Plenty of Blame to Go Around in Cowboys’ Loss at Atlanta
Let’s be real clear about Sunday’s putrid performance in Atlanta. You can’t just blame this embarrassing 27-7 loss on poor play at left tackle by Chaz Green or the absence of Zeke Elliott. And you can’t blame it on the fact that Sean Lee left the game in the first quarter after reaggravating a hamstring injury. Every team suffers losses of top players every season, but the rest of the players have to pick up the slack. That didn’t happen Sunday for the Cowboys.
“We got our as$e%$ kicked,” Dak Prescott said in the postgame locker room. Those five words sum up the game. They got ‘em kicked up and down the field.
There are plenty of areas that need to improve before the Cowboys begin a really tough stretch of 3 games in 12 days beginning this coming Sunday against the team with the NFL’s best record, the division rival Eagles (8-1) who will be well-rested coming off their bye weekend.
Here are 5 Observations from the Sideline on Sunday in Atlanta:
James D. Smith via AP
You don’t see it too often at this level – a player getting benched during the game. And it’s a sad sight, to be honest. The guy by himself, standing on the sideline while the rest of his unit is on the field, as various teammates and coaches come by to tap him on the helmet or pat him on the shoulder pads, trying to console him.
That’s what happened to offensive lineman Chaz Green with 8:18 left in the 4th quarter. Green spent the first 3 ½ quarters getting humbled by Falcons’ defensive end Adrian Clayborn who racked up 4 of his 6 sacks against Green. Clayborn, whose previous career high for sacks in a season was 6, set a new single-game sack record for a Cowboys’ opponent. Clayborn also registered 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 3 tackles-for-loss, and 7 quarterback hurries. Hey, Clayborn is a fine player; he had the game of his life.
The little-to-no-resistance he got from the Tyron-less left tackle spot made Clayborn look like the second coming of Reggie White. It also made Dak Prescott a human piñata. It also makes Cowboys Nation appreciate the greatness of Tyron Smith whose absence was even more notable than that of Zeke Elliott.
Tyron Smith is a perennial Pro Bowl left tackle who is also a warrior that has fought a bad back the past two seasons. This year, he’s battled a hip problem as well as the bad back. But it was last week’s groin injury that sidelined him for the Falcons game. Tyron can’t get back fast enough.
“It hurts, I feel like this was on my shoulders and I let my team down,” Green said in the postgame locker room. “I got caught leaning and out of balance, that kills you in pass pro (protection). If you give them that easy break, they are going to take advantage of it.”
Will Green continue to take first-team practice reps this week, or will he share practice snaps with Byron Bell who played the final three Cowboys’ offensive series in the 4th quarter? That question will be a main storyline this week, along with the question of “Why didn’t the coaches give more help to Green/Bell at left tackle in terms of extra people (like a tight end or running back) to help in pass protection?”
“We helped, we had a plan going in, but we didn’t do enough,” head coach Jason Garrett admitted postgame.
Then he added, “we’ll do a better job next time.” They better.
Postgame in the locker room, the theme was that Chaz Green needed to play with more confidence. Byron Bell was the first to say it after the game: “He’d been doing good thus far and Chaz is a good football player, he’s just got to keep his confidence up.”
“It’s hard to pin things on one guy because there’s way to get help and way to scheme to do it,” noted All Pro center Travis Frederick. “I take responsibility for that because it’s my job to adjust some of those things.”
James D. Smith via AP
SEAN LEE’S INJURY STRUGGLES CONTINUE
There are two different defenses this season: with Sean Lee, and without Sean Lee. Lee, who missed two games in early October with a hamstring injury, aggravated the same injury late in the first quarter and missed the remainder of the game.
With Sean Lee, the run defense gives up about 80 yards per game. Without Sean Lee, they gave up an average of 164 yards per game. The Falcons totaled 132 rush yards.
Anthony Hitchens, who knocked Falcons star running back Devonta Freeman out of the game on the Falcons’ second play from scrimmage with a concussion, had another good game. But the fact that the Falcons totaled 132 yards without Freeman isn’t good. Yes, Tevin Coleman is also a great running back, but that’s too many yards to allow. Especially when the run game sets up NFL MVP Matt Ryan and the passing game.
