The Cowboys got a taste of their own medicine this week, walking into a hostile environment and getting absolutely manhandled by the home team. It was a poor performance all the way around for the Cowboys, which is reflected in the player grades put out by Pro Football Focus.
Very few positives
Not everything went wrong in this game, but it was sure close to it. The Cowboys had just six players with a player grade above 70.0; for context, last week’s game featured 14 such players.
EDGE DeMarcus Lawrence - 88.8
DeMarcus Lawrence was the highest-graded player in this game, and the only one to surpass an 80.0 player grade. He failed to record a pressure, though there were very few pass rush reps in this game. Lawrence made him mark in run defense, easily leading the team there with a 92.1 run defense grade.
C Tyler Biadasz - 79.1
Tyler Biadasz finished the game as the highest-graded offensive lineman in this one, a big step forward for a player that’s struggled all season. He yielded zero pressures for the second straight week, a feat made all the more impressive considering how the Bills’ pass rush was dominating in this one.
RB Tony Pollard - 79.1
Tony Pollard tied Biadasz for the best player grade on offense in this game, but the Cowboys were unable to fully utilize him with the way the game went. Pollard averaged 4.7 yards per carry, but only saw 11 carries on the day; still, three of his carries went for a first down, and Pollard forced three missed tackles. This player grade topped last week’s as his best of the season, a good omen for the running back.
EDGE Micah Parsons - 74.6
Micah Parsons was his usual self in the pass rush, totaling seven pressures on the day. For some context on how good he was, the rest of the defense tallied nine pressures in this one. But for how good Parsons was rushing the passer, he was a liability in run defense: Parsons’ 39.7 run defense grade was the lowest among defenders with at least 12 run defense snaps.
CB Stephon Gilmore - 74.6
Stephon Gilmore had a relatively quiet day in coverage, with just three targets, but he held his own with a pass breakup. Where Gilmore really shined - relative to the rest of the defense, that is - was in run defense. He had two tackles, a stop, and zero misses on the day.
iDL Mazi Smith - 70.4
Mazi Smith received a lot of unjustified criticism in this game for simply not being Johnathan Hankins, but the rookie was one of the few defenders that actually showed up for this game. He was reliable in run defense and tallied two pressures on the day, as well as recording his first career sack.
Offensive stars struggled
The Cowboys have been dominant on offense since the bye week, and this was the first time over that stretch they looked outright bad. A big part of that had to do with their top players all playing really poorly.
QB Dak Prescott - 39.4
On some level, it’s hard to really evaluate Dak Prescott’s performance in this game, as he was constantly under duress from start to finish. On another level, though, Prescott looked off all game. He threw four turnover worthy passes, more than he’d had over the last eight weeks, and threw his first interception since Week 10. Prescott was bad in his first game as the unquestioned MVP frontrunner, but a strong response next week could write it off as one bad game.
WR CeeDee Lamb - 62.6
CeeDee Lamb finished with seven catches for 53 yards, and he scored a touchdown in garbage time on an end around carry for three yards. He actually finished with the second-best grade among pass catchers, but it was just that kind of night for this whole offense.
WR Brandin Cooks - 53.1
Brandin Cooks very nearly made a huge play on the first drive of the game, but Prescott overthrew him. He then proceeded to catch just one of his next five targets, resulting in a pretty pedestrian player grade.
TE Jake Ferguson - 60.7
Jake Ferguson caught six passes for 44 yards, with 23 of those coming after the catch. That helped him lead the team in receiving grade, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference. After several big games for the tight end, this was a disappointing one.
Run defense with historically bad game
The run defense was horrendous for the Cowboys in this game. To be clear, the team was bad in quite a few areas, but their inability to stop the run was easily the worst aspect of this performance.
The Cowboys were beat on every front this week, but the collapse of the run defense weighed most heavily while the game was still in reach.— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) December 18, 2023
Cowboys win probability added by unit
Pass offense: -8 percentage points of WP
Rush offense: -5
Pass defense: -9
Run defense: -18
iDL Osa Odighizuwa - 60.3
Osa Odighizuwa has been one of the top interior defenders all year, including against the run, but he struggled mightily in this one. His 60.5 run defense grade still managed to be one of the better figures in this game, but it was well below his standards.
iDL Carl Davis - 55.4
Carl Davis was called up from the practice squad to relieve Mazi Smith as the secondary nose tackle, but he didn’t fare well. Despite being a large human, listed at 335 pounds, Davis was constantly getting pushed around.
iDL Chauncey Golston - 51.8
Chauncey Golston has come on strong in recent weeks, but this was a step back for him. His run defense grade of 49.8 was the worst among interior defenders in this one, although he did face the fewest run defense snaps of the bunch.
EDGE Dorance Armstrong - 39.1
Dorance Armstrong has generally been known for his do-it-all ability, even pitching in on special teams for the Cowboys, but he struggled in this one. No defensive lineman had a lower grade than Armstrong’s 43.0 mark.
S Jayron Kearse - 49.3
It’s hard to blame safeties for bad run defense, but Jayron Kearse plays so much in the box that he bears some responsibility for that area of his play. And in this game, Kearse was uncharacteristically bad, posting a dismal 43.4 run defense grade, his worst since the Cardinals game back in Week 3.
S Donovan Wilson - 49.1
Similarly, Donovan Wilson is the type of safety that gets more exposure than normal in run defense, and he’s usual one of the best in that regard. But Wilson struggled just as much as Kearse, posting a terrible 48.4 run defense grade.