I don't know which defensive play sticks out most to you from Sunday afternoon against the Denver Broncos, partly because there are many to choose from. Denver deserves a lot of credit for the number they did on a Dallas defense that was celebrated all week for its destruction of the New York Giants, who were without their best player and are proving that, even with him, they aren't very good on offense. But, there were some moments in Denver that demonstrated the Cowboys weren't ready to play. This is best seen in their ability to end plays when a play is ready to be ended.
The play I am speaking of happened during the Broncos' second drive. It happened with 3:51 to go in the first quarter and, ironically, storm clouds had literally started rolling over Sports Authority Field at Mile High. A second-and-10 for the Broncos from their own 33, and they look like they are executing a simple run to the right with a pulling guard after a quarterback read. C.J. Anderson is given the ball at the mesh point and heads off right tackle. The Cowboys' defensive line is blocked pretty well and the weak-side linebacker, Sean Lee, runs into traffic as well. Jaylon Smith gets around the pulling left guard and scrapes to the outside nicely, where he is in a nice spot to bring Anderson to the ground. But Anderson does not cooperate with a little burst of quickness that Smith is not ready for, and his arm tackle effort is not close to ending the play. Instead, Anderson is able to wiggle around him easily and take on a dive-bombing Jeff Heath from the safety spot.
For whatever reason, Heath, who is in a fantastic spot to end the play, channels his inner Roy Williams and decides to try the shoulder collision technique rather than the safer idea of wrapping up and bringing Anderson to the ground. Anderson shrugs him off, spins back to his right, where Nolan Carroll is not terribly interested in getting around his wide receiver's block, but Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence have now rallied back to the ball and, for a brief moment, Anderson is in a triangle of Cowboys as Nos. 50, 90 and 24 are right on top of him. Anderson, however, keeps his legs churning and before anyone can blink, he is in the open field sprinting down the sideline after all three of those white jerseys collided with each other in "Keystone Cops" fashion and fell to the ground. Twenty-eight yards later, Byron Jones finally pushes him out of bounds and the Broncos are on the move again, with all the confidence in the world that the Cowboys aren't going to tackle them today.
Was it just about that play? Of course not. There were several plays before it when the Cowboys showed no ability to tackle. This one, though, was ominous in every way. Take a look:
This is not the most talented defense in the NFL. So, the defenders must work together to fly to the ball and end plays when they are begging to be ended. This play should have gained between 0-4 yards and instead, the Cowboys gave the Broncos their biggest play of the day for 28 yards. Let's review this simple thought from Vince Lombardi:
Lombardi had a knack for really boiling things down to the bare bones, as I would suggest there is more to football than just that. But, in terms of its most basic fundamentals, if you aren't going to tackle, then you aren't going very far in this sport. Especially if your franchise has not invested very heavily on the defensive side of the ball. Effort and execution must always be on point. And on this day, the Cowboys did not force a single punt until the fourth quarter, when the Broncos were already smiling over on their sideline.
If Ezekiel Elliott's effort level on Sunday was not appreciated, then I think we could also wonder how badly some defenders were interested in stopping the bleeding once it got rolling, too.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
It would be difficult to remember a more inefficient day on defense. Week 3 of the 2015 season vs. Atlanta was the last time the defense gave up nine different third-down conversions (in just 15 attempts). Week 9 of 2014 vs. Arizona was the last time the Cowboys allowed an opponent to go 4 for 4 on red-zone drives ending in touchdowns.
Basically, every time the Broncos challenged the Cowboys to dig deep and make a play that mattered in turning the game -- aside from Lawrence's strip-sack early in the second quarter -- the Cowboys did not answer.
They didn't stop a thing Sunday.
TREVOR SIEMIAN THROW CHART
I think this is a pretty interesting chart above from John Daigle. He shows what appears to be a clear and distinct attack on the Cowboys' thin ranks at cornerback and on the flanks.
