On paper, it doesn’t look that bad. The Dallas Cowboys lost a one possession road game to a playoff team from a year ago, and have a home game against the NFC’s basement club next week. Dropping a 16-8 contest to the Carolina Panthers won’t destroy their season.
But it’s so much worse. The scoreboard was about as deceiving as one can be. The Cowboys didn’t show up in Charlotte until it was way too late. And they didn’t look like a team without any points or offensive production.
They looked like a team without an identity.
The identity is supposed to be center Travis Frederick. Dallas might have him back at some point this season from his Guillain Barre Syndrome, but they are going to have to make do without him for the foreseeable future. When the Cowboys are at the peak of their powers, Frederick is supposed bulldozing opponents while leading a ground and pound offensive line in front of Ezekiel Elliot, controlling the clock and grinding opponents to dust.
The only ones getting dusted Sunday were the Cowboys.
Even without Frederick, Carolina still shuffled match-ups on the line of scrimmage down the stretch, and almost always got what they wanted. First it was Wes Horton cooking right tackle La’el Collins with under three minutes to go. Collins was called for a holding penalty, and he still failed to prevent the sack. The Cowboys spent a second round draft pick on Connor Williams, and plugged him right in at left guard next to Tyron Smith with high expectations. Kawann Short teed off on him and got a huge sack of Dak Prescott to put them behind the chains with 3:15 remaining.
The game clinching strip sack from Mario Addison came after replacement center Joe Looney threw a flimsy at best block on Addison after Williams didn’t pick him up at all. Late failures to protect in obvious passing situations ended up putting the final nail in the coffin, but even worse run blocking put them in the dire straits late.
Ezekiel Elliot finished 69 yards on 15 carries. It looks even bleaker when you take out second half runs of 17 and 16 yards respectively. Without those two bursts, Elliot had 36 rushing yards all day. It’s only the second time in Elliot’s career he’s finished a game with fewer than 80 rushing yards. The other two were a game in Denver last season where he only had nine carries, and his first career game in 2016. There weren’t many holes for him, but he was unable to find the ones that did open up.
The Panthers deserve credit. They have a strong run defense, the third best in the NFL last season in terms of yards allowed. But it won’t get any easier for Dallas. They have two games against the league’s best rush defense from a year ago in the Eagles. Fourth on the list was Tennessee, who they meet in primetime in November. Atlanta also cracked the top ten, and the Cowboys head there the week before Thanksgiving.
Dak Prescott didn’t do much to stop the bleeding. The stat line itself was an underwhelming 19/29 for 170 yards, but the man who is supposed to be the leader of his team never grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. He ran for his life all day. He took six sacks. Prescott didn’t complete a pass for more than 20 yards all day, and was a non-factor in the rushing game with 19 yards on five keepers.
Between Prescott, a shocking offensive line display, an Ezekiel Elliot performance that makes you wonder if his face will be appearing on milk cartons around Dallas this week, the Cowboys never looked threatening. Offensive Scott Linehan only fueled the train wreck. Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup combined had two receptions on four targets.
There was nothing that spread Carolina out or had them reeling at any point. Dink and dunk routes to Cole Beasley provided their most consistent offense. Carolina just kept everything in front of them, didn’t allow any explosive plays, and their pass rush did enough to get home against a floundering offensive line. It took nothing more than that to completely stymie Dallas. Plan A went out the window when their offense line couldn’t dominate the game the way they did in 2016.
There was no plan B to replace that missing identity.