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Why Are The Cowboys Struggling On Third Down?

The Cowboys offense has been stymied these last two games and people are wondering what is going on.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys just lost their first game over the last three months, so it’s hardly anything to get worked up about. Fans were a little caught off guard, but can you blame them? This losing stuff isn’t something we’re used to. What do you think this is, 2015?

But even though spirits are still high in big D, there appears to be a trend over the last two games that is a little unsettling. The Cowboys have only converted two third downs in 24 attempts. They were 1 for 9 against Minnesota and 1 for 15 against New York. Entering the game against the Vikings, the Cowboys were third in the league, converting 48% of their third down plays. Now, they are outside the top ten.

So what happened? How did Dallas go from one of the top chain-moving teams to suddenly making punter Chris Jones earn his paycheck? Some people are blaming Dak Prescott, others are blaming the play-calling. There were several contributing factors, but a lot of it has to do with facing two really good defensive teams. There are other issues too and today we break down all the failed third downs in the Giants game and try to pin point what went wrong.

3rd and 3 (from own 25)

Prescott throws incomplete to Dez Bryant.

On this play, Dak had great protection and Ezekiel Elliott did a nice job picking up the blitz. No receivers were open. Dak looked to be targeting Cole Beasley on a quick, inside-out move that has been a bread and butter chain mover this season, but Beasley wasn’t able to put his foot in the ground and make a swift cut. The defender was right on top of him.

Prescott opted to go to Dez Bryant (who’s covered) and the throw was off target. Dez had no chance to make the catch, but Prescott didn’t force it into coverage.

3rd and 8 (from own 35)

Prescott throws over the middle and hits Terrance Williams for a seven-yard gain.

Dak again had great protection. On this play, Prescott had three different open receivers, but only Jason Witten’s route was long enough for the first down. Dak chose to go to TWilly and the Cowboys ended up short of the first down. Dallas went for it on fourth down and converted.

3rd and 2 (from NYG 47)

Prescott tries to hit Bryant on the slant - interception.

This one was simple as Dez Bryant just fell down. It wasn’t a case of a poor route or Giants safety Janoris Jenkins beating him to his spot. Bryant just lost his footing and fell down. Dak’s decision was a good one and the throw was where it needed to be.

3rd and 11 (from own 17)

Prescott hits Lance Dunbar on a screen pass.

In what was the first of two unsuccessful attempts to Dunbar, this play had the appearance of terrible execution. Giants linebacker Keenan Robinson was right on top of Dunbar as the play was developing, forcing Prescott to overthrow the pass. Credit Robinson for sniffing out the play and reacting quickly. Had Dunbar caught the ball, he had a lot of space to run as all the other defenders were chasing the receivers deep down the field.

3rd and 11 (from NYG 32)

Prescott is sacked and loses the ball, Doug Free recovers.

On this play Prescott is sacked and Free tried to save to save the day by picking up the loose ball and doing his best Zeke Elliott impression. Cowboys fans would have went into a frenzy if Free would have gotten the first down and started doing Zeke’s eat gesture, even if it didn’t count. The protection was great, but so was the coverage. Dak had a small window to hit Beasley and Witten did a nice job getting out of his break. A completion to either receiver would be have been enough for the first down. Prescott waited too long and then ran himself into the sack. It was a heads up play by Doug E. Fresh.

3rd and 6 (from NYG 49)

Prescott hits Dunbar on a short pass.

Dak was under pressure and didn’t have time to find anyone downfield. Throwing short was his only option. Defensive end Romeo Okwara did a great job staying back and diagnosing the play. Dunbar was stopped in his tracks, one yard short of the first down.

3rd and 7 (from own 28)

Prescott incomplete to Witten.

The Giants blitzed on this play. Dunbar did a good job picking up one of the rushers, but a second one got through and Prescott had to get rid of it. He made the best choice he could going to Witten, who was just getting out of his route. None of the other receivers would have been expecting the ball. Unfortunately, the defender was in Dak’s face and he wasn’t able to deliver a good pass to Witten.

3rd and 9 (from own 10)

Prescott hits Witten for eight yards.

Doug Free got confused on which pass rusher was his responsibility and allowed the defender to get a free shot around the edge. Prescott was under pressure and threw underneath to Witten. The Giants tackled him a yard shy of the first down marker.

