When Aaron Rodgers and the Packers struck down the Cowboys in the divisional round of last season’s playoffs, the prevailing thought was, This is only the beginning. They’ll be back. Dallas took the league by storm in 2016, cruising to a 13-3 record behind a potent offense powered by a pair of breakout rookies and an All-Pro-laden line. Ten months later, following a 37-9 blowout loss to the Eagles—the Cowboys’ second disaster performance in as many weeks—Dallas sits at 5-5. Forget its NFC East aspirations; its playoff hopes appear to be in serious jeopardy.
Regression is a savage beast, and it’s come for the 2017 Cowboys like a pissed-off Liam Neeson. Dallas finished third in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA last year while rolling to the no. 1 seed in the conference. It’d dropped to eighth in offensive DVOA heading into Week 11 this fall, and that was before a game in which it scored zero touchdowns, amassed 225 total yards, and turned the ball over four times.
There were signs that pointed to a potential slide leading into the season. A first-place schedule carried a brutal slate of games, and the surprise emergence of the Eagles and Rams have only made that schedule tougher. In August, the NFL announced that it planned to suspend running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games, and he finally began serving that last week. And while most of the big names on last year’s Cowboys returned entering this campaign, several lesser-known key contributors are gone: Guard Ronald Leary got a big-money deal to sign with the Broncos; right tackle Doug Free called it a career; and the defense hemorrhaged talent in free agency, with safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox and cornerback Brandon Carr walking out the door shortly after the market opened.
The shifting pieces along the offensive line may have made the biggest impact. Jonathan Cooper, the 2013 first-round pick who’s on his fourth career team, has had a nice season at left guard, but he represents a marked downgrade from Leary. New right tackle La’el Collins provides a huge talent upgrade over the retired Free, but the 24-year-old—who landed a sizable contract extension this summer—has struggled to put it all together. The complications brought on by those two (relatively) weak links have been compounded by injury woes for all-world left tackle Tyron Smith. Even before a groin issue knocked him out of the lineup for the past two games, Smith had been hampered by lingering back problems. And the difference between a less-than-100-percent Smith and a backup option is colossal. Just ask Chaz Green.
After Smith was ruled out the day prior to the Cowboys’ Week 10 clash with Atlanta, Dallas failed to alter its plan at left tackle, leaving backup Green to fend for himself. The result was one of the worst games that an offensive lineman has ever played, as Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn—who had 22 career sacks coming into the game—finished with six, and Dak Prescott was dropped eight times in a 27-7 loss. Byron Bell (who replaced Green near the end of the loss to Atlanta) wasn’t a full-blown horror show against the Eagles on Sunday, but the final product still wasn’t pretty. With a few additional days to prepare for Smith’s absence, the Cowboys devised a game plan that included more tight end and running back chips, yet Bell looked out of his depth when left alone to deal with Philadelphia defensive end Derek Barnett. The rookie tallied two sacks, including a fourth-quarter strip that sealed the Eagles’ rout. Barnett went purposefully unblocked on one of those sacks, but he roasted Bell on the other and was a presence in the Cowboys’ backfield all night.
For Dallas, the start of Elliott’s suspension has garnered most of the headlines over the past couple of weeks, and that’s understandable given that he rushed for 783 yards with seven touchdowns through Week 9. But Smith’s absence has proved far more devastating to the Cowboys’ chances. In Elliott’s stead, running back Alfred Morris has averaged 5.14 yards per carry; Bell is less of a liability in the ground game, meaning that the offense should be able to sustain production even without Elliott. Pass protection has been the issue, and on Sunday Prescott clearly felt the heat. He turned in the worst outing of his young career against Philly, going 18-of-31 passing for a meager 145 yards with three interceptions. Prescott airmailed a handful of throws he usually hits in his sleep, and made several other miscues as he accelerated his process in the pocket to avoid getting eaten by the Eagles’ relentless front four.
