The 2021 NFL season has officially begun, and for Dallas Cowboys fans, it was an encouraging night, for the most part. Dallas did ultimately lose to the reigning Super Bowl champs on a late-game drive. Still, Dak Prescott put together a would-be game-winning drive of his own, as part of an incredible performance in his return to the gridiron. Overall, this offense looked unstoppable for most of the night, and the defense collected four turnovers.
Yes, it stings a bit that to see a clear push-off go uncalled on the final drive, especially given that the Cowboys had it called against them the year before in their opener against the LA Rams on a potential game-winning drive. However, fans of America’s Team should come away from this game with high expectations for the season. One can argue there is no such thing as a moral victory in professional sports, but when a team comes out of a loss with more confidence in their ability than they had going in, it’s been a good night.
Let’s take a closer look at the good and the bad from the Dallas Cowboys loss in Week 1.
Takeaways From the Dallas Cowboys Week 1 Loss
Dallas Cowboys Passing Game
Dak Prescott is getting the bulk of the love, and deservedly so after completing 72.4 percent of his passes on 58 attempts. He made very few poor decisions on the night, with a sack he took late in the first half and a near-interception on a throw to Blake Jarwin over the middle being the only flaws.
Still, the credit has to go out to the entire offense. Tyron Smith looks like he’s back to making his case for a post-career trip to Canton, and La’el Collins had very few issues opposite of him after missing all of 2020. The interior of this offensive line had a few hiccups but won much more often than they lost on the night. That is saying something given how dominant Vita Vea can be when healthy.
Say what you want about Ezekiel Elliott’s lack of involvement running the football (and we will get to that), but he was outstanding in pass protection. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup won consistently throughout the night, although Lamb had a few costly drops and Gallup did leave in the second half with an injury.
On top of that, the rest of the Cowboys’ pass-catchers were one throw short of being perfect on the night. I’ll repeat that. Dalton Schultz (6), Tony Pollard (4), Cedrick Wilson (3) and Elliott (2) caught every pass thrown their way, while Jarwin caught three of his four targets.
That’s a heck of a performance against a talented defense, and it should strike fear into every defensive coordinator left on Dallas’ schedule.
Let’s not forget about Moore, who had an exceptional game calling plays, as far as the pass is concerned. I’ll address the rushing attack (or lack thereof) later, but Moore was sensational on this night.
Not only were the play designs creative, but so were the personnel packages. We saw Elliott and Pollard in the game quite a bit in the first half. There were also some terrific route combinations designed to open up a specific player that helped the Cowboys go 9-17 on third downs.
The Cowboys also dominated the time of possession by nearly nine minutes, which will be the defense’s best friend if that continues in 2021. While the Cowboys didn’t run the ball that much, the screen game was very effective on the perimeter.
Moore might have had the best game of any coach on the field, and I’d be shocked if his name is not in the conversation of head coaching candidates throughout the 2021 season.
Defense Gets Four Turnovers
This had to be the biggest shocker of the night. It’s no secret that this defense is going to be Dallas’ Achilles heel in 2021. So, when they get four turnovers, it’s something to applaud.
No, the Hail Mary attempt before halftime really wasn’t a game-changer, although it seemed like Lewis might take it to the house for a second. However, two of the Cowboys’ other three takeaways were precisely that, if not all three.
DeMarcus Lawrence did an outstanding job of shedding his block and putting an accurate punch on the ball to force a fumble right after a missed field goal. Damontae Kazee also made a great play with Tampa Bay two yards from likely sealing the victory.
Those are forced turnovers. I’ll also make an argument for Trevon Diggs’ interception. Yes, Leonard Fournette let the screen skip off his hands, but Diggs was in an outstanding position to make a play.
Even if Fournette catches it, Diggs is spoiling that screen pass for a loss of yards. Leonard made the mistake, but Diggs was in the position to capitalize, which didn’t happen enough a year ago.
Dallas Cowboys Pass Defense
It’s no secret that this secondary will have their struggles in 2021, and if Dallas can’t get more pressure, it only magnifies that issue. DeMarcus Lawrence did have a few pressures, and Dorance Armstrong even had one early that helped force an incompletion.
However, Randy Gregory was quiet for most of the night, as was Tarell Basham. Micah Parsons is also not an edge rusher. I’ve said this many times, his best work rushing the passer will come as a blitzer, not lined up as a true edge rusher where he is guaranteed to be accounted for.
The interior of this defensive line also provided little pressure, making the preseason injury to Neville Gallimore all the more exasperating. I don’t think this defensive line can get consistent pressure just rushing four even when he’s back. Dan Quinn will have to start scheming pressure with blitzes, stunts, and overloading to make up for that.
As for the secondary, Diggs had the best night of the bunch, but I’m just not sure who steps up opposite from him. Anthony Brown had an awful night, allowing eight of the night passes his way to be complete for an abysmal opposing quarterback rating of 155.8. Lewis had his struggles as well, and while Kelvin Joseph and Nashon Wright have bright futures, I’m not sure they are ready to step up into a starting role.
This is going to be a stressful season if the kicking game is going to be this inconsistent. Not just the field goal attempts, but also the coverage on punts and kickoffs. After Jaydon Mickens’ first time touching the ball, it was clear he was a tough player to corral.
Why John Fassel continued to not only call short kickoffs that gave him a chance to return the ball but also punt deep is beyond me. It’s borderline arrogant, in my opinion. Not booming touchbacks on the kickoff unit was a mistake. I understand wanting to flip the field with Bryan Anger’s big leg, but doing so with punts down the middle of the field is also a mistake. Field position was a huge narrative in the first half, but it’s not solely dictated by special teams.
However, it appeared Fassel was trying to do so anyway, and our coverage units struggled with one exception of a great tandem effort by C.J. Goodwin and Wilson. Greg Zuerlein needs to be better at his price tag. I understand he’s coming off an injury, but if consistency is not in the cards, he’s not worth the price tag. Fassel has to also make better decisions. If he can’t, I have my concerns with his place in Dallas as well.
Dallas Cowboys Run Game
I’ll start by saying what is already known by most. Tampa Bay is not an easy team to run against, with or without Zack Martin. However, the run game has its place, even when it’s not having success. Firing off the football and hitting your opponent in the mouth wears defensive linemen down. When you don’t run it, it allows defensive linemen to stay fresh, and that is a big reason the Bucs were able to force a pair of holding penalties on the final offensive possession that settled for a field goal.
Can an unsuccessful run game not have an impact on the offense’s confidence and rhythm? The answer is yes. However, I’m not thrilled with the message it sends to our offensive line and running backs that we assume they can’t have success.
The Cowboys pay players like Smith, Collins and Elliott a lot of money. The kind of money that comes with an expectation that they can succeed against anyone. Maybe not every snap, but this team can have success on the ground regardless of the opponent.
Had this game come down to Dallas having to run the clock out to preserve a victory, I’m not sure how we can expect them to do so without having established any rhythm on the ground for lack of trying.
As an offensive coordinator, how do you even identify a run play you trust to gain yards in that scenario? Bottom line, we can’t get pass-happy from start to finish, or we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage in late-game scenarios. The game plan was brilliant beyond this.
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