And just like that, our enthusiasm has deflated. On September 10, 2017, the Cowboys hosted the New York Giants—one of only two teams to beat them in meaningful games last season—and won in convincing fashion. But that defense we all cheered on as they held the Giants to just a field goal hasn’t held another team back since.
Now that the bye week has arrived, you may be licking your wounds from two games the Cowboys should have won, against the Rams and Packers. Other Cowboys fans may instead dive into football betting sites this week, alleviated of favorite team bias.
I dreaded Sunday’s loss to Green Bay. Not necessarily because it’s a loss, though that hurts too, but because the conversations around Cowboys Nation these next two weeks are bound to be insufferable, to put it mildly. That already started with ridiculous tweets about how Dak Prescott should’ve knelt at the one-yard line with just over a minute left to play, instead of scoring the touchdown.
We’ve got to get this straight. You score when you can score.
That was Dak’s mentality, just as it was the play before when he tossed the ball to Dez Bryant in one-on-one coverage. You score the points as they become available and do your best to make sure those points are enough.
Unfortunately, the defense wasn’t up to the latter task.
But enough of the Green Bay Packers game. Instead, I’d like to take a look at some things I feel should be on the list of issues addressed during the bye.
1. Defense – Just as I wrote last week, before the Packers game, defense is a crucial element in closing out games. It is exceedingly rare for an offense to be able to win a lot of games in shootouts. At some point, the defense must protect a lead.
Tackling has been a major concern and not just in 2017 either.
Injuries and suspensions have also factored heavily into the defense’s lack of production, as we’re seeing now with Sean Lee sitting the last two games out. David Irving came back Sunday and recorded two sacks, but we can’t get those four games without him back.
This young secondary is still being forced to play a scheme they may not be best suited for, and it shows on the field.
Overall, the defense has had some great moments this season, but have failed to secure their top priority: stop the other guys from reaching the end zone.
2. Special Teams – We have the league’s most accurate kicker in Dan Bailey. He’s automatic and a huge asset for this team. We also have Chris Jones, who consistently pins teams back inside their own 20—or better. He is also a great asset for this team.
But what else has the special teams unit done lately?
The truth is, since Dwayne Harris left, special teams haven’t done much by way of scoring or advancing our field position. And even less without Lucky Whitehead fielding kicks. Ryan Switzer has been safe. He rarely takes the ball and runs and in the last two weeks, he’s lost a fumble on a muffed punt and lost yards fielding what was clearly a fair catch punt.
Special teams are often unsung heroes of a team, outside of the kickers of course, but in the case of the 2017 Dallas Cowboys, they aren’t even that.
We need more plays from the special teams unit. They don’t have to score, but they need to gain more yards. Hell, any yards would help at this point. Scores are ideal but field position is always welcome.
3. Game Management – This year, the Cowboys have given Dak Prescott much more freedom. A prime example of this is that second down throw to Dez in the final minutes against the Packers. It was a run-pass option and Dak saw a favorable matchup on the outside for one of the biggest end zone threats in the league.
It was a high-percentage throw that he simply botched. It happens.
The situation at the time was the Cowboys were knocking on the door to the end zone, but still had over a minute left to play. I, myself, was on my couch hollering at my TV for another run by Ezekiel Elliott.
One minute is more than enough time for the Packers to march down the field and score, and that’s true almost regardless what team they’re playing. With the Cowboys defense giving up yards the way they were, that’s especially true.
I wanted to keep the clock running as much as possible, and that second-down incompletion stopped the clock.
That stung even more when the Packers’ scoring snap came with 11 seconds to go in the game.
Dak did what he was taught to do; he identified a weakness in the coverage and took a shot. I can’t fault him for that. He missed, but the call was right from his perspective. The fault I find–in that case and others before it this season–is in Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan’s trust of this sophomore quarterback to make that decision on so many plays.
At some point, the play caller (Linehan) needs to see the situation on the field and issue a play, rather than passing the buck to his quarterback. That was all fine and well when the QB was Tony Romo, but Dak Prescott doesn’t have the experience that made Romo so good.
Would that particular second down have gone any differently if Dak had a script to follow? Who knows. The only thing that’s certain right now is that Prescott is young and still learning so much. I would like to see more responsibility on Linehan’s part, leaving Dak to run the play.
4. Dez Bryant isn’t playing elite – There are a lot of things Dez does well, and he hasn’t been doing many of them this year. Sure, he has to be thrown the ball in order to make a play, but elite wide receivers never have problems getting targets, do they?
Elite wide receivers also don’t have the same high-caliber cast around them either. It’s a mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong, I still think Dez is a great wide receiver. He can be invaluable to this team. He just isn’t used right, in my opinion.
He’s not a burner. Dez is not super fast. He’s a tough, physical receiver who can win matchups based on being physical rather than blowing by coverage. Has he blown by coverage before? Of course, but not consistently.
Over the middle is where a player like Dez is typically most valuable. It’s a more dangerous area to work in, but possession receivers just seem to work better across the middle of the field. Bryant’s greatest strength lends itself so well to tight, heavily contested throws.
Bringing him across the hashes is also a better use of such a respected receiver, instead of using him to consume coverage so other guys can get open. Elite receivers are more than just decoys and placeholders, they find ways to get open and players like Dez need less of an opening to ensure the gain.
5. Jeff Heath is not the answer – I feel like I’ve been watching J.J. Wilcox at safety these last few weeks. Bad angles and blown coverage. I don’t know if Chidobe Awuzie is the answer, or Kavon Frazier, or Xavier Woods, but it certainly isn’t Jeff Heath.
We haven’t had a truly impactful safety in over a decade and it’s no wonder why, considering the Cowboys haven’t tried to bring in a player for that. Barry Church wasn’t flashy or perfect but he was at least reliable, and that’s more than we can say about Jeff Heath after five games. The Cowboys made a change Sunday, but with Awuzie’s hamstring still a bother, we ended up with Heath more and more as the game progressed.
Orlando Scandrick is Orlando Scandrick. He’s steady and at least average on most any play. Anthony Brown isn’t what he was in 2016, often playing tentatively and lacking confidence, but he’s still not bad yet. And Jourdan Lewis is making a name for himself with some well defended balls. And they get better or worse depending on who’s helping over the top.
Byron Jones was good in 2016, far better than he’s been in 2017, and I put that on Heath.
It’s no different from the offensive line being out of sync with two new players in the mix; the guy beside you has a huge impact on your own game. Maybe Byron just regressed, but maybe that’s unlikely. Maybe it’s the guy we all see making bad plays who is forcing him to try to pick up slack, leaving him a jack of all trades and master of none.
Whatever the case, the scheme and personnel aren’t meshing well right now. So how long will Rod Marinelli let it continue? Or does Monte Kiffin have to come back to show him how to manage his defense again, like he did in 2013…
✭ ✭ ✭
If anyone has answers to what’s afflicting the Cowboys this season, I assume it will be the coaches running things at The Star in Frisco. But maybe these five things, which I think are incredibly obvious after five games, are on the agenda.
And one more thing too, halftime adjustments. For the past few years, I’ve marveled at the way this team could come out of halftime on fire and ready to take what the other team gives them. I haven’t seen that at all this year, but these last two weeks have been particularly bad. Especially on defense. Got to give credit where credit is due though. The Rams and Packers did a great job adjusting at the half.
Anyway, here’s hoping week seven comes fast and ends with the 49ers defeated. Until then.