CSI: Arlington – Investigating Cowboys’ 28-14 Home Loss to the Titans

by | Nov 6, 2018 | Articles, The League, The Team

When you have as bad a loss as the Cowboys experienced Monday night at the hands of the Titans, it’s time to open an investigation, look at autopsy results, and piece the clues together. Maybe there’s still time to solve the mystery of the 2018 season before it totally slips away, but the Cowboys’ 28-14 defeat puts their record at 3-5 and playoff hopes continue to fade.

If there was a ‘sense of urgency’ entering this game, maybe after this loss it is time to look for the defibrillator paddles.   Hopefully it’s not too late to save the season, but several of the same old symptoms from previous losses popped up again, plus a couple of new flashpoints to worry about.

Ugh, this is no fun to review. But here are my “5 Observations from The Sideline”:

Michael Ainsworth via AP

01.

Hey, George Teague. We Needed You on Monday Night!

Former Cowboys safety George Teague was at the game Monday night, I saw him on the sideline during pregame. He was also at AT&T Stadium on Sunday to sign autographs for fans during Rally Day. Too bad he was upstairs in his seat with 3:30 to play in the 1st quarter of this game. That’s when Titans safety Kevin Byard picked off a Dak Prescott pass in the end zone. In the ensuing celebration, Byard ran directly to the 50-yard line and stood in the Cowboys’ blue star at midfield. He raised in arms and gazed skyward, a la Terrell Owens back at Texas Stadium in the 2000 season when Owens played for the 49ers.

Byard’s teammates ran to join him in the star and do a little victory dance.

But George Teague was not playing in this game and couldn’t run out to the star to blast the opponent who was disrespecting the home team. We needed a Teague/Owens flashback. Instead, Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones ran out and gave Byard a light shove. Several Cowboys teammates joined Jones and there was a little bit of jawing with Titans players, but no fracas or melee.

Yeah, I know. It would serve no real purpose to get a penalty or get tossed from the game for taking down Byard in Teague-like fashion. And to be honest, most of the players on the sideline didn’t even see what Byard was doing to celebrate. But it’s bad optics when an opponent runs onto your midfield logo and pulls a T.O.

Byard running out to the star is going to be on every Titans highlight package for the 2018 season. For the Cowboys, that moment is one of the biggest lowlights of a season that needs to be salvaged with a win next week at Philly.

02.

Red Zone Discrepancies

This Monday Night matchup featured the two best red zone defenses in the NFL. But only the Titans defense held up its end of the bargain.

The Titans defense held the Cowboys offense to just one touchdown on four trips into the red zone.

Michael Ainsworth via AP

The other three trips ended in: a missed field goal; an interception in the end zone on a bad pass/decision by Dak Prescott;  and a 4th down incompletion on Dak’s heave out of the back of the end zone late in the 4th quarter. The lone red zone score came on Dak’s 4-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Amari Cooper in the 1st quarter.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys defense allowed touchdowns on four of five trips by the Titans offense into the red zone. The only time the Titans didn’t score in the red zone was when kicker Ryan Succop missed a chip shot 28-yard field goal.

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was great in the red zone. One of his touchdowns was a shovel pass for a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jonnu Smith. Another was a QB keeper for a 9-yard touchdown run. The other Titans scores came on a 1 yard-run by Derrick Henry and a terrific 18-yard screen pass to running back Dion Lewis.

The Cowboys couldn’t stop the Titans in the red zone. And the Titans made it into the red zone a lot because the Cowboys defense was absolutely horrible on 3rd down.

Michael Ainsworth via AP

03.

3rd-Down Woes

Honestly, I can’t recall a worse performance by the Cowboys in this important statistic: 3rd down defense.

The Titans converted 11 of 14 third down attempts. Are you kidding me? That’s a staggering rate…11 of 14!!!! Let’s check our math…that’s 78.6%. Good offenses usually average in the mid-40’s. So, to convert over 78%…wow! That’s unbelievable. That’s twice what the Cowboys defense was allowing entering the game (39%).

Simply put, after recording takeaways in the first quarter, the Cowboys defense had trouble getting off the field. And to make matters worse, the Titans were converting on 3rd and long. It wasn’t just a bunch of short stuff, like 3rd and 1, or 3rd and 2. They were converting on longer down-and-distance.

