FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics coming off the most surprising Cowboys loss in some time:
- What Went Wrong
- Why It's Fixable
- Help On The Way
there's two ways you can look at the 30-16 blowout loss to Denver.
Let's start with the glass-half-empty part.
Two popular question marks before the season have resurfaced as talking points again this week:
- Will the run defense improve after allowing the second-most yards in team history last year?
- Will the offensive line hold up after trying a dozen-plus combinations due to injury last year?
Both areas didn't fare as well as usual last Sunday.
The Broncos' 190 rushing yards were the most against Dallas this season by a 70-yard margin. So were Denver's 41 rushing attempts. No team had more than 27 in the first seven games, partly because of lopsided scores in the Cowboys' favor. The Broncos tested them like nobody else has and had a ton of success doing it.
On to the O-Line: Tyron Smith's ankle injury has been an issue for a few weeks now, and there wasn't really a 'no-brainer' decision at left tackle last week. It wasn't ideal to move Terence Steele from right tackle, where he's settled in and had success. But the Cowboys are trying to get La'el Collins' feet underneath him after limited camp and very-limited season reps. Moving Collins to a spot he hasn't played in seven years probably wasn't an ideal option, either.
Head coach Mike McCarthy and now Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones have said Smith's injury isn't considered a long-term thing. But there's also no guarantee he plays Sunday against Atlanta, the start of four games in 18 days. That's a lot of football in a very short stretch. How they manage Smith's situation this week and the rest of the month will be interesting.
halfway through an NFL season, every team is dealing with these kinds of concerns on some level.
Now let's go glass-half-full here, where I happen to reside:
Based on the full eight-game sample, last Sunday was an outlier until further notice.
Dak Prescott's 48.7% completion rate was his lowest in 79 career starts and only the third game he's ever dipped below 50%. The other two games were from his rookie season – a 29-23 overtime win over the Eagles and a 10-7 loss to the Giants. He's a much, much better quarterback than he was five years ago.
Yes, give Denver credit for flooding pass lanes with tight match-man coverage. Some are saying that might be the 'blueprint' for beating Dallas. It's also a concept that isn't easily replicable, and it might not have worked nearly as well if Smith were in lineup and the Cowboys controlled the line of scrimmage more consistently. The Broncos were able to get pressure with mostly a four-man rush. It's exactly how the Giants upset Tom Brady and those great Patriots offenses twice in the Super Bowl.
That said, it's hard to imagine a trend where Prescott and the passing game are this out of sync moving forward, as long as the protection holds. He didn't make an excuse about time off with the calf strain, but there were multiple plays he and/or the receivers just didn't make (the fourth-and-2 throw to Cedrick Wilson, the deep throw to CeeDee Lamb) that could've changed the game's direction. And Michael Gallup, a terrific contested-ball receiver, is expected back from IR this week.
Defensively, the Cowboys are a faster, deeper, more talented group than last year. Teams might try them more in the run game, especially if the game is close, but they proved against Minnesota that they can stand tall and contain a top running back. The biggest problem against Denver, really in all areas, was play style – something McCarthy has referenced since camp. They weren't as physical, didn't finish plays, didn't get enough hats to the Broncos running backs in the six explosive runs that accounted for 130 of Denver's 190 yards.
"I think just remembering what that relentless nature of going and finishing can feel like and look like and you've seen that from the defense, we've got to capture that," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "Every time you go it's got to be that way."
To a large degree, that's a play style thing, an energy thing, more than a personnel thing. Pretty correctable.
I Have No Idea…
the exact week DeMarcus Lawrence returns from injured reserve this season – perhaps before the end of the month? – but the Cowboys really missed him last Sunday.
Lawrence affects the game in so many ways at defensive end, including edge containment against the run – a problem area on some of those outside gains by Broncos running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams. Last year, Lawrence graded out 10th among NFL edge rushers in run defense (79.7), according to Pro Football Focus.
It's not just the physical part. It's Lawrence's attitude and energy level. His effort and toughness have been a tone-setter on defense for years. Say what you want about the $105 million contract he signed a couple years ago and how many sacks he should get and all that, but he's got the "relentless nature" Quinn mentioned Monday.
More than anything, that's the Cowboys' own blueprint for making this a one-week hiccup.