We have reached the midpoint of the season and the Cowboys are sitting near the top of the NFC with a 6-2 mark. Although a disappointing loss to the Broncos is fresh in our minds, this team has done a lot of good things over the first half of the season.
Given some time to reflect on the team's performance in week 9, here are some thoughts and observations:
It is hard to handle success in this league when everyone is patting you on the back. After reeling off six straight wins following a season-opening loss to the defending world champions, the Super Bowl hype was at a fever pitch around the Cowboys. Perhaps the team soaked in a little too much adulation leading up to the Broncos' game based on their disappointing showing on Sunday.
The complacency showed up in the Cowboys' lackadaisical play and effort throughout the game. I am not suggesting that the team did not play hard but I do not think they play with the focus and attention to detail that helped them win six straight games. The dropped passes, penalties, and blown assignments are indicative of a team that did not bring their A-game.
Moreover, the sloppy play from the Cowboys suggested the team might have spent the week reading their press clippings instead of preparing to play a solid game against a struggling team that few expected would pose a threat to the NFC East leaders.
The blueprint is out on how to stop the Cowboys' offense
The copycat nature of the NFL will prompt defensive coordinators around the league to pop in the tape of the Broncos' win to see if they can uncover some secrets to slowing down the Cowboys' high-powered offense.
Vic Fangio suggested opponents played the Cowboys incorrectly prior to the game and his dismantling of the NFL's No.1 offense will certainly lead others to replicate the plan that featured an emphasis on coverage over pressure throughout the game. The Broncos played a variety of "man match" coverage with defenders locked onto assigned receivers in man-to-man but passing off crossing routes to other defenders to avoid picks.
The clever tactic neutralized the Cowboys' passing game by eliminating the effectiveness of picks and rubs through switches. In addition, the tight coverage took away some of the layups and rhythm throws that enabled Dak Prescott to get into a groove in other games.
The man-heavy approach also enabled the Broncos to control Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' running game. The utilization of man coverage puts an extra defender near the box and makes it more difficult for the Cowboys to run effectively between the tackles. With the Broncos shutting down the Cowboys for three-plus quarters, the rest of the league will certainly swipe a few ideas from Fangio's game plan.
Here we go again
I am not trying to be pessimistic but I am a little concerned about the Cowboys' run defense after the Broncos rolled up nearly 200 yards on the ground. Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams took turns attacking the edges on an assortment of off-tackle runs that tested the gap discipline of the front seven and tackling ability of the defensive backfield.
With the Broncos' success on the ground leading to future opponents to undoubtedly attempt to pound the Cowboys into submission, Dan Quinn must come up with answers quickly to stop the one-game performance from emerging as a trend. The defense must hold up better against early-down runs to keep opponents from staying on schedule and draining the clock from beginning to end.
While the defense's effort and energy are vastly different from last season, the Cowboys' leaky run defense against the Broncos is troubling based on the unit's woes a season ago. If DQ's unit fails to slow the run in the first quarter of the next game (Falcons), the Cowboys get a steady diet of runs until they prove to the football world that they have the running game under control.
Tyron Smith's injury tests the O-Line's depth
The loss of an All-Pro-caliber player would wreck most offenses but the absence of Smith on the frontline completely destroys the Cowboys' game plan. Despite replacing the veteran with a capable fill-in, the Cowboys' offense sputtered without Smith on the field.
Perhaps it was merely a coincidence that the offense lacked rhythm and flow without Smith, but McCarthy should be concerned about the unit's performance without the big, athletic tackle on the field. With La'el Collins slotted in at right tackle and Terence Steele playing on the left side, the Broncos found a way to ramp up the pressure on Prescott. The constant pressure and harassment disrupted the Cowboys' offensive rhythm and kept No.4 from looking like the MVP frontrunner that torched opponents earlier in the season.
While Steele and Collins are not completely to blame for the offense's woes against the Broncos, it is hard to ignore the difference in performance and production without No.77 on the field.
McCarthy should curb the fourth-down gambles
The Cowboys have been ultra-aggressive on fourth downs in the McCarthy era, but I wonder if the team would be better off taking a more conservative approach going forward. The fourth-down failures are not only robbing the Cowboys of potential points but it is killing the positive momentum created from productive drives.
The Cowboys rank 27th in fourth-down conversion rate (35.7%) but have attempted the seventh-most attempts (14) in the league. The lack of efficiency and effectiveness on the down should encourage McCarthy to play the percentages and kick the ball (field goal attempt or punt) on critical downs.
Although the Cowboys' all-star talent might encourage the veteran head coach to take more chances in key moments, the numbers suggest the team should play if safe and rely on an old-school approach to win.