The Good, Bad and Ugly of Cowboys' Loss to Steelers
This Dallas Cowboys season was already over before Sunday's Week 9 kickoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers, at least in terms of true contention. However, there are still things to figure out, experiment with, and improve on as the 2-7 team approaches the post-bye portion of the regular season.
On Sunday, in what was arguably their most admirable performance of the year without Dak Prescott in the lineup, they may have figured out some of those things, whether it was for the best, or for the worst.
Let's review the good, the bad, and the ugly from Sunday's loss to the Steelers.
Maybe the most important thing to come out of yesterday's loss for Dallas was that Randy Gregory is every bit as dangerous as we remember him being in 2018. In a year when the defense, and in particular the pass defense, was struggling ... his team needed a jolt of energy. And it appears Gregory is going to give them exactly that.
With Gregory back in the lineup, the Cowboys have now played their two best defensive games of the season back-to-back, and he has played a large part in that turnaround. While he has yet to produce a sack, Gregory has been disruptive and applying serious pressure to opposing quarterbacks, and it is only a matter of time before he breaks through and starts stacking up his sack numbers.
One more good thing for Dallas has got to be the play of quarterback Garrett Gilbert, the team's fourth starter under center in just nine weeks of action.
Gilbert, who took over for the overwhelmed Ben DiNucci following last week's loss to Philadelphia, not only kept the Cowboys in the game against the now-8-0 Steelers, but gave them a legitimate chance to win it with his play throughout the game, and in particular on the final drive of regulation.
For the afternoon, Gilbert finished 21-38 for 243 yards with one touchdown and a pick. ... The latter of which involved a blatantly missed defensive hold that directly affected the interception.
More importantly though, is that Gilbert provided a measure of stability and confidence within the offense as the game progressed, something that the team certainly did not have with DiNucci under center. ... and that the jury is still out on with Andy Dalton. (Though the Cowboys are saying Dalton is the first-teamer when Dallas is again ready to play.)
We also have to make sure to mention the special teams, which, despite not having their starting punter, easily put in their best performance of the season. Coordinator "Bones'' Fassell has done a great job getting that unit turned around over the last few weeks, and that hard work culminated on Sunday against Pittsburgh.
Ezekiel Elliott is being paid an average of $15 million per year after the contract extension in September of 2019, and suffice it to say, it seems the Cowboys have made a mistake with that decision.
So far this season, Elliott is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, has yet to go over 100 yards in a game, has just six touchdowns on the year, and has fumbled five times in nine games, losing four of them.
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Sunday against the Steelers was yet another underwhelming performance in terms of production, with Elliott rushing the ball 18 times for just 51 yards, and catching two of three targets for 18 yards. His backup, Tony Pollard, on the other hand, looked explosive and determined, rushing the ball nine times for a team-high 57 yards.
It is possible that Elliott could have been slowed down with the hamstring injury issues that caused him to be a game-time decision heading into the afternoon. There is also the issue with the Cowboys historically banged-up offensive line. However, this pattern of subpar production extends all the way back to Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Make no mistake, Elliott is still the best running back on the team, and one of their most talented playmakers. But that doesn't mean the Cowboys are not paying for their mistakes of overpaying a position that doesn't provide the value to justify it.
To put it simply, the main factor in the Cowboys' loss to the Steelers was the Dallas Cowboys. Once again, for the ninth consecutive week, the team could simply not get out of its own way.
Through the first two quarters, things seemed to be under control for Dallas. They minimized the penalties, were playing solid defense and were taking care of the football.
In the second half, however, things once again fell apart, with the team amassing multiple critical penalties, including two from Jaylon Smith that kept the Cowboys from getting off of the field at critical moments and ultimately resulted in points for the Steelers.
In the case of Smith himself, another player who signed a big extension in 2019, these types of mistakes have been a pattern throughout the season. Smith is not only constantly out of position, and constantly getting beat by the guys in front of him, but his mistakes with penalties and in other areas have cost the Cowboys chances to win football games in multiple instances.
In the case of the defense as a whole, however, and really the whole team from a macro perspective of the season, everything comes back on one person, and that is head coach Mike McCarthy.
Nine weeks into the season, there is no longer an excuse for a lack of offseason and training camp to justify the constant missteps in all three phases for this team. McCarthy has had ample time to get his players focused. He has had ample time to fix the small things.
What is happening with the Cowboys, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, seems to be a bigger problem. A problem of coaching, discipline, and personnel.
McCarthy's crew took positive steps toward solutions on Sunday. But "positive steps'' represents a low bar when "winning'' is supposed to be the goal.