This is the worst the Cowboys defense has played on 3rd downs this season. And when the defense can’t get off the field, it means the opponent is dominating time of possession as well as the number of plays. The Titans had the ball nearly 9 minutes longer than the Cowboys on Monday Night. And when the Cowboys fell behind, they had to stop feeding Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott carried the ball only 17 times for 61 yards.

Overall, if you include Dak’s two rushes, the Cowboys gained only 72 yards on the ground. There were some holes early in the game for Zeke, but the Titans defense stiffened as the game wore on. This was not a good night for the Cowboys offensive line. While we’re on that subject…

Ron Jenkins via AP

04.

Cowboys’ Changes at Offensive Line Not Paying Off Yet

Marc Colombo was promoted from assistant offensive line coach to offensive line coach one week ago. He and his players said they will play with a more aggressive attitude. I think we’ll see it as the season goes along, but it did not manifest itself on Monday night in terms of production. Dak was sacked 5 times and the offense averaged only 3.8 yards-per-rush.

The offense also continues to shoot itself in the foot. Once again, there were way too many self-inflicted wounds. Let’s take the Cowboys’ first drive of the 3rd quarter as an example: holding penalty on Connor Williams, false start by La’el Collins, and Dak losing a fumble. Ugh! Double ugh! Triple ugh!

Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett made two major changes during the bye weekend: the trade for Amari Cooper; and replacing o-line coach Paul Alexander with Colombo.

The Cooper trade paid partial dividends on Monday night as he led the team with 5 catches for 58 yards plus a touchdown. But the offensive line remains a work in progress as Colombo and o-line advisor Hudson Houck work to improve pass protection. It’s going to take some time, but the problem is that we’re entering Week 10 of the season and we’re running out of time.

Michael Ainsworth via AP

05.

Cowboys Offense Unable to Cash-In Early in the Game

The Cowboys defense gift-wrapped opportunities for their teammates on offense early in this game, but the offense couldn’t fully capitalize on the generosity.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence recorded a sack/forced fumble midway through the 1st quarter. Sean Lee recovered the fumble and set the Cowboys offense up at the Titans’ 15-yard line. This time around, the offense did well and cashed-in the takeaway with Dak’s 4-yard TD pass to Amari Cooper.

One the next series, Jaylon Smith recovered a fumble at the Titans’ 41-yard line. The Cowboys had a chance to go up by two touchdowns in the 1st quarter. Dak hit Zeke for a screen pass that covered 37 yards and put the Cowboys at the 4-yard line. But Dak tried to force the ball to Amari Cooper. The ball was intercepted by Byard.

Don’t take my word for it. Take Dak’s word. “I tried to force the ball,” Dak said postgame. “There was a guy in my face. I’ve got to throw it out of the back of the end zone at that point.”

The Titans got the ball after the interception. They ended up driving 80 yards and tying the game with a Derrick Henry 1-yard touchdown run. The drive lasted 15 plays and took over 9 minutes off the clock. It goes back to what we were saying earlier about the inability of the Cowboys defense to get off the field on 3rd down.

And Why Not … Adding Injury to Insult

Sean Lee has re-injured his left hamstring. Yes, that’s the same left hamstring that sidelined him for 3 games earlier this season. Obviously, it’s too soon to know how much time he’ll miss this time around, but it did not look good. The injury occurred during the 3rd quarter when he was dropping into coverage on a pass play.

Michael Ainsworth via AP

He did not return to the game and may not return for several weeks, depending on the severity of the injury. Leighton Vander Esch will once again step in for Lee at weakside linebacker.

Sean Lee’s injury was the meringue on the top of this mud pie. Monday Night was bad for the Cowboys, there’s no sugar-coating it. If they had played well and won the game, the Cowboys would be in the thick of the NFC East. The first-place Redskins lost on Sunday, and the stars were aligning for the Cowboys to get back in the hunt for a division title.

Mathematically, of course, the Cowboys (3-5) are still in it. They are one game back of the Eagles (4-4) for second place in the division and travel to Philly this weekend. But if they keep shooting themselves in the foot on offense with turnovers and penalties, it’s not going to make much difference. As for the defense, this is a prideful group and this loss is going to stick in their craw. Let’s see how they respond on Sunday in the City of Brotherly Shove against the rival Eagles.