Cowboys loss at Browns

Frustration growing in Dallas as defense has no answers for the Browns

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The Scoop:

There is no way to sugarcoat the Cowboys 49-38 loss to Cleveland this past Sunday. This defense was horrendous and gave this team little chance to win, while the offense was good but made enough mistakes to keep them from getting the opportunity to come back.

Before we go piling on Dallas, I would like to say that the Browns offensive line is truly one of the best in football, and should not be judged on their history of dwelling in the cellar of the NFL. Having said that, this defense giving up over 300 yards on the ground is pathetic. I don’t care what Mike McCarthy says about not questioning his team’s effort. At some point on Sunday, Dallas realized they were not capable of stopping that rushing attack, and their effort suffered.

I’m not saying the Cowboys defenders consciously quit, but they stopped believing in the scheme and/or their chances, and it resulted in less than a full effort. I’ve preached patience over the first few weeks of the season with this defensive scheme, and even stated that while things could improve, we still don’t have the personnel to make this scheme truly effective at a high level.

Still, at this point, I don’t know if our defense can be competitive against top-tier offenses, which means Dallas may have to re-evaluate our expectations for this team, which could lead to multiple actions down the road, which I will discuss later.

For now, Dallas can at least take solace in the fact that this division is the worst in football, and they will never be out of the running as long as the other three teams continue to lose. Philadelphia got their first win of the season over a Nick Mullins-lead San Francisco squad, Washington is already making changes at quarterback, benching Dwayne Haskins in favor of Kyle Allen, and the Giants are still winless while Daniel Jones continues to chase Carson Wentz to see who can turn the ball over the most in the NFL.

Winning the NFC East may be the highest achievable goal that is realistic for any team in the division, and Dallas is certainly in the running. I’m saying this while cringing as an NFL Draft guy knowing that our record will likely be bad enough for a top-ten pick, though winning this division will drop us back to 19, barring a miracle upset in the playoffs.

What went wrong:

The defensive personnel

I must sound like a broken record, but at this point, the proof is in the pudding. We don’t have the personnel to play a two-gap scheme up front, nor can we stand up two linebackers on the edge.

At defensive tackle, we just don’t have the right kind of player. Dontari Poe is the right kind of player, but you need at least three of him to rotate at two positions. We’ve got one, and this has nothing to do with talent.

Trysten Hill has made progress as a player, there is no doubt about that, but the times he is making plays, it’s usually because he is abandoning the technique he’s asked to play within the scheme. He’s starting off taking on the block, before shooting one gap to pursue the ball.

The problem is that it shifts the responsibility to him to make the play because the linebackers are wrestling with guys 50 pounds heavier to try and get involved in the play. That’s why I’m not like most who are calling for Mike Nolan to be on the chopping block.

It’s a scheme that allows the linebackers to roam free and be the playmakers, and when you’ve got Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch (when healthy), that’s an appropriate scheme to implement. However, these defensive tackles can’t demand the kind of double team that makes it successful, which is done by recreating the line of scrimmage in the backfield.

Guys like Hill and Antwaun Woods don’t have the combination of power and arm length to do that consistently, and while both are giving great effort, that’s not going to change. The Browns routinely got a push up the field and to the linebackers, and their runners weren’t getting touched until after they’d picked up three or four yards already.

However, I’m a little shocked at the Cowboys’ base defensive set thus far. When we hired Nolan, my first thought was we’d be moving to a hybrid scheme as opposed to a three-man front simply because we are committed to Demarcus Lawrence long-term, and he is not suited to play standing up.

Still, Nolan has opted to try that with him, and we’ve seen Lawrence have far less impact than usual because of it. Now, if Lawrence were the only one, I could see them moving forward with the stand-up edge players, but Everson Griffin doesn’t fit it either.

Dorance Armstrong could have fit there when he came out of Kansas, but over the years, he’s added weight to play with his hand on the ground. Bradlee Anae doesn’t fit standing up, and when Randy Gregory comes back, I don’t see him being a strong fit either.

The only one with experience in that regard is Aldon Smith. So, I am still a bit baffled as to why we are lining up in a 3-4 base defense as much as we have thus far. Asking Aldon Smith to stand up in a hybrid look with the opposing edge player lining up as a more traditional end was the best fit for our current personnel.