Coming into the season, the best way for Dallas to fight off the regression monster was for Prescott to build on his Rookie of the Year campaign from 2016. Considering the ridiculous numbers (23 touchdown passes, four interceptions, and a completion percentage of 67.8) he put up in his debut, that was always going to be a tall order. While Prescott has looked excellent in stretches this fall and will be the centerpiece of the Cowboys franchise for a long time, there’s no denying that his stats (16 touchdown passes, seven interceptions, and a completion percentage of 62.8) have taken a dip across the board. Part of that is attributable to the cushy infrastructure he enjoyed last year beginning to crumble, and that’s sort of the point. Shuffling pieces (and poor injury luck) up front and Elliott’s suspension meant that there was no way Prescott’s surroundings would be as comfortable as they were in 2016. Overcoming that required Prescott to make up for the deterioration around him, and so far that hasn’t happened.
The Cowboys still boast a collection of offensive talent that most teams would die to have, but they’ve slid toward the bottom of the top 10 in terms of efficiency. With a young defense lacking talent at virtually every position (and dealing with the extended absence of do-everything linebacker Sean Lee, who missed this week’s game with a hamstring injury), even a small step back had the potential to spoil this Dallas season. A lackluster crop of NFC teams competing for the second wild-card spot means that the 5-5 Cowboys are still in the hunt. But it’s clear that this year’s team is not the one we saw last year, and considering Smith’s health, it’s fair to question if we’ll see that version of this group again.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Eagles are damn good, and they might be getting better. Philly smoked the Cowboys on Sunday night, and what should really scare the rest of the NFC is that a now 9-1 squad keeps finding reinforcements. Cornerback Ronald Darby, whom the Eagles pried away from Buffalo for a 2018 third-round pick and receiver Jordan Matthews in August, returned after dislocating his ankle in Week 1. He looked nothing like a guy who has missed the past two and a half months. Darby had an interception and broke up a throw to Dez Bryant in the end zone. Fueled by a breakout campaign by cornerback Patrick Robinson and the steady play of its two safeties, Philly’s secondary was already playing well; with Darby in the lineup, it looked unmistakably excellent.
On the other side of the ball, recently acquired back Jay Ajayi ripped off another huge run that accounted for 71 of his 91 yards on the ground. While the Eagles’ varied collection of backs is a key part of their offensive approach, it shouldn’t be long before Ajayi begins to eat into LeGarrette Blount’s workload even more than he has. Landing Ajayi before the trade deadline and getting Darby back in Week 11 added two high-level starters to a roster that was rolling. That’s almost unfair.
2. The Chiefs’ 12-9 loss to the flailing Giants has made the AFC hierarchy clear. It took more than half of the season, but it seems like we’re finally back to that familiar place where it’s the Patriots, the Steelers, and then everyone else in the AFC. Kansas City’s offense was a train wreck against a Giants defense that’s been little more than a speed bump recently, while New England and Pittsburgh decimated their opponents in Week 11.
The Patriots smoked the worst defense in football, racking up 420 total yards in a 33-8 victory over the Raiders in Mexico City. And the Steelers moved the ball at will against the Titans, riding Ben Roethlisberger’s best outing of the season to a 40-17 win. Pittsburgh’s offense has been much better at home than on the road over the past few years, and that’s because Roethlisberger plays like a superior quarterback within the confines of Heinz Field; he had a 116.7 passer rating at home last season, compared to just 78.4 on the road. His completion percentage plummeted by more than 10 points (70.8 to 59.4) in road games, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio took a similar plunge (from 20-to-5 at home to 9-to-8 on the road). The numbers from 2015 aren’t nearly as drastic, but there’s still a massive gap.
Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs would provide more of a boost to the Steelers than it would to most teams. That makes New England’s Week 15 visit to Pittsburgh all the more important.
