In the first portion of the season, the Dallas offense seemed unstoppable. Now as the regular season winds to a close and the playoffs draw near, the offense has been anything but stoppable, especially on the ground.
Week 16’s 56-14 win over Washington the offense fired on all cylinders for the first time in over a month. Dallas’ recent offensive woes had been solved and the unit was ready for the stretch run as Dallas rode a four-game winning streak. Or so we thought.
The Cowboys converted just three of 11 third downs, only totaled 301 yards, and added to their league lead in penalties with 10 more penalties for 88 yards. There are a few problems that jump out to me and I wonder if they are fixable.
A complete absence of a running game
The same offensive struggles that have shown up time and again since the Denver game returned against the struggling and banged up Cardinals. Dallas’ rushing attack was even worse than it has been in recent weeks as Dallas rushed for just 45 yards, its lowest total in the last two years. Dak Prescott led the team in rushing with 20 yards while Ezekiel Elliott could only muster a measly 1.8 yards per carry on nine rush attempts. Tony Pollard only got three carries for nine yards.
I have always been a proponent of analytics and think that the passing attack should be leaned on at all times rather than leaning on the running attack. The notion of “establishing the run” is antiquated and inefficient. But, at a certain point, there has to be at least the threat of the occasional effective running play.
Dallas’ rushing attack has been poor, especially on first down, and that’s putting it nicely. First down rushing has been killing the offense and putting Dallas behind the sticks immediately. On first downs since Week 11, the Cowboys rank dead last in yards per rush, 30th in rush EPA, and 28th in rush success rate. When broken down by running back between Elliott and Pollard, it’s even more damning, as Elliott ranks 104th among all runners in yards per rush with 2.7 yards per carry and 132nd in rush EPA. Meanwhile, Pollard ranks 14th in yards per rush in that span with 5.38 yards per carry.
On tape, it looks like an ugly combination of banged up running backs, poor scheme, and poor blocking. Dallas has the talent up front to be better than this, but when you have multiple running plays blown up because you decided to leave Dalton Schultz one-on-one with a generational edge defender in Chandler Jones, it makes things even more difficult.
I have serious doubts if this is fixable at this point in the season. The dominant rushing attack from September and October is a distant memory.
Penalties, penalties, and more penalties
It felt like any time Dallas had offensive momentum things were derailed by a penalty. Dallas’ opening drive got past midfield before a third down holding penalty on Tyron Smith derailed that drive. On the next drive, a third down false start on Tyler Biadasz led to another stalled drive that ended in another missed kick from Greg Zuerlein.
On the next drive, Tony Pollard converted a third and one up to midfield only for it to be called back with a holding penalty on La’el Collins. Prescott was then sacked on third and 11. On Dallas’ first drive of the second half, Prescott scrambled for 12 yards on third and 10 only for it to be called back due to a holding penalty on Connor Williams.
Dallas leads the league in penalties, and not only are the Cowboys the most penalized team in the league, but their opponents have the fewest amount of combined penalties in their matchups with Dallas. That truly is the worst-case scenario.
Missed opportunities in the passing game
Prescott has looked out of sync with his wide receivers at times. Prescott himself hasn’t played up to the standard that he set for himself over the last two and a half seasons. Compounding the issues is Michael Gallup‘s torn ACL that cost him the rest of the season. Since Week 11, Dallas ranks 19th in dropback EPA and 19th in dropback success rate
The recent struggles in the passing game can be blamed on everyone involved. No one is free of blame. The play-calling has been predictable, the pass-catchers aren’t playing to their lofty standards, and Prescott is not playing to his standard either. The timing often seems off.
There is often miscommunication where Prescott is clearly throwing a different route than his receiver is running. Look no further than the third and nine that preceded the Zuerlein missed field goal, as Prescott either missed Amari Cooper or Prescott was expecting Cooper to work a bit more towards the middle. Those are crucial mistakes that leave points on the field.
Things looked sharper in the second half and in the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys cannot afford these slow starts when the games begin to really matter.
Lack of success on first down
What may be at the center of Dallas’ struggles is miserable first down offense. Dallas has been hitting explosive plays at a much lower rate, so it needs to stay ahead of the sticks. Dallas has done exactly the opposite of staying ahead of the sticks.
In the timeframe we have been working with (since Week 11 vs. Kansas City, where the wheels seemed to begin to fall off the offense), the Cowboys rank 22nd in EPA per play on first down and 22nd in first down success rate. The Cowboys’ first down dropback EPA and success rate in that span ranks near the middle of the league, but the previously highlighted struggles of running the ball on first down are killing the offense.
For comparison, in the first eight weeks (ending with the Vikings game), Dallas ranked 1st in EPA per play, 4th in success rate, 3rd in dropback EPA, 2nd in dropback success rate, and second in rush EPA. The offensive success has almost completely fallen off a cliff and it truly is baffling.
First down runs reared their ugly head on Sunday again. The Cowboys’ series success rate when started with a pass was an awesome 88.2 percent. When the series started with a rush, that success rate dips down to 50 percent.
Dallas has some serious offensive issues. This team is built to win multiple ways, so the Cowboys are not completely reliant on the offense, but if the Cowboys have any hopes of a serious January run, they have about two weeks left to get the offense back on track before the games really matter.
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