The Cowboys fell flat in their much-anticipated matchup with the Chiefs, losing 19-9 at Kansas City in a lifeless offensive performance. Not all of it was bad — but there wasn’t much good, either, as well as at least one serious area of concern to address.
Here’s what got accomplished:
Succumbed to attrition
The Cowboys have spent so much time this season without one key component or another that you’d be forgiven for presuming they could withstand anything. It’s understandable, to a point. Football is a game of attrition, we’re often told, yet Dallas is playing their best ball in years despite missing two or three starting defensive linemen all season plus a starting offensive tackle for eight games, to say nothing of the standard plethora of injuries to role players. Why wouldn’t you presume this team is impervious when they roll into Minnesota without Dak Prescott and board the return flight with a Sunday night road win on the back of a guy who hadn’t thrown NFL passes since 2017?
Sunday provided a necessary reality check: they aren’t impervious. No team is when so many key contributors are out of the lineup. You can pluck plenty of negative from the Cowboys’ second loss in three games, and much of it is about who wasn’t on the field as much as who was.
Amari Cooper’s absence due to a positive COVID-19 test stung in a vacuum, and it became all the more pronounced when CeeDee Lamb was swarmed by double coverages before leaving the game due to concussion. Tyron Smith was missed badly enough in the Denver game, when swing tackle Terence Steele barely kept his head above water against a seventh-round rookie. On Sunday, it was worse. Steele had to contend with Frank Clark, a Pro Bowler in each of the last two years. Even a diminished Smith probably would have fared better than Steele did when he allowed this first quarter sack-fumble:
— NFL (@NFL) November 21, 2021
Micah Parsons was, once again, brilliant, nonchalantly moving back down to defensive end to stand in for the injured DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory and notching three sacks along the way. This was his second of the day: total domination of another two-time Pro Bowler for the Chiefs, Orlando Brown Jr.
It’s too easy for Micah Parsons ⭐️
— PFF (@PFF) November 21, 2021
Parsons is trending toward a Pro Bowl of his own this year, along with defensive rookie of the year honors. His nine sacks are a Cowboy rookie record since the stat began to be tracked, in 1982, and with seven games left on the schedule, he might make a run at 15. He is this defense’s alpha and, depending on the game, its omega, too. But Parsons cannot be two places at once, and moving down to the edge left a void at his customary linebacker spot, one that felt glaringly obvious whenever Patrick Mahomes hit Travis Kelce over the middle of the field or whenever Tyreek Hill, the game’s most dynamic runner after the catch, had space to maneuver with the ball in his hands.
Maybe Dallas would have lost this game even if those missing players had been in the lineup. After all, the Chiefs are targeting their third Super Bowl in as many years, boasted the game’s third-best offense by yardage going in to this game, and after a brutal start, their defense has rediscovered its edge over the past month and a half. There is no shame in losing to them in their building, no matter the circumstance.
But it’s hard not to walk away with this in mind, too.
Imagine the Chiefs without Orlando Brown, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones and Frank Clark. Life gets hard.
— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) November 21, 2021
Hung Dak Prescott out to dry
After returning to form in last week’s demolition of Atlanta, QB1 looked noticeably less sharp, which was obvious on a micro level (two picks and 216 passing yards), as well as a macro one (Dallas notched 276 yards of total offense and zero touchdowns after scoring at least two in every other game to date). He sailed passes he’d normally drill, and his first interception — when he targeted Lamb in the end zone — was the type of ball Prescott rarely forces.
Perhaps this might have something to do with it?
Dak Prescott vs. Steve Spagnuolo in his career:
1208 yards (6.2 YPA)
77.0 passer rating
— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) November 22, 2021
Make no mistake, though: this is far more about the circumstances he got handed than what he did with them. There was the aforementioned lack of Cooper and, later, Lamb, along with four total drops from the receivers who were in the game.
But the real killer was the offensive line, whose woes extended far beyond Steele. Connor McGovern, who early in the week usurped the error-prone Connor Williams at left guard, spent his first start getting rag dolled by defensive tackle Chris Jones:
— Devon Clements (@DevclemNFL) November 21, 2021
This was far less about McGovern than Jones, who absolutely ruined Dallas up front to the tune of 3.5 sacks on the day plus a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage. Even Zack Martin, arguably the game’s most dominant lineman, couldn’t slow down Jones on that final half sack, which snuffed out the Cowboys’ penultimate drive. Another Jones victim? La’el Collins, who was slow off the line all game and whose other notable lowlight was a key false start penalty in the first half, well before this game had gotten out of hand.