3. If the season ended today, the Ravens would make the playoffs as an AFC wild-card team. That’s all you need to know about the conference’s second tier. Baltimore dismantled the Brett Hundley–led Packers 23-0 on Sunday, picking off Green Bay’s backup quarterback three times and collecting six sacks. The Ravens defense is a soul-stealing unit that continues to be among the league’s best and ranks third in points per game allowed (17.1).
Even after this win, though, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is averaging just 5.4 yards per attempt, and he has thrown more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (nine). This group’s best hope of manufacturing offense at this point is running back Alex Collins, who had only 49 yards on 20 carries on Sunday—and that’s probably about 30 more yards than he should’ve had. Collins ranks 14th in average yards after contact (2.81) among 48 qualified backs, according to Pro Football Focus, and his ability to break tackles and create yardage has made him a necessity for a unit with a depleted line that struggles to consistently move the ball through the air. Again, we’re talking about a potential playoff team here. Every other franchise in the AFC (most notably the Raiders and Titans) should take a long, long look in the mirror.
4. The Nathan Peterman experiment—and Buffalo’s subsequent response to it—was embarrassing. Peterman was flat-out atrocious in his first career start. Sure, his first interception, the one that bounced off fullback Pat DiMarco, wasn’t his fault. The quarterback had four others in a 54-24 loss, though. The Bills’ choice to trot out Peterman (who finished 6-of-14 passing for 66 yards with five picks and was pulled in the third quarter) behind that offensive line when facing a defense that features Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram amounts to football malpractice.
Oh, you didn’t know the Bills’ line was this bad? That’s probably because Tyrod Taylor has an 86.8 passer rating when pressured—the fourth-best mark in the league—and hasn’t thrown an interception on 126 dropbacks with pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s no secret that the Bills don’t view Taylor as their starting quarterback beyond this season, but the team’s decision to bench him for Peterman in the middle of a playoff race is baffling. That’s because Buffalo is sending conflicting messages.
Apparently, the Bills aren’t in win-now mode, which is why it was more important for the franchise to see what it has in Peterman than to roll with Taylor, who led the team to a 5-4 start. Yet Buffalo traded two future picks for Kelvin Benjamin—a receiver with one year and $8.5 million left on his deal after this season—three weeks ago. The knock on Taylor is that he was supposedly missing open receivers running downfield. That wouldn’t have been a problem with Benjamin in the fold, mostly because he’s never open.
This entire debacle was only made worse by head coach Sean McDermott electing not to name a starter for next week and saying that he didn’t regret his decision. You should regret it, Sean. You should regret all of it.
5. Few players in the NFL are as fun as a healthy Keenan Allen. The Chargers’ star receiver finished Sunday’s beatdown of Buffalo with 12 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns. And while his two scores were impressive, neither stacks up to this third-and-6 grab that he made early in the third quarter.
Allen typically prefers for opposing cornerbacks to play close to him, as it makes the deception in his routes devastatingly effective. Yet Allen knows what to do when given plenty of space, as well. Watch how far Tre’Davious White leans outside in the above clip. That happens because Allen’s initial step (off his inside foot) and corresponding upper-body movements have the look of an outside release. Only then Allen breaks inside, and White is cooked. When he’s on the field, Allen is my favorite route runner in the league not named Antonio Brown.
For the Chargers as a whole, this blowout signals that they might not be done in 2017 yet. At 4-6, they’re just two games back of the Chiefs in the division and a game back of the Ravens and Bills in the wild-card race. Los Angeles is very much in the hunt, which makes its heartbreaking losses early in the season (and last week to Jacksonville) all the more frustrating.
6. The 2017 version of the Saints differs from those in years past because Drew Brees doesn’t have to carry it. But boy, is it sure nice to have him around. New Orleans has established itself as a legitimate NFC contender behind a resurgent defense and the most efficient running game in the league. What makes this team so daunting, though, is that Brees can still light it up when called upon. The future Hall of Fame quarterback went 11-of-11 passing during the Saints’ final two fourth-quarter drives in a 34-31 comeback win over Washington, and he delivered a few beauties.
