Jaguars Loss Exposes Dallas Cowboys' Flaws

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 15 - We have arrived at the point of the season when teams featured in previous Any Given Sundays begin to resurface. While the Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys have both already made an appearance this season (in their respective upsetter/upset-ee roles, no less), their game was the obvious choice in Week 15. In a weekend of improbable comebacks and walk-off finishes, this game gave us both.

The discourse for the Jaguars, of course, begins with Trevor Lawrence. It's not mandatory to give the second-year quarterback flowers every time the Jaguars win a big game the way we did when the Jaguars beat Baltimore in Week 12. Derrik Klassen also just published a breakdown of Lawrence's performance against the Tennessee Titans in Week 14. But it's necessary to at least give him a shoutout for the first four-touchdown game of his career, especially when that comes against the league's best defense by DVOA headed into this week. Lawrence expertly navigated pressure against a Cowboys front seven that ranks second in the league in adjusted sack rate, taken down just once all afternoon. That lone sack came in the first quarter, where Micah Parsons crossed up a reaching right guard with ease and got to his mark.

The rest of the game, though, Lawrence fared well against the pass rush, often standing tall in the face of pressure to get the pass off.

Offensively, a lot of the credit has to fall on head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor. Dallas is a juggernaut of a defense, boasting the most takeaways in the league and the second-most total pressures. The Jaguars weren't able to totally avoid the turnover piece of that equation (we'll get to that in a moment), but they did a great job mitigating pressure from the Dallas front seven.

Jacksonville's offense had a ton of moving parts throughout the game. The Jaguars' first touchdown drive of the afternoon was a perfect illustration of that. The nine-play, 75-yard drive featured heavy pre-snap motion and play-action to keep Dallas' defense on its toes.

First example: Evan Engram. Engram jet-motions pre-snap, only to come back and ostensibly serve as the trap block on a 6-yard Travis Etienne carry. A few plays later, Engram runs the same motion, but this time Lawrence fakes a pitch and runs a play-action pass to Engram running the drag route coming back on the same route on which he previously blocked. The two Cowboys defenders expected to keep the edge lose a step on Engram, and he's able to pick up the first down.

Jamal Agnew gets a similar look on this drive. The first time around, Agnew goes into jet motion and a linebacker follows in tow. Agnew ends up serving as a blocker away from the run. When Jacksonville puts Agnew in that motion the second time around, the ball is snapped before he gets there to run the jet sweep. Agnew beats Dallas to the edge, resulting in another first down.

Even without pre-snap motion, Jacksonville's offense thrived off misdirection. Another big Agnew run on this same drive came with a lot of moving parts: Etienne bubbled out left looking for a pitch while Agnew and Engram ran flat along the line of scrimmage to the right. Engram served as a pulling blocker on defensive end Sam Williams, Etienne pulled a watching linebacker Anthony Barr down just far enough to get blocked down by Jaguars tackle Jawaan Taylor, and Agnew gets daylight to run into. Had Carlos Watkins not pursued, Agnew would have had a one-on-one with safety Donovan Wilson for a touchdown.

The constant movement and multiple looks made Dallas hesitant, allowing Jacksonville to manipulate the Cowboys just enough to get players open. Because of this, Lawrence ended up finding a ton of success off play-action throws. Holding Dallas for just a moment was enough to create open looks for Jacksonville most of the afternoon. The Jaguars' biggest play came off a play-action pitch, sending most of Dallas' defense to trail the left side of the field. This gave Zay Jones a one-on-one with Kelvin Joseph, and he got separation off a quick double-move. Lawrence bootlegged out into space and—while avoiding pressure from the lone Cowboys defender in pursuit—threw a pass off-platform from his own 30 that hit Jones in stride on the Cowboys' 22-yard-line.

