Once they figured it out, it was easy.
The Atlanta Falcons spent the entire first half looking overmatched and underwhelming. They spent the entire second half domination possession and securing a 3-0 start. The Cowboys raced out to several early leads they could not hold, and then got steamrolled in the second half on the way to a 39-28 loss. The defeat dropped Dallas to 2-1 on the young season.
Attrition has many faces, and they all made appearances on Sunday afternoon in Arlington. Dallas’ offense of course was missing Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, while Ron Leary was sidelined for the second consecutive week. On defense, the Cowboys’ were without three of their top four edge rushers, a defensive tackle, their starting middle linebacker and their best corner. The scoreboard says the Cowboys lost to Atlanta, but the really lost to being worn down and worn out.
There’s a dearth of quality quarterback play in the NFL. With not enough starting caliber players at the position to fill all 32 teams, winning with a backup quarterback is a tall order. The player is severely limited in what he can do, or he’d likely have a starting gig somewhere else in the league. Masked early, Weeden’s limitations showed as the game wore on. He has now lost nine consecutive starts dating back to his days in Cleveland.
The backup wideouts are limited. They don’t dictate coverage being rolled to their side. They don’t dictate keeping a safety over the top to leave room for the running game. They don’t do any of the things elite wideouts do to affect a game. Fans that claim teams should choose not to pay upper echelon receivers would be well-served to re-watch the difference in the in-game evolution of these two offenses.
The Falcons attacked on the ground and through the air, relying on Julio Jones’ celestial talent and Devonte Freeman’s refusal to be out-muscled. Then their defense turned it on and took advantage of Dallas’ inability, or unwillingness, to target outside receivers and put the screws to the Cowboys offensive line.
The Cowboys defense, succumbed to the relentless pounding and couldn’t conjure up the fight to stop the Falcons’ onslaught. Their defense is built to send waves of linemen at the offense to stay fresh. That’s an impossible task when you are only playing three defensive ends and the backups are losing their battles to the point that the starters (remaining) couldn’t get their typical rest.
The Falcons went on a 25-0 afternoon jaunt, 22-0 in the second half, and erased an 11-point halftime lead with ease.
Julio Jones hauled in 12 catches, to extend his league-lead, for 164 yards and two scores. His explosion came after Dallas held him to just three receptions prior to halftime. Right along with him, Freeman exploded for 89 of his 141 yards in the second half, checking in with three touchdowns and several plays where he initiated the impact on the defenders instead of absorbing it.
Dallas appeared to have the game well under control, mixing a bludgeoning run game with plus pass protection and safe passes on horizontal attacks and underneath targets. The Cowboys started the game with multiple big runs, three of them by Joseph Randle, turning that strategy into scoring four touchdowns on the ground in the first half. When Randle took a breather in between his second and third touchdowns of the first half, Darren McFadden came in and dominated, scoring his own. Throughout the game, Lance Dunbar continued his role in the passing game, hauling in 10 grabs for an even 100 yards.
Dunbar was the club’s leading receiver, and that might be a major part of the problem.
The momentum started to shift as the game moved towards halftime, when with a 14-point lead and a chance to bury the Falcons early, backup quarterback Brandon Weeden threw an ill-advised pass over Jason Witten that was intercepted by William Moore. The Falcons would drive 23 yards to pull within seven and remain within striking distance.
After trading punts, Dallas extended the lead to 14 points again, but confusingly called a timeout when they got to the Atlanta 1 with 58 seconds remaining instead of letting the clock run or making the Falcons use their timeouts. After the score, Atlanta was able to drive the field and secure a field goal to trim the lead to 28-17 heading into halftime.
Dallas let three different 14-point first half leads slip away. Behind two monstrous runs by Randle, the Cowboys marched 80 yards in two official plays on the opening drive, racing out to an early seven point lead. After a quick three and out, Randle once again ripped off a big play and a second score, as Dallas’ offense could not be stopped.
The offensive line was creating a cocoon around backup quarterback Brandon Weeden and opening alleys for Randle to run though. Then, all of a sudden, they weren’t. As the Falcons realized Weeden would not test them deep, they kept coming closer and closer to the line of scrimmage to gain a numbers advantage.
Over the halftime break, head coach Dan Quinn and his coaching staff made the necessary adjustments to neutralize the advantage Dallas had forged. They kept their run stuffers in the game and adding defenders to the box. Inexplicably, the Cowboys never made an attempt to get over the top of the Falcons defense.
Only four Cowboys caught passes on the day, and Cole Beasley was the only wideout to get on the stat sheet. Devin Street was never targeted, while Terrance Williams was only targeted twice, dropping a crucial fourth down pass that hit him in stride as the game got late.
If this was the gameplan going awry, Dallas will have to rethink the strategy moving forward, as there was nothing put on tape today to convince the next several opponents from trying this strategy until Tony Romo and Dez Bryant return to the lineup. Almost everything for Weeden was underneath the defense and on drag routes and crossing patterns. There was no reason to test the defense early, save for putting a thought in their head. After his interception, which came on him escaping pressure and throwing off balance, Weeden seemed to never consider anything outside the numbers.
Weeden’s performance was just one of several areas of the Cowboys strategy that didn’t work. Despite running for 80 yards on his first three carries, Randle is still searching for his first 100-yard game. Dallas had 131 rush yards in the first half, yet ended with only 127. At one point, they were outrushing Atlanta 126-65, with Atlanta ending up with 158 on the ground.
The offense going cold was not the only contributing factor to the collapse. The depleted defense was flat-out embarrassed. Several times they were able to shoot the gaps like they did against Philadelphia a week ago, but it would only be one player instead of several. Then, said player couldn’t get a hand on Freeman as he scurried past reaching defenders
The Cowboys will attempt to right themselves when they travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints next Sunday night. It might be a battle of the backups, as Drew Brees’ rotator cuff injury remains a mystery. Dallas will spend the week trying to figure out if how to extend the effort to a full 60 minutes.