This isn’t a lot of fun. It is usually unpleasant to dive into the numbers after a Dallas Cowboys loss, but the Arizona Cardinals embarrassment creates a lot of frustration and bafflement. Dallas has a peculiar history of putting a terrible performance on the field against Arizona. That certainly held true on Sunday. Most of the stats were just hard to look at, and this was a game where things just felt wrong for the Cowboys.
We always look for things we can learn from these numbers. This game seems a particularly hard one to glean much information. Dallas just looked somewhat shell-shocked after the week of accumulating injuries. I will take a look at the mental side of this disappointment in another post, but for now, here is the hard data.
The offensive line
It seems incredible in a way that early in the week we were talking about having the full starting lineup together for the first time with the expected return of Tyler Smith. He did get back on the field, but he and Terence Steele were the only planned starters from the beginning of the season to play, as Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz, and Zack Martin all sat this one out with various problems. That’s a lot of All-Pro and Pro Bowl appearances sitting on the sidelines. Instead, Chuma Edoga, T.J. Bass, and Brock Hoffman played all of the offensive snaps.
How did that affect the offense? Well, it is hard to put a lot of blame on the backups. The Cowboys were actually able to move well between the 20s, and had 416 yards of offense. Dak Prescott was only sacked twice, and the running game was quite good, with 186 yards. Tony Pollard led the way and was, surprisingly, the leading rusher for the game with 122 yards as the damage from the Cardinals was more evenly divided between James Connor, Joshua Dobbs, and Rondale Moore. We’ll look at that when we get to Dallas’ defensive stats, but while Prescott was under pressure at times, he still was able to move the ball through the air with 231 yards passing. This was not really a loss you can pin on the offensive line.
The red zone frustrations
Here are a couple of seemingly contradictory stats: The Cowboys converted on 56.3% of their third downs, but only managed to score touchdowns on one of their five trips into the red zone. That means that four of the seven times Dallas failed to convert a third down were inside the 20. This makes little sense. The new Texas Coast offense is designed to move the ball with runs and short, ball control passes, which worked quite well until they got too close to the end zone. It is noteworthy that Prescott only averaged 5.5 yards per attempt, but couldn’t manage that when they had a chance to score from in close. Likewise, the team gained 5.6 yards per rush, which is also more that satisfactory - normally. But that, which should have meant they could just hand the ball off until someone crossed the goal line, also failed repeatedly in the red zone. Had they scored touchdowns on the two short field goals Brandon Aubrey kicked, not been stopped on a fourth down attempt inside the five, and if Prescott had not thrown the interception in the end zone - well, that’s a lot of ifs, but the point is that the team was in position to score enough points to win this game. They just failed.
The red zone woes didn’t just start this week, as they also struggled there against the New York Jets. Mike McCarthy took the reins of the offense this year, and this has to be on him, at least to a large degree. The hot seat talk is back, and it is no surprise. This just has to be fixed.
No, I don’t have an answer. Check with my colleague Chris Halling for his suggestions, published here earlier.
A defensive collapse
Shelve all the talk about how great this defense is, because with the known issues on the offensive line, they really needed to step up. Instead they repeatedly fell flat on their face, giving up runs of 45, 44, 26, 23, and 20, plus a 69-yard bomb where the secondary completely lost the receiver. The last may have been partly attributable to the loss of Trevon Diggs for the season in the preceding week, but those gashing runs were just a total failure by a team that was supposed to have this problem from the last few seasons fixed. They don’t, and it was what really killed the team. Arizona averaged 7.4 yards per rushing attempt, and that is almost impossible to win against.
There was a moment at the end of the first quarter when Micah Parsons was visibly confused about what the defense was trying to do, and that seems to have been the case throughout the game. This was absolutely shocking. Dan Quinn has just as big a problem to fix as McCarthy, and his genius status took a huge hit in this game.
This is the zombie problem for the Cowboys, because every time we hope it has been put to rest, it rises again from the grave and wreaks havoc. Admittedly, the refs were pretty flag happy and inconsistent, as the Cardinals drew nine infractions. But the Cowboys got hit thirteen times for 107 yards, and a lot of those were just stupid. We can understand some holding calls and false starts from that patchwork offensive line, but how does a defense get called for offsides four times, including on back-to-back plays? That is just terrible discipline and awareness. There were plenty of other times Dallas took aim at their own instep, but things were not that lopsided given how many mistakes the Cards also experienced. It just is egregious on its own for the Cowboys.
A few positives
We can’t really put lipstick on this pig, but a few players did some good things.
The most consistent player on the team since his first miss has been Brandon Aubrey. We’re now talking record breaking consistency.
Dallas Cowboys kicker Brandon Aubrey is the first kicker in the Super Bowl era to attempt at least 10 field goals in the first 3 games of his career and successfully make all of them.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 25, 2023
The trepidation on rolling with the inexperienced Aubrey now seems foolish.
Pollard had a really good game in a losing cause, but Rico Dowdle was also very effective in his limited snaps, averaging the same 5.3 yards per carry as Pollard. That is exactly what you like to see from your RB2 when he gives RB1 a breather. Dowdle also scored the only touchdown for Dallas on a 15-yard catch and run, the lone red zone success of the game for them.
It looks like Michael Gallup is finally back, as he led all receivers with 92 yards on six receptions. CeeDee Lamb was held mostly in check by the Arizona defense, but he still contributed 53 yards on four catches, including the longest play of the game for the Cowboys for 32 yards. Jake Ferguson was solid with 48 yards, bringing in the ball on five of his seven targets, so that is a sign of progress.
One other player had a nice debut. Hunter Luepke made the team as a UDFA, a surprise to many. He caught his first pass for twelve yards in the first quarter, plus had his first carry for nine yards in the third. He does have a role in the offense, and also saw work in the traditional lead blocking role, although he only saw eight total snaps.
The no shows
With the issues on offense, it seems amazing that Deuce Vaughn only saw one snap all game, and that on special teams. He has flashed some potential, and you have to wonder if he might have provided a spark in the red zone. Maybe not, but why wasn’t it even tried?
Brandin Cooks was on the field for 80% of the offensive plays, but only had two catches on seven targets for seventeen yards. He has yet to have the expected impact for the team, and that has to be a bit concerning. Jalen Tolbert was limited in his usage and never saw a target, and Peyton Hendershot and Luke Schoonmaker were basically absent as receivers, with just two targets and one catch between them.
And the pass rush as a whole was nearly as ineffective as the run defense, only notching two sacks and four QB hits. The tone was set by the Cardinals on the second play of the game, when Dobbs pulled the ball down and rambled 44 yards. Everything broke down on the defense on that play, and it was just the first time that would happen. Dobbs would complete the game completing 17 of 21 attempts, and that is just more evidence of how badly the pass rush failed.
Now we have to wonder if this was just an aberration for the Cowboys, or a look at what they really are? The line injuries complicate that. Still, coaching was not great. Now they are on to the New England Patriots, and we don’t know exactly what is going to show up for Dallas.