(Editor's Note: The DallasCowboys.com team welcomes Bucky Brooks to the staff. Bucky brings a wealth of experience, not only as a former NFL player of five seasons, but also as a scout and on the pro personnel side for two teams. In the last decade, Brooks has worked in the media, including the NFL Network. Bucky will provide his own analysis and opinions of the Cowboys but also the entire NFL.)
After digging into the All-22 coaches' footage following the Cowboys' loss to the Rams on Sunday Night, here are five points I have, not only about the game but about this team as we move forward this week.
1. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys must learn how to win close games.
If the Cowboys are going to emerge as Super Bowl contenders, they must figure out how to win one-score games this season. Since 2019, the Cowboys are 1-7 in games decided by eight points or fewer—the second-worst record in such games that span (Bengals are 0-9).
The problems that have plagued the Cowboys in close games in the past continue to rear their ugly head despite Mike McCarthy's emphasis on discipline, execution, and attention to detail. From dropped passes to blown assignments in pass protection to missed kicks and questionable coaching decisions, the Cowboys left points on the field against the Rams by failing to perform in those areas.
Prescott deserves to shoulder some the blame for his subpar second-half performance (10 of 21 passes for 79 yards, 57.9 passer rating) after a sizzling start (15 of 18 passes for 187 yards with one score, 128.5 passer rating) that showcased his superb timing and anticipation on rhythm throws. Prescott struggled on third down (1 of 7 for 11 yards) and failed to make a play when his team needed it most. Sure, the constant harassment from Aaron Donald and Co. contributed to his Prescott's errant throws, and his receivers didn't do him any favors with a couple of untimely drops, but the veteran has to find a way to get it done in spite of his circumstances.
Whether it's utilizing his athleticism and running skills to put more pressure on the defense or create better big-play opportunities for his playmakers, Prescott has to do more in critical moments for the Cowboys to win close games.
2. The O-Line has to play better.
Despite the narrative suggesting the Cowboys have the best frontline in the business, the quintet that played against the Rams isn't a five-star group. The absence of La'el Collins thrust former UDFA Terrence Steele into the lineup as a starter at right tackle. The former Texas Tech standout played fairly well for most of the night but struggled in the fourth quarter with Rams isolating him against a slate of speed rushers attacking from wide alignments. Leonard Floyd's sack on the final drive was a product of the Rams' isolation game against the overmatched rookie.
The Cowboys' interior trio was unable to contain Aaron Donald at the point of attack. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year completely disrupted the timing of the passing game in the second half with his persistent pressure up the middle. He mauled and bullied Connor Williams, Joe Looney and Zach Martin with his bull in a china shop approach. Donald's combination of strength, explosiveness and quickness overwhelmed the Cowboys' interior trio in the second half, which contributed to Prescott's struggles in key moments.
3. Where's D-Law?
The offseason conversation focused on the lack of complementary rushers around Demarcus Lawrence but the Cowboys' top rusher was essentially a no show against the Rams. The veteran finished the game with one tackle and one pass defensed. That's not exactly the production expected from one of the best, young pass rushers in the game.
Against the Rams, it wasn't just the lack of production that was a problem. Jared Goff was getting the ball out of his hands quickly on an assortment of screens and quick passes designed to get the ball into the hands of the Rams' receivers on the perimeter while also forcing the defense to run from sideline to sideline chasing the ball. With the quick game limiting the number of pass-rush opportunities available to Lawrence, the veteran needed to be more active at the line of scrimmage with his hands to tip or deflect more balls thrown in his direction.
In addition, Lawrence needs to turn, run, and chase the ball on screens and quicks to minimize the YAC yards available on those throws. No.90's effort and energy waned over the course of the game.
If Lawrence is going to be the leader of the defense, he has to dominate at all times and his performance against the Rams certainly didn't meet the standard for a five-star player.
4. Mike Nolan's scheme features more diversity.
After watching the Cowboys sit in a vanilla defense under Rod Marinelli, it was a refreshing change to see the defense mix up its looks against the Rams in Nolan's debut. The Cowboys utilized an assortment of defensive fronts and coverage tactics to maximize their personnel while also challenging Jared Goff to decipher their tactics at the line of scrimmage.
Although Nolan has repeatedly stated the team would continue to utilize the 4-3 as their base defense, the veteran defensive coordinator mixed in a few 3-4 looks and an assortment of 4-2-5 tactics with the edge rushers standing up at the line. He rotated Aldon Smith, Everson Griffen, and Demarcus Lawrence at the EDGE positions with each defender spending time as a stand-up player in a three- and four-man front.
In addition, Nolan unveiled a Double Eagle or Bear front with center and guards covered up with big-bodied tackles at the point of attack. The alignment enables the linebackers to run and chase freely to the ball without fending off big blockers on the way to the ball carrier.
Nolan sprinkled in some five-man pressures from a variety of alignments to harass Goff but he wasn't overly aggressive with his blitz package. Part of his reluctance to bring pressure could've been the nature of the Rams' quick passing game. The ball was coming out too fast for the pressure to have a significant impact.
In coverage, the Cowboys played a good mix of man and zone with the defenders keeping their eyes on the quarterback. The softer coverage enabled Goff to complete a number of dink-and-dunk passes but the Cowboys didn't surrender many big plays and forced a number of third-down situations. They must improve on the "money down" (third-down) but the multiplicity of the scheme kept the Rams' offense in check with only 20 points on the board.
5. CeeDee Lamb is a star in the making.
The rookie wide receiver finished the night with five catches for 59 yards (on six targets) but flashes big-play potential with the ball in his hands. Lamb consistently worked his way open against one-on-one coverage, exhibiting the speed, quickness, and burst to dominate CB2/CB3s on the perimeter. In addition, Lamb showed the soft hands and superb ball skills to snatch passes in traffic. He's tough and courageous working over the middle of the field. Moreover, he is a terrific runner with the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his punt return success (one return for 20 yards).
After seeing the rookie in-game action, the Cowboys have a better feel for his talents and potential as a playmaker. That should encourage McCarthy and Kellen Moore to give No.88 more opportunities to touch the rock with Cooper and Gallup commanding attention on the outside. With Blake Jarwin's injury opening removing a playmaker from the lineup, Lamb could become a bigger part of the passing game, particularly as a "MOF" (middle of the field) option.
The 6-foot-2, 198-pounder is big enough to do the dirty work between the hashes. The Cowboys should consider giving him a bigger role as a playmaker over the middle to tap into his big-play potential and fill a void that's created by Jarwin's departure.
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