By the way, I get that you are only in a base defense so often, but thus far, our opponents have dictated that we stay in it far more often than you would expect because of their two-tight end sets. The Rams did it, Seattle did it, and Cleveland did it.

Also, I’ve got to call out Mike McCarthy here. You can’t tell Will McClay and Stephen Jones to target talent over scheme fit in the draft.

They did that with Neville Gallimore in the third round. He’s not much different than Hill or Woods, in that his size isn’t the best fit for a two-gap scheme, but I get the selection of him with the idea that he will be a nickel-scheme defensive tackle.

The problem is, you needed starting defensive tackles. I know we had Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe already signed, but you need three because you can’t ask 320-pound players to play fifty or more snaps a game on defense.

It’s just not realistic. You need a three-man rotation at those two spots to keep them all fresh. Now Gallimore is camping on the sidelines and has been in street clothes the last few weeks because McCarthy and his staff can’t hold up their end of the bargain to find a role for a talented player.

It’d be one thing if Gallimore just weren’t as capable of producing the results of the guys in front of him, but on this team, that is clearly not the case.

Talent in the secondary

This isn’t something that went wrong, as much as we just aren’t good enough. Trevon Diggs should be coming on the field as a third corner in obvious passing situations after being denied any chance of getting acclimated to the league through the offseason and in preseason games.

Instead, he’s routinely getting matched up with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. With D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Last week, it was Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. That’s not reasonable, and he’s doing it with a bum shoulder to boot.

I genuinely hope this doesn’t impact his confidence long-term. Still, we just aren’t very good on the back end. Jourdan Lewis was supposed to flourish now that he was out of Kris Richard’s system that seemed to have a height requirement. That simply hasn’t been the case.

Anthony Brown and Chidobe Awuzie have been injured, but neither has ever proven to be a lock as a starter. Awuzie has failed to take his game to that level, while Brown is, at best, a nickel corner.

Daryl Worley looks out of position on the perimeter, and at times against Cleveland, I criticized the Browns play-calling for not attacking him more. He looked like he had zero chance at covering Beckham when they lined him up out there.

At safety, I don’t even know where to begin. HaHa Clinton-Dix was released because Darian Thompson had won that job from him. My question is how we define the term “won”. Thompson has been so bad in coverage that he was benched early against Cleveland.

And let me be clear, it’s not a scheme question here. Thompson wasn’t confused when D.K Metcalf beat him for what ended up being the go-ahead score against Dallas. He wasn’t fooled by the reverse pass. Thompson simply isn’t capable of covering those guys deep.

He doesn’t have a sense of when it is time to flip his hips and run, he didn’t take good angles, and he darn sure can’t accelerate to keep up with them. That’s just the facts, and asking it of him is asking for trouble. Thompson is best when lined up in the box, and when that’s not an option, he shouldn’t be on the field.

Xavier Woods has been good against the run, but this isn’t a guy that creates turnovers or even get his hands on the ball. I get that those are qualities of a great safety, but we’ve abstained from making the big trades the last several years, in part, because of what we hoped Woods would become.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been what we hoped he’d be. This criticism may not be fair because he isn’t playing terrible, but Dallas is desperate for a playmaker on the back end, and he isn’t it. Donovan Wilson plays with a ton of effort, but he’s a similar player to Thompson, and Reggie Robinson is nowhere near ready to be thrown into the fire.

Overall, we are average, at best, when healthy, and that is a challenging position to be in when you are in a new scheme learning on the fly.

The handling of Terence Steele

I don’t recall screaming this loud at the television in all my years as a Cowboys fan, and kudos to my middle brother for listening to it because we were on the phone when it happened. How is Steele to blame for not being able to block Myles Garrett one-on-one?

It’s outrageous to think that Mike McCarthy and the offensive staff went into this game with the mindset that Steele would have to handle that challenge as an undrafted rookie, knowing Garrett is the most dynamic pass rusher in football.

On Garrett’s first sack, of course, Steele was beaten, but Dak Prescott can’t hold on to that football that long. He sees the matchup pre-snap, and he knows the play called. You have got to make an adjustment there to either give him help or audible to a play that requires a quicker throw.

It’s just that simple. Don’t put Steele in a position to fail when you’ve got the ability to change the scenario. On the second snap, I’m not going to say Prescott held on to it too long, but he still walked up to the line of scrimmage, identified Garrett in a one-on-one situation with Steele, and went forward with the protection and play call.

