The Cowboys had a real problem Sunday night. The problem appeared to be Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Lost in all the arguments about who has the best young quarterback from the 2016 draft is a seemingly likely scenario -- that Jared Goff, Dak Prescott and Wentz all have a real chance to be tremendous quarterbacks moving forward. This won't happen every year in the draft, but where we sit (with all due respect to Paxton Lynch), this looks like the trio to remember.
Regardless, Wentz had an odd Sunday night that isn't necessarily the most statistically beautiful night you've ever seen. At halftime, his QB rating was 53 and he was in no flow. He actually presented the Cowboys with an opportunity to go up 16-7 at the half, but what appeared to be a sure-fire pick-six ended up on the turf moments before the intermission:
Now, we don't know what would have happened there. Would Anthony Brown have made it all the way to the end zone, or would the Cowboys have simply taken a field goal? But we do know they were leading at the half, 9-7, anyway. Making a big play when it is presented to you would have certainly helped.
It reminded us of a similar spot in the fourth quarter of the game against the Rams, when the same player -- sorry to bring this up, Brown -- let a similar ball fall to the ground in a game where the Cowboys trailed by 2 points and needed the defense to make one play:
Those two games needed one play from the defense to swing it in the Cowboys' direction, and both games ended up being home losses -- something that has now happened three times in 2017.
The story of Sunday night could likely be the complete lack of plays made on both sides of the ball, but since this is The Marinelli Report (Scott Linehan got his treatment yesterday), we can focus on the fact that the Cowboys pulled off the rarity against the Eagles that is most dubious -- zero sacks and zero takeaways in the same game.
Below you will find the entire list of games in the past 20 seasons (as always, a big thanks to pro-football-reference.com) in which the Cowboys could not manage to secure a sack and a takeaway. As you can see, when you don't sack your opponent or get a simple turnover in a game, you generally lose. Somehow, the Cowboys beat the Redskins last Thanksgiving with this distinction -- despite the Redskins rolling up 500 yards of offense, too. But, more often than not, when you are shut out on both counts of defensive play-making, you get stomped -- like Sunday night.
The story of the game for me was Wentz in the second half, but we should not overlook a number of other elements you can see below:
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Red-zone defense is a real issue there. Against Denver, the Cowboys allowed four out of four drives to end in scores. Against Green Bay, they allowed four of five. And against the Eagles, they allowed 4 out of 5. It is one thing to have defensive issues between the 20-yard lines, but if every time they get in your red zone they leave with seven (or eight) points, you will have a very hard time winning games.
Dallas has now fallen to 26th in the NFL in red-zone scoring defense, giving up touchdowns on 61.8 percent of their red-zone entries (21 of 34) in a league where the average is 53 percent and the league leaders concede just 40 percent (Chargers and Vikings). This is something to keep an eye on. You must force field goals occasionally, and that wasn't happening at all Sunday.
The Cowboys rank 12th in fewest explosives allowed for the season, but Sunday night they allowed five, which is pretty poor by their standards. The big runs certainly hurt badly, and we will look at those in a moment.
CARSON WENTZ THROW CHART
Again, as you can see above, it isn't like Wentz killed you all night. He just made "that" throw at "that" moment. And he will work the ball all over the yard and isn't scared of the deep middle at all. His ability should not be undersold. If you are still deluding yourself under the premise that he isn't that great, you may wish to give it up.
This is where we direct you to the idea that the Cowboys miss Sean Lee. Have you heard? Have you heard how they cannot function very well without him? We have shown you the with-or-without-you stats each week. Here they are, again:
Well, here is another way they seem to miss Lee. We know they don't stop the run without him patrolling the middle with his excellence. But what about blitzing? Do they trust anyone else to bring pressure? Or, if they do, do they trust anyone else to provide cover for that blitz? I think you will see here that in games he plays, they will occasionally blitz up to double-digits. When he doesn't, they play safe and, dare I say, predictable coverages. In other words, without Lee, they "K.I.S.S." and just try not to mess up. With him, the complexity goes up -- making the job of the opposing quarterback more difficult, in theory.
COWBOYS BLITZ RATE BY WEEK
Football is a simple game of making plays. On any given week, we track the number of plays the Cowboys make on defense that are basic stops. If you get stops, you win. If the opposition has you on the run all day and are the ones moving the chains, you lose. Not complicated. On Sunday, there was no doubt who was making the plays. The Cowboys had their lowest total of splash plays in a long time.
