Self-Inflicted Wounds: Week 1 Cowboys Recap
The Dallas Cowboys kicked off their 2016 season at AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon against the New York Giants and a potent aerial attack headlined by Eli Manning and Odell Beckham. With a fearsome offensive line and a highly touted rookie running back in tow, the expectation was to control the time of possession and chew away at the clock so as to limit the effect of a suspect defense. The game plan would work to a certain extent, as Dallas would win the time of possession battle; beyond that, Sunday would be a comedy of errors for the team from Arlington.
Had you told any Cowboys fan beforehand that the much-maligned defense -who started such luminaries, as Benson Mayowa and Terrell McClain - would hold the Giants to 20 points while putting up two sacks, they would have been overjoyed. Alas, that detail would serve as little more than a moral victory as the team would ensure that the actual victory would go to New York. The face-plant that the team committed was a true team effort; all parties came together to make sure that they would embarrass themselves nationally.
A cursory glance at the box score might lead one to believe that Dak Prescott and the Scott Linehan-led passing offense had a decent game but the figures are misleading and don’t tell the entire story of futility that was the Dallas aerial attack. It was to be expected that the playbook would be diluted for the rookie who was starting his very first game; with a presumed dominant rushing attack, this made sense. What didn’t make sense, however, was the complete disinterest in adapting the game plan shown by Linehan and Jason Garrett once Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo made defensive adjustments.
The first of those adjustments would be to occasionally vary the locations of their defensive linemen, specifically Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul. Spagnuolo masterfully identified right tackle Doug Free and second year left guard La’el Collins as the weak links on the offensive line and subsequently dispatched Vernon and Pierre-Paul to line up across from them on various occasions. The results went about as well as could have been expected with Free showing once again that despite having been in the league for eight years, he still has questionable footwork that leaves him on the back foot and stumbling; while Collins was thoroughly outclassed by Vernon time and time again. The result would be a compromised Dallas rushing attack that was exacerbated by an impatient rookie running back.
Ezekiel Elliott would contribute to the loss, too, as his impatience behind the line showed. He rarely gave himself enough time to let blocks develop and was indecisive during the small windows that did open against a stout Giants defensive line. Look no further than Alfred Morris’s 35 yards on 7 carries for confirmation that running lanes were to be had against New York - they just required patience. Furthermore, the rookie would allow frustration to get the best of him as the game wore on; at one point seemingly ripping the football out of Prescott’s hands during a read-option play where it seemed as if the quarterback intended to keep it.
In taking the teeth out of the Dallas run game, the Giants ensured that Prescott would have to do more than the Cowboys probably intended, as the 45 pass attempts can attest. On the surface, Prescott’s turnover-free day looks good but the reality was that his inaccuracy cost the Cowboys points, while Linehan’s game plan was unimaginative and predictable. Nothing paints this picture more clearly than the fact that Jason Witten and Cole Beasley would tally 26 targets between the two of them, while Dez Bryant would only see five.
A few things are to blame for this result, for starters there was Prescott’s awful accuracy on passes down the field – he would go 2-10 on passes that traveled 15 yards or more. Expectations have to be tempered with the rookie, but he needs to be better about the placement and timing of his passes. Two plays in particular stand out glaringly as missed opportunities. One would occur in the first quarter when Bryant beat Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the end zone on a vertical route only to see Prescott underthrow the pass. He sailed it inside where the defender was rather than leading Bryant to the right side of the end zone. Just like that, a sure touchdown pass instead turned into a play where Bryant would need to make a play to avoid the interception. The second was the overturned touchdown, another play where a sure touchdown turned into a lost down, this time because Prescott would wait too long to throw the pass, leaving the receiver no real estate in which to make the catch.
Additionally, Linehan’s inability to leverage Bryant’s talent would only serve to make what was already a vanilla offense look even more predictable. Of 44 routes run by Bryant, 26 were vertical routes where they simply had him run in a straight line acting as a decoy more often than the all-world receiver he is. A more creative mind would have mixed up more short and medium area throws that allow Bryant to work after the catch, as was the case for the Bengals who lined up AJ Green all over the formation to the tune of 189 yards. The Giants would double team Bryant a lot (he only saw single coverage on 16 of the 44 routes he ran), with various play calls be it double-cover-4 looks or by sending safety help over in cover-2 but Linehan still left a lot to be desired from a play-calling standpoint. Even so, there was still a chance to eek out a win, a chance that was squandered by some of the worst situational football played outside of Cleveland. Lance Dunbar shaved 15 seconds off the clock in the closing minutes to fight for a half-yard, while Terrance Williams would take the Clown of the Week award when he chose to go upfield instead of jumping out of bounds in the closing seconds of the game.
The season has just started but it’s clear that there will be many growing pains for Dallas in 2016; the question is whether they’re able to iron out the kinks in time to save the season. Up next, a chance at redemption in another divisional match against the Washington Professional Football Players.