Turnovers and Big Plays doom Dallas against Arizona

Cowboys / NFL / Top Headlines / October 23, 2020

Game Recap: Turnovers and Big Plays doom Dallas on Monday Night Football against Arizona

The Scoop:

It just didn’t look good on prime-time television for the Cowboys in their 38-10 loss to Arizona. Dallas’ mistakes and big plays by their opponent’s dominated the narrative for most of the night, and at some point, it didn’t look like anyone in white uniforms looked like they believed in their chances.

It’s a tough way to start the post-Dak portion of the season. The Cowboys have not always lived up to expectations with Prescott leading the charge, but they’ve never quit. I’m not going to say anyone threw in the towel, but they lost hope, and it was apparent to anyone watching the game.

While the mediocrity of the NFC East has not changed, but it’s hard to believe that a team that doesn’t believe can win anything in the NFL. To make matters bleaker, reports surfaced the following morning about anonymous sources claiming the coaching staff is unprepared and just not very good.

I find it hard to believe any person in this organization would have the audacity to assign blame at anyone other than themselves, considering the lack of success Dallas is having at the time. There’s not one player, coach, or front-office member that isn’t at fault for their 2-4 start in one way or another.

At this point, winning this division is the highest and most-realistic goal anyone can set in the NFC East. The team that does that is going to see it come from winning the head-to-head matchups. That is something that Dallas has each of the next two weeks.

The following week they will play Pittsburgh before entering their bye week, which could serve as a much-needed opportunity for the coaches to revisit the concepts and techniques of this scheme with the players. However, the next several weeks will play a vital role in our outlook, moving forward out of that bye week.

To have the success we need heading into the bye week, Dallas needs to develop some form of consistency. This passing attack had been a source of consistency, but with Prescott out and more uncertainty on the offensive line due to injuries, even that has fallen by the wayside.

We can’t run the ball consistently. We can’t stop the run. We can’t stop passing attacks or get consistent pressure on the passer. Our special teams are consistently a problem as well. That has been evident early in the season, it was the case on Monday night, and it has to change if things are going to get better in Dallas.

What went wrong:

Cowboys’ league-worst turnover differential gets worse

What a disappointment this was in the loss to Arizona. There have been scenarios this year where I felt turnovers resulted from an offense trying to force things because of circumstances created by our porous defense.

That was not the case on Monday night, and in fact, our defense got off to a half-decent start. Still, the pair of fumbles by Ezekiel Elliott were devastating, as was an interception by Andy Dalton near the goal line.

Arizona put up 24 of their 38 points following Dallas turnovers, and our defense couldn’t force a single turnover of their own. Some may have been frustrated with the no-call on a blatant pass-interference by Dre Kirkpatrick on CeeDee Lamb that resulted in Kirkpatrick intercepting the pass, but what was even more irritating was how our team reacted on the following drive.

It’s funny to listen to Steve Levy to refer to the Cowboys’ defense as “gassed” on that ensuing possession when they hadn’t yet taken the field in the second half. Without a doubt, they looked terrible, but it wasn’t an endurance issue.

They looked as if they’d lost hope. When you have a momentum-swinging moment, it acts as a punch to the gut that takes your wind away. Sure, the referees were responsible for that one. However, there were several throughout the night, including the four turnovers, a dropped touchdown by Michael Gallup, and a number of big plays by the Arizona offense.

As they stack up, teams eventually lose their fight, and that was the straw that apparently broke our backs. The bottom line is we can’t keep giving up plays like that, and we need to start creating more of our own. That starts with improving on our league-worst minus-12 turnover differential.

Where’s the leadership

This might be the most pressing concern that came out of this loss. As I said earlier, Dak Prescott may not be perfect, but he has an infectious passion for the game that is mirrored throughout the locker room.

He would have never given up hope last Monday, and the rest of the team would have followed suit. Instead, there came a time where our team just looked defeated. It also needs to be said that Zack Martin going down didn’t help things for this offense.

Not having Tyron Smith, Joe Looney, or the retired-Travis Frederick didn’t help either. To make matters worse, we listened to the narrative about how this is now Ezekiel Elliott’s offense all week, only to watch him fumble on back-to-back drives to help Arizona take a 14-0 lead.

There is no doubt that Elliott is an essential piece in our offense, but a leader, he is not. His past actions off of the field back that up, and this is hardly the first time he has had mental lapses this season.

You can give credit to the Cardinals for their hustle on those plays, but Elliott’s focus and awareness were not where they needed to be. Maybe it’s because he was putting more pressure on himself knowing this offense is now operating with a backup quarterback, but that doesn’t appear to be his strong suit.

If you need any more proof to that point, his interview with Lisa Salters earlier in the week where he downplayed the fumbling issues was it. He told Salters he didn’t believe he had a fumbling problem and that I just not how leaders hold themselves accountable.