Hitchens led the team in tackles and showed great effort and intensity, but he had to move from middle linebacker to weakside linebacker once Lee exited. Jaylon Smith played middle linebacker after Hitchens slid into Lee’s weakside spot. Smith is more productive in limited reps. He had to play a lot on Sunday because of Lee’s absence. Also, veterans Justin Durant and Justin March-Lillard were inactive. The team could have used their veteran experience.
Why were the two veteran linebackers inactive? Because only 46 players can be active on game day. The Cowboys kept 6 wide receivers active: rookie Noah Brown was active because Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams were unable to finish the previous week’s game with knee and ankle injuries, respectively. And the Cowboys also kept four defensive ends active versus the Falcons: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, and Benson Mayowa (sometimes Mayowa is inactive).
More on injuries…The problem with the injuries to Lee and Tyron Smith is that soft tissue injuries take time to heal, and that’s something the Cowboys don’t have. We’re coming up on the real grind of the season when next Sunday’s game (November 19th) is followed by back-to-back Thursday games (November 23rd, November 30th). It’s hard enough for healthy players to recuperate and be ready for those turnarounds.
DAN BAILEY, WE HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOU
Lee and Smith are not the only missing Pro Bowl players. Kicker Dan Bailey’s absence was felt dramatically on Sunday. Mike Nugent missed a 38-yard field goal late in the 3rd quarter which would have cut the Falcons’ lead to 17-10. Nugent’s attempt clanged off the upright and bounced wide-right. On the sideline, it felt like a pin taking the air out of the balloon. In the ensuing defensive series, starting safety Jeff Heath went out. He was taken to the locker room for a cognitive evaluation.
James D. Smith via AP
After Nugent’s missed kick, the Falcons drove 72 yards for a score. Matt Ryan threw a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper to extend the lead to 24-7. The game was basically over after that.
James D. Smith via AP
DAK GOT PUMMELED
Officially Dak was sacked 8 times, but he was on the ground a lot more than that. I don’t know how he’s going to be able to get out of bed Monday morning. He’s going to be so sore. And I’m not just talking about the sacks/hits/hurries.
Dak was the second-leading rusher in the game behind Alfred Morris. Dak had 6 carries for 42 yards including the Cowboys’ lone touchdown, his 11-yard scamper in the 1st quarter to give the Cowboys a 7-0 lead (yes, the Cowboys actually led in this game!). Morris finished with 11 carries for 53 yards. Rod Smith had 3 carries for 14 yards and Darren McFadden had just one rush for minus-2 yards. Zeke’s absence was felt. It’s also worth noting that Zeke is great is pass protection which is why he’s a three-down back who never has to leave the field.
Back to Dak for a minute…only a couple of Dak’s run were by-design, including a nifty option in which Cole Beasley lined-up in the backfield and was the pitch option. But most of Dak’s runs were him running-for-his-life because plays broke down. And when he passed there were many times in which he tried to get rid of the ball quickly, but he didn’t have anyone to throw it to. The Cowboys managed only 176 passing yards on the day.
It was an ugly day for the offense. A bad day for the defense because Lee is out again.
James D. Smith via AP
A FEW YOUNG GUYS STOOD OUT
Rookie safety Xavier Woods set up the Cowboys’ only score with an interception in the 1st quarter. He got the pickoff after cornerback Anthony Brown deflected a pass.
Woods also had a great play on special teams when he downed a Chris Jones punt at the 2-yard line.
Rookie tight end Blake Jarwin made his NFL debut and played special teams as well as had a couple of good blocks in the second half. And rookie defensive tackle Lewis Neal made his NFL debut after getting promoted from the practice squad last week. Neal played mostly in the second half.
But overall the Cowboys couldn’t compensate for the loss of their star players Tyron Smith, Sean Lee and Dan Bailey.
The Cowboys’ record falls to 5-4. This was a bad loss because it’s a conference loss. Also, the Cowboys will be likely be competing for a Wild Card spot with the Falcons (5-4) as well as the Packers (5-4). Dallas has lost head-to-head to both the Falcons and Packers. And when more than two teams are tied, the tie-breakers get down to conference wins.
This loss hurts in the standings, it hurts injury-wise. But there’s no time to feel sorry for themselves or to point fingers. The first place Eagles are coming to town this weekend. The game at AT&T Stadium is a prime-time affair on Sunday Night Football. The entire nation will be watching.