On a Sunday where the Cowboys controlled their own destiny to clinch consecutive playoff berths and win their fifth straight game, they couldn’t escape an up-and-coming Jaguars team. Jacksonville came back from down 17 in the second half to win the game in overtime on Dak Prescott’s second interception of the game.
For as much as the Cowboys front office has been proven right with their personnel decisions all year long to this point, Prescott having to force a tight window throw to Noah Brown that bounced off the front of his jersey and into the arms of Rayshawn Jenkins for a game-ending pick six was a problem of a still-flawed receiving corps. The Cowboys lack of speed/athleticism at WR is being compounded by Kellen Moore’s scheme not adjusting as fast as opposing defenses are. Add in their shuffling players on the offensive line hindering the run game, the Cowboys now find themselves at a late-season crossroads.
Injuries continued to pile up for the Cowboys in Jacksonville, with the loss of Leighton Vander Esch adding to an already banged up defense missing Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. Both Moore and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have adjustments to make for a team still going to the playoffs, and their next chance to show something is in just six days against the now 13-1 Eagles.
Moving onto the Eagles game won’t feel as critical now that the Cowboys are in a much tougher position to catch them for the division lead, making unravelling this Jaguars game all the more important. What do the Cowboys need to fix, and what positives can be taken from this loss?
- The idea that the Cowboys would get Tyron Smith back at all this season was hard to believe when he was first injured in the offseason program, making his season debut at right tackle all the more impressive. Smith stepped up for the injured Terence Steele, lost for the season against Houston, and split snaps with Jason Peters. The Cowboys offense averaged almost a full three yards a play more with Smith at right tackle compared to Peters in this game, who had his struggles on the edge against a wave of speed rushers the Jaguars defense deploys.
Where Steele was more of the bulldozing run blocker that climbed to the second level with ease, Smith’s length helped him get to blocks quicker and seal the edge. This set up Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard to make the first defender miss, something they’ve done well all season. It was the passing offense the Cowboys relied on to move the chains though, averaging over 11 yards a play, but failing to sustain a fourth quarter drive that could have ended the game or the overtime possession.
- It wasn’t all bad in the secondary for the Cowboys against Trevor Lawrence, who’s 42 passing attempts were the fifth most of his young career. DaRon Bland continues to impress in man coverage, coming up with another interception and multiple passes defended. The Cowboys know what they have in Trevon Diggs at one corner spot, but have struggled to find consistency on the other side of the field without Anthony Brown or Jourdan Lewis. Quinn showed a level of trust in Bland to call pressures and rely on him in coverage without safety help that should give him the edge for even more snaps down the stretch of this season. On the other hand, Kelvin Joseph was again in good position for some throws but gave up the long touchdown to Zay Jones by biting on a double move, a level of aggressiveness the Cowboys defense simply can’t live with right now.
- While the touchdown to Jones in the third quarter put the game pressure back on the Cowboys, it was the sequence afterwards that gave the Jaguars a legitimate chance to get back in the game. Tyler Smith has gone through rookie growing pains at left tackle in recent weeks, and struggled to sustain blocks in this game. Smith overset on a pass protection rep against Arden Key, allowing him to rush the inside shoulder and get a clear path to Prescott. The sack set up a 2nd and 18 for Prescott, and his throw for Dalton Schultz sailed high and was intercepted by Rayshawn Jenkins.
The Cowboys defense couldn’t come up with another miracle on a short field, as the Jaguars scored their second touchdown in three minutes to take the lead.
- Prescott’s game-ending interception came on a third and four attempt, and Dalton Schultz trying to get to the right depth affected the pass to Brown. Dallas was trying to run a simple crossing design, and if Schultz picks the right defender Brown has a chance to run after the catch and easily keep the drive alive. Instead, Schultz allowed a defender to run with Brown, making it the type of contested catch that mostly went the Cowboys’ way earlier in the game. This time, the Cowboys, letting a subpar opponent hang around cost them, as one bad bounce ended the game and takes a lot of the air out of this week’s meeting with the Eagles.
- The Dallas defense missed Leighton Vander Esch against the run in this game, but also saw the Jaguars exploit Anthony Barr in the pass game. Barr was beat by Evan Engram and Travis Etienne on multiple routes, and the Cowboys are without a nickel defender like Jourdan Lewis that can cover these backs and tight ends. Whether or not they decide to put Jabril Cox back on the field against teams with similar personnel remains to be seen, but this was also another game the Cowboys front four wasn’t as active as usual. Winning up front can make up for a lot of issues elsewhere on both sides of the ball, but the splash plays that saved the game last week from DeMarcus Lawrence, Osa Odighizuwa, and Neville Gallimore were missing this Sunday.