“What is wrong with the 2-2 Dallas Cowboys?”
That’s the question I asked when I started to research this article. The 2016 Cowboys, led by the sensational rookie duo of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, went a surprising 13-3 and won the NFC East. If it wasn’t for the New York Giants, the Cowboys might have gone 15-1.
I expected a dip in production this season. The Cowboys lost two offensive linemen, didn’t add any playmakers on defense, and kept things status quo. And guess what: There is a dip in production across the board.
According to Football Outsiders DVOA, which measures efficiency, the Cowboys’ offense is currently sitting at 15th. It was third last season. However, it’s not a cause for concern, and things can be easily corrected.
The Cowboys are built to function by running the football to control the clock, allowing Dak to thrive in play-action passing. Controlling the time of possession and playing from ahead helps a defense with no players who scare an offense.
When we would install a new game plan, the first meeting of the week was to go over personnel. The coaches would list the defense’s game wreckers: guys we had to account for every play. The Cowboys have none on defense. Yes, they have Demarcus Lawrence who leads the NFL in sacks, but he doesn’t scare anyone.
They were dynamic on the ground last season, finishing second in the NFL averaging 149.8 yards a game. They had 17 runs of 20-plus yards and averaged 4.8 yards a carry. When you look closer, Elliott averaged a league-best 5.1 yards per carry. Anything over 4 yards is considered a success.
This season, through four games, the Cowboys are averaging 114.2 yards a game but are close to their 2016 average in yards per carry at 4.7, even with Zeke averaging just 3.6 per carry. However, the Cowboys are averaging seven fewer rushing attempts a game. That’s a function of poor results on first down, being behind, and also facing some excellent run defenses in Denver and Arizona.
Dallas had to replace its right tackle, Doug Free, this season and its left guard, Ron Leary. The Cowboys put La’el Collins at right tackle and have rotated Chaz Green and Jon Cooper at left guard. I thought the machine would just keep rolling and it hasn’t.
In 2016, the Cowboys were seventh in the NFL running over the right tackle; this season, they are 23rd. At left guard, the Cowboys were 15th in 2016; now, they’re 24th through the first four weeks.
There’s too much inconsistency from those players in the run game and, honestly, from their three other Pro Bowl players as well. What kills a run game more than anything is when a different player takes his turn screwing up a play. So one play it’s the left guard, the next it’s the right guard, then maybe a tight end. This is what’s happening for the Cowboys.
Let’s get to the film.
First, I want to highlight that there is still plenty of good play up front. This is early in the Week 4 game against the Rams. The Cowboys line perfectly handles front side pressure, and Elliott rumbles for a big gain:
Here is where the inconsistencies start to hurt the run game.
On the next play, watch the left guard here. It’s a simple inside zone, and the Cowboys have good leverage. The Rams are actually a tad out of position. If Cooper, the left guard, can just climb to the linebacker with a good base and hat placement, Zeke rips off another long run. Instead, he whiffs, and it’s a short gain:
The next run play, it’s the center and right guard getting split for no gain:
Now it’s third-and-5 instead of a possible first down with those two run plays. Both had a chance for success. The Rams double cover Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant is open late. However, the left guard gets beat quickly, and Dak must step up which allows the right tackle’s man to sack him. Dez is open with room to run, but the Cowboys get sacked instead.
So far through four games, the Cowboys are 38.5 percent on third down, down from 42.5 percent last season.
This is just a small example of how an offense can get derailed quickly at the end of a drive.
When the Cowboys aren’t running the ball as efficiently, it takes away their ability to use play action as much as they’d like.
In 2016, 24 percent of Dak’s pass attempts were of the play-action variety. He completed 75 percent of those for an average of 10.1 yards per attempt. This season, Dak has attempted play-action passes on 19 percent of his attempts, and he’s completing those at a 10 percent lower rate, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt.
Also of issue in this offense is Bryant.
Here is a side by side of the Dak to Dez connection so far this season
Completion percentage: 52.1 percent
Yards per attempt: 8.3
Passer rating: 99.1
Completion percentage: 40 percent
Yards per attempt: 5.3
Passer rating: 53.3
Dak has a 53.3 passer rating when targeting Dez this season, fourth-worst in the NFL among all QB-WR combinations with 25-plus targets. For whatever reason, the Dak-to-Dez connection isn’t functioning at a high level. Maybe it’s the defenses the Cowboys have faced. When Dez has been guarded by these players — Janoris Jenkins, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr, Patrick Peterson, and Trumaine Johnson — he’s been targeted 27 times with only nine receptions.
Things should start to improve the next two weeks with Green Bay in town and then a trip to San Francisco.
Is the Cowboys’ offense broken? No. Should you panic if you’re a Cowboys fan? No.
A healthy dose of the Packers and Niners defenses should also help put a spark into the offense. The Cowboys just need to become more efficient, cut down on the little mistakes, and focus on the fundamentals of blocking.