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After further review: Cowboys passing game struggled to connect and the Texans were sneaky efficient

Houston Texans v Dallas Cowboys
Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

Re-watching the tape for the Cowboys at Texans reveals new insights into the game.

“A win is a win.” That’s a common expression made by those who have just witnessed pulling out a very unsatisfying victory, which appropriately applies to Cowboys fans on Sunday. The Dallas Cowboys have given us a lot to cheer about this season, but all that goodness was close to being washed away with an embarrassing loss to the one-win Houston Texans. Just think, the Cowboys were a foot away from one of the most letdown football games in franchise history.

If the Texans score there, it’s over.

But they didn’t and the Cowboys completed a great defensive stop followed by a great offensive drive. Just like that, the Cowboys were winners. This may create a better feeling, but everything that happened before that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Let’s take a closer look and see what we can learn after further review.

What was going on in the passing game?

It was surprising to see the Cowboys' offense struggle so much against a very unimpressive Texans' defense. A lot of the damage was self-inflicted. Dak Prescott had two interceptions, one off a deflected pass and one when his arm was hit. KaVontae Turpin muffed a punt, and the offense turned over the ball on downs when failed on fourth-and-short near the goal line.

While the Texans’ defense did a nice job, there were plays to be made for the Cowboys' offense, but they just didn’t make them. Dak Prescott struggled to find seams in Houston’s zone coverage and was just slightly off with his throws. When was the last time we saw so many balls deflected by the defenders in the secondary before they got to the receiver?

Prescott also missed out on a couple of nice gains where he misfired at his targets. He had a chance to hit Michael Gallup for a long touchdown pass on the game’s second play and he airmailed a pass to Dalton Schultz when he was rolling to his right. Even on the Cowboys' longest completion of the day, Prescott threw short to Noah Brown, who just so happened to make a great play to adjust on the ball and come down with the catch.

Certainly, Prescott doesn’t deserve all the blame. For some reason, his pass catchers couldn’t hold on to the football.

Our old pal and former BTB writer Michael Strawn showed how bad the offense was in this game as it was the first time both our rush and pass DVOA were in the negative since that touchdown-less first game against Tampa Bay.

We are really going to miss Terence Steele

The Cowboys have been without their All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith all season, but now they’re going to be without their rising star right tackle Terence Steele as news broke that he’ll be lost for the year with an ACL injury. Oddly, when Steele went down, the coaching staff opted to go with Josh Ball at right tackle. Last we checked, Jason Peters was still on the team, right? It’s puzzling that Peters has been in their back pocket for three months and the coaching staff decided their best option was Josh Ball?

After that debacle, Ball was replaced by Peters at right tackle, and lo and behold, the Cowboys drove down the field 98 yards for the game-winning score. While Peters should be a viable option at right tackle in pass protection, he’ll be a considerable step down in run blocking. Steele and teammate Zack Martin have been dominating defenders over on the right side when they get out in space and level opponents. We’re afraid those moments will be few and far between now. Steele has been underappreciated at times, but it shouldn’t take long to realize we might’ve taken him for granted.

Defense in disarray

The Cowboys' defense didn’t play horribly. They didn’t give up a lot of yards as they were solid against both the run and pass. But the Texans were able to keep the ball away from the Cowboys' offense as they held the ball 25% longer than Dallas, and that was completely unexpected. How did they do it?

The Texans threw the Cowboys' defense for a curveball when they rotated Jeff Driskel in for 50% of the snaps. The mobile quarterback had 38 yards rushing and threw their only touchdown pass when he rolled out to his right on what looked like a designed play to the outside. Even when it looked like the Cowboys had him dead to rights, Driskel managed to grind out extra yards. And we couldn’t help thinking something was astray when Micah Parsons wasn’t flying around stopping the quarterback from getting around the edge.

Houston’s other quarterback, Davis Mills, was an efficient 16/21 (76%) and looked to give his receivers opportunities to run in space, but he also delivered some well-placed balls that turned into nice gains for their offense.

From a DVOA perspective, it was the defense's worst passing game of the season and only the second time the defense as a whole has graded out in the positive (which is negative for defenses) for DVOA.

Hoping for a speedy recovery from Johnathan Hankins

Steele wasn’t the only casualty in this game as the team lost their free agent nose tackle acquisition Johnathan Hankins who injured his pectoral muscle. With run defense being a big concern for the Cowboys, losing Hankins for an extended period of time would be unfortunate.

After sitting with the fourth-worst run defense (143 yards per game) following the Green Bay Packers game, they’ve improved immensely giving up just 95 yards per game since. They’ve held Saquon Barkley (3.5 ypc), Jonathan Taylor (3.9 ypc), and Dameon Pierce (3.5 ypc) in check. I’m not sure anyone would’ve expected that, but having Hankins on this squad makes the unit much stronger.

Number one again!

With no Anthony Brown, all eyes were on rookie Kelvin Joseph as he was thrown into action. Overall, he played pretty well. He surrendered four catches for 69 yards on five targets. He also had one pass break up. The Texans aren’t an offensive juggernaut by any means, but it still feels like the Cowboys were fortunate Houston’s offense didn’t attack Joseph more aggressively.

The Cowboys' defense did come away with two takeaways which now ties them with the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens for the top spot with 23 turnovers generated this year.

Clutch when it matters!

Let’s end things on a positive. The game wasn’t pretty by any means, but it did have a pretty finish, starting off with a defensive stand that gave the offense a chance. How the Texans didn’t finish things off is still surprising, but credit the Cowboys' defensive front for bullying their way at the line of scrimmage. And the guy doing most of the damage is one we are all too familiar with. When you’re going into battle, it’s good to have a Tank.

And would you believe that between all the deflected balls, dropped passes, and suspect pass protection, everything came together for one very impressive game-winning drive? Take a moment to savor it.


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