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Behind Enemy Lines: Cowboys have real issues on defense

Could the Bengals actually have a chance at moving the ball this week?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals will be hosting the Cowboys this week. It will be one of the few remaining games that Cincinnati has a realistic shot in, and they will be at home for the game, which always helps. Is Dallas actually as bad as their record? We caught up with David Halprin of Blogging the Boys to get his perspective on this weekend’s matchup.

Patrick Judis: Bengals’ fans may know more about Andy Dalton than any team in the league, but how has he looked this year filling in for Dak Prescott?

David Halprin: Dalton has looked decidedly mediocre filling in for Dak Prescott. He’s had some good moments like when he managed a comeback win in the game that Prescott was hurt, and he has thrown the ball around pretty well in a few other games. However, he’s also had some accuracy issues, especially down the field, and he will sometimes hold the ball too long.

When he gets into a nice rhythm he can be pretty efficient in moving the offense, and despite the low scoring output from the game on Tuesday versus the Ravens, the Cowboys offense was actually moving the ball well. It just bogged down when it got closer to scoring and missed three field goals. Dalton has also been working behind a patchwork offensive line that seems to change every week due to injuries. The Cowboys have no continuity along the line, and with Zack Martin on the shelf, they are only starting one player who would be considered among their top five linemen. It’s been a problem. Dalton is doing okay, and he’s probably on the top end of what you’d expect from a backup quarterback, but there is a noticeable dropoff from Prescott.

PJ: The Cowboys defense hasn’t really performed that well this year. What are some of the reasons for their struggles?

DH: There are just so many issues here. It all started in the offseason with a new coaching staff that changed the defensive coordinator and changed the defensive scheme. The scheme didn’t just change, but it was wildly different from the previous regime in terms of complexity and aggressiveness. But, with no true offseason and no preseason games to test things out, the Cowboys players never really got comfortable with the scheme.

Things have just snowballed from there. There are personnel issues, too. The Cowboys lost two defensive tackles to injury and the middle of their line is very soft. Teams have been running through the middle of the defense all season long. Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are not playing well and are often out of position and guessing wrong about the gaps to fill and the angles to take. The Cowboys have very mediocre personnel in the secondary, with safety being an issue on broken coverages and deep passes. They are playing with no confidence, they are not playing with discipline, it’s just a big mess. It’s hard to know if defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be back in 2021.

PJ: Dallas has a very talented group of receivers. How has the target distribution been? Have they been interchangeable in where they play, or have certain guys settled into positions like the slot or outside?

The distribution has been pretty even among the top three receivers in terms of targets, but Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb catch a higher percentage of their passes because of the routes they run. Michael Gallup’s game has suffered the most with the loss of Prescott because the deep pass, his specialty, has not been used as much and when they do attempt it they don’t always end up with good results. Cooper is the go to guy with Lamb the second option. Cooper and Lamb are pretty interchangeable and you will find them lined up outside or in the slot. Gallup is pretty stationary in terms of being on the outside.

PJ: Who is a player you don’t think gets enough national attention that Bengals’ fans should know about Sunday?

DH: Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz has turned into a very consistent producer in the offense. He wasn’t even the starting tight end when the season began, he was expected to be a backup behind Blake Jarwin. But Jarwin had a season-ending injury in the first game of the season and Schultz had to step in. He’s done a better job than anyone expected. He has 70 targets on the year with 48 catches for 476 yards and three touchdowns. He had always been a fairly decent blocker as a second tight end, but his work in the passing game has been surprising this year.

PJ What is your prediction for the game, and what do you think will be the deciding factor?

DH: It’s hard for me to have any confidence in the Cowboys to win a game based on how they have played this season, especially since Prescott went down. So while I think they will win this week, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they didn’t. Overall, at this point, I think the Cowboys have more weapons on offense and the offensive line actually played fairly well last game against a tough Ravens defense. Dalton can get some things done if he’s given time. The Cowboys defense is always a wild card, but with the Bengals issues at quarterback, they may just play serviceably in the game. Again, there’s no confidence in the Cowboys here, but I am predicting they will win and the deciding factor will be the Cowboys passing game. Cooper, Lamb and Gallup are hard to contain when the offensive line is working, so that’s my best guess.

Thanks again to David Halprin for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find more of his work and Cowboys coverage at Blogging the Boys.