Now that some time has passed since the Cowboys’ thrilling, but ultimately heartbreaking, loss to the Buccaneers, it’s easier to get a good sense of where this team stands, especially after the double-dip of bad news on Friday with Michael Gallup’s injury update and La’el Collins’ out-of-nowhere suspension.
The Cowboys get a nice mini-bye week now, with ten days until their next game. It’ll also be on the road, but on the opposite side of the country from where they just played, as they take on the Los Angeles Chargers. There, they’ll face a team led by the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year in Justin Herbert and rookie head coach Brandon Staley. It’s a big difference from the team Dallas just narrowly lost to, but far from an assured victory.
That’s doubly true after Thursday’s performance, which was equal parts encouraging and concerning. The biggest takeaway from the game was how
good phenomenal Dak Prescott looked, with similar kudos going to the way the offensive line managed without Zack Martin. But there were other aspects of the team’s performance that offer cause for concern, and with just one game in the books so far it’s hard to tell if these struggles were because the Cowboys are just not great or because the Buccaneers are the same team that just won a Super Bowl.
The next few weeks will go a long way towards addressing these six looming concerns.
CeeDee Lamb needs to step up, especially in Michael Gallup’s absence
CeeDee Lamb was seemingly the standout player every single day in training camp, whether it was Dak throwing the ball or not. He just dominated the defense on a consistent basis, and seemed in line for a huge jump in production.
Well, it didn’t come in the season opener. While Lamb did snare seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, he also had a bad case of the drops. One of those drops came on third down and forced the Cowboys to punt, while another turned into an interception. On another play, Lamb made the wrong read in his route and Prescott ended up throwing to an empty space on the sideline.
The silver lining here is that even in a game where Lamb played pretty poorly he still impacted the game in some positive ways. But he’ll need to be better - much better - if he’s to become the dominant force he looked to be in training camp.
Furthermore, with Gallup being out for a few weeks, Lamb will have to step up even more. Both Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown will get plenty of snaps in Gallup’s place, and both are more than capable of producing, but the onus will be on Lamb more so to step up and ensure there’s no meaningful dropoff on offense.
What does this offensive line look like without La’el Collins?
A brief moment of appreciation to Kellen Moore and Joe Philbin for how well they prepared Connor McGovern and the whole offensive line to face that forceful Buccaneers defensive line. It wasn’t perfect, but it was significantly better than anyone should have reasonably expected. And that alone should give fans some confidence in the wake of Collins’ five-game suspension.
The question is what the line will actually look like. Many fans have already begun to clamor for Martin, who will likely be back for the next game, to kick out to tackle as he did briefly last year. However, it’s been rumored (with some credibility) that Martin doesn’t feel comfortable at tackle, and the fact that he got hurt playing the position last year adds some validation to the idea of not going in that direction.
If Martin doesn’t replace Collins, then it’s probably going to be up to Ty Nsehke to start at right tackle, with Terence Steele being the next man up behind him. Neither of those names are going to instill warm fuzzies in fans, but the Buccaneers game proved this coaching staff is capable of mitigating these issues. It also helps to have Dak Prescott back there doing his thing, of course.
One overlooked possibility is moving Connor Williams out to tackle, which was apparently a plan many moons ago, before Collins’ contract extension. Who knows how Williams would fare, and if he’d even be comfortable with such a move. But the idea is that it would keep one of the team’s top five linemen out there while also still allowing McGovern to start after he more than held his own against Tampa Bay. Suffice to say that Dallas has options, and it’ll be interesting to see what direction they take.
The pass rush needs to get going
The Cowboys knew they needed to get some pressure on Tom Brady in order to win, and while they had some moments, it wasn’t enough. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory pose a great one-two punch on the edge, and a solid rotation alongside them with blitzes from the likes of Micah Parsons and Jaylon Smith should figure to be a reliable pass rush.
It was admittedly a tall order going against a Buccaneers offensive line that finished third in adjusted sack rate last year, and Brady’s penchant for getting the ball out of his hands quickly didn’t make things any easier. By comparison, though, Prescott recorded a shorter time to throw on Thursday but was hit five more times than Brady.
In other words, this pass rush needs to make more of an impact in the games ahead. Not only do they need to live up to their potential, but a reliable pass rush will make things easier on the back end. Speaking of...
