The Cowboys went into this game with a golden opportunity to gain a head start on their primary competition for the NFC East crown after Philadelphia lost to Washington. Yes, it’s a 16-game season (knock on wood), but with the Eagles being decimated by injuries to start the year, the chance to come out hot and possibly build a two or three-game lead on Eagles in the first month of the season seemed realistic.
However, that opportunity fell by the wayside when the Cowboys lose to the Rams 20-17 on Sunday Night Football. The game ultimately looked like a tail of two sides of the ball with offenses that consistently moved at will and defenses that were just hoping to make an occasional play to stall a drive.
Still, in the end, the Rams pulled off the week-one upset when a turnover on downs ended the Cowboys chances of tying the game or even taking the lead with only six seconds left in the game. For Cowboys’ fans, this is all too familiar as we, once again, saw late opportunities to win or tie the game squandered on their last three drives after a 2019 season in which that seemed to be a reoccurring theme.
What went wrong:
It’s no secret that Dallas’ ultimate intent when hiring Mike McCarthy was to put themselves in a situation where coaching could give them an advantage week after week, as opposed to past scenarios where an abundance of talent always fell short due to scheme and development. Well, that was the case on Sunday as McVay and the Rams’ offense came out with a game-plan that the Cowboys’ defense had no answers for during the first two and half quarters of the game.
It’s tough to blame anyone here, and instead, Cowboys’ fans should be tipping their hat to McVay for taking advantage of the situation. Let’s be honest, every team was denied the opportunity at an offseason with the pandemic having shut down any form of normalcy over the last seven months.
However, teams that were breaking in a new coaching staff, and more specifically, ones like the Dallas defense, which was making a huge transition to a new scheme, were going to be at a disadvantage to open the year. Without OTA’s and mini-camps to implement the playbook and preseason games to get comfortable in the new system, it was no secret that the Dallas defense was going to be far from complex during the early stages of the season, and McVay was masterful in his ability to benefit in it.
Not only did the Cowboys struggle with Los Angeles’ bunch packages, but McVay made it impossible for the Cowboys to adjust on the fly by hurrying the tempo. However, his most brilliant move might have been how he slowed things down while keeping the high-tempo effects.
The Rams did sporadically huddle up in their first few series but then stayed in the huddle until deep into the play clock before sprinting up and snapping the ball quickly. This allowed both teams to catch their breath, but also forced the Cowboys to hurry up and get aligned with the ball being snapped with little time to communicate before the play was underway.
It helped the Rams sustain long drives throughout the first half, with a missed field goal being one of few blemishes. As the Cowboys players get more comfortable in this scheme, this will be less successful against them, but in week one, it was a terrific strategy.
The Defensive Tackle Position
The most significant change the Cowboys made in the offseason was their defensive technique upfront. After years in Rob Marinelli’s one-gap, penetrating scheme, Dallas transitioned to a two-gap system. While most of the front-seven was expected to fit into this new defense, the defensive tackles did not.
A two-gap scheme requires bigger tackles, preferably with exceptional arm length, while Dallas’ interior bunch was undersized. Those undersized players could still help in a nickel role, but Dontari Poe and the injured Gerald McCoy were expected to be the base defensive tackles coming into the year.
With McCoy’s injury, Trysten Hill and Antwaun Woods were relied on heavily against the Rams to play in situations that don’t suit their strengths. Not even third-round pick Neville Gallimore is a great fit in the new scheme, but the value, as well as what he can bring on pass-rush downs with energy and athleticism, was too good to pass on.
Each of these guys made a play on Sunday, but the proof in their shortcomings was in the linebacker play. While Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch (for a short stint) were physical and flying around, neither had a rep where they shot a gap into the backfield for a stop.
That’s because offensive linemen were getting to them quickly at the second level. The blockers got to that level constantly because there was no concern that these defensive tackles could drive their man backward to recreate the line of scrimmage. That’s how success in a two-gap scheme is achieved.
When the defensive tackles can drive a blocker backward, it demands a double team. That results in Smith and Vander Esch shooting gaps and creating the first contact in the backfield instead of two and three yards downfield like we often saw on Sunday.
