Here are my observations from the Cowboys' 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals:
- Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The Cowboys continue to lose games due to their turnover issues. Despite Mike McCarthy's weekly lectures regarding the importance of ball security, the Cowboys gives the ball away at an alarming rate. The team has a minus-12 turnover differential through six games after registering a minus-four mark against the Cardinals that resulted in 24 points. The turnovers not only gift wrapped Kliff Kingsbury's troops a win but it continued a disturbing trend that's keyed the Cowboys' disappointing 2-4 start.
The offense is too careless with the ball and the defense is unable to take it away. Until each unit makes it a priority to win the turnover battle, the Cowboys will keep giving games away and fall out of the picture as a potential playoff/division winner.
- Zeke is in a funk.
The two-time NFL rushing champ appeared out of sorts against the Cardinals. Elliott had a pair of second-quarter fumbles that completely changed the momentum of the game and put the Cowboys behind the eight-ball. The early miscues altered the way that the Pro Bowl runner toted the rock with No.21 looking tentative and cautious with the ball in his hands. In addition, Elliott didn't exhibit the physicality, toughness, and pop that's made him one of the premier runners in the league.
With the 12-carry, 49-yard rushing effort marking the sixth straight game in which Elliott hasn't surpassed the 100-yard mark, the veteran runner needs to rediscover his all-star game to help spark a Cowboys' offense that attempting to find an identity after losing their QB1.
- Andy Dalton can't shoulder the load.
The three-time Pro Bowler is viewed as the best backup quarterback in the league but that doesn't mean he is capable of thriving in a game plan that requires him to 50-plus times in a game. Dalton is at his best operating in a managerial role with a five-star supporting cast around him. The Cowboys certainly have a number of playmakers available at the skill spots but a leaky offensive line forces the veteran quarterback to throw under duress.
The lack of consistent protection and Dalton's gradual decline were on highlighted as he completed 34 of 54 passes for 266 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. He missed the mark on several throws, particularly on a couple of deep shots to Michael Gallup. In addition, Dalton appeared to hold onto the ball too long while operating within the pocket. The lengthy drop-backs were surprising based on the Cowboys' patchwork offensive line after the Zach Martin injury.
As Dalton struggled to find his rhythm as a passer for 3.5 quarters in a game that featured the second-most pass attempts of his career, the Cowboys not only discovered their new QB1's limitations but they have a better understanding of how to work around them going forward.
- Injuries continue to deplete the O-Line.
The loss of Zack Martin to a concussion left the Cowboys with a completely reshuffled O-Line than most expected on game day. The loss of Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, and Martin to various injuries removed three all-stars from the lineup and ensured the team had four new starters on the field from 2019 (Travis Frederick's retirement). The overhaul has turned a team strength into weakness and altered the way the Cowboys must play in the short term.
Against the Cardinals, Brandon Knight and Terence Steele occupied the tackle spots with Tyler Biadasz, Conner Williams, and Conner McGovern playing the interior three following Martin's injury. The overall inexperience of the frontline left them vulnerable to the Cardinals' high-pressure tactics. The persistent blitzing from every angle resulted in Dalton taking a beating inside the pocket (three sacks and 8 QB hits). Moreover, the constant pressure disrupted the veteran quarterback's rhythm and timing in the passing game.
- Dalton Schultz is emerging as a bright spot in the passing game.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end continues to make strides as a pass catcher in theCowboys' passing game. He is settling in as a key contributor as a chain mover and Dalton's confidence in him showed up early in the game. Although he finished the night with only four catches for 35 yards, Schultz's route running and consistent separation from his defenders stood out in the game. If he continues to take advantage of his opportunities as a TE1, he could become a key part of the Cowboys' passing game with so much attention directed towards the trio of playmakers at wide receiver.
- No more excuses for Mike Nolan.
The long-time defensive coordinator has been unable to fix the Cowboys' defense through six games. The unit has given up the fifth-most points (218) in NFL history through six games and looks overmatched in every contest. Against the Cardinals, the defense played well through the first quarter with three straight defensive stops, and only three first-downs allowed. The momentum quickly turned after a pair of fumbles sparked the Cardinals' offense and the defense surrendered points on six of the next seven drives, excluding a kneel-down prior to halftime.