In fact, here is the list of the times the Cowboys produced less than 10 splashes since 2012:
2017 Splash Play Totals
And finally, here are the snap counts. Plenty of Richard Ash and Lewis Neal to play 1-technique, 25 snaps for Taco Charlton (three games in 12 days - keep them fresh?), and Justin Durant takes a large number of Sean Lee snaps and splits the time with Jaylon Smith before Anthony Hitchens hurt himself.
None of it is good and the video won't make you feel much better, either.
Like I said, in the first half, the Cowboys were doing pretty well on defense. In fact, they pitched a third-down shutout at the half. The Eagles were 0-6 on third downs before halftime. But, that means they went 5-6 in the second half when the game was still being played (two of the stops were give-up runs at the end) and converted a fourth down for a touchdown, too. Half-time adjustments? Or just second-half execution? Either way, they marched three drives for 250 yards to start the second half for a Touchdown, Touchdown, and Touchdown. They started these drives at their own 25, 10, and 15-yard lines. They marched right down the field and by the time they were done, it was a 29-9 game, and it was done and dusted.
Let's look at those third and fourth downs where Carson Wentz did his business.
3Q - 13:37 - 3rd and 1. Look at this beautiful rollout with the under-crossing tight end against the grain for Brent Celek. Obviously, the Cowboys are expecting a power run to the strong side and are selling out to stop it. This play doesn't work very often - once a defense gets burned they keep an eye on it - but, it will work in this exact situation (or on the goal line) just about every time. You can hear the Cowboys collectively cuss, but it also takes a really good throw to make sure you make Dallas pay. 28 yards later...
Really well done. It helps to have a bunch of third and shorts to sell the play-action or run tendencies.
Three plays later, here is third and 9. Not quite as easily done, but when he sees the Cowboys are in their normal Cover 2 shell rolling into Cover 1. Not difficult for Wentz to find Alshon Jeffrey with Anthony Brown on his hip on the dig. Nice throw as he is getting hit and move the chains.
3rd and 6 - 5:50 in the 3Q right after the big run from Ajayi. Wentz looks for Anthony Brown again and Torrey Smith on the goal line. Hitchens pops Wentz on the throw, but it doesn't matter. Brown is flagged for holding, Smith gets the touchdown. That is some QB play, there.
3rd and 2 - first play of the four quarter. Play action - zone run left - bootleg right. Damien Wilson has Wentz dead, but the QB shakes him off and then fires a strike to Jeffrey while in a tight space before Lawrence clobbers him. Again, the Cowboys had him. He made a play.
He is feeling it now. This is really impressive work and Wilson has to make this play or you are in trouble.
Same drive, the Cowboys did get a stop on third and 3. This looks like a touchdown, but Agholor's knee touched when Durant went too high on him. Anthony Brown's tackle effort was, um, there, but it ended up as a tackle for loss for Durant. So, third-down stop!
Bad news? Well, they went for it on fourth down and 5 on the next snap.
The Cowboys show blitz - but we know they almost never do, especially without Lee - so, Wentz stands back, finds his guy, and fires an absolute dart between three defenders to Alshon Jeffrey. I mean, he was phenomenal in these third- and fourth-down situations.
But, to tell you what happened here, this is a great job by the Eagles knowing the Cowboys are sitting on the outside zone left and burned them inside with the counter, which is the pulling tackle inside that gets the linebacker that the center didn't get. Once Byron Jones takes a horrible gamble to the outside, the play is doomed. He has to get the running back in the hole and Jones is overaggressive to the edge. Xavier Woods takes a bad angle as the deep safety - so Ajayi is gone. Although, Jones is fast enough to catch him 71 yards later.
This view shows you the safeties getting caught. I know everyone is thinking this is the linebackers, but they honestly were blocked well. Jones ate the cheese here.
Then, this one is after Hitchens is gone, and it is Durant and Smith along with Jones and Woods. Very similar concept where a pulling big from the left side crushes a hole in the middle of a tired Cowboys defense and Blount is off to the races. We got a pretty good idea of why the Eagles offensive line is thought of so highly - even without their fine left tackle.
Time to move past this and on to the Chargers, but the Eagles really put on a clinic in that second half that won't soon be forgotten.