No sir! That can’t happen. Not from Prescott with the ability to change the play. Not from whoever is making the protection calls (Prescott, Zack Martin, Tyler Biadasz). That was the play where my Garrett had the strip-sack that continued to shift momentum in their favor.

When they took Steele out, I was irate. Not because I wanted Steele in the game, but because everyone around him failed him, and he was blamed for it. Dallas had all week to scheme for the likelihood that Garrett would make his way to that side of the line to create that matchup.

There had to be contingencies in place to help him when it happened, and if there were, they were ignored. That is not Steele’s fault in any way, shape, or form. Shame on McCarthy, Prescott, and anyone else responsible for not allowing that matchup to be a one-on-one scenario in the first place.

That is not accountability, it is throwing that young man under the bus for a situation in which he was not capable of having success. I don’t know how they can put him back on the field after shattering his confidence in that way, but that is how talented, albeit unpolished prospects get ruined by poor coaching decisions.

The Real Tony Pollard?

I have been screaming for Pollard to get more touches since he entered the league, but maybe I have to admit that I may not know everything on this matter. The talent is there, no doubt about it. However, perhaps one thing I haven’t considered, as well as others who want him to get the ball, is his reliability in the eyes of the coaches.

In recent weeks, we have seen Pollard make some horrible decisions as a kick returner, not to mention putting the ball on the ground as a runner once, where we were fortunate enough to get a camera angle to prove he was down.

Is it like that in practice? Anyone who has played football has seen a guy like that. That guy that is extremely talented, but you just don’t know if he is going to hold on to the ball or execute the right assignment.

Or is he going to put himself in a position to execute, but make a poor decision? At this point, I’m putting my pom-poms down when it comes to Pollard because I don’t trust him. The poor decisions as a kick returner seem to show up every week, and that includes bringing the ball out when he is too deep in the end zone.

Something has always failed to add up when it came to his touches over the past year or so, and maybe the reason isn’t what we thought it was.

Dak’s habit of getting complacent

This has been one of Prescott’s most significant issues over the years, and it starts with him having success. By the way, for all the Cowboys fans out there that want to put an unreasonable amount of blame on the offense because we don’t get off to better starts, I’m not exactly in agreement with you.

Turnovers have been an issue there, but it’s not like we are coming out flat by any means. On Sunday, Prescott opened the game going 10-11 for 174 yards and two scores. Not sure what he can improve on there, outside of the first sack (I discussed earlier) where he held onto the ball too long.

Still, as the game when on, Prescott got too cavalier with the football. I get what the stat sheet says under the interception column, but Prescott threw a minimum of five interceptions against the Browns, and thank his lucky stars that only one was caught.

By the way, these weren’t great plays by the secondary either. These were risky decisions, many of which in tight windows, and we’ve seen this before from Prescott. He has a tendency to get comfortable after early success, and all of a sudden, he starts mistaking his arm Patrick Mahome’s or Russell Wilson’s.

We’ve got to get that cleaned up. This game doesn’t get easier because you’ve had success. The focus has to be just as good. The decisions have to be just as accurate. The reality of what his arm is and is not capable of has to stay intact.

It’s unfair to put the kind of pressure on Prescott and this offense that Dallas has had to so far, but every turnover is another possession for the opposing offense. With the Cowboys past three games looking like they are straight out of the Big 12, giving the other team extra possessions puts you behind in the shootout.

I’m not blaming Prescott for the loss against Cleveland, but we need him to have a better idea of when to take risks, and early in these games is not the appropriate time. The Browns defense didn’t take advantage of them, but against the top teams, hitting the defenders in the hands with errant passes will not end well for Dallas.

Zeke’s focus thus far

This has to be addressed as well. Unlike Prescott, who is still waiting on his contract, Elliott has already been paid like a focal point of this offense, and he has to play like it. I’m not talking about his lack of impact in the running game.

Anyone can understand that when you fall behind, the clock starts working against you, and throwing it is the only way to get back into the game. Still, Elliott can’t be the reason we are falling behind. The fumbles against Atlanta helped take the ball out of his hands in the run game.

The dropped passes against Seattle did the same thing. The fumble against the Browns was another example. If Prescott were consistently throwing interceptions early in games, he’d get the same criticism, and above, I’m criticizing him for throws that weren’t ultimately picked off.

The difference between Elliott and Prescott is that Elliott’s ability to run the ball can keep our defense off the field, and his mistakes are directly contributing to him not getting carries. That can’t happen with our defense.

