The mood in Dallas couldn’t have changed more in Week 3. After dominating the NFL over the first two weeks of the 2023 season, the Cowboys were humbled and humiliated, falling 28-16 to the previously winless Cardinals.
The loss highlighted deficiencies of both players and coaches. They struggled in all three phases of the game with not a single unit beyond reproach in the aftermath.
Opening as 12-point favorites, the Cowboys loss marked one of the biggest upsets of the season and humbled a Dallas franchise that may have been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.
It’s games like this that can provide potentially season-saving takeaways. Weaknesses were exposed, but in just the third game of the season, corrections can still be made.
Defense is undisciplined
The most shocking item of the day was the performance of the defense. After holding both New York franchises to a combined 10 points, the Cowboys defense opened the flood gates in Arizona, allowing the Joshua Dobbs-led Cardinals to hang 28 points on the scoreboard.
Dobbs found success running early. His 44-yard scamper on the first series set the tone for the afternoon and kept the defense on their heels throughout.
In total, the Dallas defense allowed 222 yards on the ground. Poor gap discipline and questionable physicality resulted in big rushing lanes and easy yards.
Miscues in the secondary led to a 69-yard catch and run that seemingly sealed the game late in the fourth.
The Cowboys entered the contest as the top defense in the NFL. They exited the affair with major questions regarding their effort, discipline, and mindset.
The offensive gameplan was likely vanilla by design. Based on the defense’s performance over the previous two weeks, McCarthy was likely banking on turnovers and a short field for his offense.
The offense was given neither by the defense and because of injuries across the line, they were ill-equipped to take the reins and bail the team out.
Cowboys are their own worst enemies
The Cowboys can only be as good as they allow themselves to be. Penalties, play-calling and poor defensive discipline all marked a performance to forget.
“We got punched in the mouth today, but it’s all about us,” DeMarcus Lawrence said after the game. “I don’t feel like they did anything special. I feel like through the pre-snap penalties and flags after the play, we actually beat ourselves.”
The penalties were a glaring issue for the Cowboys. The Alex Kemp officiating crew called 13 penalties for 107 yards against Dallas. While the legitimacy of some of the penalties can be questioned, the Cowboys knew the reputation of the crew but did little to help themselves.
Special teams penalties were enormous as well. One offsides call on fourth down gave the Cardinals a fresh set of downs and a continued drive. Another flag wiped a KaVontae Turpin return off the books and moved the Cowboys 61 yards back.
They missed blocks on offense and missed run fits on defense. Receivers couldn’t separate and coverages couldn’t communicate.
Red zone issues are officially issues
The Cowboys excused their red zone issues over the first two weeks based on game situation. They didn’t need to be efficient with those big leads, they just needed to be safe.
On Sunday in Arizona, they didn’t have the benefit of a lead, so for the first time this season they needed to be efficient.
What they did was go 1-of-5 in the red zone.
If I told you the Cowboys ran 75 plays, possessed the ball for nearly 35 min, rushed for 185 yards, 26 first downs, and reached the red zone in 5 of 8 drives, you’d think they won by 20. 1 of 5 in the red zone is the real reason for the loss.
— ✭STX Mario✭ (@_STXMario) September 25, 2023
It’s fair to say five trips into the red zone should result in more than 16 points, even if the Cowboys were playing behind a rag-tag offensive line.
The Cowboys' red zone ineptitude is particularly hilarious when you consider how they're moving the ball downfield before they get to the red zone.
Every single snap is spreading a receiver out and throwing slants and isolation winners.
Guess what you should do in the red zone!
— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) September 24, 2023
The play calling noticeably changed near the endzone. The Cowboys offense abandoned the strategy that got them into the red zone and shifted to a conservative early down rushing attack that not-so-surprisingly stalled their drives.
Teams with suspect offensive lines have to avoid obvious passing situations because it allows pass rushers to play single-mindedly. But McCarthy appeared to embrace obvious passing situations by forcing Dak Prescott into third-down passing situations repeatedly in the red zone.
The Cowboys red zone offense is now just No. 27 in the NFL. It’s an issue that needs immediate attention.