While the Cowboys comfort level in the new scheme with alignments and gap assignments will grow through the season, this is likely going to be an issue unless there is a personnel change at defensive tackle. I’m not saying that Hill, Woods, and Gallimore won’t make plays because they are talented and will find a way, even if it means abandoning their technique.
However, consistency is likely not going to come from them out of the base defense when it comes to stopping the run, and it will affect the play behind them.
Jalen Ramsey’s late play
The Cowboys went after Ramsey early and often in the contest and got the better of him more often than not. However, the NFL’s most expensive corner came up with a pair of big plays late in the game on the final two possessions.
The first came on his big hit on Amari Cooper that forced the incompletion that was originally ruled a fumble. On the play, Los Angeles was playing cover-two on the back end, and Ramsey read the play and baited Dak Prescott perfectly.
Against cover two, quarterbacks will read the outside corner with a vertical-flat combination on the two-receiver side. If the corner turns his back to the play with the outside release of the vertical route, you immediately fire it to the player in the flat.
Ramsey recognized the outside release and instantly turned his back to Prescott before spinning completely around to put him in a position to make a play on the flat. He broke on the throw and drilled Amari Cooper right as he was securing the ball to turn upfield and get the extra yard or two needed for the first down. Instead, the ball came loose, and the Cowboys were forced to punt.
On the offensive pass interference, it’s frustrating to see that penalty called, but there is just no one to blame there outside of Ramsey. Yes, his flop garnered the call, but the flop was perfectly timed so that the referee had no choice but to throw the flag.
The second Michael Gallup’s armed stiffened to create a bit more of separation, he threw his head back, and in real-time, it looked like a clear push off. How much of a push was it? Probably not enough to warrant a flag, even though the slightest push can have a major impact when players are running full speed.
Still, it was a well-executed acting job, and more importantly, the timing was perfect to sell, and earn, the flag.
Dak’s $40M Moments
There is no secret what the going rate will be next offseason for a superstar quarterback. We know what Patrick Mahomes is making, who is easily the top signal-caller in the league at this time. We also know what Deshaun Watson is making, and he is one of the top five young quarterbacks in this game.
The question is, does Prescott fall into the same category as a guy like Watson, or is what he brings to the table a notch lower? Now I’m not going to make a case that the Cowboys’ fifth-year quarterback is not a good player, but he’s not asking for “good player” money.
Prescott wants elite money, and therefore, he needs to make elite plays in the biggest moments. That is what Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees have done. That is what Mahomes and Russell Wilson do.
On Sunday, Prescott was not the reason Dallas lost. He scrambled for a big run on third and long to set up a fourth and inches on the final drive, which the Cowboys converted. He also threw a big-time strike to Gallup, which was negated by the offensive pass interference penalty.
Still, in watch of Dallas’ final three drives, they had a chance to tie or take the lead, and it didn’t happen. On the first one, Prescott fired to high and wide on a short throw over the middle to Dalton Schultz that would have been a first down had he put it on his body.
Two plays later, Prescott put it on CeeDee Lamb’s back hip, forcing him to slow down on a fourth-and-three play, which is why Jordan Fuller was able to make the play. If Prescott leads Lamb, it’s not only a first down but possibly a score.
Now other than that, Prescott did little wrong. However, for the price of $40M annually, Dallas has to see better than “did nothing wrong.” For that price, we need to see something spectacular like what we’ve seen from the guys I mentioned earlier at times in their career when they’ve made top dollar.
Is Prescott ever going to make throws like Mahomes or Rodgers? No. He just doesn’t have that kind of ability to throw the ball. Still, Prescott is a smart, tough player, who makes good plays on the move, and is a stronger runner when he pulls it down.
Those are the ways he can be spectacular. Those are the plays we need to see from him to warrant the contract he wants. Those are the plays we need to see more often in order to ensure that we aren’t 1-6 in one-possession games again this season.
I’m sure there will be more moments like this for Prescott and the Cowboys in 2020. On Sunday, there were three drives where a field goal ties it, and a touchdown gives us the lead. That didn’t happen, and while Prescott didn’t do anything wrong, he wasn’t exactly spectacular either.
