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Cowboys roundtable: Concerns about Dak Prescott’s workload? What’s up with the inefficient run game?

In our first Cowboys beat writers roundtable of the season, our experts provide their final takeaways from Week 1 and more.

The NFL is off and running on the 2021 season, and so is our Cowboys beat writers roundtable. In the first installment of the season, our Cowboys insiders discuss their final takeaways from last week’s loss in Tampa, Dak Prescott’s workload, the inefficient running game and more.

Let’s start the season off with a two-part question. What was your most encouraging and your most troubling moment from the loss to the Bucs on Thursday night?

David Moore: Most encouraging? That came late in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay was driving, about to put the game out of reach with a touchdown when safety Damontae Kazee forced a fumble and Jourdan Lewis recovered, giving the Cowboys the ball on their own 10-yard line. Dak Prescott then engineered an 11-play, 60-yard drive that resulted in a field goal to give Dallas a one-point lead with less than 90 seconds remaining.

Most troubling? Let’s start with the response of the Cowboys defense after earning that lead. Dallas allowed the Bucs offense to pick up 57 yards and the game-winning field goal. The Cowboys lead lasted all of 1:22. But let’s add this moment as well. Dallas also held a brief lead in the second quarter, only to find themselves down 38 seconds later after allowing a 47-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. The defense can’t give up leads so quickly.

Calvin Watkins: There is nothing encouraging when you lose. A loss is a loss; it doesn’t matter if it’s close or if you got beat by 20. It’s about how you play. The Cowboys offense did what’s expected. It was one of the best offenses in the NFL last season before Dak Prescott got hurt. The defense is what it is. Which brings me to part two of this question: The defense struggled, though Trevon Diggs did play well against Mike Evans after his fast start. Anthony Brown, the safeties and the pass rush needs improvement badly going into Week 2.

Michael Gehlken: Most encouraging: Kellen Moore gets it. Thursday’s game was less a revelation and more a reminder of that fact, but the Cowboys offensive coordinator did an exemplary job of attacking the Buccaneers’ defense where it was most vulnerable. He didn’t force the issue with the ground game, instead recognizing the personnel mismatches afforded through the air. And Dak Prescott gets an honorable mention. Of the 28 runs Moore called, Prescott checked into a pass on 12 of them. Moore said that those checked plays averaged 4.8 yards, which equates to a pretty efficient run game. This was a strong plan overall. If only 260-pound tight end Blake Jarwin could block a 202-pound backup safety on the goal line. Good coaching can only do so much.

Least encouraging: Special teams. Kicker Greg Zuerlein was disappointing — no need to belabor that point — but so was the kickoff coverage at times. And the underwhelming desperation play at the game’s conclusion falls on special teams coordinator John Fassel, too. The touchdown probability there is obviously incredibly low. Still, you’d like to see better execution on a snap that did little more than cause a hamstring injury to Week 1 special teams captain Darian Thompson, who now will miss multiple games. Fassel’s group naturally should improve as the season progresses. If I was coach Mike McCarthy, I’d ask myself whether I need to script more practice time on special teams.

Should the Cowboys be concerned about Dak Prescott attempting a career-high tying 58 passes against Tampa?

David Moore: The Cowboys don’t want to make a steady diet of throwing 58 times a game. That’s a recipe for defeat. Teams that throw that often are usually overcoming an early deficit or masking a deficiency in the running game. But against Tampa Bay’s unforgiving run defense, it made sense. Dallas was moving the ball and was efficient. Prescott’s arm didn’t fall off. All is good. This volume in the opener should cause no concern going forward.

Calvin Watkins: Only if you lose games. That Week 1 game was about passing the ball and there really shouldn’t be any concerns about that. Yes, Prescott is 1-4 when he attempts 50 or more passes but if that’s how you got to win a ballgame, then go for it. We get caught up in numbers so much that we forget about the flow of the game. Kellen Moore called a great game on Thursday night, probably one of his better games. He also called for numerous run plays, which Prescott checked out of because of the fronts. Moving forward maybe Prescott needs to trust the run game more, especially if he’s getting run calls on third-and-4, third-and-3 situations. If he does that, if not already, you will see fewer passes.

Michael Gehlken: They should be concerned only if Prescott couldn’t throw those 58 passes. Or if his lat strain flared up the next day, forcing him to miss practice time this week. To my knowledge, he came out of Thursday just fine. Now, is dropping back 59 times a recipe for consistent success? Of course not. Especially with Terence Steele about to replace right tackle La’el Collins against the Los Angeles Chargers. Watch on Sunday how defensive end Joey Bosa uses his hands. It is a problem. Even when scheming up help for Steele, that’s not a matchup you want to see almost 60 times.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) receives a block from tight end Dalton Schultz (86) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, Thursday, September 9, 2021.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) receives a block from tight end Dalton Schultz (86) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, Thursday, September 9, 2021.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

In the not-too-distant past, the Cowboys were able to run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott even though the defense knew it was coming. As coaches like to say, they were able to impose their will on opponents. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer. Why do you think that is?

