Where did they go?
The Cowboys were short-handed going into the game against the Falcons, on both sides of the ball. Normally, when a team is without their franchise quarterback and star receiver, as the Cowboys were without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, it’s all hands on deck. It’s thought that Dallas has a series of talented “second options” on the team, who could thrive if given additional opportunities. For various reasons, that didn’t come to fruition in the passing game during Sunday’s loss to the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Dallas utilized their running backs to great effect, but the pass catchers were severely limited.
It’s as if Dallas watched the tape of how Philadelphia came back against the Falcons in Week One with underneath, dink and dunk passes (eventually losing though) and decided that was going to be their approach, hell or high water. It’s not a gameplan without merit. Without Bryant, it’s not as if they could attack Atlanta the way the Giants did with Odell Beckham to race out to a big lead. Brandon Weeden’s stats looked eerily similar to Sam Bradford’s second half in Week One.
Weeden completed 22 of 26 passes, with one interception and one dropped pass. He was only errant three times on the day. 232 yards on the day means he passed for 8.9 yards per attempt, a tremendous number. However, Weeden kept everything short and rarely let the ball sail through the air.
Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), he completed just two passes on the game where the ball traveled more than 10 yards in the air beyond the line of scrimmage. Two. There was only one pass attempt of more than 20 yards for the entire game.
Cole Beasley was the only wideout to catch a single pass on Sunday, as Terrance Williams was shut down on two targets (including a drop on fourth down late in the game) and Devin Street never got open to the point of even a single attempt. Dallas had only two more attempts to wideouts than they did to backs and tight ends.
Brice Butler, recently traded for after Bryant went down in Week 1 logged 35 snaps and didn’t merit a single target. Rookie UDFA Lucky Whitehead logged two snaps with no targets.
Butler’s snaps/target ratio isn’t the only strange thing to come out of last night’s game. There’s no questioning the Cowboys game plan in the first half; it worked almost to perfection. Four rushing touchdowns in a game, much less a half, is a testament to that. However, once the Falcons adjusted their game plan at halftime, Dallas’ coaching staff and/or Brandon Weeden, never adjusted to the adjustments. Atlanta was not going to let the Cowboys run on them anymore. That dedication should have led to more opportunities in the passing game, but only Lance Dunbar thrived here.
There are rumblings that Devin Street’s ankle is worse than the team is letting on and that’s why he was unable to get open. But the question marks go far beyond that. Cole Beasley was targeted four times, and caught all four passes. Why was he only targeted four times and only once in the second half? Why was he in on only 30 of the 54 offensive snaps?
Why was Gavin Escobar, who should have been a matchup nightmare, only in the game for 8 offensive snaps. Atlanta’s linebackers haven’t built reputations as plus-level pass defenders; it would seem to warrant a target or two to find out if the big-bodied Escobar could get some things going.
It’s possible that injury concerns not released to the media played a role in their limited inclusion in the game plan. Outside of that, it’s a fair question why neither was more involved in the offensive game plan.
Atlanta boasts one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant, but Robert Alford who was taken to the woodshed by Odell Beckham last week, isn’t known as a lockdown corner. The Cowboys, according to Pro Football Focus, never attempted a pass in Alford’s direction. Not once.
Dallas will be handicapped for the next several games without it’s star players. It cannot afford to handicap themselves with an inability to utilize the weapons at their disposal or adjust to the flow of the game once it changes. Dallas began their first three second-half possessions with running plays. For the record, halfback Joseph Randle who tallied 91 yards and two scores in just the first quarter commented how it felt like Atlanta had "11 men in the box" in the second half. Randle ended with just 87 yards on the day.
The Cowboys didn’t gain a new first down on their opening possession, but they did on their second possession of the half via an Atlanta third-down penalty. The result? A running play on first down. Dallas was able to convert 2nd and long for a new set of downs which they began with… another unsuccessful running play. This time, they couldn’t convert and Atlanta took the lead on the next possession.
Time to open it up a little? Nope, on its next possession Dallas once again ran on first down, to no avail, leading to another three-and-out.
Dallas didn’t pass on a first down in the second half until they were down 11 points with just over 3 minutes remaining in the game. Atlanta was clearly committed to the run and the Cowboys brass didn’t care. They ran effectively in the first half and that’s what they were going to stick with.
No diversity in targets, no diversity in play-calling spelled doom. If Dallas wants to remain ahead of the curve and not fall to .500 next week against a winless and hungry Saints team, they will have to be prepared to adjust their game plan, even with the limited skillsets of those they can trot out on the field.