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Nick at Nite

Nick at Nite: Overcoming duality to find an identity


FRISCO, Texas — Through five games, finding the identity of the 2023 Dallas Cowboys is a tough task.

With such a sizable sample size, it's hard to pinpoint anything that this team can be defined by, good or bad. It seems as though every week is a coin toss as to what version of the Cowboys will show up like we're watching a Jekyll and Hyde remake each and every Sunday. Each game leaves you more puzzled as to what the team can really be characterized by.

Let's start with the good.

Coming into the season, it was clear that the defense had taken a step in the right direction with the addition of Stephon Gilmore, the maturation of Micah Parsons and the continued progression of young players such as DaRon Bland and Damone Clark. In the three wins, we've seen that progression across the board.

Suffocating backfield pressure, takeaways, defensive touchdowns and everything in between make up the biggest confidence marker on the team.

Offensively, moving down the field with purpose has been prevalent in four of five games. Double-digit play drives only populate when the offense is on, but it's been difficult to find consistency beyond that.

Which leads us to the bad.

Everything that plagued this team in the first four weeks – both in the wins and the one loss – was amplified to the umpteenth degree on Sunday night in San Francisco.

A lack of multiplicity offensively caused drives to stall out before they could even get started. It eventually forced Dak Prescott in the second half to force things that were not there, resulting in a barrage of interceptions that sealed Dallas' fate early in the third quarter. That lack of multiplicity starts with not being able to get the ball to CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks, who combined for just five receptions and 56 yards in the biggest game of the season to this point.

It also includes the continued action of utilizing the short pass game, even with a big deficit in front of the offense. Even when down two possessions, Dallas utilized the short game against a physical 49ers defense that was focused on keeping everything in front of them – at times even too much, which led to KaVontae Turpin's touchdown downfield.

In facing two deficits this season, the offense has not proved to be capable of climbing back into games. What has made them great – sustaining long, methodical drives that take a ton of time off the clock and keep the opposing defense on the field for long stretches of time – has also been its own kryptonite. And if you're asking me to be honest, I don't see an overarching solution other than just simply adding to the simplistic nature of this offense to give it just a little more juice.

That could include what I've mentioned already in getting the ball to Cooks and Lamb, but it could mean getting Dak Prescott active outside the pocket by design, or being creative in both the run and pass game with Tony Pollard who in my opinion has the potential of being the most dynamic weapon on the team.

Defensively, the problems feel smaller, but they feel more difficult to overcome only because of the historical context that we have within the issues that have carried over from 2022. Most notably, the run defense.

In the two losses, that issue was largely highlighted with 222 yards given up on the ground to Arizona and 170 given up to San Francisco. While the latter saw more yards when the game was already well out of hand, there is still an issue that haunts this team in the middle of the defense, and if Leighton Vander Esch is set to miss extended time, then that issue only grows in concern with little-to-no linebacker depth waiting behind him.

In the pass game, Kyle Shanahan and Brock Purdy took advantage of every little crease and hole that the Dallas defense presented, and the Cowboys failed to find a meaningful adjustment. It concerns me to the point that I now believe that if the pass rush cannot generate problems in the backfield, the secondary will fail to execute on a consistent basis behind them.

It starts up front in both the pass and the run game. If you're Micah Parsons and you're seeing only one quarterback pressure in your effort against San Francisco paired with the success the 49ers had in the pass game, you take it personally to ensure that doesn't happen again. And that goes for DeMarcus Lawrence, Osa Odighizuwa and everybody in between.

The identity feels within reach for this team, but at the same time it feels hard to hold onto on a consistent basis. With an opponent like the Chargers waiting next Monday night, not having an identity will only cause the same result we saw on Sunday night against the Niners. The quicker the Cowboys can hold onto what they do best on both sides of the ball, the quicker we can see this team get to their full potential.

Offensively, it needs to be finding multiplicity. Defensively, it needs to be strengthening the middle of the defense and being confident in the pass rush.

The next 14 days will be crucial for this team. A game against the Chargers with a familiar offensive coordinator on the other sideline followed by a well-placed bye week will give the Cowboys an opportunity to find what and who they are. 

Can they find an identity? Or will they continue to stumble?

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