You search out the adjustments that can be made, and even if there aren’t any and really is just misfortune, you don’t say out loud. There are a lot of young, impressionable players on this roster that are learning how to be professionals, and they need those examples to follow.

What if Tony Pollard starts treating some of his early miscues that way or Michael Gallup just shrugs off his dropped touchdown? Those are young players, and they need the right examples in that regard.

Players like Jaylon Smith and Demarcus Lawrence are capable leaders on the defense, as is Sean Lee when he’s on the field, but this offense needs some players to step up and lead. The more Andy Dalton gets acclimated in this offense, the more I think he can take a leadership role, and I have a feeling Tyler Biadasz will do the same despite being a rookie.

He played that kind of role at Wisconsin, and he was one of the first to approach Elliott after his second fumble. I like seeing that from someone who is likely to be the long-term solution to replacing Travis Frederick.

Still, this team lacked that leadership against Arizona, and it extends to the coaching staff as well. As I mentioned earlier, there were anonymous statements made by either players or those close to them regarding some of the shortcomings of this coaching staff.

Anytime the words “unprepared” or “not very good” are thrown around, it’s serious. I’m not sure what the coaches said to the team following those statements, but it would help for the owner to set things straight.

Either he’s unhappy with the coaching, and they need to be addressed behind closed doors, or he’s committed to Mike McCarthy and this staff’s direction, and the players need to fall in line. More importantly, it needs to be done now because if we see ten more games that look like it did against Arizona, there will be more changes this coming offseason.

Defensive strategy for Kyler’s ability to run

I get that Kyler Murray is a special athlete, and that is not easy to prepare for at the quarterback position. Still, this team did not look prepared for Murray as a run option.

Murray has a terrific ability to throw the ball, but his height limits him as a passer each week. Even the Cowboys were able to give him problems throwing the football, and Arizona knows that those limitations mean they have to be creative with their offense.

Much like Baltimore has done with Lamar Jackson, the Cardinals find ways to incorporate Murray into their running game to increase his impact on the offense to mask the limitations as a natural pocket passer.

It worked against Dallas on Monday night. Murray ten times for 74 yards and a score, and there weren’t many scenarios where Dallas was in a good position to defend him as a runner. Even when someone was in position, Murray’s speed destroyed the defender’s pursuit angles for a big gain.

I was thrilled with Dallas’ ability to get some pressure on him and more importantly, their ability to abandon the rush and get their hands up. Outside of two big plays, Murray was limited to 7-21 passing for 53 yards.

However, his ability to run made him the premier impact player in their offense in the victory. Dallas will see Jackson and Baltimore later in the season. I’d certainly like to see a better idea of defending the designed runs that they will implement to get Jackson loose.

Andy Dalton’s awareness?

Call it rust, but Dalton seemed a bit shaky, especially pre-snap. He was unaware of a few blitzes that left him vulnerable. We also saw some mistakes in the protection that were the result of poor pre-snap communication that I am also going to put partially on Dalton.

When Zack Martin, third-year guard, Connor Williams became the most experienced player on a front where he is usually the least when everyone is healthy. Someone needed to be making protection calls, and while I think Tyler Biadasz has it in him to do so, he is also a rookie.

We need a player that has been a nine-year starter at quarterback to take control there. Dalton also had some issues with his internal clock. Once again, he knows who is playing on that line, and he’s got to understand when the ball needs to come out.

As the game went on, we did see him escape the pocket a few times, and when that internal clock goes off, that is what needs to happen. He is obviously not Dak Prescott when it comes to making plays on the move, but with this group of pass-catchers, there will be options if he can keep his eyes down the field. One would think that this will improve as he knocks the rust off, but only time will tell in that regard.

What went right:

Trevon Diggs getting comfortable

Diggs may have gotten caught up in traffic on the big play to DeAndre Hopkins, but outside of that, I felt the rookie looked like the game is slowing down for him. The first throw to Hopkins, who is widely regarded as one of the best receivers in football, Diggs trusted his eyes and athleticism and broke on a throw to knock it away.

That might have been the most confident Cowboys fans felt in this game is when Diggs did that. Things only seemed to go downhill after that. However, I thought Diggs had an encouraging performance.

After injuries hit in camp, Diggs was thrust into the starting lineup and had his fair share of success and learning experiences early. Still, a week later, he was starting to look like Dallas’ best defensive back.

It appears his game experience is starting to take a similar trajectory. He’s been in position on a lot of the receptions he’s given up this year, but against Arizona, we finally saw him start to finish. He only gave up two catches on the night, and while Arizona struggled to find consistency in the passing attack in general, Diggs looked more confident.