The defense couldn't contain Kyler Murray on the perimeter (10 rushes for 74 yards) and his explosiveness enabled him to overcome a disappointing passing game (completed 9 of 24 passes for 188 yards with two touchdowns). The Cowboys' lack of team speed showed up whenever No.1 fled the pocket on designed runs or improvised scrambles. Against the run, the Cowboys appeared lost and confused by the misdirection action and option principles featured by the Cardinals. The combination of pre-snap motion and zone-read option exploited the unit's lack of discipline at the point of attack resulting in the Cardinals averaging 7.5 yards per rushing attempt.
With defensive backs struggling on the perimeter to defend basic route concepts in man or zone coverage, the scheme, coaching, and execution deserves an extensive evaluation from McCarthy when he meets with the defensive staff on Tuesday,
- The defense looks slow.
The Cardinals' fast-break offense is designed to test the speed, athleticism, and conditioning of opposing defenses. Kliff* Kingsbury has loaded his offensive lineup with speedsters on the perimeter with the capacity to stretch the field vertically and horizontally.
Against the Cowboys, the Cardinals' superior athleticism showed up with Murray and Co. running past the defense at every turn. The diminutive quarterback exposed the lack of speed along the frontline with his dazzling runs around the corner. The Cardinals' utilization of the speed sweep to Christian Kirk also put the spotlight on the Cowboys' speed deficiencies. The shifty wide receiver easily turned the corner on his six-yard touchdown
Hopkins' 60-yard catch-and-run also exposed the defense's lack of speed, quickness, and burst as he easily gobbled up yards on a crossing route underneath coverage. The NFL's WR1 easily maneuvered around the perimeter to flip the field on a five-yard crossing route that should've been a minimal gain.
Considering the missed opportunities (Andy Isabella targets) that weren't cashed in by the Cardinals, the Cowboys' speed deficiencies on defense will need to be addressed in the offseason through the draft or free agency after the personnel staff studies this tape on there this season.
The secondary continues to disappoint.
The Cowboys' defensive backfield was viewed as the team's weakest link entering the season and the concerns have been validated by the unit's poor performance this season. Against the Cardinals, the secondary continues to struggle with basic concepts that high schoolers grasp on Friday nights.
The 80-yard bomb to Kirk on a Double Post concept is in the first chapter of the Cover 3 playbook. The inside post is designed to occupy the safety with the outside post viewed as an isolation route against the corner. The route concept isn't complicated but it requires the corner to be aware of his vulnerability and make a leverage adjustment (stay on top of the route with outside squeeze technique) to eliminate the easy throw and force quarterbacks to make a lower percentage throw to the sideline. Darryl Worley not only failed to anticipate the route or play with proper leverage but he stopped his feet while making an incorrect guess early in the route.
As a result, Kirk blows past him on an easy throw and catch that should've never happened against three-deep coverage. The veteran cornerback should've known better and it is inexcusable to see the Cowboys' secondary repeatedly victimized by coverage beaters that aren't complex or difficult to defend. TIn man coverage, the secondary continues to struggle against basic pick and rub concepts from stacked or bunched alignments. The lack of communication or anticipation from the secondary is mind-boggling based on the easily identifiable clues from the offense.
On Hopkins' 60-yard catch-and-run, the reduced splits and tight alignment should've set off alarms to everyone in the secondary. Sure, Trevon Diggs is a rookie and he's expected to struggle as a newcomer, but this was a basic route that should've been discussed early in training camp. He didn't communicate a possible switch call or align at a depth that would've enabled him to run through the trash to meet Hopkins on the other side of the field. The lack of comprehension and execution is on him but I question whether he's been taught or understands the basics of the scheme or how to play against the probable routes opponents will utilize to exploit the coverage.
- The quit at the end of the game is inexcusable.
The defense has certainly played harder in recent weeks after being called out on the Twitter-verse for the disappointing effort against the Browns. The unit has shown more urgency running to the ball and attempting to finish plays.
That said, it is going to be hard for coaches to ignore the lack of effort shown on Kenyan Drake's 69-yard touchdown at the end of the game. The Cowboys' frontline failed to fight to escape blocks and the lack of gap discipline can be attributed to a lazy attitude and demeanor at the end of the game. Sure, the game is out of reach and the points didn't matter but the poor habits are a reflection of a culture that accepts mediocrity on the field.
- The return of LVE boosts the defense.
It was good to see No.55 manning the middle of the defense. Vander Esch's return stabilizes the second level and enables Jaylon Smith to return to his customary role as a "run-and-chase" defender. When the two are on the field together, the defense displays the continuity and chemistry that many expected to see from a veteran defense.
Despite giving up 30 points after a solid first-quarter performance keyed by LVE's return, the unit should gain some confidence from knowing that it is capable of playing better with No.55 on the field.