FRISCO, Texas – Let's face it: at 2-5, fresh off two straight losses by an average of 25 points, there are far more than three quick topics regarding the Dallas Cowboys.
Disclaimer: If you're the fan who's already checking pre-Halloween mock drafts for 2021, this week's column might not be your brand of Tabasco sauce.
For the rest of you, nine games remain and a half-game separates the Cowboys from Sunday's opponent, the first-place (and equally banged-up) Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1).
It's obvious where things stand right now. Arguably the roughest start to a season in a decade. Adjusted expectations after losing Dak Prescott and several other starters for the season.
And yet, as long as a division title is within reach, it's too early (in my opinion) to talk solely about next year.
Fans understandably want the Cowboys to be more competitive. So, let's talk about how they can be more competitive, knowing full well the challenges that lie ahead for a team decimated by injuries in some spots and simply outplayed in others.
this upcoming stretch is the biggest challenge of Kellen Moore's young tenure as offensive coordinator.
People like to call injuries an excuse, but at a certain point they become a harsh reality. A Cowboys offensive line missing four regular starters was overmatched against a Washington defensive front fielding five former first-round draft picks. Period, point blank. That might be the most talented group Dallas will face all year besides LA's Aaron Donald, better known as Thanos in blue and mustard yellow.
It won't get much easier Sunday night against Fletcher Cox and the Eagles. Moore and head coach Mike McCarthy must figure out the best plan – from a schematic standpoint, and from a personnel standpoint – to try to restore functionality to the offense, especially if it's rookie Ben DiNucci making his first career start for Andy Dalton (currently in concussion protocol).
Zack Martin's impending return from a concussion is a start. Connor McGovern has battled the last game and a half at right guard, but we're talking about a top-three offensive lineman in the entire league. That will help stabilize things. Now, on to a question you've asked us all season and with more frequency lately: should the Cowboys consider kicking Martin out to tackle, where he made an emergency cameo in Week 3 in Seattle and (unsurprisingly) played well?
McCarthy said the line would be working combinations this week, a common practice given their injuries, but declined to speculate whether he'd be open to making that particular lineup switch. He has been hesitant to swap out more spots than he absolutely must. Don't blame him. But if the staff feels better about their inside depth than their tackle depth at this point, maybe it's worth consideration at some point. Joe Looney (sprained knee) is getting closer to a return from IR, and he can play center or guard, which would provide more options on the interior in the coming weeks.
Regardless of who plays where, the key is creating a plan that allows DiNucci or Dalton (if healthy and cleared) to play with more manageable third downs. The last two games they've been 9-of-27 on third down and 2-of-15 on third and long.
The hope is Ezekiel Elliott and the run game can establish some balance, but turnovers and deficits have made that next-to-impossible.
progress by the defense depends on how far their run defense takes them.
We can try to dissect every cause for the defense's troubles this season, but it starts with stopping the run. The Cowboys rank last in yards allowed per game (178.3) and tied for last in yards allowed per carry (5.2). The five worst run defenses in the league have a combined record of 11-23-1. That's including one outlier: the world champion Chiefs, who have some guy named Patrick Mahomes to offset that issue.
Run defense is the first thing the Cowboys emphasize every week. It was that way under Rod Marinelli and it's that way under Mike Nolan. Unfortunately, it's been a consistent problem area with maybe the exception of the Giants game in which New York averaged just 3.3 yards a carry.
If you don't stop the run, you risk being on skates the entire game. The opposing offense can open up their entire playbook and dictate the pace to you. If you look at some of the biggest pass plays allowed by the Cowboys this season, they came A) after big runs; or B) on manageable down-and-distance.
Tyler Lockett's 43-yard touchdown: one play after a 23-yard run by Chris Carson.
Jarvis Landry's 37-yard touchdown to Odell Beckham Jr.: three plays after Nick Chubb set the tone with a 21-yard gain on the Browns' first play from scrimmage.
DeAndre Hopkins' 60-yard catch and run: on a manageable third-and-2 with Kyler Murray having earlier success scrambling from the pocket.
Terry McLaurin's 52-yard touchdown: after Washington rushed for 91 yards in the first quarter.
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones (via 105.3 The Fan) said the defense's primary issues are field position -- a product of turnovers by the offense -- followed by run defense. The turnovers they can't control. The run defense they can, though season-ending injuries to Gerald McCoy and Trysten Hill have really hurt their ability to hold the line of scrimmage.
Nolan and his staff are trying to find the right rotation there. Rookie Neville Gallimore played a season-high 38 snaps against Washington. Justin Hamilton, up from the practice squad the last two games, played more snaps (36) than seven-game starter Dontari Poe (33). At defensive end, Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae will be asked to help set edges now that Everson Griffen is headed to Detroit.
Will the defense make some tangible improvement moving forward? It has to start up front.
I Have No Idea…
how you measure "confidence" watching the games, but the Cowboys themselves will tell you they need more.
DeMarcus Lawrence, never one to candy-coat, summed things up after Sunday's 25-3 loss: "We need more belief and more high spirits around this team, and really more fight. That's really, I feel like, one of our weaknesses. We need to build a stronger backbone, fight and also make sure that we brought everything possible to come out with a victory."
McCarthy believes the team is letting previous blunders affect them throughout games. Instead of "cutting it loose" and playing fast, they're trying to avoid the next mistake.
"I think ultimately we're chasing real confidence," he said. "False confidence that can only last so long."
The Cowboys have to believe they can still compete despite the injuries, despite the struggles from a previous play or a previous drive or a previous game. Sunday's opponent is a good example. The Eagles are fortunate to still have their starting quarterback (Carson Wentz) in the lineup, but top to bottom they've had as many or more injuries to key players.
The team that grinds through adversity better will give themselves a chance to win this division and give this season some hope and direction -- no matter how bleak it looks in late October.