Can this secondary rebound?
Expectations weren’t sky high for this secondary, and starting the year off against Brady and possibly the only wide receiver corps better than the Cowboys’ own trio was far from ideal. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Brady put up 379 yards through the air. The good news is that Trevon Diggs looked great in the game, especially going up against Mike Evans.
Trevon Diggs shadowed Mike Evans, aligning across from him on 39 of his 47 routes (83%).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 10, 2021
Diggs allowed just 1 reception for 10 yards on 3 targets, and aligned in press coverage on over half of his routes vs Evans (51% press).#DALvsTB | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/jp3kSKBSSh
And while he wasn’t perfect, Jourdan Lewis had a solid game too out of the slot. He picked off Brady’s Hail Mary right before halftime and recovered a fumble at the goal line to add to his two tackles and two pass breakups.
Anthony Brown was the obvious weak link, though, frequently getting burned to a crisp. The safeties had some struggles as well, and it’s notable that Damontae Kazee wasn’t out there for the final drive of the game when the Buccaneers traveled down the field for a game-winning field goal. Kazee was the one who caused the fumble, but other than that had a mostly quiet night. Donovan Wilson and Jayron Kearse, both of whom saw plenty of action, were also quiet in coverage, although Kearse tied Brown for the team lead in tackles.
The glass half full outlook on this unit is that they don’t play Brady again this year, and don’t face many quarterbacks on that level until Week 11 when they take on Patrick Mahomes. The glass half empty outlook is that the Buccaneers’ receivers did their best to blow this game, with several dropped passes along the way, and Brady still toasted this secondary. How they fare against Herbert, a young gunslinger type playing in a new scheme, will offer a better look at what to expect from Dan Quinn’s defense this year.
John Fassel’s special teams need to return to form sooner rather than later
Remember the special teams under Keith O’Quinn? Man, they were terrible. Things were so bad in 2019 that at one point they ranked dead last in the NFL in special teams DVOA, and a few weeks of Kai Forbath simply being able to make his field goals was enough to vault them up the leaderboard before ultimately finishing 30th. All it took was one year under John Fassel for them to jump to seventh in DVOA.
Well, Thursday night looked more like those O’Quinn days. Sure, Zuerlein was bad, but the kick and punt coverage teams looked out of place, giving up several big returns, and there were some questionable decisions by both Lamb and Wilson when returning punts.
Given the body of work Fassel has throughout his career and especially last season, let’s chalk it up to Week 1 rust - for now. Zuerlein and C.J. Goodwin both did very little during the preseason, and other special teams contributors like Kearse, Jeremy Sprinkle, Corey Clement, and Jabril Cox are all new to the team. Given the physical nature of special teams, rust is probably a bigger factor in this phase than offense or defense, so that could be the reason for such a poor performance.
If it’s not, though, and it turns out to be some larger issue with this special teams unit, that could be a huge problem for this team. Poor field position and missed kicks was a big part of what sunk the Cowboys in 2019, when their offense played at an extremely efficient rate and the defense was about average. That can’t be allowed to happen again.
Will the real Mike McCarthy please stand up?
Mike McCarthy caught a lot of heat for some of his fourth down decisions last year, but the fourth down models that the NFL’s Next Gen Stats team uses proved that the Cowboys head coach made the right call at one of the highest rates of any coach in 2020.
So where was that McCarthy on Thursday night? Zuerlein’s first miss came on a play where the Cowboys should have gone for it anyway, according to many fourth down models. There were a few other points where McCarthy’s decision making seemed to contradict the guy we saw last year. It’s one thing to be bold and creative when your team is desperate and has nothing to lose in an already lost season, but to suddenly become conservative when your quarterback is absolutely dealing seems strange.
The Cowboys showed that they have the talent - primarily on offense - to hang with the best of teams. But there’s a difference between hanging with teams and actually winning games. McCarthy needs to be more consistent with his use of analytics and being unafraid to go for it when appropriate in order to give his team an extra edge. This will become even more important if the defense and special teams prove that their Week 1 struggles were more on them than anything else. If the Cowboys are able to improve upon even half of these things, they could quickly become one of the teams to beat in the NFC after what we saw on Thursday night. But those are big if’s.