What went right:
Without the benefit of getting to see him in live-action, I’m sure most fans were excited by what they heard, but also cautious about getting their hopes up. Any player that hasn’t stepped foot on a football field in five years would warrant that kind of hesitancy, but it certainly seems warranted after Sunday.
Smith was the Cowboys best defender against the Rams, no if’s, and’s or but’s about it. He was one of the few guys up front that made plays behind the line of scrimmage while showing how difficult his combination of length, power, and athleticism can be to deal with.
The Rams’ success in the run game made it difficult for Dallas to ever pin their ears back and come after the passer, and in the end, that may have been the element that could have swung the game in the Cowboys’ favor because Smith looked determined.
If he is going to play like that, he’s got a chance to be special this year, and that could impact a lot of other players on this team. It will open up one-on-one matchups for Demarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffin. It will make Jaylon Smith more dangerous as a player who is already good on the blitz without a premier pass rusher for offenses to slide protection towards.
His presence already created an interception opportunity that Chidobe Awuzie capitalized on, even if the refs missed a shot to Jared Goff’s helmet. The bottom line, the hype on Aldon Smith is warranted, Cowboys’ fans.
The Offensive Weapons
Anytime the phrase “not enough balls to go around” is uttered, it’s a good thing. Dallas’ arsenal looked good on Sunday. Ezekiel Elliott had some outstanding moments as a runner and receiver. Amari Cooper hauled in 10 of 14 passes thrown his direction, with his biggest blemish being the crossing route where he got caught watching Elliott, whom the ball was designed to go to.
CeeDee Lamb caught five of six targets and had a 20-yard punt return as well. Michael Gallup looked strong, and if not for a great acting job by Ramsey, would have had Dallas in position to tie or win the game.
Tony Pollard looked like a ball of energy every time he got his hands on the ball, running like he’d never get to touch the ball again. Does the injury to Jarwin hurt? Of course. He’s another weapon in this bunch, but Dallas having this many weapons, can allow Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore to get awfully creative with some special packages on a week-by-week basis, based on the matchups they feel they can exploit.
More importantly, Prescott made good decisions with the football, which is an important part of maximizing this kind of talent at the skilled positions.
This, unfortunately, came in a losing effort, but the Cowboys’ defense came out ready to lay the lumber. Jaylon Smith was making big hits all game long, and while it seemed like Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown were up for the challenge early in the game, those guys stopped falling forward midway through the third quarter.
Darian Thompson and Xavier Woods were both consistently passing out shots as well, and while the Cowboys tackle attempts were all too often down the field, the tackling itself was much improved. If that is a sign of what’s to come and not just adrenaline from the first live-action any of them have seen since 2019, this Cowboys defense is in good shape.
Where do we go from here?
While Dallas didn’t have the catastrophic day of their divisional rivals in Philadelphia, it still wasn’t a good night health-wise. Leighton Vander Esch was the first and easily the most concerning for this season and the future. Vander Esch has been outstanding when healthy, but a neck injury that required surgery ended his 2019 season, and now a broken collar bone puts his future in jeopardy.
The collar bone will heal, but it will also be that much more vulnerable moving forward, and when you add that to a linebacker that will always have concerns over his neck, it paints a worrisome picture for his long-term durability. Like every Cowboys fan, I hope I’m wrong about this, but there is a lot of uncertainty in the third-year linebacker’s future.
His replacement on the roster will likely be a player that many felt should have made the team in the first place. I understand keeping Justin March over Francis Bernard based on experience, especially on special teams, but Bernard had some terrific moments in camp.
With Sean Lee still out for at least two more weeks, Bernard will likely be added to the roster while Vander Esch is on Injured Reserve, while Joe Thomas should man the spot next to Jaylon Smith until Lee is healthy enough to go.
The other big one was Blake Jarwin, who was just getting his first real opportunity as the true starter. His abilities as a receiver were a major x-factor for this offense, but those pages can be removed from the playbook moving forward.
Dalton Schultz looked as good as he has to this point in his career during training camp, and will likely jump into the starting role with Blake Bell available as a reliable blocker. The Cowboys also kept undrafted free agent Sean McKeon as a fourth tight end, who is another capable blocker.