This was by no means a perfect game for Jacksonville's offense, though. Lawrence was picked off on an ugly, underthrown ball. The Jaguars also coughed up a pair of fumbles, one from Etienne early in the game and one from Lawrence on what could have been the last real drive for Jacksonville to win. It required a big effort from the defense to keep Jacksonville in this game (a surprising thing to hear when the other team put up 34 points). With Travon Walker out with injury, Josh Allen and Arden Key were able to take advantage of an in-flux Cowboys offensive line and get to Dak Prescott, who was sacked a season-high three times. Jacksonville gave Prescott a 29.4% pressure rate, his third highest all season according to Pro Football Reference. One of those pressures resulted in the pocket breaking down and Prescott throwing a costly interception, which the Jaguars converted into a touchdown four plays later.

Dallas didn't do themselves any favors on their final offensive drive of regulation, either. After recovering the Lawrence fumble with 1:28 left to play, the Cowboys ran twice so Jacksonville could burn their timeouts. Then, for some reason, Dallas ran a deep pass to a tightly covered Noah Brown. The play allowed Jacksonville to save one of their timeouts; scoring the game-tying field goal would have been impossible without it. The Jaguars, by some small miracle, lost the ball with 1:28 left to play and received it back 16 seconds later.

A field goal and a pick-six later, and the Jacksonville Jaguars officially control their own playoff destiny. The Tennessee Titans made sure of that by dropping their game to the Los Angeles Chargers that same day. Win out, and the Jaguars take home the AFC South.

The biggest takeaway from the last month of Jaguars football is that they're a solid football team with good weapons and an improving defense. There was always an inkling that Lawrence, the Prince Who Was Promised, was going to become this good at quarterback at some point. It's the emergence of the rest of this offense that ends up making this team so interesting. Zay Jones has 347 yards on 27 receptions over the last four games and had more touchdowns this week (three) than he did in two-and-a-half seasons with the Raiders. Evan Engram is having one of his best years as a pro by both DVOA and DYAR. The offensive line is fourth in offensive adjusted sack rate. Defensively, Jacksonville has found a group of dynamic edge rushers in Walker, Allen, Key, and Dawuane Smoot (who finished Sunday with three tackles for loss and a big pass breakup on third down deep downfield in Jacksonville territory).

It's not all there, of course. The Jaguars are dead last in pass defense DVOA, something that killed them against the Detroit Lions. Jacksonville is obviously getting the benefit of playing in one of the worst divisions in football—that's why almost all of their playoff outcomes come through winning their division. Just seeing this, though, bodes well from the future. Whether Jacksonville gets there or not, wins like this and the one in Baltimore lay a foundation to build the franchise on going forward.

By the DVOA

DAL 2.7% 24.7% 9.5% -12.4%
JAX 48.4% -2.0% 6.5% 56.9%
DAL 9.3% 32.4% 9.5% -13.6%
JAX 36.1% 1.3% 6.5% 41.2%

Despite the 17-point comeback, Jacksonville dominated this game by DVOA, finishing with an 88% Post-Game Win Expectancy. Since Week 9, Jacksonville has a 45.9% offensive passing DVOA, second best in football over that stretch. It has propelled them to the eighth-best offense by DVOA in the league.

Dallas has hit a rough skid, if you're measuring by single-game DVOA. This is the worst single-game defensive DVOA performance Dallas has put up this season. Two of the team's three worst performances have come in the last two games. Since their bye in Week 9, Dallas has just two games with a negative pass defense DVOA.

Dallas also posted their fourth-worst offensive rushing DVOA performance of the season. Four of their last five games have ended with a negative offensive rushing DVOA.

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Despite the two interceptions and the fact this game ended on a pick-six, I don't think this loss is on Dak Prescott. The stat sheet tells one story, but this throw tells another.

Interceptions are an increasing—and uncharacteristic—concern for Prescott and the Cowboys offense. In just nine games played this year, Prescott is two interceptions shy of matching his season-high of 13, which was set over 16 games in 2017. According to Pro Football Reference, Prescott has just one season with an interception rate higher than 2%. This year, he's close to 4%. However, not many of these have been particularly egregious turnovers. ESPN's Mina Kimes offers an interesting theory as to why this is happening:

There are times where those tight-window throws Dak makes are about as perfect as you can make them. Take the touchdown pass to Peyton Hendershot. Getting Hendershot on a wheel route with Josh Allen in coverage certainly helps, but that's a perfectly placed ball in the corner of the end zone by Prescott.