If you are a Cowboys fan, you can talk yourself into believing they are going to be fine in the defensive backfield once everyone gets settled in. And that could be true. But if you are an opponent of Dallas, you must be thinking the best way to attack this defense is on the perimeter. Maybe not deep, because they are dropping seven into coverage in every pass situation, but what about on the flanks?
If there is no Orlando Scandrick playing, then which Cowboys defensive back do you think is an exceptional tackler?
Carroll demonstrated almost no interest in tackling. Here, they attacked him twice:
First, in man coverage, here is an easy 27 yards if Carroll cannot handle Demaryius Thomas.
Then, to the other one: SMU's Emmanuel Sanders against a zone, where Carroll is outside contain. And in both cases, I am not sure Carroll could have pulled a flag off the receiver, let alone tackle him. He is just getting in the way of those who are really into it.
Here is the end-zone view. I'm sorry, but this won't cut it in the NFL. Not only does he not make the tackle, but he seems to prevent Jones from making it, too.
With no Scandrick, Chidobe Awuzie playing just six snaps before getting hurt and Carroll playing the first 25, that left the Cowboys with three of their top four corners out of the game.
So, Anthony Brown played every last snap, Jourdan Lewis played 65 -- he might have played very few if everyone was healthy -- and Xavier Woods played 34. We know the Cowboys' best plans for corner depth is to play more safeties. This works sometimes, but after Sunday, it seems the Cowboys may have to consider something with Heath.
We saw this a bit in Week 1, but even though I think Heath can start for the Cowboys, I continue to share a level of concern with where they play him. He appears to be their nickel linebacker up next to Lee, and teams quickly attack that. I believe this would be Anthony Hitchens (if he were fit), Smith (if he were fit) or Jones in a pinch. They prefer Heath for now. But, if that happens, either you limit your call sheet to zones (which puts you in a real bind) or teams are going to attack him with quick backs out of the backfield. Then, things like this will happen:
This could be a footing problem, but that is part of the dinner in man coverage. You have to turn on a dime and deal with option routes, and there is literally nobody out there to help you.
The end-zone angle doesn't help us much, since No. 38 is hardly ever seen because he is still getting up behind the play.
I don't think any of us want to keep showing these, but there is more.
A third-and-11 here. Hold Denver to a field goal here, and the score is just 24-10 with almost the entire second half remaining. Where do you think the Broncos are going to attack?
Basically, can they throw it short of the line of scrimmage, and can this team corral him with 11 yards of padding?
I don't think Heath, Lee, nor Jones would put this on their Hudl page. This was not very good, all day long, from just about every defender in the back seven.
And then, 18 seconds after the world accused Elliott of quitting, we have this:
If you have ever been to training camp, this is about the defensive pace and intensity of a camp snap on a Wednesday afternoon in Oxnard.
I mean, there are so many issues with this, but the biggest one is that this looks like a defense that just wants to go shower and leave.
It happens, but you sure don't want it to happen to you.
Here are some of the stats we keep. They seem pretty irrelevant after all of that, but for consistency and complete record-keeping, here we go:
WEEK 2 SPLASH PLAYS
Lawrence is a beast right now. Taco Charlton showed some flashes. And Maliek Collins is playing pretty well, but he is not quite finishing plays yet. Damontre Moore is now available and David Irving is two games away. I feel OK about the defensive line.
SEASON TOTALS FOR SPLASH PLAYS
Without Scandrick, the Cowboys tried bringing pressure a few times, with limited results.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This was about as disappointing a defensive effort as I can recall. Sure, other teams have made more plays and scored more points and put up more yards than Denver did Sunday. But this felt like the Cowboys were beaten because they simply couldn't tackle and work together to corral plays before they got out of control.
In other words, this felt like one side was prepared and focused while the other side was perhaps impressed with what it had heard all week about itself. Hopefully this team uses the events in Denver to demonstrate that this is a league where you better strap it on every week, or the talented guys on the other sideline will humiliate you.