Sitting at 2-2, many experts expected Dallas to struggle on the defensive side of the ball this season due to an abundance of youth and lack of talent. Confusion has built up and blame is being pointed in many directions as to what is wrong with the offense, though.
A team that has poured its money and incentives into the offensive side of the ball that has been so dynamic, looks as if it has taken two steps back from the high-powered unit of 2016. Instead of the envisioned growth of Dak and Zeke as players, the connection between Dak and Dez, various set formations with Switzer on the team now, etc., they look lost, and in a way that has left many fans worried more than anything.
Overview On the First Four
The Cowboys offense has looked good for simply 5 quarters on the season thus far. A second quarter against the Giants that would put the game out of reach, the 21-point routing of the Cardinals in the second half, and what seemed like a future blowout in the first half against the Rams, only be completely demoralized in the second.
As accurate as Dak Prescott was last season, it is hard not to recognize the easy throws he has missed and the forced ones to Dez. The offensive line has struggled. An out of shape Zeke Elliott has people questioning his athleticism. The Dez Bryant debate continues, plus, Scott Linehan is on his way to becoming the villain of Dallas.
A Traditional Coach’s Enemy
Compared to the 2016 season, at this point, even with Dallas finding their identity with a rookie QB and RB, comfort was found amongst fans as the Cowboys were in the midst of an 11-game winning streak. On the surface level, the stats were not too far off as to what each offense was able to do.
With only a 50-yard and two-point difference, why would there be so much worry to where QB replacement talks have even entered conversations? For starters, do not put the whole blame on Dak. Will Steele, a fellow contributing writer for Dallas of cover32, explained Dak is “2nd in the league in total TDs, 3rd in passing TDs, [and] 3rd in QBR”. Yes, there are routine throws he has been missing, but to lead an offense to 30 points, you would expect your defense in the NFL to come through and help you out.
One element of the game that they pride themselves on and have built the team towards, is the time of possession. It tires out the defense, keeps opposing offenses off the field, and allows an average defense at best to be out there for minimal time. In the first four games of 2016, on the 19 scoring possessions, 13 of the drives lasted at least 5 minutes. In comparison to the 2017 season, only 3 of the 17 drives have lasted at that rate. That is not Dallas Cowboys football and not the type of football that was a major part towards the success of the 2016-17 season.
The Root of A Failed Offense
Also, what seems to be another attribute to this team that is hurting them on reaching their potential of what they can be, is predictability. Before getting into this, the players do have to perform better and there is a lot of room for improvement. But when you can scroll through Twitter and see a number of people guess what type of play will be called next, there is a problem.
For example, after 14 unanswered points, a muffed punt by Switzer would shift the momentum in the second half as the Rams would outscore Dallas 21-6. In the 5 drives that the Cowboys would have the ball, excluding the last drive in which a two-minute drill type of offense was needed, they would call a run-pass-pass set of plays (1st, 2nd, then 3rd down) on 4 of the drives that would all result in a punt. The remaining one, a 5 play, 75-yard drive that ends with a wide-open James Hanna on a corner route for a touchdown. Four out of the five plays occurred on a first down with Dak throwing the ball.
I’m not advocating that the Cowboys need to pass every time on first down, but on the season so far, Dallas has run the ball just 39.7% of the time. Their identity is being taken away while setting up 2nd/3rd down and long in which Dallas has a 38.5% 3rd down conversation rate. Plus, the formations Dallas is running are becoming repetitive as well. Here is a look at the personnel groupings in just three drives as charted by Marcus Mosher of Bleacher Report:
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) October 1, 2017
This roster is too dynamic to be this basic, and it can not be stressed enough. As they have had a rough start, this is causing problems for the offensive line. Even though coaches might push against analytics, there is a group of people sitting behind them, whispering these numbers in different situations. It is helping them know if they need to cheat a safety up, the way a DL should shift, or what type of support the LBs should give on a play. The Broncos loaded the box, the Rams eventually did, because they knew on a first down in a 21 personnel, it is most likely going to be a run. There has been no creativity in the routes, motions, checks, and formations, and it is leaving the offense in a standstill at moments.
In their defense, this has been a tough stretch of four games for Dallas, but some of those games should have been won or at least been closer. With Green Bay coming to Dallas on Sunday, they will face off against one of the weakest defenses so far on the season and need to use it as an opportunity to get back on their feet. Control the clock, establish the running game, mix the plays up, and do not let Aaron Rodgers see the field. An offensive shootout potentially in the making, it could be another thriller that comes down to the final seconds.
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