Machota: Cowboys’ 5 biggest issues in their surprising loss to Broncos, and how likely each will be fixed

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ARLINGTON, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 07: Justin Simmons #31 of the Denver Broncos breaks up a pass intended for Dalton Schultz #86 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

By Jon Machota 36m ago

FRISCO, Texas — Broncos coach Vic Fangio had a lot of praise for the Cowboys’ talented offense that Denver shut down Sunday afternoon. But he also shared one interesting sentence in his postgame news conference that drew a chuckle from Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.

“Teams just haven’t played them the right way,” Fangio said.

Following Dallas’ 30-16 loss, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said he didn’t believe the Broncos’ aggressive approach provided a blueprint for shutting down Dallas’ offense, adding that he hopes teams play the Cowboys like that the rest of the season.

“This is a copycat league,” McCarthy said Monday. “I just told the team this, so get ready. I hope they do, too. Vic played us very aggressive. That’s good to hear him beating his own drum. Their linebacker depth, their linebackers are three yards (away), the safeties were up, in that case you make their corners tackle. They played us aggressive. They went for it. I think you want that from the other team, so I agree with Dak.”

McCarthy and Fangio coached against each other several times before Sunday while McCarthy was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers and Fangio was defensive coordinator with the rival Chicago Bears.

There’s no question that Dallas will see more of what the Broncos did against them. Whether or not those opponents can execute to the same level remains to be seen.
“Like Coach (McCarthy) said, we’re not going to throw the tape away,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “We want to dig (into) every little piece of this thing, because obviously, it’s a copycat league. Everyone is going to copy that formula, so you’d better have an answer for every single thing that came up in that game, because you’re bound to see it in the coming weeks.”

There wasn’t a lot to like about that stunning showing that saw the Cowboys, that had been riding a six-game winning streak, trail 30-0 in the final five minutes. But some aspects were more concerning than others. To break that down, let’s look at the five biggest issues from Sunday and evaluate how likely it is that they can be fixed.
Our ranking is on a 1-to-10 scale with 10 meaning the problem will unquestionably be corrected and 1 being there is no chance.

1. Offensive line protection

It was a significant issue throughout. Not having seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith because of an ankle injury forced the Cowboys to start Terence Steele on the left side in his place. Steele said after the game that the move from right tackle, where he had been playing well, was more difficult than he expected. There’s no question the Cowboys are better with Smith in the lineup. Since Prescott’s rookie season, the Cowboys are 9-6 without Smith at left tackle. Prescott is 352-of-531 passing for 4,282 yards, 23 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 97.5 passer rating. That averages out to 23-of-35 passing for 285 yards, 1.5 touchdowns and 0.6 interceptions per game. It’s actually not as bad as some might have expected.

Regardless, it was obvious how much Smith was missed. Dallas continues to search for its best five combination along the offensive line and that group is probably Smith at left tackle, Connor Williams at left guard, Tyler Biadasz at center, Zack Martin at right guard and La’el Collins at right tackle.

Can it be fixed? This is currently a 6. It can be fixed, but it depends greatly on Smith’s health. His ankle injury was significant enough to keep him out Sunday but not enough for the team to put him on injured reserve, which would mean missing at least three games. Smith has not been ruled out for this Sunday’s game against the Falcons. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday morning on 105.3 The Fan that rest is what’s needed for the injury. “It will get better as we go along,” Jones said, “so I don’t look at it as long term.”

Smith will likely need to practice at some point this week for him to play. Since Smith has dealt with so many injuries over the years, it’s difficult to predict his status from week to week. So if you’re wondering if the Cowboys’ offensive line issues can be fixed this season without Smith, that ranking is probably closer to a 4 or 5.

“I think another week of practice, if needed, over (at left tackle) will definitely help (Steele),” McCarthy said. “I thought technically he did some nice things he can build off of. It wasn’t a great day by no means for the whole (offensive) line. Some guys played OK. But I think another week’s (worth of) work we’ll be better.”



Dak Prescott (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

2. Dak Prescott’s rust

After not playing at Minnesota or the week before during Dallas’ bye, Prescott was not himself against the Broncos. The inconsistent offensive line play likely contributed. He missed shorter throws he normally makes, like the one across the middle to Cedrick Wilson on fourth-and-2 midway through the first quarter. He also missed on longer shots down the field, like the one intended for CeeDee Lamb along the right sideline midway through the third quarter on fourth-and-1. Dallas’ receivers also didn’t help with some uncharacteristic drops. Prescott said after the game that his calf injury was never a factor.

Can it be fixed? This is a 10. It was an off day, but there’s no reason to think that Denver has all of a sudden figured out Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense. As long as Prescott is healthy, there shouldn’t be many games going forward like Sunday.

“I don’t know if it’s rust, we just weren’t able to find the rhythm I think we’re accustomed to playing with,” Moore said when asked about Prescott’s play. “We didn’t convert on third downs, we didn’t convert on fourth downs, we didn’t have long drives resulting in points. It was just choppy and we didn’t execute as well as we were hoping for.”

3. Awful on fourth downs

The aggressiveness makes sense for this team. The offense is the strength, and it’s a veteran group. Their defense isn’t going to completely shut down teams. When the Cowboys get a lead and can play downhill, there are few that can hang with them. But they have to be better when they go for it on fourth down. They should be able to convert more than 50 percent of the time. They’re converting at 35.7 percent (5 of 14), 27th in the NFL. They were 0-4 on fourth down Sunday. They are fourth-best in the NFL on third downs, converting 46.1 percent of the time (47 of 102).

