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Cowboys’ loss to Jaguars reveals more questions than answers

NFL: DEC 18 Cowboys at Jaguars
The secondary has become a big issue. | Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cowboys will try to right the ship before the playoffs arrive.

Disappointing is a mild way to describe what happened to the Dallas Cowboys in their overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Normally we take a look at what we learned each week from the previous game. But this game just unveiled a ton of questions, many of which have been lingering for a while. These loom large as the Cowboys face their biggest game of the season on Christmas Eve against the 13-1 Philadelphia Eagles. Let’s look at what the team now needs to answer. But first we will take one thing off the table.

Dak Prescott is not the problem

It is not making excuses to say that the game-ending pick-six was not on Prescott. He was on target with the throw, only to have it carom off the hands of Noah Brown right to Rayshawn Jenkins, who scampered into the end zone. Prior to that, Prescott was very good. He did have one earlier pick, also by Jenkins, that was an ill-considered throw. But he was mostly on target and was 15 for 16 in the first half. The second half was a different story, only going 8 for 13. But the offensive issues were not just him.

However, there were a couple of other things that certainly relate to his performance that are big questions.

Is the pass protection going to be good enough?

Prescott was sacked three times, but he was also under pressure on many other passing attempts. He was hit eight times, including on the first interception. While the return of Tyron Smith and the availability of Jason Peters seems to have the RT issue under control, the pass protection has actually been a problem all year. Prescott has avoided many sacks this year through his own mobility and ability to get rid of the ball.

He was under heavy pressure against the Jaguars, and next up is the team that leads the league in sacks and overall pass defense. If Dallas does not do a better job, things could get ugly on Saturday.

Can the wide receiving corps do a better job?

CeeDee Lamb had a great game, catching all seven of the passes thrown to him for 126 yards. The problem is that he is the only reliable target for Prescott. Noah Brown saw the most targets, but only accounted for 49 yards. Michael Gallup virtually disappeared in the game with just one catch for two yards. James Washington only saw four snaps.

This is becoming unviable. This week T.Y. Hilton is expected to make his debut against the Eagles, but he has not had much time to integrate into the offense. Further, this may be more a problem of the scheme and play-calling. When you watch the Cowboys, it seems that often the receivers are all in the same general area, collapsing the space that the opposing defense has to cover. What is needed are route combinations that spread the field. Prescott can make all the throws, but he is seldom given much of a selection of where he can go.

The running game is inconsistent

It seems to be feast or famine. Either Tony Pollard or Ezekiel Elliott are getting good gains, or they are being stopped for little gain or a loss. Jacksonville had seven tackles for a loss, often stalling Dallas drives. This was a particular problem in the second half when the Cowboys lost a 17-point lead. After DaRon Bland intercepted Trevor Lawrence, Pollard was dropped for a two-yard loss on the next Dallas play. That led to a failure to get a first down and the Cowboys had to settle for a 53-yard field goal.

The staff has made it clear the offense is going to lean on the run. When the run doesn’t produce reliably, things tend to fail.

Where has the pass rush gone?

Getting to the quarterback was the trademark of the Dallas defense for the first thirteen games. But after failing to record a single sack against the Houston Texans, they only sacked Lawrence once. They also only had four QB hits against him and just one against the Texans. Micah Parsons seems to be fighting through injury, but the rest of the pass rush is clearly not doing the job. There is evidence they are getting close, but they are not getting home.

This is somewhat stunning, especially given that the Jaguars had to play backups at both offensive tackle positions for parts of the game.

Is there an answer for the run, either?

This is a question that has been asked after so many games. The Jaguars had 192 yards on the ground. The Eagles have the fourth best yards per game rushing. Now the status of Leighton Vander Esch is uncertain for this week. Depth at linebacker is a big issue. Damone Clark has been much better than we could have hoped given the surgery he underwent after the combine, but he is not enough. This is one that offers no ready answer. We can only hope for things to get better, and as has been said, hope is not a plan.

Are they just running out of defensive backs?

With Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis both lost to injury, things are just too thin in the secondary. Trevon Diggs continues to be excellent, and DaRon Bland is a rising star. But Kelvin Joseph just was not up to the job last game.

They have brought in Trayvon Mullen and have Kendall Sheffield and Mackensie Alexander on the practice squad, but no one knows if any of them will be any kind of answer.

Will the coaching staff find any of these answers?

This is really the big one. Kellen Moore needs to come up with a better plan, and his situational play-calling is also a problem. On the last play in regulation, the Cowboys faced a third and ten after two consecutive running plays failed. The decision was to try and pass for a first down. The incompletion stopped the clock, and allowed Jacksonville to preserve the timeout that allowed them to make the field goal that tied the game and sent it to overtime. Had they just run the ball and forced the timeout to be used, Dallas would probably have won the game. Throwing on that third down was a strategic failure.

Dan Quinn seems to have lost his mojo. His defense has now been far too porous in two consecutive games even when giving them credit for the crucial goal line stand against Houston.

The Cowboys made the playoffs courtesy of the New York Giants beating the Washington Commanders. They earned that by winning 10 games and Mike McCarthy deserves credit for that, especially in light of how well they overcame Prescott missing five games. But a quick exit will not be seen as any kind of success. The way the team has played for the past two games is troubling. McCarthy’s job is to get things fixed over the last three games, not just the Philadelphia one. They need to show on the field they belong in the playoffs. Locking up the fifth seed so they face whoever comes out of the NFC South would be a big step to improve their chances of advancing. This final stretch will be crucial.

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