Last Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans should have been a wakeup call for the Dallas Cowboys. There were some pretty big warts on display as they struggled in multiple facets of the game. It took both a determined defensive stand and a touchdown drive where everything really clicked after not clicking for much of the game. It was good to get the win after so many things were off-kilter, but there was an unfortunate price as right tackle Terence Steele and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins would both go on injured reserve after being hurt in the game. Steele is out until next season with a torn ACL, while Hankins may be back for the playoffs. With so many concerns from that game, it takes a couple of people to look through them all, and our David Howman and Tom Ryle are willing to oblige.
Tom: Steele’s lost is the elephant in the room. The former UDFA has become a very reliable and effective player. He has done so largely under the radar, which is a good thing. You mostly don’t talk about offensive linemen unless they do something wrong. His loss left Dallas scrambling to replace him, with Josh Ball initially coming in before he was replaced by Jason Peters for the final game-winning drive. Peters is exactly who his reputation says he is, a very good offensive tackle. Even switching to the side where he has almost no experience or practice time did not faze him.
But there seems to be a concern about just how many plays he is good for. At age 40, he has all the savvy and most of the strength, but hardly the stamina of his early days. Rotating Ball and Peters might be forced on them. There are also some hints being dropped that Tyron Smith may be another option. It looks like he is almost ready to return from his training camp injury and could be activated this week. If he is able to switch sides, having him start and returning Peters to a backup role is crucial.
How the team handles this is the biggest question of the week. It is just the first of many, however.
David: Losing Steele hurts, but it comes when Dallas is getting Tyron Smith back while also having Jason Peters on the bench. I’m not overly concerned about the offensive line, just because the team has several options there and offensive line coach Joe Philbin has earned my trust with the way his unit has performed this season.
I’m more concerned with the defense, which a few weeks ago would’ve been a laughable notion. The secondary was already thin after Anthony Brown joined Jourdan Lewis on the season-ending injured reserve, but now Johnathan Hankins won’t be back until the playoffs. I guess it’s nice to know that he’ll be back at all, but there are still games left to play and quite a lot left to play for.
Hankins’ addition to this defense has coincided with Dallas skyrocketing all the way to their current rank of sixth in run defense DVOA. He’s helped elevate this run defense in a huge way, and that had been their lone Achilles heel before he showed up. The Jaguars don’t boast a potent running game, but the Cowboys’ two opponents after that - the Eagles and Titans - live and die by the run. The Cowboys can’t afford to lose any of their remaining games if they hope to even have a chance at the top seed in the NFC, but losing Hankins right before two consecutive matchups against the likes of Jalen Hurts and Derrick Henry is less than ideal.
Tom: I am not at all going to deny there are some real issues on defense. But the right tackle is just one thing on offense that looks concerning. The team is searching for answers at wide receiver. They have been ever since Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson left the team. This week the Cowboys did something we normally do not see from them. They signed wide receiver T.Y. Hilton to help them down the stretch. It is a level of commitment to improve the roster this late that hasn’t really been there. The problem is that we have no idea if he can be a real boost to the offense. He is 33 and has an injury history. A bit overlooked was the return to the active roster by James Washington after his camp injury. That is two people that Dak Prescott needs to work on getting in sync. Speed seemed to be the big hope with Hilton’s acquisition, but we won’t find out if it is still there until he gets some game action.
Even bigger, do we have any idea what happened to the running game against the Texans? After the initial touchdown drive of the game it was just not working. There were too many runs that got little or negative yards, including when they failed to score running the ball from the one-yard line. This team has leaned on the ground game all year, using the mix of Ezekiel Elliott’s power and Tony Pollard’s speed and elusiveness. If that was not just a blip last week this could be a critical thing to not have down the stretch.
Affecting the run is of course the offensive line problems I started with. They have been opening holes all year but just couldn’t against Houston. The pass protection was bad at times when Ball was on the field and led to the interception that nearly cost the game. Prescott is great at avoiding sacks, but that should not be the thing you plan on needing. Dallas needs to score points. It is harder when you have so many issues on offense.
David: I’m not going to pretend that everything is perfect on offense, but I just don’t see much worry there. This group just had, by far, its worst performance since Dak Prescott came back from injury and they still put up 27 points, 404 yards, and finished eighth in offensive success rate for Week 14. If that’s what they do on a bad day, I’ll take it.
As for the defense, there are a few cracks that are starting to show. Hankins’ absence is part of the problem, but it doesn’t end there. DaRon Bland has been good in spurts but he’s allowing completions on over 81% of his passes. Kelvin Joseph had a nice pass breakup late in the game, but that was the lone incompletion against him. Even Donovan Wilson, who’s been exceptional all year, was in poor position when he allowed a touchdown catch early in the game.
Part of that also stems from the fact that the pass rush failed to get home in this game. For the first time all year, the team didn’t record a single sack; worse still, they had a meager 12 pressures in the game. That’s their lowest since they played the Green Bay Packers, and Houston thwarted the pass rush in much the same way Green Bay did: RPOs and play-action passes all day. Pressuring the quarterback has been this defense’s calling card all year, but we might be seeing the formation of a blueprint on how to mitigate that strength. And if offenses are able to consistently buy time for their quarterback, this suddenly inexperienced secondary will be in big trouble.
Another aspect I think warrants some concern is the special teams unit, which has been uneven for several weeks now. KaVontae Turpin muffed the punt against Houston, Brett Maher missed a field goal against Indianapolis, and the kick coverage teams have given up some big plays lately. Special teams has been reliably solid all year, but Bones Fassel’s group is starting a trend of shaky play that could really haunt them if they don’t get it corrected.
Tom: It really is all three phases of the game. Mike McCarthy has a bit of a reputation for his team bouncing back after a bad performance. He will have to do so facing a full list of issues for his staff to clear up.