address this disparity. Maybe the solution is giving Nahshon Wright and Kevin Joseph (when healthy) the starting spots. However, rookie corners tend to struggle in their first year.
Dan Quinn has a difficult task to cover the obvious holes in the secondary.
DeMarcus Lawrence anchored the defensive line
We already addressed how fast Dak Prescott’s release was in the season opener. As quickly as he was getting the ball out, Tom Brady had an average time to throw of .05 seconds less than Dak. Pair this with only 14 rushing attempts by the Buccaneers, and it is obvious why we did not see much of the Cowboys defensive line.
However, when the d-line had an opportunity to wreak havoc, only DeMarcus Lawrence came through. Getting to the quarterback on 8.6% of snaps, Lawrence finished with the highest pressure rate of all players on either team. Tank was dominant in the season opener.
But he was the only one. The top four defensive interior linemen by pressure rate were all Buccaneers. This resulted in Tampa Bay earning the top four PFF grades in the pass rush.
In the limited rushing attempts the Buccaneers had, the story was the same. Against the run, Lawrence made four tackles, forced a fumble, and finished with a 96.3 PFF grade. Everybody not named DeMarcus Lawrence made four tackles and finished with a rush defensive grade below 63.
While the Buccaneers boast one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the Cowboys cannot continue to be one-dimensional on the defensive line. Teams will soon learn to place all the focus on Lawrence, and from there, things could get ugly.
In looking at this team, there are both reasons to be optimistic and fearful. The Buccaneers are a bad opponent to play in week one. It is difficult to get a read on the Cowboys' performance when they start with such a daunting matchup.
We will learn a lot more about this team based on how they play next week in a relatively even contest with the Chargers. Despite the Cowboys losing a close one, we can all be delighted that meaningful football has returned.