Drive Killers: Gameplanning Around The Cowboys Limitations

The Dallas Cowboys offense is without question a fast break or big play offense. Arguably, this is not by choice - although the Cowboys have an arsenal stacked with great offensive weapons - but is driven by the Cowboys' seeming inability to sustain long, controlled drives.

Nowhere is this big play offense more evident than on touchdown drives. Last year, the Cowboys scored 40 offensive touchdowns. Only five of those touchdowns (12.5%) were preceded by drives of ten plays or more. Those 12.5% were the third lowest total in the league last year.

In a recent series of articles, we looked at drive killers here on BTB and found that the fearsome threesome of long 3rd downs, penalties and sacks allowed were the behind the Cowboys' inability to go the slow route on drives. Would you be surprised to find that the only drive against the Redskins that did not have a penalty, sack or 3rd down resulted in a touchdown? Probably not.

Cowboys Drive Killers vs. Redskins

Drive # Drive began # plays Yards gained # 3rd Downs # Penalties # Sacks Result
1 DAL 27
7 37 1 - - - - Punt
2 DAL 28 10 54 2 1 - - Missed FG
3 DAL 33 6 7 2 - - 1 Punt
4 DAL 1 12 67 2 1 - - Punt
5
DAL 30 4 12 1 1 - - Fumble /TD Return
6 DAL 17 5 41 1 - - - - Punt
7 WAS 34 6 34 - - - - - - TD
8 DAL 18 8 50 2 3 - - Punt
9 DAL 33 3 5 1 - - - - Punt
10 DAL 19 11 73 1 2 - - End of Game
Avg./Total ø DAL 27 ø 7.2 ø 38 13 8 1

The drive chart illustrates in stark detail how the Cowboys offense came to a sputtering halt when faced with one of the fearsome threesome drive killers.

Just like in the years before, the offense is taking a lot of penalties which are resulting in long third downs.The Cowboys converted five of thirteen 3rd downs for a 38% conversion rate. This rate is close to the Cowboys average, but a detailed breakdown shows the issues the Cowboys had with 3rd and long situations.

3rd downs and distance to go vs Redskins
Distance 1 2 2 8 9 9 9 10 10 13 14 15 26
Converted Yes Yes Yes Yes - - Yes - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

On nine of the 13 third down plays, the Cowboys needed eight or more yards. Not unsurprisingly, the Cowboys converted only two of those plays, while they converted all three third downs with short yardage - and all three on runs. 

Gameplanning around drive killers

Some of the frustration over Garrett's playcalling may have a fairly simple explanation. It seems like Garrett is trying his best to keep the team out of third down situations altogether. This of course requires you to convert either on first or second down, so you need big plays to get that done. As a result, Garrett calls fewer running plays than many fans would like.

And the rationale for that strategy is clear: Notice the regularity of the Cowboys penalties and sacks in the drive table above. Six out of the ten drives had either one or more penalties or a sack. If you are constantly faced with 1st-and-15s or 2nd-and-20s, you'd better have some big play capabilities if you want to be successful in this league.

Garrett is going down the field by necessity, not by choice. And this also explains Garrett's perceived avoidance of the running game. For example, if Garrett calls a run on first down that results in a gain of five yards or less, he almost never calls a run on second down - instead going directly for the conversion with a pass on second down. In the Redskins game, the Cowboys ran the ball on first down for a gain of five yards or less exactly three times. Guess what the playcall was on 2nd down?

Cowboys playcalls vs. Redskins after short run on 1st down
2nd Quarter 10-DAL 24 (6:27) F.Jones left tackle to DAL 28 for 4 yards.
2-6-DAL 28 (5:41) T.Romo pass short middle to M.Austin to DAL 34 for 6 yards.
3rd Quarter 1-10-DAL 17 (9:15) F.Jones up the middle to DAL 22 for 5 yards.
2-5-DAL 22 (8:33) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to M.Austin to WAS 49 for 29 yards.
3rd Quarter 1-10-WAS 34 (5:07) Direct snap to T.Choice. T.Choice left guard to WAS 30 for 4 yards.
2-6-WAS 30 (4:26) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to D.Bryant to WAS 22 for 8 yards.
Hat tip to BTB-member DavidH22 for first spotting this tendency

Somewhat predictably, that second call in all three instances was a pass. But there is something else worth noting as well: all three 2nd down calls resulted in a first down.

A coordinator has to know his team's strengths and weaknesses. Jason Garrett knows them very well. Unfortunately, with the state of the O-line, his hand is being forced somewhat in that he has to gameplan against the teams' limitations. Once he is able to start gameplanning for the offense's strengths, the Cowboys will succeed despite some remaining weaknesses. Hopefully, that will be next Sunday against Chicago.

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