Gone Fishin': Cowboys, Eagles, Steelers

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It'd be easy to write a blow-by-blow of how three teams won on Sunday and what matchups we can look ahead to, but I'm the kind of person who likes to create extra work for himself. There are three perfectly decent NFL teams that lost on Sunday. Why did they lose? What do they need to fix this offseason?

The Eagles fall apart after going down 17-0 early

Tampa stacked the box and dared the Eagles to do something about it. Miles Sanders had runs of 14 yards and nine yards and finished with just 16 rushing yards. That speaks to the level of boom/bust that Tampa imposed on Philadelphia's running game. And, well, it turns out that it's hard to run when you're suddenly down 17-0.

Jalen Hurts was terrible in the exact moments he needed to be great in: His first interception, a throw to DeVonta Smith in the end zone after Jamel Dean fell down in coverage, was a throw that was self-admittedly too late. But even beyond that, his throws on key third downs tended to drift long and out of bounds. He was pretty fortunate to not have found his way to a third pick because several passes ended with a defender's hands on the ball. Then there was this:

The Eagles simply never responded in a real way to the Bucs asking Hurts to hit important throws downfield. Even Philadelphia's garbage time touchdowns came against softer coverage. After the game, it was revealed that Hurts' ankle injury is serious enough that he needed to be in a walking boot and it might require surgery. Fair enough. It's a credit to play through that. But it's also tough for a player who already had the waft of "the team doesn't believe in him" to carry this into the offseason as his final game.

There's no shame in losing to Tom Brady but at least make him earn it:

Philadelphia never actually made Tom Brady work for it, though this was some good coachspeak. To be fair, Tampa did come out with some aggressive no-huddle action early in the game. But every single Tampa receiver besides Breshad Perriman had more than the league-average amount of separation per NFL Next Gen Stats.

BucsSeparation
BucsSeparation

Mike Evans crushed even when Darius Slay was on him. Jonathan Gannon has head coaching interviews and based solely on how well his defense performed under the microscope, those might be a little aggressive.

What is this offseason but a mandate on Jalen Hurts? The Eagles have three (3) first-round picks. They have Hurts. The quarterback market is swirling. That's the obvious first question as they try to get some sort of efficient passing game going. They finished the year 14th in passing DVOA but were prone to big swings because of how game script dictated games to them. They probably need a solid-or-better No. 2 wideout next to the developing Smith, because Jalen Reagor has been nothing short of disastrous through two seasons. The defense and offensive line definitely could use reinforcements as well, with Slay, Fletcher Cox, Jason Kelce, Rodney McLeod, and Lane Johnson all over 30 years of age. It's a team in need of a young defensive star in the worst way, particularly in the front seven. They also have only $13 million of projected salary cap space and almost no way to generate more simply via release, so restructures will probably be necessary if any significant free-agent spending happens.

Dallas' offense sputters out behind inefficient Elliott, penalties, poor offensive line play

It's very fun to laugh at the Dallas Cowboys, and certainly very easy, too!

But beyond running Twitter layup lines on a beleaguered head coach and game operation situation, there were more important reasons that they lost. Let's talk about those:

The Cowboys simply couldn't keep their quarterback clean when it mattered most, even with Nick Bosa out:

The number of times Dak Prescott was put on the run with the starting offensive line healthy was eye-opening. This wasn't a case of "Tyron Smith is out, so everything is terrible," this was the 49ers absolutely working Connor Williams and Tyler Biadasz up the middle, forcing Prescott to throw off his back foot often. The biggest play of the game up to that point was the Cowboys trying to get fourth-and-11 at midfield, down six with less than five minutes left. Despite having to launch the throw off his back foot, Prescott was right on the money to Cedrick Wilson on that down. Imagine what he could do with time to throw before having to scramble or regather in a different spot in his drop!