Even when our defense gets better, we can’t have our highly-paid running back making those kinds of errors. We are paying him like one of the best in the league, which means he can’t make mistakes, especially ones that take the ball out of his hands in the second half.

What went right:

Receivers again

At this point, what else can I say that I already haven’t. These receivers are playing outstanding, although I’d like an explanation for why Michael Gallup was off the field so much late in the Cleveland game.

Still, even Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown are consistently making plays when called upon. At this point, it’s not a stretch to say the Cowboys have the best group of receivers in football from top to bottom.

Credit to Brown, who seems to get drilled more often than not when the ball comes his way, and Wilson, who always seems to be open. The scheme may have something to do with it, as well as the big three receivers, but these guys are making the plays themselves at a high rate.

How much worse would this season be without this bunch? If Amari Cooper isn’t resigned and CeeDee Lamb isn’t drafted, we may very well be talking about the possibility of drafting Trevor Lawrence right now.

Yeah, that’s how bad I think we are without this bunch. We would be in the same category as the New York Jets and the New York Giants. I’m looking forward to a game where the receivers are a means to extend leads as opposed to a necessity for getting us back in a contest, but that’s just hasn’t been the case in the first month of the season.

Tyler Biadasz looks like the future at center

I like what I saw from Biadasz. I was big on him coming out of Wisconsin, but there were questions about his pad level that I highlighted in my scouting report. Those questions, undoubtedly, were the reason he slipped to day three of the draft, despite having the ability to be a first-rounder.

Still, I’m not seeing any issues with Biadasz playing too high thus far. He’s been up to the task filling in for Joe Looney, who isn’t returning anytime soon. Best case scenario, Biadasz latches onto that job and doesn’t give it back.

He’s a smart player that is more than capable of making the calls up front as Travis Frederick did through his impressive career. He’s also someone that can help keep this running game firing at a high level, assuming the Cowboys aren’t playing from behind all season.

The Browns may not be big inside, but they are athletic, and we didn’t hear much of their trio of Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Jordan Elliott. Biadasz was a big reason why.

Dalton Schultz emergence

I must say, I’d given up on Schultz after failing to progress early in his career after being drafted in the fourth round back in 2018. This was a guy coming into the league with his best football ahead of him, but we just didn’t see much of that in the first two years.

Welcome to the party, Mr. Schultz. He has been impressive in his ability to be a possession-style receiver, similar to what Jason Witten was for nearly two decades in Dallas. No, he is not going to wow us like Blake Jarwin, but I’m not sure the Cowboys need that with the way these receivers are playing. We’ve also seen Schultz make some plays down the seam, including his second touchdown of the season against Cleveland in Dallas’ comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.

He is a reliable target over the middle, and although Dallas has yet to be able to commit to the run, he is blocking well too. I have consistently kept my eyes out for a tight end prospect in college that could compliment Jarwin well moving forward. As it turns out, he may already be on the roster.

Where do we go from here?

What can we change on this defense to give them a better chance at success?

This is all about scheme, as I’ll get to personnel next. Trysten Hill, Antwaun Woods, and Neville Gallimore aren’t going to sprout two or three inches, and their arms aren’t going to get longer. Demarcus Lawrence isn’t going to gain the instincts to play in space, and Jaylon Smith and Joe Thomas aren’t going to start running through 300-pound linemen.

We have to change something if it’s going to get better. Also, these defensive backs aren’t going to get any more talented. We’ve got to start getting more consistent pressure on the passer to protect them. These are the changes Mike Nolan and the defensive staff need to be considering.

Do we start slanting our defensive linemen and designing more run stunts, which are technically principles of a one-gap scheme as opposed to what we are implementing? No, that doesn’t help us get acclimated to this system any faster, but it will give us more chances of success this season.

By doing this, it creates confusion and hesitation from opposing blocking schemes, which keeps them from getting to the second level as quickly as they are right now. I can’t tell you how many snaps I saw against Cleveland, where the Browns were getting to the second level without any hesitation.

Do we get more creative with our blitzes, which we have seen a little bit more of in the past two weeks? Do we just go “Blitz Happy” in passing situations? Here is what blitzing can really do for this defense.

It gives our defensive backs more opportunities to play aggressively. They can take gambles on jumping routes, knowing that if the receiver pulls a double-move, there is a good chance the quarterback won’t have time to throw it with the blitz bearing down on him.

