SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA MELTDOWN: Plenty of finger pointing to go around Valley Ranch this week

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SAN DIEGO– Seven days ago, the Dallas Cowboys had one of the better games we’ve seen them play in quite a while. Offense and defense both dominated, prompting Jason Garrett, Jerry Jones and Tony Romo to describe it a team win.

Sunday afternoon in San Diego, this was equally … a team loss.

Everyone played a part in this 30-21 setback. And yeah, without a doubt this game – against that team and that environment with you-know-who coming to town next week – is a major setback for a Cowboys team that has lived in mediocrity for two years.

But we’ve got more time to get into the big picture. Let’s focus on Sunday’s meltdown in San Diego, where the Cowboys weren’t even facing a normal road environment. Considering the thousands among thousands of Dallas Cowboys fans in attendance, which seemingly gave the crowd a 50-50 split.

The Cowboys made a nice run in the second quarter. And when Jason Hatcher smashed Philip Rivers, forcing an interception to Sean Lee, who sprinted to the end zone for a 21-10 lead, I think most of us all thought this had the makings of a rout.

In a way, the rout was on. We just didn’t think it would be Rivers and his patched-together offensive that were about to do the routing. Yes, they have a future Hall of Famer in Antonio Gates, who certainly was the best tight end on the field Sunday, but Rivers was making Danny Woodhead and Keenan Allen into household names.

A slow start on offense to open the game, coupled with a slow start on offense in the third quarter isn’t a good combination.

Add this all up and the Cowboys left San Diego with a 2-2 record and a butt-kicking that we really didn’t see coming.

Like all games, you can point the finger at something or someone. But in this case, we’ll need both hands to do it.

  • Let’s start with the defense, because that is where this team was supposed to be the spot the Cowboys would dominate. The Chargers had three starters missing on the offensive line – both guards and a starting tackle. And then, another backup guard who started the game left with an injury. This team was down to playing a guy named Stephen Schilling at guard who was signed just this week. And still, the Cowboys couldn’t win that battle. Dallas had occasional pressure, but only one sack. The biggest shock was the second half and how Rivers and the Chargers were able to keep the pressure at bay with short, dink-and-dunk stuff that kept the Cowboys on their toes.
  • How about the linebackers in coverage? Sean Lee had a great interception return on a  deflected pass that went straight to him. Other than that, the linebackers had trouble keeping up with Gates and Woodhead. In fact, although defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said it was not the case, Bruce Carter appeared to be gassed after he allowed the second touchdown pass to Woodhead. Ernie Sims played most of the second half in the nickel defense. But everyone knows Rivers likes to go to Gates. He went to him 10 times and Gates called 10 passes. They had no answer for him, especially on the deep ball for the back-breaking score.
  • Sticking with defense, Morris Claiborne just didn’t get the job done. Last year, he was solid, which makes you think he’d be closer to really good this year. And he looks worse, so far. Sunday, he gave up several big plays and just doesn’t seem to be playing with any confidence right now. He looks out of position too many times. It’s fair to wonder about his health, but if that shoulder is too much of a hindrance than it’s time to try something else. Makes you wonder if the move to start Scandrick wasn’t really about Claiborne’s injury but more about playing the better player.
  • We’ve been giving plenty of praise to the defensive coaches – Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli lately. They should take some of the blame, too. And Kiffin admitted that after the game, saying the defense didn’t get off the field as much as they should have. Without a doubt, credit the coaches overall to the development of guys like Nick Hayden, George Selvie and Jason Hatcher’s improved play. But, on Sunday, the Chargers just seemed to have a better game plan. They exploited the mismatches of Woodhead against the linebackers and Gates against anyone who was on him. San Diego offset the pressure with a great mixture of runs, short passes and the occasional deep ball.
  • On offense, you have to wonder – once again – why they didn’t stick to the running game. DeMarco Murray had 14 carries for 70 yards. You’ll take that 5.0-yard average all day. 13 first-down runs – 12 by Murray and one by Lance Dunbar – and the Cowboys were averaging 4.6 yards a carry on first down. Think about that, Murray had 12 of his 14 carries on first downs and picked up about four yards on average, yet they didn’t go back to him very often. Once again, that’s an issue. They went away from the run on second down, forcing too many third-downs and the Cowboys were just 3-of-9 on third-down efficiency. Who knows who to blame about that anymore – Bill Callahan for the calls or Tony Romo for checking out, or maybe Jason Garrett for not overseeing it better. Either way, you can’t make the argument the Cowboys weren’t running it effectively.
  • This team missed Miles Austin. The Chargers did a nice job of blanket coverage on Dez Bryant and the combination of safeties and linebacker on Jason Witten was also great. When that happens, they go to Miles Austin. Rookie Terrance Williams isn’t ready for that role. Williams did a nice job bouncing back from the early drop to get some confidence going. He finished with seven catches for 71 yards, but that costly fumble near the goal line will ultimately be his most memorable play of the game.
  • Frankly, you can pretty much put a dropped pass on all of the receivers at some point in the game.  Dwayne  Harris had one early, as did Williams. Jason Witten had one over the middle and Dez Bryant couldn’t come up with one near the sideline, which of course would’ve been a great play. The ball hit both hands as he’s trying to get his feet in bounds. Like the rest of them, that was a drop. If the Cowboys are going to be a team that consistently has a pass-run ratio of 37-16, then the receivers can’t be having costly drops.
  • The offensive line struggled early, picked it up later on, but then had costly mistakes. Travis Frederick and both guards had trouble with Corey Liuget. He was a beast inside for the Chargers. Romo was sacked three times overall and had constant pressure. Overall, you need better play from the line.
  • Since we’re doling out some blame, let’s put some on the kicking game. And no, I’m not referring to Dan Bailey’s miss, although that will fall on other shoulders in a moment. But punter Chris Jones didn’t have his best game at all. His five punts averaged just 40.6 yards with a 34.2 net. His first punt traveled just 33 yards when the Cowboys were in need of flipping the field position. And his drop-kick punts that turn end-over-end aren’t consistently getting to the 10-yard line range, but closer to the 20, where punt returners have no problem fielding. He wasn’t horrible, but they need him to be better.
  • And lastly, you have to put some blame on the entire coaching staff, which goes to Garrett. The one decision that potentially hurt this team was attempting the 56-yarder by Bailey. Sure, he had a wind to his back but that’s a long way to split the uprights. The Cowboys had the momentum again and finally some good field position after Dwayne Harris’ nice return. But they gave it right back with that missed kick. It allowed the Chargers to play the next possession downhill and they got a field goal. The fact the team started out sluggish in the first and third quarter usually shows a lack of preparation, focus or intensity or just something missing.

So if you’re playing the blame game after this one, there’s plenty to go around.

The Cowboys lost to a team that just out-played them on Sunday. It wasn’t one key play that did them in. It wasn’t one player that hurt them.  Chalk this one up as a team loss. That’s pretty demoralizing considering you’ve got a lot of things to fix and only the NFL’s best team and hottest quarterback coming into town this week.

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