All told, Prescott was sacked five times on the day and pressured plenty more. Quarterbacks make franchises in today’s NFL, and Prescott has made this one into the league’s scariest attack, but even he can’t do much without his top two targets or much time to throw to their understudies. We saw last week how quickly this offense can shake off a bad performance from the one prior. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe they can do that in the bigger picture without Smith back on the field.
Kept Patrick Mahomes off balance
Want a silver lining? As flummoxed as Prescott was, Dallas’ defense was almost as effective against Mahomes. The raw stats convey some of this — limiting him to 260 yards with an interception and no touchdowns — but the deeper dive is even more impressive:
Patrick Mahomes averaged 5.4 air yards per attempt Sunday vs Dallas, the 2nd-lowest average of his career in a game he attempted at least 15 passes.
Despite the barrage of short throws, he was still pressured on 49% of his dropbacks, 3rd-highest such mark of his career. pic.twitter.com/hSJyD12vAP
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 22, 2021
The Cowboys did that to the player with the early lead to become the best quarterback of his generation. Moreover, they did it to him without Lawrence and Gregory against a full-strength offensive line with both Kelce and Hill available. After Clyde Edwards-Helaire scored a minute into the second quarter, here is how the rest of Kansas City’s drives played out:
-End of half
-Missed field goal
-End of game
That is a championship-caliber adjustment by Dan Quinn. You can and should be disappointed — perhaps even a tad concerned — by the offensive performance here. But you should also walk away feeling very, very good about how the defense performed against Super Bowl-level opposition.
Went back to the well
Way back in Week 1, Kellen Moore raised eyebrows against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by deploying this reverse with Tony Pollard:
This was how they used it against the Bucs. pic.twitter.com/8MZkQP4YJB
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) November 21, 2021
Looking back, it feels like a statement, both about Moore’s intent and about Pollard’s being a lot more than Ezekiel Elliott’s backup nowadays.
Fast forward 10 weeks, and Moore deployed it again, with a slight wrinkle.
Kellen Moore mixing it up with Tony Pollard, who fakes reverse to Dak then bursts 31 yards upfield on Cowboys’ first scoring drive
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 21, 2021
Did you catch the really fun part? If not, watch No. 21 in this diagram:
Kellen Moore running the single wing — fake reverse — with Tony Pollard… pic.twitter.com/jCmXtQO5WD
— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) November 21, 2021
That’s a clever way to capitalize on Elliott’s skill as a blocker, and give credit to the three-time Pro Bowler for throwing himself into the play and paving a way for Pollard to scamper for 31 yards.
It was the rare offensive highlight in this one for Dallas, which is reason enough to single it out here. But the bigger lesson is to not be surprised if your favorite Moore moments from the season so far reappear down the line this season. As we saw Sunday, the right one can be just as nice the second time.
Found some homework to do
After the Denver debacle, our Jake Kemp did a deep dive into the film and noticed something: the Broncos defense played very similarly to the Los Angeles Chargers, the other team — prior to Sunday — that managed to keep something of a lid on Dallas’ passing attack. You can and should read his full piece for the breakdown on what that is. I promise that it’s worth your time. But in a nutshell: minimal blitzing, much more dropping into coverage, and conceding the small gains while protecting against getting gashed for big plays.
It’s especially pertinent reading because, as Mike McCarthy pointed out, Kansas City executed many of the same principles, and he doubts they’ll be the only one to do so:
More from Mike McCarthy: "We were in striking distance. I never felt like we were out of the game." Also says KC took a lot of Denver's defensive approach and used it in this game. Says he expects other NFL teams to use the same approach in the future. pic.twitter.com/nlgngFPZ1x
— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) November 22, 2021
Next to getting healthy, Dallas’ top priority over these final seven games must be finding more than one counter when teams try this. Plan A — run the ball down their throats — worked well enough to deliver a win against the Chargers (198 rushing yards), but it was far less effective versus the Broncos (79 rushing yards) and now the Chiefs (82 rushing yards). It’s worth noting that the Cowboys averaged 4.9 and 5.1 yards per carry in those games, respectively, so it isn’t as though they couldn’t have gotten more on the ground than they did. But both opponents jumped out to early double-digit leads that forced Dallas to play catch up, and the most efficient way to do that is through the air. Hence the need for that Plan B: what does Dallas do if they again need to play from behind and teams sit back in coverage?
Maybe this exact scenario doesn’t repeat itself. The Cowboys were, after all, the game’s best scoring and passing offense going into this one. Perhaps, if it does, a clean bill of health is the only answer they need. It’s hard to imagine the offense looking nearly as feeble with Smith in the lineup along with at least two of Cooper, Lamb, and Michael Gallup out wide. But however they do it, the Cowboys need to adapt in a hurry. Until they do, expect much more of this in the coming weeks.