Sunday’s game was supposed to serve as a litmus test for a Dallas Cowboys team that many fans want to believe is different and could avert postseason disappointment that has become synonymous with the Cowboys since 1995. But this most recent struggle with a possible playoff team, the Buffalo Bills, has produced more questions than answers and shined the light on some alarming concerns for Dallas ahead of the playoffs. Here are three disturbing trends this team needs to address following Sunday’s loss.
The Cowboys have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. Despite what they showed in Buffalo, they have a potent offense that can score points. Their defense can stifle a passing offense with their speed at the defensive line and opportunistic tendencies. From a special teams aspect, Brandon Aubrey is perfect, having made all 31 field goal attempts. Because of this, the Cowboys have the second-largest point differential in the NFL. The Cowboys have a 10-4 despite one major flaw.
The Cowboys are the most penalized team in the NFL. Following yesterday’s game, the Cowboys have committed 102 penalties (872 yards). The Cowboys were fortunate to escape a few games despite their self-inflicted errors. Think back to their game against Seattle this season. The Cowboys committed nine penalties for 127 yards, that’s an absurd amount of free field position in a singular game.
Per the Football database, the Cowboys have committed a league high in offensive holding (19) and offsides (15). Additionally, they are second-most with 14 defensive holding penalties. On Sunday, the trend continued as the team committed several crucial errors at the worst time.
DeMarcus Lawrence’s roughing the passer on the Bills’ opening drive resulted in a touchdown for the Buffalo versus what would have been a field goal try. Sam Williams committed a big blunder for roughing the kicker on a missed punt block. That drive also resulted in yet another Buffalo touchdown.
After the penalty, you could see Mike McCarthy speaking to special teams coach John Fassel about the mistake, and his frustration was evident. You’d like to believe the Cowboys aren’t who they showed on Sunday, but their continuous errors are a major Achilles’ heel holding them back from being truly special.
As dynamic and as many exotic looks as Dan Quinn’s defense can present, they lack the most basic fundamental of football - stopping the run. James Cook and the Buffalo Bills rushing attack gashed the Cowboys. Cook had 179 rushing yards on 25 carries for a 7.2 yards per carry average. A Buffalo Bills runner hasn’t had that many rushing yards since Fred Jackson in 2010.
The Cowboys desperately needed Jonathan Hankins who was out of Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. The interior run defense was terrible, but the run defense to the perimeter was also terrible. Numerous times, the Cowboys could not contain outside runs to the edges, and James Cook racked up yards easily once he bounced outside the tackles.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Bills had a 17% successful run rate over expected, the NFL’s highest in three years. The Dallas defensive line was driven off the ball at the snap and into the second level of the defense. The first drive of the game set the tone. The Bills constantly worked together to move the pile, and the desire to tackle wasn’t there from the Cowboys.
Dallas isn’t a conventional defense in terms of personnel and uses safeties and linebackers almost interchangeably. Because of that, they are lighter against the run. Teams who can play with a lead against the Cowboys will lean on their running game and neutralize the effectiveness of the Dallas pass rush and Micah Parsons. Parsons was limited to only two tackles and zero quarterback pressures because of the Bills’ insistence on running the ball. The Cowboys aren’t going to drastically change personnel or their system ahead of a playoff chase. Dallas will have to execute better offensively, and their defense will have to put together a better effort to stop the run if they hope to advance in the playoffs and get past the likes of the San Francisco 49ers or Philadelphia Eagles. It’s that simple.
Run game efficiency in losses vs. above .500 teams
As superficial as some may think it is, we have to address the elephant in the room: the Cowboys’ struggles in losses against teams above .500. It isn’t as straightforward as the Cowboys, who are ill-equipped to beat good teams, and therefore are incapable of doing so. It has more nuance than that. We can attribute their troubles to being unable to run the ball in such situations. The Cowboys running game has yet to be able to take the edge off quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ offensive line.
In the three losses against Buffalo, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, the Cowboys ran the ball 60 times for 219 yards for an average of 3.65 yards per carry. It’s an about-face for a team whose identity was intrinsically tied to dominating the trenches behind former running back Ezekiel Elliott. Granted, times have changed, but the Cowboys need to do more to keep the teams, as mentioned above, at bay to give the offense cleaner looks in the passing game.
A few weeks back, Jerry Jones said the Cowboys pass the ball to set up the run. That comment might’ve been born out of necessity. Tony Pollard has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark once this season, back in Week 3. Dak Prescott has the third most rushing yards with 212, just under 100 behind Rico Dowdle. The Cowboys have resigned themselves to living and dying by the right arm of Dak Prescott. That was fine, given how he played the last six weeks until yesterday.
Meanwhile, Josh Allen for Buffalo had the luxury of handing the ball off to James Cook and watching him do all the work. Having an effective run game in terms of efficiency, not volume, could alleviate things for Prescott and the offensive line. Sticking with the established three-game sample, the Cowboys’ rushing EPA was abysmal—-0.435 against San Francisco, -0.148 against Philadelphia, and 0.072 against Buffalo. The latter is likely inflated by a game long decided in the earlier stages.
With Sunday’s loss, the Cowboys are almost assured of playing a road game in the postseason and outside the comfortable confines of AT&T stadium. The Cowboys’ issues away from home are well documented, and having some semblance of an effective running game is paramount. As we’ve seen this weekend in the NFL, adverse weather can impact offenses and running the ball well can swing things back in Dallas’ favor. If the Cowboys hope to play meaningful football beyond the divisional round playoff, they will have to find a way to revamp their running game.