Can it be fixed? This is an 8 if getting it fixed means converting over 50 percent. If the goal is getting among the best in the league (over 70 percent), this is probably a 4. There’s just too much offensive talent on the roster for it not to get better. The Cowboys converted 54.8 percent (17 of 31) on fourth down last season, 21st in the NFL.
“I mean, fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2, I have great confidence in our offense,” McCarthy said. “I don’t necessarily look at going for it on fourth-and-1 as being aggressive. But that’s the way the stats line up that way. I’m fine with the aggressiveness.”

4. Sloppy defensive play

Dallas finished with a season-high 14 missed tackles against the Broncos. The way the defense finished plays was the biggest issue. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn wants several players rallying to the ball and “there were just too many one-person tackles for our liking,” he said.

Denver took advantage of the poor tackling by extending too many plays. McCarthy preaches to his teams about 2.3 seconds. After the ball is snapped, there are 2.3 seconds when the defense needs to get the play stopped. When offenses are able to extend the play beyond 2.3, that’s when a defense is in trouble. There were too many broken tackles that led to long runs.

“We’ve trained that way since I arrived here,” McCarthy said. “If you just take a normal outside zone run play and you freeze it right at 2.3, everybody’s going to be fitted into their gap, and to me, that’s where the real money’s at in the play. Defensively, if you’re stopping the play before 2.3 then it’s probably a big play for the defense. It’s probably a tackle for loss.

“That’s all part of our training. That’s how we break down our cutups. It’s part of our evaluation process. There’s nothing to redo or rethink. It’s no different than the way we do ball drills. It’s part of our everyday practice component.”

Can it be fixed? This is a 7. The errors can be cleaned up. The concern is that last year’s defense was so poor against the run that maybe some of that returns if the offense doesn’t get out front early. That’s not going to happen every game, especially against quality opponents. It should help the Cowboys that defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, one of their best run defenders, is expected back from his broken foot in the next few weeks.

“There were plenty of runs we fit and did great,” Quinn said. “There were a bunch of tackles for loss. But when you get one that’s a misfit and the next guy is not hauling ass to get there, that’s when the explosives come. That was disappointing, for sure.”

5. No takeaways

Heading into their bye week two weeks ago, the Cowboys were sitting atop the NFC with 14 takeaways in six games. They haven’t gotten one since. This defense must force turnovers with how aggressive they play.

Can it be fixed? This is an 8. Since McCarthy has become head coach, the takeaways have been too consistent to think the defense won’t bounce back. They have averaged 1.5 per game since last year’s season opener. Their style of play makes it likely that they will get back on track soon.

And it’s expected to be an area of focus in practice this week as Quinn prepares to face a Falcons franchise he coached from 2015 to 2020, leading them to a Super Bowl appearance in 2016. Atlanta is tied with five other teams, including Denver, for 13th-best in the league with only 10 turnovers in eight games.

“I have great memories there and I always will,” Quinn said. “And I think a lot of the really cool things that we accomplished there, and there were a lot of them, versus how it ended. And I think that’s an important declaration. I’ll certainly be forever grateful to (Falcons owner Arthur Blank) to give me the opportunity there and to all of the players I had the privilege to coach. But you guys saw the performance (Sunday). There is no time to take a stroll down memory lane. We got some shit to fix.”
 

Sheik

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This is hilarious. Vic Fangio did what Belichick and company couldn’t do. He figured out the Dallas Cowboys because everyone else was doing it wrong.

You can rewatch that game and chalk it up to 3 things.

1. Dak was pure ass. He missed Lamb twice for long TDs. That’s 12-14 points. He was terrible. Missing wide open guys everywhere, not trusting himself to run at all.

2. A bad luck punt block that never was. The game would have turned there, instead it further deflated an already mopey team.

3. The defense was tired from being on the field so much. They always had the ball due to the offense struggling like I’ve not seen since probably the Campo years.

Fangio should put this game on his resume because he’ll be looking for a job in 2023., if not sooner.
 

Simpleton

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This is hilarious. Vic Fangio did what Belichick and company couldn’t do. He figured out the Dallas Cowboys because everyone else was doing it wrong.

You can rewatch that game and chalk it up to 3 things.

1. Dak was pure ass. He missed Lamb twice for long TDs. That’s 12-14 points. He was terrible. Missing wide open guys everywhere, not trusting himself to run at all.

2. A bad luck punt block that never was. The game would have turned there, instead it further deflated an already mopey team.

3. The defense was tired from being on the field so much. They always had the ball due to the offense struggling like I’ve not seen since probably the Campo years.

Fangio should put this game on his resume because he’ll be looking for a job in 2023., if not sooner.
Yea, the Patriots have better personnel across the board, and we played them in New England, and you're to have me believe that Fangio came up with some magical formula when Belichick, with better personnel, couldn't? And at home?

No, it was mostly about us. Like, 90% about us.

And don't forget the drops, there were at least 2-3 drive killing drops when Prescott actually did throw an accurate ball.
 

Sheik

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Yea, the Patriots have better personnel across the board, and we played them in New England, and you're to have me believe that Fangio came up with some magical formula when Belichick, with better personnel, couldn't? And at home?

No, it was mostly about us. Like, 90% about us.

And don't forget the drops, there were at least 2-3 drive killing drops when Prescott actually did throw an accurate ball.

100%.
 

shoop

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5. No takeaways

Heading into their bye week two weeks ago, the Cowboys were sitting atop the NFC with 14 takeaways in six games. They haven’t gotten one since. This defense must force turnovers with how aggressive they play.
Way to sensationalize. Oh no we had no takeaways during our bye week...
One game isn't a trend
 

ravidubey

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The OL went from good to being a problem.

Night and day without Tyron
 
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