That was also Prescott's longest completed pass by air yards of the day. Against a secondary as weak as Jacksonville's, it's surprising to see a throw chart test so little downfield.

Dak Prescott Passing Chart

Part of that can be blamed on the roster. None of the Cowboys receivers are vertical burners. CeeDee Lamb is a fantastic route-runner, and big-bodied Noah Brown is having a career year after Dallas signed him to a one-year deal this past offseason, but the decision to pay Michael Gallup $12 million per year instead of paying Amari Cooper $18 million per year looms large over this Cowboys campaign. Cooper was an invaluable asset to the Cowboys in past years, the separator that made passing so easy for Prescott. Now, without Cooper, the Cowboys passing attack is somewhat reliant on Dak's ability to throw into those tight windows. In the short term, there are ways to scheme players into space more, but the long-term answer should be a second receiver.

There are problems to address currently, though. With Dallas clinching a postseason berth by way of a Giants victory over Washington, the Cowboys are the five seed in 94% of outcomes. If they hope to reach the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1995, there are two things that need resolving: the offensive line and the pass defense. With Terence Steele on season-ending IR and rookie Tyler Smith playing left tackle most of the year, Tyron Smith played his first game of the season at right tackle—a position he has not played since the 2011 season. The result: Dallas gave up three sacks for just the second time this season and allowed one of their highest pressure rates of the year.

There's still time for Tyron Smith to get comfortable in his new position, but Dallas will be facing elite pass rushes come playoff time. If the playoffs started today, Dallas would face Tampa Bay, whose defense ranks fourth in adjusted sack rate this year. If they win that, they'd probably head to San Francisco and face potential Defensive Player of the Year and sack leader Nick Bosa. Win that, and then you get Philadelphia, the only defense with a double-digit adjusted sack rate.

While the Dallas secondary isn't a direct matchup concern the same way the offensive line is to potential playoff opponents' defensive fronts, the Cowboys pass defense is hitting a cold streak at the worst time. Two of the Cowboys' three worst games by pass defense DVOA happened in back-to-back weeks.

After allowing 200 passing yards just once in the first eight weeks of the season, Dallas has allowed that in five of their last six games. Jacksonville was the first team to hang 300 passing yards on Dallas this season. A lot of that came on targeting linebackers and Kelvin Joseph in coverage, on top of all the multiple looks and play-action Jacksonville incorporated. It took a lot of creative play-calling and specific targeting of players for the Jaguars to get to the Dallas defense this week, sure. But the Cowboys secondary has taken a step back in recent weeks. It would be one thing to chalk it up to good opposing quarterback play, but the Houston Texans' dual-QB experiment of Davis Mills and Jeff Driskel put up 213 passing yards on a 74% completion rate.

These are minor concerns considering the track record from the rest of the season, but this is the kind of nitpicking necessary for a team that should aspire to compete in the conference championship game a month from now. A top-five team in the league by DVOA, Dallas has the roster to compete for a Super Bowl. The road is hard enough, considering the Cowboys have been knocked into the wild-card slot by the 13-1 Eagles. After such good play out of this defense and offensive line for most of the season, slipping before the playoffs would make it unnecessarily harder.


11 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2022, 7:08pm

#1 by Romodini // Dec 20, 2022 - 10:30pm

It should be mentioned that the reason they even have to play Kelvin Joseph is because their other starting corner was lost for the season. The Cowboys have also lost their best run stopping DT to injury for at least the rest of the regular season, and they also lost one of their veteran linebackers in this game. Not sure when he will be back.

The Cowboys were ahead by 17 points at one point, the kind of situation that this team was constructed to win in at the beginning of the year. The fact that they blew it despite seeming to have solved their penalty problem tells me everything I need to know about the fate of Jerry's latest and greatest team.

