It is pretty difficult to analyze the job of the defense in the 27-7 loss to Atlanta on its own. Honestly, the defense has put together quite a month since the bye week, in which they didn't allowed any of the previous three opponents to get to 20 points or 325 yards of total offense. In dispensing the 49ers, Redskins and Chiefs, the Cowboys started to find their form and it wasn't lost on anyone that the team seemed to feed off the presence of their leader and best player, Sean Lee.
In following the European soccer scene, it is always enjoyable to pick up on the differences in vernacular and the overall way of explaining some components of their game. One thing they routinely use to communicate the meaning of one player to a team's success is the term "talisman," which is defined by Google Dictionary as "an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck."
"So-and-so is our talisman." Without him, we are a different team, but with him, we can conquer the world. I think we should steal it. And, perhaps it best explains the place the Cowboys are currently in. Because clearly, Lee is their talisman.
He left the game after eight defensive snaps Sunday. David Irving was making a fine tackle for loss on this snap when we saw Lee leave the field again:
You can see Lee pull up, realize what just happened, and then walk dejectedly to the sideline as Irving celebrates another monster play from the 3-technique spot.
The Cowboys may have eventually caved the Falcons in Sunday with Lee. That is a good team and at their home, it is a rough place to get a win. But after he left, the trend of the Cowboys not stopping the run was evident.
Atlanta got rolling and scored touchdowns on three of the next four drives as the Cowboys tried to scramble to fill in his gap with Jaylon Smith. They took a chance by not having Justin Durant active and placing a heavy workload on Jaylon Smith put the defense right back where it was against the Rams and Packers -- with some issues at the linebacker position.
Is Lee great? Is Jaylon Smith poor? Both? Somehow, it seems they go from "well above average" to "well below average" with just one man replacing another.
Ugh. It is a staggering reality that, with his strained hamstring, Lee will miss the Philadelphia, LA Chargers and Washington games. They have to make sure he is healthy before they reintroduce him back in. But they are so pedestrian without him.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Many of the above numbers are about average. Not horrendous, but not good -- 336 yards allowed is about what you would expect in Atlanta. You want to get off the field on third down and in the red zone with more minimal damage, but the Cowboys were very poor -- and Matt Ryan very good -- in these situations.
The Cowboys limited big plays and big damage, but it was death by 1,000 paper cuts as the Falcons just kept moving the chains with only two explosives, one sack allowed and just the one giveaway.
The defense was not helped by a poor offensive effort, and we see that this defense is definitely at its best when protected by a Cowboys offense that takes the game by the scruff of its neck.
Perhaps it is different with Tyron Smith or Ezekiel Elliott. We can speculate. But we know how this team does with or without its talisman. Once Lee left the game, the Falcons took a low-risk approach to success.
MATT RYAN THROW CHART
No real fireworks show. No Julio Jones feeding frenzy. Just spreading out the defense and finding the weak spot to keep moving the chains. This was the Falcons' easy day, with really no need to do anything but hand the Cowboys a rope and wait for them to hang themselves. They complied.
DEFENSIVE SNAP COUNTS
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 10 - ATLANTA
Interestingly enough, as we look at this defensive performance, we will see that the Cowboys "won" a great number of defensive snaps. Ten different plays were tackles for loss and stuffed runs. That is really impressive. But 34 runs mean that on the other 24 snaps, they were over 6 yards per carry. So, not all bad, but not good enough to win.
SPLASH PLAY SEASON TOTALS
Lots of progress and fine play from Anthony Hitchens, which is where we should start in our tape section below. This is a very important development if he is going to be the hope of the team without Lee around for the rest of the month.
Here he meets Tevin Coleman in the hole and Coleman tries to cut back. He isn't going to get anywhere because Irving is waiting, but I just love watching Hitchens (No. 59) see the play, know the play and hit the hole with aggressiveness. There is no indecision or hesitancy, and he is on it. Love to see Hitchens look this good.
Look at this. Here he is again shooting behind a slanting defensive line. Again, it is all there from No. 59. Directness. Explosiveness. He just knows what he is seeing and knows his role to seek and destroy.
Here, DeMarcus Lawrence is demonstrating his own dominance, but I ask you again to lock in on Hitchens and watch him work around the right tackle, who is supposed to have him. He makes No. 73 miss and locks on to the back again with suddenness and real impressive directness. I love this again. Hitchens is all over it.
Here he is on the edge and tied up with a tight end off right tackle. He has to stick with Terron Ward to the edge, so you better have some good speed to get off that blocker and not let Ward turn the corner with his quickness. Again, he has help, but Hitchens is not giving in even though the score is starting to get away. Compete level: high.
One more and I will let it go. Here is Hitchens again taking on a lead fullback, shedding him and making the stop. This is top-level linebacker play as far as I am concerned, and while I admit that losing Lee hurts plenty, I think you can find encouragement in that Hitchens appears to have developed to where he can really help you and not be a guy you need to worry about anymore. Except that he may need a new contract, because I don't think you want to lose him in the spring.
Now on to some other plays. Here is Lawrence taking over the lead league in sacks. Who thought you would be saying that in November? The strength in his rush is just difficult for any tackle to handle. It is remarkable what he has turned into.
Here is another sign that this defense is quite good up front. Here is Maliek Collins (No. 96) and Irving (95) beating their guys at the point of attack and getting into the backfield, where Irving ends another play. How soon before we start talking about him among the best 3-techniques in the sport? I wonder. He has developed so fast. Ryan Schraeder (No. 73) is having a rough day.
You probably saw this on TV. Jaylon Smith (No. 54) looks way out of sorts here. Not only does he not fill the gap that is the point of attack, but he also takes out Hitchens. This is a rather simple zone run to that side and I have to have a linebacker in that spot. Hitchens is still busting his tail to get there, but Coleman is through the hole and into the secondary. Not great. Irving looks like he got held here, too, but that is seldom called on a run between the tackles.
Here, a run to the outside exposes Taco Charlton (No. 97) getting sucked inside and upfield, Jaylon Smith hung up in traffic, and then poor tackling on the corner by the defensive backs. My issue with Jaylon Smith here is that the right guard is supposed to block him and he never really even has to touch him because Smith is too slow to react. You just can't have linebackers trailing a play like this so badly unless they are getting blocked. He has to navigate through traffic here and it certainly isn't easy, but it is the job.
Here is another run that is blocked really well by Atlanta. Can Jaylon Smith do more here with the tight end to get off the block and at least slow the flow before the play gets out into space? Byron Jones is the first defensive back on the scene and you can see how the Falcons love to run out of 11 Personnel and empty that box down to just six defenders, where they can really isolate any weak link they perceive.
This looks like man coverage and, yes, this looks like it is probably another attack on Jaylon Smith, as the tight end comes across the flow of the play to get into space and race for the pylon.
Here is the end-zone view. It isn't any better from this view. The speed difference is rather staggering.
Here is another. Right up the gut. Tough to see exactly what is causing each of these busts specifically as 11 guys all have jobs to do. But it is clear what opponents want to attack the moment Lee goes away, and it is clear how it gets fixed the moment he steps on the field.
You get the idea. You also know I am a massive fan of Jaylon Smith's and seeing his story develop into something great. But not having Durant active turned into a real big deal Sunday. Lee is out now, and Hitchens and Durant working together may be the Cowboys' only hope of keeping this train on the tracks for the rest of November.