The Dallas Cowboys came into New Orleans for their Sunday night matchup against Saints riding a tidal wave of offensive momentum. In the first three weeks, the Cowboys were averaging over 32 points per game thanks to the high-level play of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott finally getting his legs under him after a slow week one start. Defensively, they had been solid in the first three games but hadn’t had a performance worthy of the top 7 defense from a year ago, at least not consistently. Last night was a role reversal as the defense was dominant and the offense was stuck in the mud.
Outside of a field goal on their second possession, the Cowboys had drives of 5, 22, 22 and 26 yards in the first half, that included back to back fumbles by Ezekiel Elliott and Jason Witten. The only bright spot offensively all night for the Cowboys was on their only drive of the third quarter. After being down 9-3 at halftime, Prescott was a perfect 6 of 6 as he engineered an 11 play 84-yard drive that was capped of by a touchdown from Elliott that put the Cowboys up 10-9 almost halfway through the third quarter.
After the Saints went up 12-10 on a field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had a few opportunities to take control and pull out a tough road win. Unfortunately, they only managed 25 yards on 8 plays on their next two possessions before they had the ball for their final drive, which ended the game on a failed hail mary pass.
The Cowboys are known as a team that pounds the ball with the run to set up the pass. In this game, their bell cow Ezekiel Elliott only had 35 yards on 18 carries, and the team only had 45 yards on 20 carries, barely over two yards per rush, with the longest run of the night being 7 yards. The Cowboys were converting almost 60% of their third-down situations coming into New Orleans but were only 4 of 11 last night. Also, ball security hadn’t been a problem in their 3-0 start with only two turnovers, they had three in week 4.
The defense was the one bright spot, though, as they resembled the unit many expected before the season started. The Cowboys held the Saints high-powered offense to only 12 points and no touchdowns. Robert Quinn continued to show that he may be the most valuable offseason acquisition for the Cowboys with two more sacks, giving him three in his first two games with the star on his helmet. In total, the defense sacked Teddy Bridgewater five times and held the Saints to 0 for 4 in the red zone.
This may be a little confusing if you look at the numbers considering the Saints had the ball for 36 minutes. However, when your offense has a lot of short drives it puts your defense on shorter fields to stop the opposing offense and forces your defense into a bend but don’t break situation, which they did all night not allowing a touchdown.
This kind of game happens in the NFL all the time. One side of the ball comes into a game dominating and the other has been up and down, then the roles reverse. This is the wake-up call the Cowboys needed, hopefully, as the first three weeks were basically filled with nothing but praise for their fast start. Now they have been punched in the mouth and have to regroup as they head home to face the Green Bay Packers, a team that has given them nightmares in recent years, especially in the Cowboys house.
The Cowboys are now 1-8 when Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t rush for at least 75 yards. It’s been easy to get caught up in the high-level play of Prescott to start the seaosn but the Cowboys simply don’t win when Elliott isn’t effective, he’s still their identity. This Sunday it will be paramount for the Cowboys to establish Elliott and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines.
With the Philadelphia Eagles beating the Packers last Thursday, the Cowboys only have a one-game lead in the NFC East. Handling business against the Packers just got a little more important with their cushion atop the division being cut in half. This is an early-season gut check for the Cowboys. Will they fold and find themselves in a dog fight for the NFC East crown early? Do they rise to the occasion and bounce back with a huge conference win? We shall see but make no mistake about it, the Cowboys can’t repeat the performance they had in New Orleans this Sunday against the Packers.