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Quick Thoughts: Week 3, Atlanta Falcons

When you are without your number one receiver and your starting quarterback conventional wisdom says that you will likely need to lean on your ground game and defense to grind out games. For the first half the Cowboys were able to follow this blueprint effectively. However, during the second half things started to fall apart as Atlanta mounted a comeback that had the Falcons score the final 25 points of the game to hand the Cowboys their first loss of the season, 38-28.

Turning Point

Many would likely look at the Brandon Weeden interception as the moment where the game began to fall apart. The Cowboys offense was clicking and the team carried a 21-7 lead at the time. While the pick led to a Falcons touchdown to cut the deficit I don’t think it was the actual turning point of the game. This is because Weeden regrouped and brought the Cowboys right back down the field to get those points back.

Instead we go to the Cowboys first drive of the second half. After forcing a quick punt the Cowboys started their drive on the Falcons 47 yard line. The ever steady Jason Witten got the drive off to a bad start with a false start penalty. Next Joseph Randle was swallowed up behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of a yard. Next Doug Free took a holding penalty and before you knew it the Cowboys great opportunity turned into a second and 26. After failing to convert the Cowboys punted the ball back to the Falcons who marched down the field for a touchdown cutting the lead to three. The Cowboys offense never got back in sync and the game was all down hill from there.

Usually I highlight three stars of the game but I feel like it will be the same players once again. Sean Lee was by far the best player for the Cowboys. Witten was the security valve Weeden needed and Lance Dunbar led the team in receiving for the second time this season.

Instead, I’ll countdown the three people who most deserve the goat horns for the game.

Third place goat: Jason Garrett – The timeout on the one yard line was not a good decision. In hindsight I’m sure Garrett would like to rethink that strategy. I understand you want to have the time to run whichever plays you want and sometimes time can become a factor. But giving the Falcons a chance to put points on the board before the half should not have happened.

Second place goat: Cowboys second half defense – It’s hard to narrow this down to just one player but the Cowboys simply couldn’t get off the field in the second half. After keeping Julio Jones relatively quiet during the first half, the Cowboys could not contain the wideout. With Devonta Freeman gaining chunks of yards on the ground the defense was susceptible to the play action which Matt Ryan and the Falcons took full advantage of.

First place goat: Terrance Williams – With Dez Bryant out Willams needed to step up and make a bigger impact. Against the Eagles last week Williams was unspectacular but effective enough. Against the Falcons he was terrible. Not only did he finish the game with zero catches but he also dropped both passes he was targeted for. This wasn’t a case of Weeden being unwilling or unable to throw the ball deep. This had more to do with Williams struggling to find separation and when he did get a chance to make a play he failed.

Other Notes:

  • The running game finally showed a spark as Randle scored three touchdowns on 87 yards rushing and Darren McFadden added another score and 35 yards. However, for as good as the looked early on the Cowboys rushing attack was stymied in the second half. This likely had more to do with the Falcons realizing that stopping the running game would effectively stop the Cowboys offense. With the stacked box it was the perfect opportunity for a Cowboys wideout to make a big play but they were unable to do so.
  • For the most part I thought Brandon Weeden played as good as anyone could have hoped. He finished the game 22/26 for 232 yards and one INT. Two of those four incompletions were Williams’ drops. One was obviously the interception, which was a very bad decision. The only other incompletion was the high throw towards Witten.
  • The Cowboys defensive letdown in the second half may have been a product of the dwindling depth. While depth is great on paper, it becomes an issue when too many backups are forced into larger roles. With Randy Gregory and Jeremy Mincey both missing from a defensive line that continues to wait on the debut of Greg Hardy, the defensive end position was dangerously thin going into this game. While no one seems to be talking too much about it, Terrell McClain also suffered a season ending injury last week. It showed in the second half as the unit looked completely gassed.
  • Chris Jones continued to impress this season. While he averaged slightly less net per punt than his season average that’s partly due to the Cowboys field position when he was punting. Three out of four punts forced the Falcons to start inside their 15 yard line and the Falcons never got an opportunity to return a punt.

While the loss certainly stings, the team’s performance shouldn’t be looked upon as a doom and gloom situation. The fact is that a team decimated by injuries to key players played an undefeated team very competitively. In fact, until the very short staffed defense began to tire the Cowboys were clearly the better team. Mincey should be ready to go next week, Gregory is a possibility. Then the week after Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy return. Let’s wait and see before we panic too much about one loss.

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    I think you use the negative things that happen from the year before – and from other years, too – to spur you to do the things you need to do to take the next step.

    — Tony Romo