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Dallas Cowboys Week 9 Checklist: What Got Accomplished Versus Denver?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

So, that happened. The Cowboys got dismantled 30-16 Sunday, a score that doesn’t do justice to how they flirted with their first shutout loss ever at AT&T Stadium. Believe it or not, things did get accomplished along the way — just not many that were pleasant to watch.

Experienced total system failure ✔

Where should we begin? With the NFL’s best offense converting just one of its first eight third-down attempts and none of its fourth downs? Possessing the ball for only 18:48 of gametime compared to Denver’s 41:12? Maybe it’s getting shut out in the first half for the first time since Week 5 of the 2019 season. Or the drops, so many drops.

That’s just the offense, of course. We could dwell instead on Trevon Diggs’ terrible performance on defense, although he was just one part of a secondary that let Teddy Bridgewater, among the game’s more limited starters, to pop some big plays downfield. By the midway point of this game, Denver’s offensive line was down three starters. That didn’t stop them from getting everything they wanted on the ground (that one merits its own conversation, which we’ll get to momentarily).

Don’t forget the turnover game: a second consecutive week of none forced and two lost.

Here was the damage at the end of the third quarter, before Prescott connected with seldom-used Malik Turner on a couple of garbage-time touchdowns and made this seem more respectable than it was:

And here’s how historic a failure today was:

There’s almost no point in analyzing something that goes this poorly. Analysis amounts to trying to isolate trends, plays, moments, actions — zooming in and out until we settle on the right one or two that help us make sense of what we watched.

But, as Dak Prescott told the media after the game, “They whooped us on every aspect.” There’s no parsing something this comprehensive.

Dallas got humiliated. It wasn’t great to watch. That’s more or less it.

Got gashed on the ground ✔

I won’t just leave it at that, of course. I have a column to write, and if there is one area that merits further attention, it’s this one.

Heading into this week, the Cowboys held opponents to an average of 88.3 rushing yards per game. That’s an excellent number — sixth-best leaguewide — but almost certainly a misleading one. The Cowboys’ offense puts opponents behind early and often, which made it something of an open question whether that number represented legitimate excellence or a byproduct of Dallas piling on points at such a prolific rate that opponents had no recourse other than to abandon the run and try to throw their way back into the game. The answer figured to be “a little of Column A, a little of Column B,” but just how much of each is a key factor as we continue to assess how much noise the Cowboys can make in the playoffs.

It means something, then, that Denver had 96 yards at the half en route to a whopping 190 on the day. One afternoon is not a trend, but it does tell us that a team can, in fact, run on Dallas. And while Sunday certainly does not undo the great work the front seven has displayed up to this point, we now know they’re not that good.

So now what? We see if other teams attack them the way Denver did and if Dallas can respond better. The former is almost fait accompli: Melvin Gordon was once a great back, and Javonte Williams soon might be, but they are not a formidable tandem in the here and now. Some opposing offensive coordinator will run the tape back and spot opportunity.

Maybe this, like a lot of other developments from this game, is an outlier; we’re only one week removed from Dallas holding arguably the best back in the game, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, to a subdued 78 yards. But we need to see as much from the Cowboys’ defense to know with certainty that the run defense is shipshape — and, by extension, renew a little faith in what it can do in January.

Conferred with the dead ✔

Micah Parsons was far and away the bright spot of this game, and I’m going to drop a couple of highlights in here because if you’ve read this far and relived this miserable game with me, you deserve to be rewarded with something uplifting.

So here’s one of Parsons’ 2.5 sacks, which doubled his season total and, per team PR, made him the first rookie in team history to record five through eight games:

And here is an outstanding chase-down tackle:

He was superb. Why only him in such a miserable game? Some of it is Parsons’ preternatural talent, of course, the sort that led to apologies far and wide for questioning whether a linebacker was really the best use of Dallas’ draft capital. But I’d submit that there was an element of the supernatural at play on Sunday, the sort that comes from a pregame brush with pro wrestling’s most famous undead man, The Undertaker

That was it. Clearly.

Missed Tyron Smith dearly ✔

Last year, Terence Steele was an undrafted rookie who was mostly treated like a turnstile by opposing pass rushers whenever he took the field. This year, he filled in admirably at right tackle for five games while La’el Collins served a league-mandated suspension. He is an unqualified success story in a league that churns through low-pedigree players like him and a great depth piece on a team that has often hurt for those on the offensive line.

But the Texas Tech product was undrafted for a reason, and Broncos rookie pass rusher Jonathon Cooper demonstrated why:

That was but one moment of a long day for Steele — and Dak Prescott.

It would be unfair to pin the Cowboys’ anemic passing attack on Steele alone. Prescott needs to be sharper — look no further than sailing a ball over CeeDee Lamb’s head on the final fourth-down failure — while Lamb and Amari Cooper each left yards on the table through drops. It’s also not Steele’s fault that he couldn’t approximate Smith nearly as well as he could Collins; no backup anywhere measures up to arguably the best left tackle of the past decade.

But Steele’s performance, like Ty Nsheke’s last week, made it obvious that while Dallas can weather certain losses on offense, Smith isn’t one of them. The seven-time Pro Bowler needs to get back on the field in a hurry to get the Cowboys back on track.

Discovered it really, really wasn’t their day ✔

Ultimately, this sums up a lot of how I feel about yesterday:

If you play video games, you know exactly the type. If you don’t, well, it looked like what you watched Sunday: a game where brutal execution, silly mistakes, good work by the opposition, and a pinch of truly rotten luck congeal into something impenetrable.

I’m not going to dwell on the blocked-punt fiasco; you don’t need a separate section from me to know how nonsensical that rule is. But it did a nice job underscoring just how doomed everything felt — that, of course, such an obscure scenario would play out and work against the Cowboys at the absolute worst moment on Sunday, of all games.

Silver-linings time: Dallas was hardly the only team to get embarrassed yesterday. Just ask Las Vegas how it feels to lose to the pitiful Giants, or Buffalo, another leading Super Bowl contender, to score six measly points against bottom-feeding Jacksonville. The Cowboys played the worst game of the three, mind you, but even that provided some perverse reassurance: I’d walk away far more concerned had the Broncos hammered one weakness over and over again — thereby exposing something Dallas had no answer to — than this bizarre confluence of everything going wrong for the Cowboys simultaneously. The former would be a lot more repeatable than the latter.

Because these games happen sometimes. The NFL is a strange beast, and other than the ’07 Patriots, no team in its modern era escapes the regular season without one goofy loss or another. Prior to Sunday, we’d seen this group play seven straight games of outstanding football. Those, not this, better represent the Dallas Cowboys in this moment in time.

Wash your hands of it and expect better this week. Odds are you’ll get it — because it can’t get much worse than yesterday.

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