Whenever a 2-0 team goes up against a 0-2 team and loses by multiple scores when they’re favored by 12.5 points, it’s going to be difficult to not overreact. That’s where many Cowboys fans find themselves right now after watching a team that had absolutely dominated the Giants and Jets get run over by the Cardinals.
The biggest problem this past week was unquestionably the defense, as Dallas gave up 400 yards of total offense and 28 points to a team that had struggled to move the ball against lesser defenses thus far. But there is plenty of blame to go around, and the Cowboys offense has suddenly offered up some cause for concern.
For starters, Mike McCarthy’s new-look Texas Coast offense only scored one touchdown on eight drives against the Cardinals. That’s by far the biggest problem, and now the second straight week that this unit has looked bad inside the red zone. Oddly enough, the Cowboys had 16 more yards than Arizona on the day and more than double the red zone trips with five appearances. But two of them ended with field goals while another was a turnover on downs and the final drive saw Dak Prescott throw his first interception of the year.
The red zone offense was bad against the Jets, scoring a touchdown on just two of six appearances, but it was largely chalked up to the team playing it safe with a big lead. There’s still some credence to that notion, but the continued issues against Arizona make it harder to ignore.
Of course, there’s another caveat with the Week 3 game: three backups were forced to start on the offensive line, with two of them making their first career start. It’s impossible to ignore the effect that had on the overall offensive performance, and it became apparent right from the start with two pre-snap penalties on the opening drive. It was also clear that the instability of the line affected how McCarthy called the game.
honestly the offense barely tried to convert on a number of passing 3rd downs, opting instead for throws that had little chance of converting and praying they picked up enough yards after the catch. the fingerprint of their o-line deficiencies was all over this one— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) September 25, 2023
In fact, the Cowboys had 17 third downs in this game and 12 of them saw Prescott drop back to pass. Eight of those dropbacks came with six or more yards to go for the first down; six of them were thrown short of the sticks while another turned into a scramble from Prescott for a first down and the other dropback resulted in a pass interference penalty to bring up a first down.
In other words, the Cowboys were in a bind if they got off schedule. Prescott was getting the ball out in 2.5 seconds per throw, one of the quickest releases in the NFL, as a necessity. He rarely went deep against a Cardinals defense that’s designed to take away the big play; Prescott had just four attempts beyond 20 yards and 10 attempts total that went beyond 10 yards.
Not only did the offensive line impact the way the Cowboys managed third downs, it also made it harder to move the ball once things got more condensed in the red zone. While the Cowboys averaged an impressive 5.6 yards per carry, they struggled to run the ball closer to the goal line. In 10 red zone rushing attempts, the Cowboys averaged just over three yards a carry, as the offensive line struggled to create holes against heavier boxes.
Why couldn't we run it in? You sorely missed Tyron, Zack, and Biadasz.— Skywalker Steele (@SkywalkerSteele) September 25, 2023
The youngins held it together best they could between the 20s but here is where 1 block could make the difference via the run.
Pass game down there is another story pic.twitter.com/36mDPyD0E9
All of this suggests that the Cowboys’ offensive woes against the Cardinals were rooted in the challenges along the offensive line. With such a small sample size, it’s hard to definitely say whether or not that’s the case, but it definitely appears that the offensive gameplan was handicapped by the loss of three great linemen. If that is in fact the case, then it would be fair to say this offense overachieved in this game and that they’re likely to get back to good football once the offensive line is healthy again.
There were, of course, other concerns with the offensive gameplan that are harder to chalk up to the injuries in the trenches. Two of the Cowboys’ most explosive players, Deuce Vaughn and KaVontae Turpin, had zero touches. Vaughn didn’t even take a single snap on offense, and Turpin had just two snaps. In a game where Prescott had to rely on production after the catch, it’s unconscionable to not get those two even slightly involved given their athleticism.
There’s also the string of play-calling that McCarthy had on that final drive, which was head-scratching to say the least. Trailing by 12 points, the Cowboys reached the red zone with just over five and a half minutes in the fourth quarter. That’s when Prescott took a shot to the endzone for Michael Gallup, and a flag for pass interference was crucially picked up.
McCarthy then proceeded to call five consecutive running plays, with substitutions in between each play that prevented the Cowboys from running tempo. All in all, the offense picked up just 12 yards and burned nearly two full minutes of clock on those five plays.
That’s when Prescott threw the interception in a very high leverage third and goal. Even if he had managed to throw a touchdown there, the Cowboys’ odds of winning were sitting at a minute 12%. Prescott’s throw was obviously bad, but the play-calling that got him to that spot was significantly worse and eerily reminiscent of the errors that precipitated many of his interceptions a year ago.
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned after this game but, quite frankly, it’s still far too early to make any declarations about this offense. Two games this year have seen the team playing with a win probability over 80% for all four quarters while the other saw them missing three of their five starting offensive linemen. It’s very, very hard to pull any meaningful takeaways from this assortment of games, especially when it comes to the offense.
Case in point: the Cowboys still rank inside the top 10 in offense EPA/play even after the Cardinals game. This offense has been good but not great in three very abnormal games. It’s fair to be concerned about the red zone offense or McCarthy’s play-calling towards the end of the game, but we’re also nowhere close to being ready to hit the panic button. Let’s see how this offense looks when the offensive line is healthier.