3rd and 15 (from own 49)

Prescott deep to Dez - interception.

On this play Dak threw his second pick on the deep pass to Bryant. Looking at this play again showed a possible missed opportunity. The protection was great and the throw was where it should have been, although throwing into double-coverage is always a risk. Dez Bryant made his move to the inside, but for some reason Dez stopped running in that direction. The Giants still had help over the top, but had Bryant kept going it would have been a jump ball situation.

3rd and 5 (from own 19)

Prescott incomplete to Dez.

This was one the Cowboys should’ve had. Prescott had great protection, Zeke picked up the extra rusher, and Dez had his man beat. Instead of throwing out in front of Dez, the pass was a little behind him and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was able to get his hand in and knock it away. A throw in stride could have resulted in a big gain for Dallas.

3rd and 11 (from own 31)

Zeke stopped six yards behind the line of scrimmage.

This is one of the most criticized plays of the game. The Cowboys attempted to run the ball with Zeke on a third and long. This may seem like a bad decision, but they ran this same play earlier for a nice gain. And it would have worked again had Ronald Leary knew the play. Dak changed the play at the line of scrimmage and you could see Leary confused before the snap. Plus, he stood up and started pass protecting as his defender rushed to his left in pursuit of Zeke. Leary showed frustration immediately afterwards as he knew he messed up.

Here is what Bryan Broaddus had to say about this play...

Jason Garrett said it was communication problems that led to the negative Ezekiel Elliott run on 3rd-and-11. In watching the play, it appears that Ronald Leary didn’t get the call just by judging his technique. When Prescott made the check, his back was to Leary and Tyron Smith. Leary was the only one along the offensive line that didn’t block for the toss coming left. What is interesting about the play, was that if Leary did get Devon Kennard, the play had a chance to hit. Witten had the corner secure, Beasley got a block inside, Butler had Apple blocked with Smith in space looking to clean up. There are five white shirts blocking four blue shirts with Elliott carrying the ball. It might have appeared to be a strange call at the time, but with proper communication it would have made sense.

If Leary made his block, Zeke was going to get some good eats.

3rd and 8 (from own 13)

Prescott hits Terrance Williams for seven yards, just short of the marker.

Dak was under a lot of pressure and made the right decision. Janoris Jenkins was right there to make the tackle.

3rd and 6 (from own 28)

Prescott hits Dez Bryant on a slant pass that would have been enough for the first down, only Bryant fumbled.

This play was identical to the play the Cowboys ran in the first half when Dez fell down. It was a good route and a good pass. Unfortunately, Dez couldn’t hang on to the ball.

3rd and 10 (from own 3)

Prescott incomplete to Cole Beasley.

On this play, Giants linebacker Davon Kennard got his hand up and deflected the pass. Beasley was running a slant and had the ball not been deflected, it may have picked up the first down, but it wouldn’t have been a big gain and precious seconds would have ran off the clock.


The most glaring piece of information is how well the Giants defense played collectively. Between the pressure they brought and the great open field tackling, it didn’t leave a lot of room for the Cowboys to make plays. Even still, the Cowboys had some chances and missed out.

Prescott wasn’t throwing receivers open and he was continuously waiting for a receiver to get space. With heavy pressure, this didn’t give him much time and the result was a lot of short passes that kept coming up short of the marker.

One of the big problems for the offense was all the third and long situations. This removed the running game from the equation. Of the 15 third down plays, only two of them were for five yards or less and one of them was the only third down play they converted (Zeke run). Want to get better on third down - get better on first and second down. Dallas has too many unproductive plays on these downs.

The Cowboys need to re-evaluate how they use Dunbar. He can be effective in the passing game but they need on out over the middle like they’ve done in the past with success. Him hanging out in the backfield isn’t giving him much of a chance to make something happen.

Jason Garrett doesn’t like excuses, but the poor footing certainly didn’t help the Cowboys. This can hinder Beasley’s quickness and we all saw what it did to Dez when he slipped.

The Cowboys have a lot of weapons on offense and they should be able to get themselves back on track. With another up-and-coming defense in Tampa Bay on the docket Sunday night, we won’t have to wait long to see how they respond.

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