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Cowboys red zone woes compounded by struggles on defense in first game without Trevon Diggs

The Cowboys first loss of the season in Arizona was more about their own mistakes than anything the previously 0-2 Cardinals did against them.

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys will not go undefeated in 2023. While this was hardly the season-long expectation for a team that raced to a 2-0 start on 40-0 and 30-10 wins against the Giants and Jets, dropping their first game to an 0-2 Cardinals team on Sunday is a disappointment. The Cowboys dealt with adversity all week leading into a game in which they were two-score favorites. They lost star CB Trevon Diggs for the season, and had offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz, and Zack Martin appear on the injury report. Smith was the only player active against the Cardinals, but did not play, leaving three backup linemen to protect Dak Prescott in what became a come-from-behind effort as the defense struggled for the first time all season.

The Cardinals came into this game playing better than their 0-2 record would indicate, holding leads in the fourth quarter against the Commanders and Giants. This time, they held on to a 21-13 lead to win 28-16 in an effort from Dallas that will be remembered more for their own miscues. On the heels of a 2-6 red zone effort versus the Jets, the Cowboys scored one red zone touchdown by Rico Dowdle in five trips against Jonathan Gannon’s defense. Keeping any game competitive without three starting offensive linemen is a sign that the Cowboys still have the talent to achieve their goals this season, but having similar issues in the red zone come up in consecutive games shows they have work to do as the competition improves.

Before the Cowboys enter a pivotal week of practice in preparation for the New England Patriots, here are a few notes on their seventh loss to the Cardinals in eight tries.

  • Josh Dobbs ripped off a 44-yard run on the opening possession of this game, setting the tone that the Cardinals speed and misdirection on offense would cause familiar issues on defense for the Cowboys when it comes to stopping the run. In their first test without Trevon Diggs, Dan Quinn called on safety hybrid Jayron Kearse to line up more to the outside at times, pulling him away from the box. While Donovan Wilson made his season debut, the Cowboys weren’t nearly as in sync on the second level as normal. The Cardinals took full advantage, using their speed against the Cowboys secondary and by taking advantage of their aggressive pass rush.

With Dobbs able to step up in the pocket and pin players like Micah Parsons and Osa Odighizuwa behind the play, the Cowboys saw an entirely different side of the QB they contained in the pocket as the Titans starter in a win last season. While it wasn’t any one cornerback that got picked on because of the absence of Diggs, Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore took advantage of single coverage and made contested catches when called upon.

Moore’s biggest play came on the ground though, taking a handoff with the Cowboys in a pass rush front and easily breaking through for a 45-yard touchdown. Chauncey Golston and Neville Gallimore were the defensive tackles in on this play, playing Moore as a receiver out of the backfield, instead of Jonathan Hankins or Mazi Smith.

Dallas needed this speed on the field to counter the dual-threat ability of Dobbs, but never got a step ahead of Arizona’s offense to control this game or force one of their patented turnovers. If the sub packages that were a staple with Diggs on the field are going to be less reliable without him, the Cowboys are going to need more from linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark from a physical standpoint against the run in base defense.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
  • The Cowboys struggled in the red zone this game for many reasons, but an obvious one with no clear fix is their lack of a dominant tight end to throw to inside the 20. On the fourth and goal turnover on downs trailing 21-13 late in the third, Jake Ferguson ran his route behind the zone coverage, never giving Prescott a target to look at. Prescott was forced to scramble and throw incomplete to Lamb, who’s accounted for an absurdly high percentage of the team’s total offense through three games.

The Cowboys are featuring their running backs in the passing game more to try and make up for the development time needed from Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot, and rookie Luke Schoonmaker. A screen pass to Dowdle resulted in their only red zone touchdown of the game. The problem in this particular game in Arizona was the way Dallas had to use the quick game to protect Prescott behind a compromised offensive line in their normal offense, not having new looks to use inside the 20. This is still an area that receivers like Michael Gallup and KaVontae Turpin should be able to get more involved along with the TEs, as Gallup had a big day as both a primary target and checkdown, while Turpin was never targeted on offense.

The time was always going to come where the Cowboys offense would have to pull more weight than the defense in a game, and in their first such test of the season, the opportunities were right in front of McCarthy’s offense to have this game end differently if not for missed opportunities in the red zone.

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