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Has The Cowboys Offense Found Its Groove?

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For four drives on Sunday against the Giants, the Cowboys played like a team possessed, turning a 23-0 deficit into a 24-23 lead. Have the Cowboys have found their groove on offense, or were they just desperately trying to catch up?

Tom Pennington

Once the Cowboys were down 23-0 on Sunday against the Giants, they suddenly found their groove.

In four straight drives, two before the half and two after the half, the Cowboys scored three touchdowns and one field goal to go ahead 24-23.

Those four drives were remarkable not only for the fact that they were exhilarating to watch and because they brought the Cowboys back in a game that looked lost, but because they were a radical departure from the way the Cowboys have gameplanned so far this season. Two things stood out in particular in the way the Cowboys called their plays:

1. On 1st-and-10 the Cowboys tried to get into 2nd-and-short situations.

In those four drives (excluding Romo's kneel-down to close the second half) the Cowboys had 11 plays on 1st-and-10. The Cowboys chose to pass on every one of those downs, and here's how those downs played out:

Drives 2nd Q. Drive #7 2nd Q. Drive #8 3rd Q. Drive #10 3rd Q. Drive #11
1st-and-10 plays (8:29) (7:17) (6:18) (2:37) (2:00) (14:49) (13:26) (12:07) (8:07) (6:51) (4:58)
Play Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass
Yards gained 9 5 inc. 9 inc 8 8 inc. 8 6 14
Player Witten Austin Austin Witten Witten Witten Witten Witten Phillips Witten Witten

Three passes were incomplete. Of the remaining eight, six were placed right at (and in one case, beyond) the first down line. Two passes ended up in an intermediate distance.

This is a very clear pattern: the Cowboys were looking to get to the next first down right away, and were happy to take what the Giants defense gave them underneath to get as close as possible the 1st-down marker. And the reason the Cowboys wanted that is because a 2nd-and-short situation would allow them to be hyper-aggressive on their next play, as well see below.

2. Hyper-aggressive play calls on second down.

Excluding three second-down situations inside the Giants 5-yard line, the Cowboys had 10 plays on second down during their four scoring drives. Here's what happened on those 10 plays:

Drives 2nd Q. Drive #7 2nd Q. Drive #8 3rd Q. Drive #10 3rd Q. Drive #11
2nd down plays 2nd-and-1
Play Pass Pass Pass Pass Sack Pass Run Sack Pass Run
Yards gained 10 24 20 55 -9 30 4 0 25 0
Player Austin Austin Witten Bryant Romo Bryant Jones Romo Austin Jones

Five of the Cowboys' six longest plays in the game happened on 2nd down on these four drives. Notice also that Romo was sacked twice on 2nd-and-10; going for the long ball takes time and good pass protection, and that obviously wasn't there on the two sacks. The Cowboys only ran the ball twice on 2nd-and-short and only converted for a first down on one of those runs.

The question all of this leads to of course, is why haven't the Cowboys played like this more often previously? Tony Romo for one would like to play like this more often:

"We really did a lot of things that I liked," Romo said Wednesday on a conference call with media members in Atlanta. "I’m pushing coach to kind of get the offense more in that mode a little bit, which is nice. But styles make fights sometimes so we’ll look at different opponents and see different things."

A lot of analysis around this game has been about who got the ball how often (and who didn't) and whether passing the ball so much is really a good idea- but all of that is just coincidental to the strategy outlined above.

Who's your go-to-guy when you want to get close to the first-yard marker? Witten of course, but Austin in the slot is also a great alternative. Then when you're in 2nd-and-short, and you want to go deep, your best options are Austin and Bryant. It's not rocket science, but it is a significant shift from the way the Cowboys have been playing for most of the season, where they were trying to get into manageable 3rd down situations. On Sunday it was all about manageable 2nd down situations.

Over those four drives, the Cowboys offense showed what it was capable of. And as Romo said, not every opponent will allow that kind of offense to work, but to get an idea what that type of offense could look like, here's the offensive box score for all the plays over those drives:

T. Romo 23 17 252 2/-9 1 55 0 123.8
F. Jones 4 8 2 4 1
T. Romo 2 0 0 1 1
P. Tanner 2 0 0 0
J. Witten 10 8 79 9.9 20
M. Austin 7 5 79 15.8 24
D. Bryant 3 2 85 42.5 55
J. Phillips 2 2 9 4.5 9 1
J. Hanna 1 0 0 0.0 0

Do you think the Cowboys have found their groove, or was this just a team desperately trying to catch up?