It was not just a 28-16 loss by the Dallas Cowboys to the Arizona Cardinals. It was an embarrassing beating for a team that had created such lofty expectations, especially Dan Quinn’s vaunted defense. Nearly everything fell apart for Dallas in this game, and there will need to be some major adjustments this week to get the team back on a winning track.
There were warning signs in the week before. The Cowboys got some brutal injury news prior to the game with the loss of Trevon Diggs to a torn ACL during practice, but by kickoff, that was ancient history. Through the week, bad news continued to emerge about the starting offensive line. While LG Tyler Smith was expected to be available for the first time this season, RG Zack Martin, C Tyler Biadasz, and then on Saturday LT Tyron Smith all showed up on the injury report. Martin and Biadasz were both inactive for the game, and by the pregame warmups, it was apparent Tyron Smith would not be starting.
First-team Cowboys offensive line in pregame warmups:— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 24, 2023
LT: Chuma Edoga
LG: Tyler Smith
C: Brock Hoffman
RG: T.J. Bass
RT: Terence Steele
This was seen even before the season began as a very likely, possibly easy win for Dallas, but now there was not only a question about just how well the offense would function with this patchwork line, but how well they could protect Dak Prescott. An injury to him is the one thing there would seem to be no way to recover from.
The game still had to go on, and the Cowboys still had one of the fiercest defenses in the league. The Cardinals got the ball to open the game, and thing immediately went wrong on that front as Joshua Dobbs broke loose on a designed QB run for 44 yards to get deep into Dallas’ end of the field. The defense stiffened and forced a fourth down, and Arizona elected to take three points to get on the board. It was the first time the Cowboys had trailed this year.
Then it was time to see how the offense would manage. Two Tony Pollard runs only netted four yards, and then a false start left them facing third and eleven. Then a delay of game made it third and sixteen, both penalties likely due to the new faces on the line. A screen to Rico Dowdle came up well short, and it was a three and out on the first Dallas possession.
A first down on a pass and a pass interference on DaRon Bland against Hollywood Brown soon had the Cards in Cowboys territory again, and a long run got them to the 23. After a decent gain on a Dobbs scramble, Micah Parsons came off the field, and the ensuing completion had the ball inside the ten with a first and goal just outside the five. A run off right tackle by James Connor was all too easy, and suddenly Dallas was down by two scores, and an offsides penalty let Arizona line up for a two-point attempt from the one. But it failed, leaving the score 9-0 with 6:12 left in the first quarter.
There has been quite a history of fluky games when the Cowboys play Arizona, and this was already looking like it was happening again. Something good finally happened as Jake Ferguson got the initial first down for the team, but Zaven Collins broke through on the next play to sack Prescott for a loss of 11. A pass interference call drawn by CeeDee Lamb bailed them out, then Hunter Luepke got his first catch of his career for a first down. However, Victor Dukmekeje would get the second sack of Prescott as the offensive line was having trouble protecting him as feared. Micheal Gallup countered with a catch and run of 19 yards to wipe out the sack. The drive would stall as Prescott had his third-down pass attempt knocked down, and Brandon Aubrey came on to try a 49-yard field goal that got Dallas on the board.
During the break between the first and second, Micah Parsons seemed upset by issues getting the right defensive call. They looked like they were going to get off the field, but defensive holding gave Arizona a first down, and Parsons was offsides on the play as well. A couple of plays later, Rondale Moore broke free and raced to the end zone, putting the Cardinals ahead by 12 after they failed again on a two-point try.
The defense looked nothing like the dominant unit of the first two games, vulnerable to both the run and the pass. While it is hard to say it was all because of Diggs being absent, that had to have hurt. This was horrible news for a team that really needed an outstanding performance from them with all the offensive line issues.
Fortunately, the offense came alive on the next possession, overcoming two penalties with efficient running and passing to culminate in a Rico Dowdle touchdown on a well executed screen pass, and the deficit was cut to 15-10.
Conner would continue to bedevil the defense on the next series, however, getting back-to-back chunk plays. With their backup QB, this Arizona team was moving with ease. The defense finally managed to force a fourth down on the Dallas 32, and coming out of the two minute warning, the Cardinals elected to kick a 51-yard field goal, but an offsides call gave them a first down instead on the 27. They couldn’t move the ball this time, and Matt Prater would come back in to make a 43-yard field goal.
The Cowboys trailed 18-10 with 1:28 on the clock until the half. But on a day where the yellow flags were raining down on them, an offensive pass interference call on Lamb put them in a first and 20 hole, and they had to punt the ball to Arizona, who got a good punt return to get out to their own 29 as the special teams also were having their issues. They had 25 seconds and two timeouts, and Dallas kept helping them with offsides penalties that kept the drive moving and stopped the clock. Still, they forced them to have Prater try a 62-yard attempt, and one of the best long distance kickers in the league nailed it, to send the game to halftime with Arizona leading 21-10.
It was really a pitiful performance by the Cowboys, who yielded 182 yards rushing in the first half, and were flagged 10 times, both of which are unacceptable for a full game, much less 30 minutes of play. Lamb was limited to one catch in the first half. Down two scores again, they would have to play a completely different game in the second half to have any chance of winning this game.
They had the ball coming out of halftime, and after Luepke added his first carry for a first down, Prescott found Lamb for 32 yards. Then under heavy pressure, the QB scrambled for thirteen on third and 12 to get into the red zone. But they would fail to convert a third and seven, and had to settle for a chip shot by Aubrey to cut the lead to 21-13.
The defense finally delivered a three and out, with a little assist from a false start and a declined holding call, and the Cardinals were forced into their first punt of the game. It looked like a big KaVontae Turpin punt return would give them excellent field position at the Arizona 23, but a holding flag would instead give Dallas the ball at their own 16. But Gallup would get them 27 yards on the first play of the series. Then a Lamb catch and a 31-yard Pollard run would put Dallas into the red zone at the eleven-yard line. But things would stall as the snap on third and three was bobbled by Prescott, and offensive holding was called on Chuma Edoga to force a third and thirteen. Ferguson would get the ball back to the five-yard line, and Mike McCarthy would go for it on fourth and four, but the tight coverage and persistent pass rush would force an incompletion.
The Cowboys had the Cardinals pinned at their own five, but Dobbs found Brown on third down for 20. Then, as the third quarter was running down, Parsons finally got to Dobbs for a sack to force a punt to open the fourth. It looked like it was going to be another three and out, but a pass interference call kept things alive. The offense was once again showing life, with plays from Dowdle, Brandin Cooks, and Gallup, and they got a first and goal to go at the ten. Once again things would stall, and this time McCarthy went for the short Aubrey FG to put the margin back down to five at 21-16.
Almost in a predictable manner, the Dobbs would burn the Dallas secondary for a 69-yard completion to Michael Wilson. That would lead to a two-yard touchdown pass to Brown, and Dallas was down by twelve points with just 7:22 left in the game.
The only hope for the Cowboys would be to go down the field quickly and score a touchdown, then get the ball back and score another. The did the first part, including a real Houdini impression from Dowdle to escape a whole bevy of would be tacklers and nearly get a first down. But the Arizona defense managed to slow them, as McCarthy leaned on the run despite the shrinking clock. Then Prescott threw his first interception of the season in the end zone, and the game was effectively over.
Coming into this game, there was some questioning of just how much we had learned about Dallas in the first two games. Clearly, it turned out to be basically nothing. Now we have to see if this team can right the ship as the schedule is about to get a lot harder.