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Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.
1. It’s time to worry about the Cowboys. Coming off consecutive losses to the Saints and Packers, Jason Garrett’s team was already reeling. But the Cowboys’ 24-22 loss to the Jets is an entirely new low. Dallas fell into a 21-3 hole before halftime against Adam Gase’s previously winless group, and it took a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to even keep the game close. During the first three weeks of the season, the Cowboys offense looked revamped and revitalized under first-year coordinator Kellen Moore, but that group has fallen back to earth. There’s no single explanation for the Cowboys’ recent issues. Quarterback Dak Prescott averaged less than 7 yards per attempt against the Jets and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second time in the past three games. Starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both missed Sunday’s game, and the Dallas line struggled to keep Prescott clean and get much push in the running game. Wide receiver Amari Cooper went down with a quad injury in the first half and didn’t return, and no. 2 wideout Michael Gallup dropped two well-thrown balls before letting a third (slightly high) throw glance off his fingertips. The Cowboys also failed to convert a fourth-and-goal in the second quarter, and the Jets followed up the stop with a 92-yard touchdown pass that created a devastating 14-point swing.
The Cowboys have fallen prey to the same “game of inches” moments that can haunt any offense, but Moore’s strange approach of late has also played a role in the offense’s struggles. Over the first three weeks of the season, Dallas used play-action on 39.4 percent of Prescott’s dropbacks—the second-highest mark in the NFL. That figure has dropped to 17.2 percent in the past three weeks, which is the third-lowest rate during that stretch. Play-action isn’t a cure-all, but it would seem like a useful tool for a team with the league’s highest-paid running back and a high-volume rushing attack. Against the Jets, Dallas used play-action on six of Prescott’s 42 dropbacks; he completed five of those passes for 41 yards.
The running game also hit a wall on Sunday. The Cowboys’ early-down plan seemed to revolve around running Ezekiel Elliott into a wall of bodies at the line of scrimmage over, and over, and over. If you take out a 12-yard run Elliott had late in the first quarter, his other 14 first-down carries went for a combined 35 yards. Playing behind the chains for most of the game, Dallas also became susceptible to the designer blitzes that Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams deploys in obvious passing situations. Those complex pressure schemes are a challenge for any offense, let alone one starting two backup tackles. Prescott faced pressure on 54.8 percent of his dropbacks—the highest rate in the league this week—and got hit eight times. He actually performed quite admirably despite all the heat, taking just one sack. But with Prescott’s process sped up in self-preservation mode, the offense looked unsettled the entire game.
If Dallas can get healthy and return to the formula that worked so well for the first three weeks, the offense should be fine in the long run. But that side of the ball isn’t the only problem. Sam Darnold and his enlarged spleen lit up the Cowboys secondary to the tune of 338 passing yards and two touchdowns. Robby Anderson’s double move against cornerback Chidobe Awuzie—which resulted in the 92-yard touchdown—was particularly embarrassing, but receivers were running open all game. The upgrade from Luke Falk to Darnold is impossible to overstate, but this offense was historically bad through five games, and Gase’s unit still torched the Cowboys.
When a team hits the skids, it’s tempting to overanalyze every interaction and moment in an effort to glean some insight. Most of the time those conclusions are presumptuous. But after a group of Cowboys defenders walked off the field and refused to high-five Garrett late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, it seemed fair to wonder where the Cowboys stand with him in charge. This is Year 9 of Garrett’s tenure in Dallas. It’s difficult to know how much influence he has over the offense and to what degree he’s pushing the Cowboys’ run-heavy approach. But even if the schemat
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