Disappointment. Heartbreaker. Frustrating. All are words that describe the Dallas Cowboys’ loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those words are just emotional descriptors. And while they are accurate, the numbers help paint a more precise picture of just what happened.
A tale of two halves
It was really two different games when you look at the halves in isolation. In the first half, the Cowboys took a 21-7 lead. They had 132 yards passing and 91 on the ground and were converting 66.7% of their third downs. They held the Jaguars to 77 yards through the air, but there was a bit of a warning signal in the 75 yards they allowed rushing and their own 50% third down conversion rate. Dak Prescott was particularly effective, going 15 for 16 yards passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
If there were adjustments made at half, it is blatantly obvious that the Jacksonville coaching staff got the best of Mike McCarthy and his assistants. The Dallas running game largely vanished in the second half, with only 36 yards. Passing also fell off, although not as bad with 111 yards. Prescott was less accurate, completing eight of thirteen passes and throwing a crucial interception. While he cooled off, Trevor Lawrence caught fire, throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. They also ran through the Cowboys’ defense pretty much at will, getting 116 yards that way. They converted six of seven third downs in the half, and had no punts.
Surrendering a 17-point lead is very bad, and the overall stats from the second half show just how poorly Dallas handled things.
A near total defensive collapse
While the offense had its issues, the way the Cowboys’ defense collapsed was stark. They had only one sack, none after the half, and had absolutely no answers for Jacksonville in the second half. They did get two takeaways, but those mistakes by the Jaguars offense just prevented the half from being an even more brutal beatdown. Outside of the pick and fumble, Jacksonville scored every time they touched the ball.
For the second week in a row, Dan Quinn’s pass rush was MIA. They got only one sack and four QB hits. But there has been some defense of their efforts.
The Cowboys recorded 28 pressures yesterday against the Jaguars. That's the most they've had since Week 5 vs the Rams.— David Howman (@_DH44_) December 19, 2022
PSA for those who are acting like there was no pass rush yesterday
However, I will dispute my colleague here. Those pressures did nothing. Some quarterbacks are very good under pressure. Prescott is one. In this game, at least, Lawrence was totally unbothered by pressure, especially in the second half. There are quarterbacks who are affected by pressure, and you always want to have it. But this was an example of how the pass rush has to get home to be fully effective, and it simply did not, just as it didn’t in the previous game. And these were not stellar offensive lines they faced.
Perhaps this is just a temporary issue. Micah Parsons is apparently enduring some limitations. But if other teams are coming up with an effective way to neutralize what was the real strength of the defense for the first thirteen games, the Cowboys are in huge trouble.
The failure in the secondary
Defending the pass has two components, of course. Even if the quarterback is able to get the pass away, there is still a chance for the coverage to stop the play. At the beginning of the year, the Cowboys had very good depth at cornerback, but the loss of starters Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown have depleted things. And while it seems unfair to put too much blame on one player, these numbers are hard to ignore.
Before he got benched, Kelvin Joseph's coverage stats (per PFF):— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) December 19, 2022
This was a very good example of finding a weakness and exploiting it. It may be a bit unfair to point at Joseph too much, because he has not had much experience on the field.
Unpopular opinion:— C. Joseph Wright (@CJosephWright) December 20, 2022
Kelvin Joseph played less than 10 snaps a game as a rookie (on average).
He has played 164 snaps on defense this year.
Perhaps it is a bit early to call him a bust.#CowboysNation
Nonetheless, he clearly did not get the job done. The team is searching for a better answer.
Cowboys DC Dan Quinn said there will be a competition during practice this week for the other starting outside corner spot opposite of Trevon Diggs. Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright are the most likely, but they have added Mackensie Alexander, Kendall Sheffield, Trayvon Mullen— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 19, 2022
It would be remiss to not mention the good news, the play of rookie DaRon Bland. He has been a very pleasant surprise, and had an interception, two passes defended, and six tackles in the game. He and Trevon Diggs are more than capable, but the drop off to the third corner has just been too steep since Brown was hurt. This hole in the dike has to be plugged or trouble lies ahead.
The upcoming game against the Philadelphia Eagles was looking like a very unfavorable situation for Dallas, but things may be very different in light of the news that Jalen Hurts may miss the game. His style of play seemed perfect to exploit the issues of the Cowboys. Now they may have caught a real break in facing Gardner Minshew.
But if Minshew rips up the secondary, the chances for playoff success will be in serious decline.
Oh, and the run D also is concerning
Giving up 192 yards is bad in and of itself. Context matters, and that makes it even worse. Remember the 116 yards the Jaguars gained in the second half? That was while they were racking up 27 points to come from behind. That means these weren’t ground gains piled up while protecting a lead. They were runs that were moving the ball to get scores. Repeatedly, Jacksonville completely flummoxed Dallas with motion and misdirection.
Leighton Vander Esch is injured and the Jaguars offense starts to use as much eye candy as possible to make it difficult for the Cowboys LBs.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 20, 2022
Plays featuring the TE crossing the formation, Jet Motion and End Arounds all playing off each other before finishing with a TD on Mesh. pic.twitter.com/UwHU4p5iSB
That tweet also points out just how crucial Leighton Vander Esch has been this season. It is the best year of his career. His status remains unknown, but having him out for any appreciable time could be devastating.
T.Y. Hilton can’t get on the field fast enough
The receiver situation was an element of the offense that did not help enough in the loss. It is unquestioned that CeeDee Lamb is having a great year and had a tremendous game, catching all seven passes thrown at him for 126 yards. But it is increasingly clear that if defenses can cover him and force Prescott to look elsewhere, they have the advantage. Noah Brown was the only receiver targeted more than Lamb. He had six catches but they only went for 49 yards, although two were touchdowns. But he also had two drops, the last the carom interception that abruptly ended the game. Michael Gallup was a non-factor, and James Washington barely saw the field with no passes his way. Dalton Schultz was also not much help.
This is why Odell Beckham has received so much attention from the team, and why they signed T.Y. Hilton, who is expected to make his debut on Saturday. They lack a viable threat outside Lamb. They need Hilton to come in and do that for them, as well as provide a more credible deep threat. If he doesn’t, though, that is one more hindrance for the team in the postseason. That is why the Beckham interest refuses to die.
Worries about the running game
From the very beginning of the offseason, the mantra of the Cowboys has been that the offense will be driven by the running game. When it falters, the results are about what you would expect. And that is exactly what happened in the second half of this game. There were too many negative plays on first and second down rushing attempts. Jacksonville seemed to have figured out how to disrupt it. Perhaps right tackle was something that hindered things. That is one issue that may well get better as Tyron Smith gets his football legs back. But for whatever reason, it was just another failure.
Additionally, Prescott is not getting great pass protection. He really has not all season, overcoming it at times with his own mobility. It still is one more concern as Dallas tries to get things figured out for the playoffs.