IRVING, Texas – Along with the bright spots come disappointing failures when the Cowboys find themselves once again in the same mediocre .500 spot they've been at the last two and a half years.
It's been as average as it could be thus far, as the Cowboys went from 1-1 to 2-2 to 3-3 to 4-4 and, finally, to 5-5. This Week 11 bye week offers the perfect opportunity to dissect what's gone wrong and what needs to change to lift the Cowboys from a decent team to a playoff contender.
DallasCowboys.com's Rowan Kavner, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus, Rowan Kavner all give their opinions on the problems the Cowboys have endured, some areas to focus on to quell those issues and what to expect going forward.
1) Biggest offensive problem?
Rowan: There's no identity or a specific go-to for the offense to hang their hats on every week. Their one consistent play is a back shoulder fade to Dez Bryant in the end zone, but they've got to get there first. They don't seem to have a sure-fire plan when
Bryant gets smothered with defenders, and they go away from him when he does. He needs to stay involved, because the running game is so sporadic. What else are they great at?
David: To put it simply, I think it's too conservative. Tony Romo is third in the league in pass attempts, but he is 14th in the league in yards per attempt. He's also only 10th in the league in yards per game. I think the biggest strength of this team is Romo and his options in the passing game. They need to be utilized more.* *
Nick: Just one? Hmm, I think the problem with this team is that they switch it up each week. One week, they can't run at all and Dez has to carry them. The next week, he's shut down and no one else steps up. To me, it still stems from a sporadic offensive line. Losing Brian Waters was huge. But most of the problems seem to begin with the offensive line.
Bryan: Execution. This offense has the weapons at key positions to move the ball on anyone but when they drop the ball, miss a blitz pickup, or don't hit the hole quick enough on 3rd - 1 to gain a first down, they might as well not be on the field.
2) Biggest defensive problem?
Rowan:Apart from the obvious, which is injuries, the linebackers' adjustment to this new scheme just hasn't gone smoothly from the start. Sean Lee was putting up his elite numbers before the injury, but it even took him a while to get accustomed to the pass drops, and Bruce Carter hasn't been the same guy we remember from the 3-4. They need to find out how best to showcase his talent and get him home on the blitz.
David: A strong pass rush can make an average secondary look great and a bad secondary look at least average. I know there have been injuries, but the Cowboys have managed just four sacks in three games since they hit Washington and Philadelphia for a combined six. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher need to come back healthy and ready to get after the quarterback following the bye week.
Nick:This team is just too banged up to really compete. You can call that an excuse. I call it reality. Think about any job in any field. If the five or six really key members went down and were replaced by people off the street, there's no way the production would be the same. It's a fact. And the Cowboys can't keep rotating different linemen in each week and expect no drop-off. Lack of pass rush puts too much pressure on the secondary, and that's a big thing.
Bryan: Playing zone coverage. I understand how important it is for a defense to be able to line up and mix the coverage but when it's 3rd - 12 and you give up a 15 yard pass because you have defenders in the wrong spot, then you are going to have problems. This team is better in man and these coaches know that.
3) Who needs to be utilized more?
Rowan: It's 11 weeks in, and nobody knows how good Lance Dunbar can be. DeMarco Murray got going last week against the Saints and should remain the featured back, but that doesn't mean Dunbar shouldn't get involved in some capacity. Whether it's getting him the ball in space on the pass or spelling Murray with a couple series and plays designed for Dunbar's skill set, the Cowboys could end up finding one of their lone players capable of taking short gains to the end zone.
David: I don't think 3.7 targets per game and 2.6 receptions per game is enough for Cole Beasley. It's so easy for a guy that shifty to get open near the line of scrimmage, it's almost like having an extra running back. He's averaging 10 yards per reception, and he almost never goes downfield, like Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams do. Let Beasley carry the load of some more short yardage production, and the deeper plays may open up. Nick: A few weeks ago, I called Cole Beasley the real X-factor of this offense. Since then, he's caught the ball like five times. I still see a few third-down plays and he's not out there. I don't understand that. When it comes to his hands and route-running, Beasley might be the best on the team in both categories. Sure, he's lacking in size but he finds a way to use it to his advantage. For a team that went 0-of-9 on third downs last week, I think Beasley should be used way more.
Bryan: I have tried to get Lance Dunbar the ball, but that hasn't worked. If DeVonte Holloman is healthy he needs to be on the field for Ernie Sims, in any situation. I would even consider him over Justin Durant who hasn't played poorly, but Holloman needs a chance, there is something there.
*4) What needs to improve more – offense or defense? *
Rowan: I don't think the defense should be given a free pass because of the barrage of injuries, but the bottom line is the offense has the majority of its playmakers intact and isn't producing. The offense needs to win games for the Cowboys. One can at least understand why the defense would struggle with three projected starters still on the field by the end of the Saints game, but there's no answer for the offensive struggles. The rhythm's off and the third down struggles keep getting worse.
David: The defense is what it is – it's been depleted by injury and relying on several unproven guys. The offense is relatively healthy by comparison, with a Pro Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Fame tight end and a top tier wide receiver. And yet it is 19th in the league in yards per game, highlighted by last week's inability to gain even 200 yards. The defense can certainly improve if it can get healthy, but I think the offense will have to carry this team to the finish line.
Nick: Let's not try to get cute here. Of course it's the defense. Sure, the offense could help them out more, but can't you say the same about the defense. This is the WORST DEFENSE in the NFL. They're ranked dead last in total yards per game and dead last against the pass. The Cowboys are 19th on offense, which certainly isn't great. But still, dead last? Yeah, the injuries have been tough on defense but last time I checked, Murray missed time, Austin has missed time and Brian Waters is out for the year. I'm not discounting the injuries but in fairness of the question, the defense has to find a way to get off the field.
Bryan: Offense. I am not making excuses for this defense, but they are what they are, we have all seen this. The best players left standing happen to be playing on the offensive side of the ball. Running 48 plays in a game is no help to this defense. Someone needs to step up, now before this season gets away.
5) What's the prediction for the final six weeks?
Rowan: I still have 8-8 in mind. I just can't shake that final record the way things have gone. I have trouble predicting the Cowboys as a favorite in any game they're without Lee, but I think they can survive without him against the Raiders. I think they surprise many with a win in Chicago or home against Green Bay and win one of two at the end as they squeak into the playoffs. [embedded_ad]
David: I'm bracing myself for some streaks. I think the Cowboys can win two in a row coming out of the bye week, but I think it's almost a certainty they drop two in a row to Chicago and Green Bay – though that hinges on the health of Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers. The division will be on the line when the Eagles come to AT&T Stadium in Week 17, and I think the Cowboys can find a way to win that game. They'll sneak into the playoffs, but more so because the NFC East is bad than because the Cowboys are a playoff caliber team.
Nick: I'm not sure why I see this team getting off the .500 see-saw but I do. I can see the Cowboys winning the next two and even splitting against the Bears and Packers. Those games aren't unwinnable by any means. Personally, I think the Cowboys will go to Washington with a chance to win the division outright. That's something they haven't had the opportunity to do the last two years. Week 16 has been meaningless at kickoff. I think the Cowboys will have two weeks to get one win and get in. I see San Francisco playing at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 4 for the Saturday night Wild Card game.
Bryan: This team has played well at home and will continue to do so in my opinion but road games in New York, Chicago and Washington could be the difference whether they are in the playoff or not. I see them winning two of those three road games putting them in the postseason for the first time since 2009.