They said that it was going to be different. Mike McCarthy was going to come in on his analytical white horse, allow Kellen Moore to call an offense more conducive to success, and they would score all the points. The defense would be more multiple under Mike Nolan. The coverage schemes were supposed to be more complex. Although the all-seeing and all-knowing All-22 is not yet available to the eyes of the casual NFL Gamepass holder, it’s clear from the broadcast view that none of those things necessarily came to fruition. My Cowboys and Rams takeaways from Week 1 are simple. They weren’t an evolved product from last season. But it’s not all bad.
They needed to throw more on first down
It’s really as simple as that. The Cowboys had 29 first-down attempts throughout the game Sunday night. There is a bit of confusion as to exactly how the run/pass split ended up. Warren Sharp tweeted that the Cowboys ran on 17 first downs while passing on only 12. In those 12 attempts, he said Dak Prescott completed 11 passes at an 11.1 yards-per-attempt clip. The Cowboys averaged 4.8 yards-per-carry on their 17 first-down runs.
However, on Sharp’s website, the numbers were a bit more evenly distributed, displaying 15 passing attempts to 16 rushing. The success rate on those 15 passing attempts was 87%, and Prescott’s averaged 9.5 YPA. That means 13 of the Cowboys 15 passing attempts on first down went for at least five yards. On their 16 rushing attempts, the Cowboys averaged 4.5 YPC and ran for over five yards on nine of those attempts.
Make no mistake; the Cowboys ran the ball well last night. They averaged five YPC throughout the game, and both runners looked good. But when the numbers are so skewed in one direction from the standpoint of success as they were last night on first down, at some point you have to go with what’s averaging double the yards with a ridiculously high rate of success.
Jaylon Smith and the linebacking corps were bad
The entire game, it seemed the linebackers were outmatched by the Rams schematically and physically. The Rams passing attacked picked on them in coverage. They were particularly ready to attack Jaylon Smith, who they threw at or overtop of in coverage many times over the middle of the field and usually with some sort of play-action attached where he didn’t gain the proper depth.
Yahoo’s Charles Robinson has a great thread on Twitter, showing just how poor Smith looked throughout the game. On far too many occasions, Smith was trying to make the absolute biggest play he could instead of simply doing what he was supposed to. He was trying to slice and slip through creases that don’t exist for humans, and it often ended up in a screen pass going for a first down or an over-pursued rush going past the sticks.
With the injury to Leighton Vander Esch early in the game and Sean Lee already on Injured Reserve, Smith really needed to step up against the Rams. Hopefully, he’s able to sit down and comb through the tape to see exactly where he needs to be come next week.
Coverage scheme still looked primitive
There were far, far too many easy pitch-and-catch opportunities for Jared Goff and the Rams passing attack. Too many times, there was an open receiver in the flats that could scamper for yards after that shouldn’t have been possible in a modern zone defense. On Sunday night, it seemed innovative match-based zone coverages did not exist on the Cowboys defense.
Instead, it seemed they opted to run a multitude of spot drop concepts that allowed receivers to cross the face of defenders on their way to free grass. We can’t put it all on the scheme. I wrote in my preview for the defense that the Cowboys needed to be disciplined against play-action and understand that the Rams would send receivers and tight ends from behind the line across the formation into the flats.
They did this time and time again against Jeff Heath and company during the 2018 playoff game. Two years later, the Cowboys still lacked that same discipline, despite having new faces both on the field and within the coaching staff.