It was not a great way to spend Christmas Eve. The Dallas Cowboys put up a much better fight against the Miami Dolphins than they had against the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills, but they were still unable to figure out how to win against a good team on the road. Lets examine the numbers from the game and see what we can learn.
That was it for the entire game. No interceptions, and just one lost fumble by the Cowboys. It came early and there were plenty of opportunities for Dallas to overcome it, but it would wind up being huge.
It came at the end of an opening possession by the Cowboys where they moved efficiently down the field to a first and goal from inside the one after Tony Pollard came up just short of the goal line. During the drive, they had twice used Hunter Luepke on short yardage, and he had delivered both times. They tried to go to the well one more time, but according to the NFL stats, it was scored as a botched handoff from Dak Prescott. The Dolphins would get in range for a long range field goal.
Had Dallas scored that touchdown, it would have changed the course of things. It would hardly have guaranteed a win, but this made it so much harder, forcing the Cowboys to play from behind for much of the game. That is just not when they do their best. It is one of those plays that sticks unpleasantly in the mind with all the “what ifs?”
A defensive struggle
The score tips this, but some of the numbers make it clear. Each team only scored a touchdown once in the red zone, with the Dallas missing twice and Miami three times. You could chalk this up to offensive ineptitude, but there were other signs of how much this one was two defenses repeatedly stiffening.
Neither team could muster 100 yards on the ground, with the Cowboys getting 97 and the Dolphins 91. Neither passing attack would be overwhelming, with Miami holding a 284 to 242 edge. Unfortunately for Dallas, the Dolphins’ pass rush was much more effective, sacking Prescott four times while their own defense just got to Tua Tagovailoa once. And Prescott was under constant pressure on many other plays, with the left side of the line doing a particularly poor job against Bradley Chubb. We all knew that Tyron Smith’s absence would hurt, but as replay showed on more than one occasion, the assignments were just botched, with three blockers on one player while another came free at their quarterback.
One odd thing is that both teams had their WR1 put up big numbers. CeeDee Lamb led everyone with 119 yards, but the majority of those came in the first quarter when Dallas scored their first touchdown after the initial drive collapsed inside the one. After that, the Miami defense seemed to find a way to take him away for most of the game.
Tyreek Hill was the big concern for the Cowboys, and he would wind up with 99 yards, but did not find the end zone. The game wound up so close because Dallas repeatedly forced their opponent to settle for a field goal. Speaking of which...
A career night for Jason Sanders
The Dolphins kicker would hit all five of his attempts, including long range shots of 57, 54, and 52 yards, a team record. That is one reason the failed drive to open the game looms so large. Dan Quinn’s bunch was doing its job in limiting Miami, although they did struggle with keeping the Dolphins from getting onto their side of the field, and once they crossed the 50, Sanders was in play. His performance was crucial.
However, that just reinforces how much of a defensive game this was. Dallas kept Miami out of the end zone on all but one possession. So maybe there is an element of offensive failure for the Cowboys, especially the lack of any production at all in the second quarter.
What about Dak?
Let’s disregard how that fumble was charged, because it is hard to put that all on the quarterback. Prescott would finish with a 20 out of 34 night for 253 yards and two touchdowns, including a perfectly placed touchdown to Brandin Cooks that gave the Cowboys the one point lead they were unable to protect. As mentioned, he was constantly having to escape and evade, and would add 25 yards with his legs. Several other passes were thrown away to avoid sacks.
It was not a great game for him, but not horrible. That pass protection, or lack thereof, did him no favors. It was still less that the team needed.
We have to be honest. Any playoff success for this team is going to depend on Prescott playing at about his very best. That is not ideal, but it is where the team is.
Those are some key stats, and there is not much else to go into. One thing that might be worth considering is how Dallas keeps spreading the ball around, and it’s not just in the passing game. Dak targeted a full dozen receivers, and including him, seven different Cowboys had rushing attempts. Maybe they need to think about leaning more on their main target, Lamb, and even about sticking with Pollard more when they run. Twelve carries seems insufficient for a running back to get his full rhythm, and that is all they got from him.
In any case, they need to use next week’s contest against the Detroit Lions to try and get some of these things cleaned up. If they don’t, they are clearly going to be limping into the playoffs. And a limp doesn’t bode well for the road.