Yes, this presents the possibility of a big play, should the blitz not get home. However, this defense is already giving up big plays. In fact, they have given up 22 passes of 20 yards or more, and six of 40 or more. Those are both the top marks in the league through the first month of the season.

It’s not like we aren’t already at risk of giving up the big play. This at least gives the unit the possibility to come up with a game-changing play of their own, like an interception or strip-sack. I get these concepts can have consequences, including stunting our development into our permanent scheme for the future. Still, if we are going to have any chance at winning the NFC East, and possibly even a playoff game, they are necessary.

Is it time to start making calls about trading for correct defensive personnel?

This is the million-dollar question for most Cowboys fans, and I have to be honest, even if they get what they want, it’s not going to be the players they want. For starters, something is not right with Earl Thomas, and as much as Dallas is screaming for him to be signed, bringing him in if he is not in the right state of mind is not going to help a thing.

If you want proof, look no further than current-Cowboy Everson Griffin. In 2018, he had some serious issues with his mental health and stepped away from the game.

Not only did Griffin make the decision to step away, but he made the decision to get help, and he made the decision of when to come back to football. If Thomas is truly having issues, which could be from a number of instances, including one this past summer in which his wife put a gun to his head, those are the steps he needs to take, and there are no guarantees that he ever plays again.

Having said that, the Cowboys do need to start considering making additions on defense. That begins by combing some of these larger practice squads. You can’t tell me that there aren’t some defensive tackles with long-term upside that are two-gap players somewhere on a few practice squads.

Now I get it, a player like this isn’t necessarily going to help much now considering they are not on an active roster. Still, unless Dallas is going to move in a different direction, scheme-wise, after the 2020 season, it’s about finding future solutions.

Why not add a defensive tackle that could be in a rotation next season, and get a head start on his development. I don’t think I make that same decision in the secondary, where talent is going to be more vital than scheme fit, but at defensive tackle, it can happen. Former-Cowboy David Irving is a prime example of that.

Yes, we could start getting active on the trade market and see if a team that has started as poorly in a much more competitive division is willing to make a move with a player that isn’t in their long-term plans. Still, Cowboys fans need to understand these may not be names you fall in love with.

The Chargers are 1-3 and are now committed to a rookie quarterback. Maybe their focus is now on the future. If so, Linval Joseph would make sense for Dallas, if he is willing to restructure his deal to get rid of some of the $4M in dead money he is owed in 2021.

The Chargers may not be locked into giving Desmond King an extension, after spending big money and draft pick on defensive backs in each of the past several offseasons. Dallas could certainly use him.

How about the Arizona Cardinals who sit with San Francisco in the bottom of what is likely the most talented division in football? The difference between them and the 49ers is San Francisco can still get healthy to get back into the competition.

I know Patrick Peterson is the popular name there as a possible trade candidate, but how about Corey Peters. No, that’s not nearly as helpful as Peterson would be, but he’s more affordable in a trade with an expiring contract, and he fits our two-gap system.

Atlanta’s Tyeler Davison is on an affordable deal for this year and the next two, and would only be owed $2.4M if Dallas cut him this offseason. He also has a history with Mike Nolan in New Orleans. The Falcons certainly aren’t going anywhere.

Are some of these defensive tackles much better than what we have? Not necessarily, but they fit the scheme better, and that could make them a long-term option, whereas Woods and Hill are not going to have a future in Dallas in this current scheme.

How about players that just may need a change of scenery on a bad team? Holton Hill could be an option in Minnesota with the Vikings having spent high picks on Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney, and Cameron Dantzler.

Hill is a restricted free agent after this season, and with the Vikings future in question, who knows how they are going to spend money moving forward. It would give the Cowboys another option at corner, so we can take it a bit slower with Trevon Diggs. Heck, we could even transition Chidobe Awuzie to safety with that move, something that has been discussed multiple times in this career.

The Houston Texans could be willing to talk about a trade after firing Bill O’Brien, although the deal would have likely been much more in Dallas’ favor with O’Brien calling the shots. Bradley Roby could be an option, although there might have to be some restructuring to his contract before a deal is finalized.

The New York Jets are also a train wreck that might be willing to move on from a defender for a draft pick. Nathan Sheppard could be an option up front, as could cornerback Pierre Desir who is on a one-year contract.