Interior offensive linemen

I must say, everybody likes to talk about how decimated this offensive line has been by injuries, but the interior group that finished up against Arizona is not without talent. Connor Williams is this team’s starting left guard, although the Monday Night Crew flubbed up when representing Zack Martin as the only starter left when the game started.

Williams has consistently gotten better throughout his early time in the NFL, and while he may never play at a level as some of the other players on that unit like Martin, Tyron Smith, or La’el Collins, he’s doing a very good job.

I like what I’ve seen from Biadasz thus far, and while he was drafted in the fourth round, he was my 59th-ranked player in this past draft. Centers slid in this draft, which dropped the Wisconsin-product into day three. Still, he’s a talented player who is regarded as this team’s future at the pivot, and I’m not so sure the future isn’t now.

Finally, let’s not forget Connor McGovern is a former third-round pick, and I had that being a terrific value as well. He missed his rookie season because of an injury and wasn’t given much of a chance to compete for a starting job thanks to the circumstances of this offseason.

What I’m trying to say is we’ve got three talented players here, and I don’t think they played all that bad against Arizona. The pressure mainly came off the edge or from blitzers who weren’t accounted for by tight ends or running backs.

In fact, Pro Football Focus credited those three with only giving up a total of two pressures in the game. Biadasz was called for a hold at one point in the game, but looking back at the film looked like a poor call in which the referee just had a bad angle.

Either way, these three are capable of playing well moving forward, and in fact, I would consider bumping Martin or Williams to left tackle with Brandon Knight looking to miss some time after the minor knee surgery I eluded to earlier.

That is, of course, assuming Martin plays this week after suffering a concussion. It also appears Cameron Erving could be activated from injured reserve. If he is ready to go, as well as Martin, we could see McGovern return to his reserve role.

Still, McGovern may be one of our top five linemen available moving forward, and if so, we may need to mix things up to get those top five all on the field together.

Where do we go from here?

As opposed to being buyers at the deadline, should we be selling?

Yep, it’s time to start considering that things won’t get better for Dallas. Between the injuries, lack of talent on defense, and scheme concerns, the Cowboys may be a six-win team at best.

Having said that, we’ve also got some players on expiring contracts. I know fans of America’s Team may not be ready to throw in the towel just yet but consider the future. An extension for Dak Prescott means Dallas will be tight on the cap for next few years, and we still don’t know the consequences this pandemic will have on next year’s cap.

With that in mind, let’s think about the future of this defense and how many long-term pieces we have on the roster. Dallas is locked into Demarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith for the foreseeable future, and young players like Trevon Diggs and Leighton Vander Esch aren’t going anywhere either.

Anthony Brown and Dontari Poe are both locked in for next season as well, with Brown’s deal still having two years left on it. Maybe Randy Gregory could earn some trust over the second half of this season to gain Dallas’ confidence to pencil him in as an edge-player, but that’s about it.

On the other hand, Aldon Smith, Everson Griffin, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Daryl Worley are all in the final year of their deal. Antwaun Woods is also a restricted free agent, although neither he nor Trysten Hill fit this defensive system moving forward (assuming Mike Nolan is retained).

Also, how many of those guys are even worth bringing back? Aldon Smith is playing very well but is also pricing himself out of Dallas’ range. Awuzie, Lewis, or Woods would likely be more affordable to keep, but none have inspired enough confidence to do so without at least finding them some competition for a starting job.

So, all in all, we have five or so competent starters going into next season with the possibility of keeping another one or two that would be stretching the term “competent.” Let’s also not forget that we are beyond the days of having 11 starters.

We need nickel and dime backs that will play as much as half the starters, as well as rotational players up front that will play almost as many snaps as the players ahead of them. At the end of the day, Dallas is likely to have limited cap space to fill six or so impact positions.

In the draft, we have all but our fifth and seventh-round pick for the 2021 draft. We are also expected to be one the most profitable teams in the compensatory process thanks to Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, Randall Cobb and others signing elsewhere this past offseason.

There is even a slight possibility that Dallas will receive two compensation picks at the end of the third round for Jones and Quinn. That would give us five picks in the top three rounds, which are usually spent on players that will have some sort of impact early.

However, what if Dallas drops not one but both of these NFC East matchups heading into the trade deadline on November 3? That puts us at 2-6 and 1-2 in the division. With a constant premium on pass rushers, could Dallas shop Aldon Smith for a day-two pick?

How about shopping a guy like Everson Griffin or Xavier Woods who could help a contender? You’re probably not going to get anything more than a mid-to-late day three selection, but those are picks that can be packaged to move up in earlier rounds.

At the end of the day, we have to start considering how much help this defense needs moving forward and how many resources we have to make it happen. If the resources don’t match the need, we’ve got to add more. The trade deadline could provide that.

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Austin Smith

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