With that loss, panic is at an all-time high. Because as most Cowboys fans are pointing out, just one week after the Dallas Cowboys dismantled Washington en route to a 42-point victory, Dallas falls by three points to the Arizona Cardinals. Overperforming against bad teams but struggling to beat the good ones seems frighteningly familiar.
But with the Cowboys essentially locked into the four seed, the next time we see a meaningful Dallas game will likely be at home again against the Cardinals. So, what did we learn in the Cowboys’ regular-season home finale?
The narrative that “the Cowboys can’t beat good teams” is misguided
The most popular narrative arising after the Cowboys’ most recent disappointing loss is that “the Cowboys can’t beat good teams.” However, this statement isn’t accurate, no matter how you define “good.”
If you define a “good team” as above .500, the statement is objectively false.
In the seven games against teams with a winning record, Dallas is 3-4. Not ideal, but in those games, Dak has thrown for 14 touchdowns on five interceptions with a completion percentage of 71.1%, leading to a 101.3 passer rating. In games against teams below .500, Dak has thrown for 21 touchdowns with six interceptions on a 65.5% completion percentage for a passer rating of 102.
So if the argument is that Dallas can’t beat a team over .500, they have already done it three times this season, and Dak’s passer rating is nearly identical with this split. Granted, the Cowboys struggle more in these games, as does every other NFL team when they play a better opponent.
But let’s move the goalposts and assume that the argument is “Dallas can’t beat other playoff teams.” This has a little more merit but is still premature.
Dallas has played six games against teams with a greater than 50% chance to make the playoffs at the moment, and they are 3-3 in those games, averaging 26 points and allowing 23.7 points. So, once again, the Cowboys can beat other playoff teams; they have already done it three times this year.
Let’s move it one more time and say, “the Cowboys can’t beat another ten-win team.” This is the best argument you can get because it includes the Cardinals but excludes the borderline playoff teams.
The Cowboys are 1-3 in those games, which is obviously discouraging. They have averaged 23 points to their opponents’ 26 points per game.
However, they were beaten by a combined 15 points in the three losses. Additionally, two of those games were decided by a field goal or less. It is also a matter of sample size, where we shouldn't say the Cowboys can’t do something after only four games of evidence.
The Cowboys have lost 3 games by a combined 8 points.— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) January 3, 2022
Greg Zuerlein has left 14 points on the board in those games
The narrative that the Cowboys can’t beat other good teams is entirely overblown, no matter how you slice it. Sure, they have struggled against ten-win teams, but it is not as if the Cowboys didn’t take those games down to the wire.
Some events from yesterday's game that, each on their own, exceeded the Cowboys 3-point margin of loss:— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) January 3, 2022
Fake punt DPI: +3.7 EPA
Zuerlein missed FG: -3.6 EPA
Dak's 4th quarter fumble: -4.7 EPA
Zeke's 12 plays: -5.5 EPA
The Cowboys can win in the playoffs; it is essentially a new, four-game season for Dallas. Will they is a different question, but it is unfair to say they cannot when they already have.
The defensive line struggles against outside runs
If you thought the last takeaway was too optimistic, don’t worry, the doom and gloom has arrived. This was not just an issue against the Cardinals; Dallas has been unable to contain the edges and push an outside run back to the middle of the field.
The Cowboys Defense Against Outside Runs
|Opponent||Yards per Attempt on Inside Runs||Yards per Attempt on Outside Runs|
|Opponent||Yards per Attempt on Inside Runs||Yards per Attempt on Outside Runs|
This is part of the reason that Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray, and Taysom Hill all rushed for over 3.8 yards per carry. It is larger than an issue of Dallas being unable to stop mobile quarterbacks; they cannot stop rushers who bounce it outside.
If the Cowboys want a deep playoff run, they will likely have to go through Kyler Murray, Aaron Jones, and Leonard Fournette. All of those players have the speed to bounce it outside and rip off chunk plays against Dallas, and teams are starting to realize the Cowboys’ inability to seal the edge.
This is why, on the final Arizona drive, the Cardinals were milking the clock by rushing outside and producing first downs on the ground. Did you think it was a little weird Chase Edmonds was inches away from being out of bounds on several carries during that drive? Arizona was exploiting a Dallas weakness and moving the chains on the ground by rushing outside of the tackles.
The Cowboys’ run defense is significantly improved from 2020. But when rushers get outside of the tackles, that is where last year’s defense begins to rear its ugly head.
Maybe this is an issue of the corners not being able to tackle, perhaps the edge rushers are not fast enough to get outside. Whatever the reason, this will be a problem in the postseason.