David Moore: The scales have decidedly tipped to the passing game for the Cowboys. There are plenty of reasons. In no particular order: head coach Mike McCarthy has a different view of offense than Jason Garrett. This offensive line isn’t as nearly as dominant as the one Ezekiel Elliott ran behind when he broke into the league. Prescott is a much better quarterback, one more capable of carrying an offense, than he was when he broke into the league. The Cowboys have three outstanding receivers in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. This team won’t impose its will in the running game. It’s not built or inclined to do so moving forward. But it needs to be better and more consistent on the ground than it has since the start of last season.

Calvin Watkins: What concerns me is how defensive offensive coordinator Kellen Moore sounded when it came to how he obtained those yards against the Bucs. I get it, you do whatever it takes to get yards, and passing the ball was the best way to win that game. Moving forward, Moore had better incorporate Ezekiel Elliott into the offense more. It’s not about giving it to him on first and 10 from the 25. It’s about third-and-4 from the opponent 40 -- run the ball. Sometimes you can’t be afraid to run the ball into eight-man fronts. Defenses are not changing so attack them. Moore might have forgotten that a little bit.

Michael Gehlken: I am not ready to concede that the Cowboys lack that caliber of run game in 2021. It’s still early. Right guard Zack Martin was unavailable Thursday, impacting what the offense could and could not do with Elliott against the Buccaneers’ stout defensive front. Unfortunately, Collins’ suspension now keeps us from seeing the offensive line at full strength until Oct. 31 at the earliest. I suppose my answer to this question is it all starts up front. Let’s wait and see how this unit comes together.

The Cowboys’ weaknesses at defensive tackle tend to fly under the radar. How did the tackles hold up in Week 1?

David Moore: The defensive tackles did a good job in the opener. Tampa Bay picked up only 52 yards on the ground on an average of 3.7 yards a carry. Fifty-two yards? The Dallas defense gave up in less than a quarter in many games last season.

Calvin Watkins: The box score would indicate Osa Odighizuwa, Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins were just OK. But guess what, the Bucs didn’t run the ball much against the Cowboys’ front. So if we’re throwing flowers at the Bucs’ run defense, why not the Cowboys’ run defense, too? Now, you want to see more than one quarterback pressure, which is what Urban obtained, from the Cowboys interior linemen, and Tom Brady had so much time to throw the ball. Before you say Brady got rid of the ball quickly, he averaged 2.5 seconds a throw, longer than Dak Prescott’s 2.39 seconds and Ben Roethlisberger’s 2.3 based on Next Gen Stats. I hope the interior of the line can play better vs. the Chargers.

Michael Gehlken: I believe the Cowboys’ defensive tackles would be the first to say they needed to do more against Tom Brady. The group understood the importance of making Brady uncomfortable, of moving him from his spot in the pocket. All quarterbacks loathe interior pressure. Well, Osa Odighizuwa, Quinton Bohanna, Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins combined for two quarterback hurries while not touching Brady until the postgame handshake. What else did anyone expect, really? Those first two players are rookies, Bohanna a sixth-round nose tackle. Urban specializes in the nitty-gritty work against the run; he wasn’t brought here to disrupt Brady. Watkins, as a pass rusher over the course of his NFL career, has been just a guy. There was little chance Brady, with his legendary poise, footwork and quick release, would struggle against the Cowboys’ interior personnel. For the record, you can’t fault any of those aforementioned defensive lineman. They are who they are. This team simply needs more juice out of the 3-technique. Neville Gallimore (elbow) and Trysten Hill (knee) are inactive because of injuries. Maybe Gallimore can help some when he returns in October. Hill cannot be counted on to make an impact this season.

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Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

In This Story

David Moore, Cowboys Insider. David is in his 4th decade of covering sports on the DFW scene. You know what that means. He's old.

dmoore@dallasnews.com @DavidMooreDMN

Calvin Watkins. This is my 10th year covering the Dallas Cowboys. This is special for me because I've never reached the 10th year in anything, other than living. So I guess that's something to be proud of.

calvin.watkins@dallasnews.com @calvinwatkins

Michael Gehlken. Michael Gehlken joined the Cowboys beat for the Dallas Morning News in August 2019. This marks his 12th season covering the NFL, previously having reported on the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

michael.gehlken@dallasnews.com GehlkenNFL
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