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If you know he has a partially torn PCL that he's playing through, how about letting someone else take the load? Every Ezekiel Elliott carry in this game was a gift to the 49ers. 12 rushes for 31 yards, one catch on four targets for no yards. Even though I have the #AnalyticsBackground, I'm not here to lecture you about Zeke's contract and how it's horrible -- I would simply and humbly suggest that if a guy has been bad all season, and he's hurt, maybe he needs to be less involved in the game plan. Maybe you don't need to run the ball quite that much with someone who can generate almost no push. Elliott had -1.49 rush yards over expected per attempt, and that's with him actually showing enough vision to avoid some of the worst losses he could have had. Don't do this.

Heck, maybe make CeeDee Lamb the running back, it'd be nice if he had a job in this offense besides vertical outside receiver that's ignored. (OK, that's unrelated complaining. Tony Pollard carries work for me.)

This is funny to say about a division winner that came up short in the wild card round, but most of Dallas' offseason plan is about retaining what they can: Will Dan Quinn be here? Will Kellen Moore be here? Do we need to worry about Mike McCarthy's status? The Cowboys actually enter the offseason $13 million over the cap per Over The Cap, so they're going to have to make some changes. Amari Cooper's contract takes up $22 million in cap space and is an easy restructure candidate, but they've got two starting safeties as free agents and the possibility of retaining Michael Gallup will likely weigh on them as well. This team finished first in DVOA. Obviously this is a bad loss, but when there's not a whole lot to improve, most of the job is making sure that things don't backslide. Maybe with a head coach who can handle a playoff situation, too.

The Steelers continue to function as they have intended to all season

Well folks, when your longest play from scrimmage through 35 minutes goes for eight yards, your longest play from scrimmage through 35 minutes goes for eight yards.

RoethlisbergerZones
RoethlisbergerZones

I wish I could tell you that I watched something else after the first half was over, but as a connoisseur of terrible football, I felt like I had no choice but to sit through this one. It was every bit as dreary as that chart made it look, and it took garbage time to make the final box score presentable. Goodbye, Ben.

The Ben Roethlisberger offense didn't work all season, so it was no surprise that this was the final result: The Steelers finished the season 24th in pass offense DVOA and it certainly didn't feel like that was unrepresentative of the product on the field. If anything, it felt like an overachievement brought about by frantic fourth-quarter comebacks against teams like the Vikings and Titans. The Steelers often started flat and it didn't particularly feel like they were interested in changing that until it was too late. They were totally uninterested in anything more than the token one-on-one deep shot until the game was out-of-reach. That's partially because...

The run was thoroughly unestablished: Najee Harris is an obvious No. 1 fantasy football back for last year based on his massive workload and usage, but the Steelers ... also finished 24th in run offense DVOA. They had a rough turnover year on the offensive line, and with so much of the passing game relegated to horizontal yardage, the Steelers gave Harris some tough box counts to run on in certain games. That didn't happen here! The Steelers never faced eight in the box, and Harris rushed for -1.26 RYOE, ahead of only Elliott on Wild Card Weekend. He's a fine No. 1 back, and he clearly played this game hurt which I think explains some of the problems. But the Steelers certainly need to see a lot better from their offensive line.

Next up -- finding Ben's replacement: Unlike our first two teams, the Steelers come in with a very reasonable $41 million in cap space (via OTC) as they start the offseason, with big decisions to make on 33-year-old CB Joe Haden, 29-year-old rental guard Trai Turner, and every-down safety Terrell Edmunds. Star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick will be on his fifth-year option and it would probably make sense to extend him rather than risk losing him in free agency. The Steelers are in a tough place. They still have T.J. Watt and Fitzpatrick as defensive building blocks, but Devin Bush had a rough season and they're still relying on a lot of veteran players like Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to remain in their primes. Plus, you know, they have to find an actual quarterback to replace Roethlisberger and thanks to their late playoff push don't have a high first-round pick to deal or use on that player. If they're not going to call next year a rebuilding year, it certainly has the potential to be a year where they strategically reload.