The Dallas Cowboys' 2023 season was off to a rousing start through the first two weeks of action. They outscored the New York Giants and New York Jets by a combined 70-10, All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons was the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week after Week 2and Dallas' defense looked unmovable. Week 3 brought along disaster. Pro Bowl cornerback on Thursday, and the defense allowed 222 rushing yards, including 180 in the first half, in a stunning 28-16 road defeat against the previously winless, 11-point underdog Arizona Cardinals. The offense also struggled with red zone scoring once again, going 1-for-5 on touchdown opportunities inside the 20 on Sunday. Here is a look at some of the biggest storylines from the Cowboys' first loss of the season and whether or not they are overreactions.
The Cowboys defense won't live up to the top-five standard it has set for itself
Overreaction or Reality: Overreaction
The Cardinals accumulating 222 rushing yards with two of their three touchdowns coming on the ground via a 45-yard sprint by wide receiver Rondale Moore and a 5-yard plunge by running back James Conner is horrendous. The 180 rushing yards the Cowboys allowed in the first half were the most allowed by any team in a first half this season, and the most the Cowboys have allowed in a first half since at least 1991. Dallas' first-half run defense was the worst since the Lions allowed 240 rushing yards to the Panthers in the first half of a 37-23 loss in Week 16 last season. The Cowboys' 222 rushing yards allowed was their second-most surrendered in a game under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who came to Dallas in 2021. Their worst run defense occurred in a 49-29 blowout victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 8 of the 2022 season.
That being said, it's more likely this unit more closely resembles its form from the first two weeks than its form against the Cardinals.
Cowboys defense this season
|WEEKS 1-2||WEEK 3 AT CARDINALS|
Total Yards Allowed
Rush Yards Allowed
QB Pressure Rate
* Led NFL
"I think we just beat ourselves," Parsons said postgame on Sunday. "We put ourselves behind the eight ball a couple times. It just wasn't championship football. It was just us not executing and being flat. … The outcome was definitely shocking. It definitely hurts. … I take full ownership because I feel like I give the team a lot of energy and I feel like I got to give more energy, I got to bring these guys together. We got to come together so we can play better on defense. I take full ownership."
Cowboys three-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, for this Dallas team, chalked up the run defense issues to an undisciplined attitude, which led to poor fundamentals at the line of scrimmage.
"I think the real problem is that we were too antsy, eager to play," Lawrence said postgame on Sunday. "Gap schemes, man, we got beat on a couple of fits. It's just all about us learning from our mistakes and getting better. … There wasn't real dropback passing, it was really all outside the pocket passing. I feel like we still rushed good, he [Dobbs] got the ball out quick. This is a lesson learned. It's still early in the season. Ain't no need to panic or nothing like that."
The Cowboys red zone offense is dead
Overreaction or Reality: Overreaction
The Dallas Cowboys lead the NFL in red zone drives with 15, one more than the Miami Dolphins -- who scored 70 points on Sunday against the Denver Broncos -- in 2023. However only six of those drives, 40%, have ended in touchdowns, tied for the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL with the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints entering Week 4. In Kellen Moore's final season as the Cowboys offensive coordinator and play-caller, Dallas led the NFL with 71.4% red zone touchdown rate. Head coach Mike McCarthy, the new Cowboys offensive play-caller, sees their league-leading red zone opportunities figure as a reason for hope. Given the presence of weapons like running back Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks and Michael Gallup at receiver, that's understandable.
"We built this offense off of the foundation of things our players already knew conceptually and how we could move forward," McCarthy said on Monday. "We're not going to go back and look at last year, we've done that part [in the spring]. Yes, we will spend more time on red zone this week. That's the way I have always done it. When things aren't right, you work harder at it and spend more time on it. It's Week 3, we know what the numbers are. We were last in the league in third downs two weeks into last year [their 24% third-down conversion rate was tied for last with the Cardinals through two weeks in 2022], so that turned out pretty good [45.5% third-down conversion rate at the end of the season, fifth-best in the NFL]. We're not going to overreact to it because the most important thing is we're getting down there more than anybody. ... We're moving the ball, that's the hard part. We have some strong feeling on things we can improve on that we're not going to talk about here. Yes, we're aware of it."
The Cowboys secondary is doomed without Trevon Diggs
Overreaction or Reality: Overreaction
Dallas allowed under 200 yards passing, 189 to quarterback Joshua Dobbs to be exact, and 69 of those yards came on a coverage-bust miscommunication during Arizona rookie Michael Wilson's 69-yard gain early in the fourth quarter.
"That's just communication from top to bottom," Cowboys safety Malik Hooker said postgame Sunday. "As far as the safeties go, we base that off of us. We did a poor job with communication. We have to all get on the same page, get back in the books and start back with square one on Monday. Obviously a lot of movement happened on that play. Bad eyes, miscommunication and just bad ball overall, especially in that moment. We had a chance to come back and win at that point, make a statement. We gave up the big play and they ended up scoring. That was on us as a secondary."
With new people in new places in the secondary, the Cowboys defensive backfield should be without some of those lapses. Second-year cornerback DaRon Bland did play well overall during his first opportunity at being a full-time outside cornerback. He allowed 26 receiving yards with Dobbs completing two of his four passes thrown his way.
"He graded out well," McCarthy said. "He is super consistent, battled. I thought he was one of the brighter spots on defense."
Backup running backs Rico Dowdle and Deuce Vaughn will see more time in relief of Tony Pollard
Overreaction or Reality: Reality
Cowboys Pro Bowl running back Tony Pollard leads the NFL in touches from scrimmage with 74 through the first three weeks of the season. He put together a solid, heavy volume performance on Sunday against the Cardinals with 121 scrimmage yards on 26 touches. His 65 offensive snaps played on Sunday were the second-most of his career. Among 34 running backs with 30 or more touches this season, Pollard's 4.2 yards per touch ranks 17th in the NFL.
A year ago, Pollard's 5.9 yards per touch led the NFL among players with at least 200 touches. In order to keep him fresh through 18 weeks, Dallas will utilize more of undrafted, backup running back Rico Dowdle -- who scored the only Cowboys touchdown on Sunday via a 15-yard screen pass from quarterback Dak Prescott for his first career score -- and sixth-round rookie Deuce Vaughn. Dowdle totaled just 10 offensive snaps on Sunday while Vaughn didn't get onto the field.
"Yeah, definitely," McCarthy said when asked about Pollard's heavy volume through three weeks this season. "We're very conscious of it, especially the last two weeks. We really frankly, it'll affect Wednesday's practice for a number of guys. I think that's part of the ebb and flow of the game. You get behind and you start pushing a little bit. I think that's part of human nature. Very interesting. Deuce [Vaughn] didn't get the work that I anticipated as far as the package that we had for him. Part of that was how the game went."