For the Dallas Cowboys, it's all about remembering what took place in their Week 9 dismantling at the hands of the Denver Broncos and using it to potentially fuel a special run going forward. For their fans, however, it's about locating a Neuralyzer from "Men in Black" and using it to wipe away all memory of the team's 30-16 loss at AT&T Stadium, a game that was 30-0 in the fourth quarter before the Broncos started scaling down to prep for Week 10. The mantra of "any given Sunday" will forever be relevant in the NFL, as the high-flying Cowboys were reminded when the Broncos came to town.
All of the hubbub surrounding the return of Dak Prescott, a two-time Pro Bowler who entered the week in the MVP conversation, couldn't save them. All of the justifiable praise over their 6-1 start couldn't save them. All of the oddsmakers listing them as sizable favorites couldn't save them. The only thing that could would've been to take the Broncos seriously, but they didn't, and they're picking up their teeth because of it.
Not everyone was a lost cause on Sunday, though, with at least a handful of players leaving it all on the field despite what was taking place around them. Those players deserve some applause for their efforts, while others deserve every bit of the criticism they're being faced with this week.
So let's talk about it.
[Note: This list is unranked.]
Parsons was lights-out against the Broncos, and it's too bad his energy didn't permeate the entire roster. He thrust himself further ahead in the conversation of NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, racking up 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and 10 combined tackles (eight of which were solo) as he desperately tried to will the Cowboys out of their zombified state at AT&T Stadium in Week 9. It was not to be, but for all of the blame being rightfully passed around, not a single molecule of it should land at Parsons' feet -- leaving that space free for his puppy to help him reload for Week 10.
Gregory might've been a game-changer Sunday if he was able to get any one of the holding calls he was pleading for, but he didn't, and his frustrations (seeing as this is a weekly occurrence now) spilled over on the sideline. Credit Gregory for not only leading with his energy and determination -- one of the few who played whistle to whistle -- in a blowout loss, but also in how he coached up players on the sideline throughout the game. Gregory has not only become a force on the field, but also a mentor for those who need it, and everybody in Dallas needed it against the Broncos.
It was a career day for Turner, even if it was for naught. The young wide receiver did his job and then some after having spent most of the season on injured reserve. A very impressive camp and preseason talent, Turner showed Sunday he can contribute on offense while also being an impact player on special teams -- evidenced by two touchdowns (the only two the Cowboys could muster) and a blocked punt that nearly turned the game around to open the second half. If not for rookie cornerback Nahshon Wright making an error after the block, we might all be sitting here pointing at Turner's play as the one that saved the day in Dallas.
It's been an up-and-down season for Vander Esch, but it was up against the Broncos. In a game that saw many play listless, Vander Esch was mostly consistent and finished the day with 12 combined tackles (seven solo) in giving his best effort at trying to help Gregory and Parsons lead the defense. The Cowboys want and need to see more of this from their former first-round pick as badly as he needs to produce it, and all he has to do is stack days like this going forward, especially with the loss of Jabril Cox.
Lewis is quietly having one of the better seasons of his NFL career. It's been mostly overshadowed by the play of Trevon Diggs in the Cowboys secondary, though, and while Lewis isn't perfect, he's getting the job done at his position. When the Cowboys needed a takeaway to shift momentum away from the Broncos, it was Lewis diving for an interception late in the second quarter to give them a chance at it, but a holding penalty against Diggs negated the great play. One of the few bright spots for the Cowboys on Sunday, also contributing 0.5 sacks to the mix, Lewis deserves a nod here.
If you look at the 51 rushing yards and deem Elliott ineffective by way of his own merits, you'd be wrong. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry against the Broncos, but once Denver started to pull away, the Cowboys were forced to abandon the run game. Even then, Elliott did what he could with his opportunities, adding 25 receiving yards on three receptions (8.3 yards per catch) and reeling in all three of his targets from Dak Prescott. He also landed his highest pass blocking grade of the season -- allowing zero sacks, hurries, pressures or hits on Prescott -- and did all he could despite battling a knee contusion that failed to keep him out of a game wherein he could've easily mailed it in and hit the ice bath early, but refused to.
Watkins tried to set the tone early by getting into the backfield at will on Bridgewater, landing one of the only sacks not attributable to Parsons. Things got tougher for him and the defensive line as the game wore on, but Watkins fought as best he could to make an impact, as his four tackles (three solo and three for loss), combined with his takedown of Bridgewater, provided some of the few positives the Cowboys could take away from an otherwise forgettable game they'd do well to actually never, ever forget at all.
Stock down: Everybody else
This doesn't truly require an explanation if you watched the debacle the Cowboys put on film against the Broncos. They were sleepwalking from the beginning of the game until it no longer mattered if they were awake or not, and it began with not capitalizing on a 54-yard kick return to start the day. Two offensive possessions later, the Cowboys were 0-for-2 on fourth-and-one, and that gave the Broncos all the belief they needed to do what they eventually did: drag Dallas out back and beat them to within an inch of their football life.
Prescott played arguably the worst game of his career in his return from a calf strain. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb both had critical drops in the game. Terence Steele, playing left tackle in the absence of Tyron Smith, reverted to his turnstile ways against a Miller-less and Chubb-less defensive line. Tony Pollard followed up his big return with a pivotal drop of his own on what was a key drive for Prescott and the offense, stalling the possession entirely and forcing a punt. Defensively, the unit as a whole allowed 191 rushing yards and eight third-down conversions in 15 attempts, a percentage that was nearly 100% for much of the contest.
That led to the Broncos possessing the ball for an insane amount of time (41:12), leaving Prescott and the struggling offense to be masterful with the little time they possessed the ball (18:48), but blame the offense as well for failing to convert third downs until they were losing 30-0 in the fourth quarter -- tasking their defense in the process. And then came special teams, where Wright's aforementioned punt block error became a microcosm of the Cowboys' afternoon.
The Cowboys were punched in their mouth, stomach, kidneys and soft parts in Week 9, and only a few tried to stop it.
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