Still, none of those guys are proven targets in the passing game. Cole Hikutini is on the Cowboys practice squad and made a solid case as well for making this roster. He was an accomplished pass-catcher coming out Louisville but only has two career catches back in 2017 with San Francisco.
If Dallas is satisfied with the three tight ends on the roster, we could see fullback Sewo Olonilua called up off the practice squad. Dalton Schultz was expected to be Mike McCarthy’s “U” tight end that moves all over the formation, including lining up as a lead blocker.
Olonilua could jump into that role to allow Schultz to move into Jarwin’s role. If that happens, look for wide receiver Cedrick Wilson to possibly slide into Jarwin’s position when Dallas split him out. Wilson is a smooth route-runner that has proven over each one of the last two training camps that he has no problem lining up in the slot and catching balls over the middle.
Also, while Wilson is not as big as Jarwin, he is still a big target at over six feet, two inches with long arms. Noah Brown and Ventrell Bryant are also on this roster, and both are capable blockers that can be motioned inside.
I’ll also say this; we could see Jarwin’s roster spot be filled at another position like defensive tackle. As I said earlier, this roster could use someone similar to Gerald McCoy’s build, and with Justin Hamilton on the practice squad, as well as players like Damon “Snacks” Harrison and Marcell Dareus available in free agency, a move could be made there.
The sprained MCL to Cameron Erving is far less concerning, considering Dallas chose to start undrafted rookie free agent Terence Steele at right tackle over him in La’el Collins’ absence. Brandon Knight also has starting experience after filling in for Collins last year a few times, and if the Cowboys big right tackle is truly going to be back in two weeks, Erving’s absence won’t mean much.
However, the Cowboys are losing an experienced, versatile backup in Erving. The hopes are that he’ll be ready to get back into his reserve role in a month.
Improving against the hurry up
The Cowboys will have no choice but to be better prepared to line up and communicate quickly next week. Atlanta is not the most high-tempo offense, but it would be a mistake for anyone not to try and find ways to implement what Sean McVay did until the Cowboys defense starts looking comfortable in the new scheme.
A lot of that is going to fall on Jaylon Smith’s shoulders, as well as Xavier Woods’. Mike Nolan will also have his hands full with adjustments if that is indeed the case. Atlanta likes to have a balanced attack, but the Rams employed a balanced attack while also mixing up the tempo.
Finding more touches for Tony Pollard
Another season, another year of me clamoring for Tony Pollard to be more involved. I just can’t say enough about the energy he brings to a unit when the ball is in his hands. He fights and scrapes for every yard, and his versatility should make it easier to get him more than four touches.
I’d love to see him used in gadget scenarios, such as screens and jet sweeps. I’d love to see him sub in for Ezekiel Elliott more mid-series. Elliott is not a fun player to tackle, and our offensive line is not a fun bunch to line up against.
If you are subbing in Pollard after six or seven plays of the series, you’re getting a fresh runner with a hungry mentality against defenders that are worn down. I know Dallas has a lot of weapons, and it is so tough to take Elliott off the field because of how well he does practically everything. Still, if Pollard is getting ten touches a contest, I think it makes the Cowboys all the better on offense.
The Fourth Down Call
It seems crazy to think that I’ve mentioned the fourth-and-three call only once to this point, but I’m bringing it back up here. I’m not saying Mike McCarthy is wrong for going for it on fourth down, and I’m sure his mind was made up prior to third down.
Still, the ideal fourth down to go for it is one where the pass and run, both, remain a strong possibility. What needs to happen, moving forward from McCarthy is his comfort level on what distances that is accurate. Obviously one or two yards, it’s safe to say that the playbook is open, but is three stretching it?
Yes, the ball was snapped on third down with the idea that the Cowboys were in four-down territory. However, a certain amount of progress has to be made on that third down in order to ensure that. Whether you love the call or hate it is not the issue. It’s setting those parameters in which the full playbook is as available as possible.
No matter your feelings are on Jason Garrett, he was always terrific about setting those parameters and sticking to them. Yes, they were on the conservative side, but he understood that identifying those parameters and sticking to them every time gave him the best odds of success.