With just under two minutes remaining in regulation, Brees rifled a ball to tight end Coby Fleener up the seam for a 24-yard gain to get the Saints inside the 10-yard line. His touchdown pass to fellow tight end Josh Hill two plays later was vintage stuff. On a play from the next possession, Brees escaped pressure up the middle and hit Fleener for a 29-yard gain. Then he hooked up with Alvin Kamara for the game-tying touchdown on the very next play.
New Orleans has become dangerous because it can win even when its original plans go awry. When a team’s break-in-case-of-emergency option is one of the best quarterbacks who’s ever lived, it’s in pretty good shape.
7. Case Keenum, Adam Thielen, and Minnesota’s offense have garnered most of the attention, but the now 8-2 Vikings are still defined by their defense. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s group remains lined with highly drafted talent, and it came into Week 11 ranked ninth in defensive DVOA. That should only improve after it held a Rams offense that entered Week 11 as the highest-scoring unit in football in check during a 24-7 win. Minnesota is allowing just 17.2 points per game, the fourth-best mark in the league, and is getting high-end production from virtually all of its established pieces. The talking point surrounding the team will continue to be whether Keenum can hold onto the starting quarterback job, but the Vikings are in the NFC title hunt because their defense is absolutely loaded.
8. Losing kicker Jake Elliott to a concussion threw a fascinating wrench into the Eagles’ plans. Elliott suffered a head injury on the opening kickoff of Sunday’s matchup with the Cowboys, leaving Philly without a kicker for the remainder of the game. The Eagles offense stalled for most of the first half, so the issue didn’t come into play until the third quarter, when backup linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill was forced to kick off after a Philadelphia touchdown. The weirdest part? The kickoffs got better! Both of Grugier-Hill’s first two kicks were deeper than Elliott’s to start the game, and the second one was deep enough to force a touchback.
Not having a kicker also meant that the Eagles attempted two-point conversions following all four of their second-half touchdowns, and they would have converted all four if Zach Ertz hadn’t fumbled on the goal line early in the fourth quarter. Two-point plays are almost entirely dependent on ingenuity and execution, which is why it was no surprise to see this Eagles team converting them with ease.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind, Part I: Joey Bosa was a monster on Sunday. The second-year standout had only one sack against the Bills, but he was a menace all afternoon. He tallied four quarterback hits and was directly involved in causing four of Peterman’s interceptions. Two of them, including the play below, featured Bosa crushing Peterman as he released the ball. Bosa altered Peterman’s throwing window on the two others.
Nathan Peterman throws his 5th INT of the game ♂️ pic.twitter.com/JcvxTU5udf— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) November 19, 2017
In the play in the above clip, Bosa deploys an excellent counter move that shows off how well he uses his hands. It’s one of seemingly countless ways that the Ohio State product can beat opponents. Bosa now has eight sacks and 28 hurries since Week 5, both the most among 4-3 defensive ends, per Pro Football Focus’s Nathan Jahnke.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind, Part II: Derek Barnett continues to be a luxury for the Eagles.
In lieu of providing a tale of the tape pick this week, let’s look at Barnett, who exemplifies Philly’s embarrassment of riches along the front four. The 14th pick in the 2017 draft is already a refined pass rusher who should only get better as his rookie campaign unfolds. He still has issues holding up as a run defender at the point of attack, but that’s where the Eagles’ absurd depth comes into play. With Vinny Curry holding down the right end spot on the base defense, Barnett can function as a pass rusher on nickel downs.
That the Eagles could add a player with Barnett’s skill set to a group that includes Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Graham, and Chris Long is ludicrous. Barnett was simply too much for the Cowboys’ Byron Bell on Sunday, and his fourth-quarter strip sack to put the game away was proof.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
How Roger Lewis caught this ball, I will never understand.