The Cowboys are sitting pretty in the NFC race despite a disappointing loss to a back-to-back Super Bowl participant on the road. The game was viewed as a measuring stick contest to see how the Cowboys stacked up as a title contender, but injuries and COVID-19 protocols prevented the team from trotting out their best lineup.
Although the excuses will fall on deaf ears in a league that rewards teams capable of weathering adversity, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the Cowboys' effort against the Chiefs. Here are my thoughts…
Cowboys fall short of the standard
Despite the Cowboys' best attempts to dismiss the importance of a match-up against the defending AFC champs, the game was an opportunity for the team to see how they stacked up against a squad that has made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
From the talent disparity between each team to the differing playing styles and overall execution, this game provided Mike McCarthy with an opportunity to see how the squad fares against a perennial contender. If this was a test, the Cowboys would fail the course based on the subpar performance of the offensive line and substitute receivers.
Without Tyron Smith, the offensive line failed to hold up against an energetic pass rush with all-stars on the frontline. The inability to control the line of scrimmage was a major problem for most of the day, and it impacted the performance of the quarterback.
With the backup pass-catchers also struggling to make plays with CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper on the sidelines, the Cowboys could not make enough explosive plays to put points on the board against a playoff-caliber team energized by their home fans. If the Cowboys are a legitimate playoff contender, they must be able to step up their play against elite teams with or without their stars in the lineup.
The blueprint is out
Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott can scoff at the notion of a blueprint being out on how to slow down the Cowboys' offense, but the Chiefs' defense nearly pitched a shutout utilizing tactics employed by the Broncos in Week 9 while chalking up a win.
Chiefs' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo deviated from his normal blitz-heavy game plan in favor of a coverage-based call sheet that featured a mix of man-match concepts with a standard four-man rush. The tight man coverage with "switch" principles enabled the Chiefs to challenge throws outside the numbers while neutralizing the effectiveness of the Cowboys' crossing routes with defenders exchanging receivers to avoid picks and screens.
The stifling coverage was accompanied by a persistent pass rush that generated pressure without blitzing. Chris Jones and Frank Clark dominated their match-ups with their energy, effort, and skill while disrupting Prescott's rhythm in the pocket. With the Cowboys unwilling or unable to run the football against the Chiefs, the blanket tactics were effective against a short-handed squad.
Micah Parsons is special
it is a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys' inside linebacker/edge rusher is walking away with the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, but Parsons could sneak into the conversation as a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The rookie ranks among the top 10 in sacks and tackles for loss while displaying the versatility and explosiveness of an All-Pro despite his inexperience. Parsons' first-step quickness, heavy hands, and non-stop motor make him a nightmare to deal with off the edge.
Against the Chiefs, No.11 put on a show with his persistent pressure and constant harassment of Patrick Mahomes. The maniacal effort and spectacular production jumps off the screen when reviewing the tape, and makes me wonder if Parsons would have a greater impact as a full-time pass rusher for the Cowboys.
Although there is plenty of time to determine if the rookie's future is at outside linebacker/defensive end, Parsons has certainly gotten the league's attention as one of the most disruptive defenders in the game.
The secondary holds up against the Chiefs' speed
The Chiefs' speed and explosiveness on the perimeter will test the athleticism and discipline of the secondary. The Cowboys passed the exam with flying colors with the unit keeping the ball in front of the defense for most of the day.
Despite Mahomes tallying three completions of 20-plus yards, the Cowboys forced the former MVP to throw in front of the defense and the group rallied to the ball quickly to limit the yardage after the catch. With the safeties and corners aligning with depth and paying close attention to Tyreek Hill's whereabouts as a speed receiver, the secondary was able to put a cap on the Chiefs' passing game and limit their big plays.
The perfect execution of Dan Quinn's plan did not result in a win, but it performance showed the discipline and growth of a unit that continues to improve each week.
As annual participants in Thanksgiving Day games, the Cowboys certainly understand how to get ready on a short week, but the short week makes it imperative for the team to quickly move on to the Raiders after a disappointing loss.
McCarthy has to determine whether to utilize a scaled-down game plan that features the basic plays from the playbook or opt for a specialized call sheet that takes advantage of the Raiders' deficiencies on each side of the ball. With a veteran-laden offense, the Cowboys could opt for a more robust game plan that enables Prescott to attack the static looks preferred by Gus Bradley. This could bode well for Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb (if available) based on the Raiders' issues in coverage.
Defensively, the youth and inexperience of the Cowboys' primary playmakers could lead Quinn to scale back on some of his calls to ensure his defenders are able to play fast from the jump. The minimal call sheet could feature some Day 1 training camp concepts that put defenders in a position to play "see ball, get ball" defense against an offense that has struggled in each of their past two games.
With Cowboys intent on getting back on track, the quick turnaround time will require the coaches to place an emphasis on fundamentals and effort over schematics this week.