FRISCO, Texas – It's not fun to do after a loss, but as Cowboys coach Jason Garrett likes to say: you've got to remove emotion from the situation and watch the tape.
If you can do that, you can get into the nuts and bolts of what the Cowboys did well – and, obviously, what they did poorly. There's a lot to unpack from this game, as we saw an impressive Cowboys team for the first 30 minutes and a forgettable one for the second 30 minutes.
Here are my primary impressions from my studies:
- If Aaron Donald doesn't hit Dak Prescott's arm on the opening drive, I think he finds Dez Bryant for a first down and likely a touchdown. Prescott saw Bryant pivot back to the outside, and just as he was raising his arm to throw, Donald hit his elbow, causing him to pull the ball down. I thought initially that Prescott had to re-grip the ball, but that wasn't the case. Prescott tried to slide forward in the pocket, but La'el Collins couldn't hold off Michael Brockers, resulting in the sack and forcing the field goal attempt.
- Really nice job by Xavier Woods of playing an underneath route to Cooper Kupp to get the defense off the field. Woods gave Jared Goff a two-deep look, but then rotated down to handle the crossing route. Goff didn't see Woods until it was too late and ended up throwing the ball behind the rookie receiver. Woods arrived at the same time as the ball, putting his shoulder into Kupp, knocking him to the ground and dislodging the ball in the process. What could have been a big play for the Rams turned into just three points.
- The Dallas offense caught a break when an Alec Ogletree sack on third down was overturned for offsetting penalties. During the replay of the down, Dak Prescott made the Rams pay with a strike to Dez Bryant. The offensive line did a nice job of keeping the front of the pocket clean, allowing Prescott to step up. Bryant was fighting Trumaine Johnson down the field and was able to separate with a little left hand tap in the middle of his back. As Bryant curled back for the ball, it was thrown a little high -- but he jumped up to snatch it, continuing the drive that would end with the Ezekiel Elliott touchdown catch.
- It's never easy to bring Tavon Austin down in space. His explosive quickness is a nightmare for opponents to deal with. The Rams threw a quick screen to the outside in order to take advantage of Austin's elusiveness, but Anthony Brown was right there for the stop. Brown read the play quickly and reacted underneath the block of Cooper Kupp to tackle Austin for a loss, forcing the Rams into a field goal situation.
- Tremendous poise by Dak Prescott to hang in the pocket and allow Ezekiel Elliott work into the flat for a 31-yard gain. Tanzel Smart had a free run through the middle of the pocket, as Travis Frederick thought Jonathan Cooper was going to pick him up. The free rusher didn't bother Prescott, who calmly retreated as Smart was bearing down on him and flipped the ball to his wide open running back. It was an outstanding play call, catching the Rams playing man coverage. When Cole Beasley and Jason Witten ran inside, it forced Mark Barron to fight through the bodies to get to Elliott -- but not before the damage was already done.
- Speaking of play calls. Scott Linehan dusted off a call that he used against the Giants last season for a touchdown to Terrance Williams. This call had a chance for a similar result, but I don't think Prescott saw Kayvon Webster waiting for Williams on the other side of the field. When Prescott finished his play fake, he snapped his body around to make the throw to Williams on the move across the field. If he could have waited just a second longer, it is likely that Williams would have cleared Webster and Prescott could have floated the ball to him over the top. Instead, he threw the ball on the line, which gave Webster the chance for an interception that he wasn't able to bring in.
- Defensively, there wasn't much pressure from the Cowboys' front in this game. The one time they did manage to get a guy home likely saved a Rams touchdown. Sean McVay called a throw back across the field to Tyler Higbee off play action that completely fooled everyone on defense. If not for Damontre' Moore defeating Rob Havenstein and forcing Jared Goff to hurry his throw, there was going to be trouble for the Cowboys. Goff overshot Higbee by a good four yards, all due to the pressure from Moore.
- I honestly thought Alfred Morris was going to be inactive this week. I had heard the coaches were using him less and less in the game plan. His 70-yard run was a well-executed play from the snap and more in line with what we've seen from this offense in the past. The Cowboys caught the Rams in a line stunt inside, which allowed Jonathan Brown and Tyron Smith to set the edge. Once Zack Martin got the kick out block on Robert Quinn, all James Hanna had to do was seal Mark Barron to the outside in order to leave a hole inside. Morris did a great job of hitting that hole with pace, and he was one-on-one with Cody Davis. Morris made Davis miss and was on his way. If Kayvon Webster hadn't hustled to run the play down, Morris was going to score -- but he stops him just short.
- I had a feeling that Dak Prescott was going to try and use the snap count a little bit to help himself. Early in the game, he got Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald to jump offsides, which gave him a free shot down the field to Dez Bryant. When Bryant went up for the ball, I thought he had a chance to haul it in. He got both of his feet in bounds, but Trumaine Johnson managed to time his jump just at the right time to knock the ball away. If Johnson hadn't made that play, the Cowboys would have been sitting on the Rams' goal line. I expect we'll see Prescott using the hard count more in the future to grab those free plays when he can.
- As aggressive as Sean McVay is as a play caller, I was positive he was going to try and throw the ball on third down on the Cowboys' 14-yard line to seal the game. I was a little surprised that he went with the run to Gurley, but it was a safe call. McVay tried to pop an inside run out of the shotgun, and if not for a tremendous play by Tyrone Crawford at the point of attack, Gurley might have come up with the necessary yardage to convert. The hole opened up initially, but Crawford was able to get rid of John Sullivan and quickly fill the hole before Gurley had a chance to get going. By making that stop, it held the Rams to a field goal and left the Cowboys enough time to at least attempt a game-winning drive.
- It would have been really interesting on that final, fourth down play for the offense, if Dak Prescott would have been able to get the ball in Ezekiel Elliott's hands without him having to jump for it. When he caught the ball, Elliott came to almost a complete stop before he regained his balance and started up the field. Once he made Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree miss, he was able to get some of his momentum back -- but it wasn't enough to get past John Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman, who kept him short of the sticks.
- I thought the referee Clete Blakeman did a poor job of protecting Dak Prescott in this game. I can't begin to tell you how many times he took unnecessary shots. Alec Ogletree went at his head one time in the open field with Blakeman and line judge Dana McKenzie standing right there -- no flag. On a pass to Terrance Williams, Blakeman allowed Aaron Donald to take him to the ground and bend him back after the ball was gone. On a pass to Ezekiel Elliott in the flat, Tanzel Smart tackled him low around the legs once again after the ball was clearly gone. I have heard Ron Rivera mention the poor treatment that Cam Newton receives in the game from officials in regards to his protection. I can only hope that Jason Garrett doesn't have to make the same comments, but those hits needed to be called unless the league wants to lose a star to an injury.