The Dallas Cowboys did not play so well against the Arizona Cardinals and it has Cowboys Nations bamboozled. That’s understandable because this team played so fantastic over the first two weeks, so how is it even possible to be subjected to such a mess?
Well, we were and it’s quite perplexing. While there remain a lot of questions still unanswered, let’s see what we can discover after taking a closer look at the game film.
Run game collapse
This game was a disaster and there is plenty of blame to go around, but the biggest culprit starts with the defense's inability to stop the run. The strength of the defense lies in its pass rush, but when they give up 222 rushing yards, that threat becomes null and void. The Cardinals did a great job attacking the Cowboys' run defense in different ways. Running back James Conner was their workhorse, but they also used the mobility of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and the speedy wheels of receiver Rondale Moore on a jet sweep. Credit Arizona for a good game plan.
The aggressiveness of the Cowboys' defense can get themselves in trouble sometimes as a wrong first step here or there can put them in a bad spot. The Cardinals did a great job sealing their blocks and getting physical players into the second level on the smaller Cowboy's defensive backs. And we talk a lot about how great the Cowboys' safeties are, but they put on a bad showing in this one. Donovan Wilson and Jayron Kearse both got caught leaning in the wrong direction which ultimately led to big plays for the Cardinals.
Leaning the wrong way, taking bad angles, and smaller defenders getting washed out by bigger blockers in the second level. All of this was on full display and contributed to an atrocious run defense by the Cowboys. pic.twitter.com/VeWRtXs2Ca— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 25, 2023
Close, but no cigar
There were moments in this game where it looked like the Cowboys defense was getting it together with a couple of strong plays on first and second down. Sadly, they just couldn’t close the deal as the Cardinals worked some magic on third down. Most of that magic came in the form of huge completions to the Cardinals' top receiving threat Hollywood Brown. Other times they were aided by penalties that gave them a fresh set of downs. Either way, it was frustrating. After keeping the Jets to 1/10 a week ago, the Cardinals converted 5/10 on Sunday and a few of them really stung.
One of the frustrating things about the Cowboys' defense on Sunday was how many times they were close to getting off the field on third down, only to succumb to a backbreaking completion to Hollywood Brown. pic.twitter.com/ZSkxoX5O6s— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 25, 2023
The sputtering offense
After watching the New York Giants put up 31 second-half points against the Cardinals last week, you had to feel good about the Cowboys’ offense in this one. But when news broke that Dallas would be without three of their starting offensive linemen, we weren’t so sure. Surprisingly, the offensive line wasn’t the cause of their offensive woes on Sunday. Sure, Chuma Edoga didn’t look nearly as good at left tackle as he did at left guard sandwiched between Tyron Smith and Tyler Biadasz, but the undrafted guys, Brock Hoffman and T.J. Bass didn’t look that bad. Those guys did a good job run-blocking, helping the Cowboys churn out 185 yards on the ground.
The bigger issue was the Cowboys' passing game. Dak Prescott didn’t look comfortable. There were times when he hesitated enough to allow the defender time to close in on his target. There were other times he didn’t make the right choice of where to go with the football. And there were times when the route spacing didn’t give him much of a chance to do anything. The Cardinals' defense did a great job with their coverage schemes and it was surprising that it gave McCarthy fits.
The Cowboys were able to move the ball, but they struggled once the field shortened in the red zone. Bootlegs weren’t working. Option flips to CeeDee Lamb weren’t working. And whenever Dak tried to hit one of his receivers in one-on-one coverage, the Cardinals defenders always seemed to arrive in the nick of time, and sometimes even earlier.
Overall, it wasn’t a good showing for McCarthy and his offense. The play-calling was bland, the execution was lacking, and the mental mistakes were totally unnecessary. The Cowboys got called for a delay of game penalty in the first half which was rookie-esque. But the most erroneous error came late in the game when McCarthy completely mismanaged the clock. Not only was there no sense of urgency despite chipping away with the ground game, but he would repeatedly substitute players causing the ref to step in from on Prescott and not allowing him to snap the ball until the Cardinals were able to make their substitutes. Time just wasted away and it just felt like he didn’t have a sense of the game situation. They’re down two scores, they don’t have time to be methodical.
When Rico was tackled at the 17-yard line, there was 5:50 on the clock. When Dak threw a pick at the 6-yard line, there was 3:00 on the clock. It took them almost 3 minutes to go 11 yards. The refs kept delaying the snap because Dallas kept substituting. Awful clock management. pic.twitter.com/KHB4dsA7P2— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 25, 2023
Last year, the Cowboys were first in the league in red zone conversion percentage under Kellen Moore. So far, they’re 27th under McCarthy, however, his offense is tops in the league in red zone opportunities. He’s getting his team down there, they just aren’t converting. McCarthy has sold us on this more conservative style offense that isn’t about flying up and down the field, which is fine if they can punch it in. But if they are flopping in the red zone, then that’s when we are going to start missing those explosive plays from Kellen Moore.
This game was just one of those games where everything seemed to fall in place for Arizona and the Cowboys were just onlookers.
Just over a minute to go, 1st and 10 at the 40, but guess which team came away with a FG? Total meltdown at the end of the first half. pic.twitter.com/YPcnNOx76l— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) September 25, 2023
Okay, let’s end on a positive note. Can we at least take a moment to appreciate how good Rico Dowdle looked in limited action?
For a more detailed breakdown of the Cowboys' offensive struggles against the Cardinals, check out this video by Sanjit T.