There is reason to worry about Dak’s deep ball
It has been challenging to see a once-MVP contender struggling in the back half of the season (we now understand what Seahawks fans have had to deal with for the last few years). However, one of the most concerning aspects of Dak’s “slump” is his big-play ability.
Since the bye week, Dak is attempting a deep pass on 10.5% of attempts, and on those attempts is completing 39% for a passer rating of 80.7. But before the Broncos game, it was a different story. Dak was going deep 12.5% of the time, completing 44% of his passes for a rating of 99.9.
Dak is throwing deep less frequently, and he doesn’t seem to have the accuracy on those passes when he does air it out. This has been one of the staples of his game for years, yet he is now mediocre to below average on 20+ yard throws.
Additionally, Prescott’s average time to throw has decreased on these deep passes, which means that he is getting the ball out quicker. This is likely a result of the pressure rate from the offensive line increasing since the Broncos game, and thus he has less faith he will get the proper protection and rushes his deep balls.
If he were completing more passes, there would be evidence he is more decisive, and the decrease in the time to throw would be a good thing. But since he has struggled on the deep balls, there is more evidence that he doesn’t trust the offensive line to provide him the needed time leading to rushed throws and more incompletions.
And this affects the running game; when defenses don’t have to respect the deep ball, they can press up on the line of scrimmage. This makes it even more difficult for Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard to rip off a long run.
#Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott has not rushed for more than 53 yards in a game since October 17.— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) January 3, 2022
The Cowboys defense played well, except for one facet of the game
If you felt like the Cardinals were milking the clock all game, there is a reason why. The Cowboys’ defense played well, outside of third down, which is a recipe for failure.
On early downs, the Cowboys allowed a first down on 22.8% of plays, with the Cardinals averaging 4.7 yards per play resulting in the 13th best defensive EPA per play allowed in Week 17. Arizona faced a third and six on average, which should be good enough to prevent a first down.
However, the Cowboys surrendered an average of 5.5 yards on third down, allowing a first down on 40% of attempts. This was especially evident in the first half, where the Cowboys were the 26th ranked defense on third down by EPA per play allowed, according to rbsdm.com.
This should be somewhat encouraging. Yes, the Arizona game hurt, but over this season, the Cowboys have been the second-best defense on third down in the league.
The Cardinals’ ability to convert third downs likely won’t continue if these two teams meet up again in the postseason. Despite collapsing on third down throughout this game, the Cowboys only lost by three points.
Take away the unrepeatable efficiency in late downs, this game likely goes the other way. It was not the defense’s finest showing, but in another two weeks, they get another shot at the Arizona offense.
The offense and defense’s ability to control the line dictate this team’s ceiling
It’s not a bold statement that the offensive and defensive line for the Cowboys are critical pieces to this team’s success. The same is true for every team in the league.
But for the Cowboys, it is an entirely different team when one or both of these units struggle. When the offensive line is playing poorly, the entire offense seems unable to do anything. Sunday was a perfect example, where Dallas likely would have gone into halftime with three points if not for a Michael Gallup circus catch.
As for the defense, the Dallas corners are solid, but they cannot stay on their receiver for longer than five to six seconds. When there is no pressure from the defensive line, the Cowboys’ secondary gets exposed.
Look at the offensive line’s performance in wins versus losses:
- Offensive line in wins: 9.7 pressures allowed per game, 1.7 sacks allowed per game, 4.6 yards per rushing attempt
- Offensive line in losses: 16.8 pressures allowed per game, 2.0 sacks allowed per game, 3.8 yards per rushing attempt
And it is the same for the defensive line:
- Defensive line in wins: 20.1 pressures per game, 2.5 sacks per game, 4.6 yards per rush attempt allowed
- Defensive line in losses: 17.8 pressures per game, 2.2 sacks per game, 4.3 yards per rush attempt allowed
Based on these stats, the Cowboys are more dependent on the offensive line having a good outing than the defensive line, but there is still a sizable drop-off in the d-line’s performance in losses.
This is scary because either the offensive or defensive line will have a down game in the postseason, and it might even occur at the same time. The Cowboys are much more dependent on domination at the line of scrimmage than most other teams.
The offense has to find a way to put up points even if Dak isn’t getting a clean pocket. It is the same story for the defense, who has to learn how to change their scheme mid-game if the defensive line isn’t producing the needed pressure.
It is frightening to be so dependent on these two groups, but it is the way things stand with the 2021 Dallas Cowboys.
Throw away the records, the possible accolades, the NFC East championship, all of the stats, everything. From this point on, it is a new season, and we are entering a point where it only takes one loss to end a once hopeful year.
Sunday wasn’t promising, but it was essentially an irrelevant game outside of seeding. We now wait anxiously, hoping we see the offense that showed up against Washington and the defense that showed up against the Giants. What a season this has turned into.