Points: 1

#2 by mitchellralph // Dec 21, 2022 - 12:20am

I don’t understand the comment that JAX’s FG drive would be impossible without a timeout. They would have gotten the ball back with ~1:05 and no timeouts. Even if everything went *exactly* the same, Jones is tackled with like 10 sec left. Is that not enough to go spike and kick the FG?

Points: 0

#5 by ImNewAroundThe… // Dec 21, 2022 - 8:43am

Play a different game without it. Field more open with it, harder to defend.

Points: 0

#11 by mitchellralph // Dec 21, 2022 - 12:17pm

That’s true but I still don’t think it’s anywhere near “impossible.” Jags still had to mostly play to the sidelines with just 1 TO. Basically I just think the TO was not so crucial that Dallas’s decision to pass & possibly ice the game was a bad call. That said, the play design they went with was horrendous

Points: 0

#13 by ImNewAroundThe… // Dec 21, 2022 - 7:08pm

I guess nothing is impossible but Dallas defintely couldn't be as aggressive defending the sidelines. And I for one would like to applaud good time usage. 

And sure Dallas could've ended with a pass but when that doesnt work...well THAT can happen. A run at least forces a timeout, if not outright ends the game. Pass sure is all or nothing. 

Points: 0

#6 by KnotMe // Dec 21, 2022 - 9:39am

the Cowboys are the five seed in 94% of outcomes

Honestly, that means they get the south winner, which is probably the next best thing to a bye. If they can't break their playoff Jinx vs a sub .500 team I dunno what to tell ya.  

Points: 0

#8 by AFCNFCBowl // Dec 21, 2022 - 10:35am

IMO, the Cowboys are a team that doesn't handle adversity well. They are as good as anyone at blowing out bad teams and putting up huge stats, but they often crumble when other teams punch them in the mouth (GB, JAX, even HOU gave them all they could handle).

Points: 0

#9 by BlueStarDude // Dec 21, 2022 - 10:38am

I said losing Anthony Brown would be huge. Joseph has not taken that big step up. It is a roster construction issue. They should have cut Joseph after his off-season off-field trouble. Wright is little better, but at least he is someone you can feel good rooting for. I defended Bland after the Green Bay game and Tanier's critical comment (we still love you Mike), and he has bounced back well, but having just one good 2nd string DB in today's NFL doesn't count as depth.

I could be wrong, but it seemed like Quinn ran too many games—too often it looked like Parsons was just stunting into multiple interior linemen. Sometimes when you out talent the opposition, and you have a lead, just lineup and beat them.

Glad to see the context for Dak here. I've often said he's not been as good as his DYAR when he's had high DYAR, but he's not nearly as bad now as some of the ESPN talking heads are making him out to be because of his many 2-interception games. From Ball getting whipped off the line vs the Texans to Noah Brown’s drop on the game-ender this week, there have been legit excuses for many of the INTs.

The situational playcalling also continues to be problematic. I don't at all mind the aggressiveness of passing on that last 3rd down of the 4th quarter, but sending three WRs on 15+ yard routes was ridiculous. 

Points: 1

#10 by t.d. // Dec 21, 2022 - 11:42am

the amari cooper trade didn't make sense at the time, and makes less sense in retrospect (clearly dallas misread the wide receiver market, or they'd have asked for more for him).  still think dallas is in the middle, rather than at the end, of a super bowl window (which probably closes when micah parsons gets as expensive as he deserves to be), but they were close enough to legit contenders that maybe they should have gone for it like the Eagles rather than shedding assets (thought they were a receiver short before the season, but they'll have a puncher's chance to make a run, which i suppose is as good a situation as they've been in since Irvin retired).  as for jax, depending on whether bryce young pans out, they probably have among the most favorable medium-term outlooks in the league (winning the division this year would be a little soon after the urban meyer fiasco, but its do-able)

Points: 0

#12 by ImNewAroundThe… // Dec 21, 2022 - 12:24pm

Zeke, Dak, etc contracts forced their hand to comply with Coopers big contract. Not a great situation to put yourself in. 

I don't think Bryce Young panning out or not has much to do with Jacksonville.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Cale
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Cale Clinton. Use promo code CALE to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Cale.