The Dallas Cowboys have repeatedly made it clear that they plan to return to the formula that succeeded so well in 2014. And the foundation of that is a powerful, even dominant running attack behind that talent-laden offensive line. But in the preseason loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the running game was not very evident. The Cowboys only had 21 rushing plays compared to 28 passing plays, and at least two of the rushes were quarterback scrambles on plays that started out as passing attempts. Should this be a cause for concern?
There are several elements that led to the relative paucity of running attempts. One was Ezekiel Elliott being held out of the game due to the deliberate approach being taken with his hamstring issue. It is not thought to be at all serious, but the team is being cautious (despite Jason Garrett’s dislike of that term) with him. Also, in the second half of the game, the Rams were hanging onto the ball much better than Dallas. Partly because of miscues on both sides of the line of scrimmage, including an excessive number of penalties, the Cowboys defense could not get off the field and the offense could not stay on it. This was key in the 21-point comeback mounted by LA in front of a very energized crowd welcoming the NFL back to town. With their heralded rookie not on the field, the Cowboys just did not go to the run as much as they might have.
Another player that was not on the field was starting left tackle Tyron Smith, who reportedly had a stinger. The staff used this as an opportunity to get a lot of work for backup Chaz Green. Smith is a much more effective player in both aspects of the game. His absence in the running attack certainly made it less efficient and therefore something the coaches would not be as likely to go to.
But the largest reason that the Cowboys did not utilize the running game to the extent they might have probably lies with the quarterbacks. With Tony Romo held out for fairly obvious reasons, Dallas had a valuable opportunity to evaluate Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers. They badly need to find out just what they have in the young quarterbacks as they decide what to do about the backup position and the roster as a whole. And the main concern there is not how well the pair can put the ball in the running back’s hands. What the team needed to see was how they handled the passing game against another team’s pass rush and coverage. This naturally led to a higher percentage of pass plays to test Prescott and Showers. The results, of course, were very good for Prescott, and Showers did not have a terrible day. Neither of them seemed to come even close to turning the ball over. Given how well Prescott moved the ball and scored in his time in the game, there was no reason to try and get the running backs more involved. Additionally, they really didn’t need to see much from Alfred Morris in his time in the game. He is a known quantity and they have a very good idea of what he can do if called on. Darius Jackson had the largest number of carries, and had a respectable 3.9 yards per carry average. He only got stuffed once on a short-yardage play where the Rams seemed to know exactly what was coming and had the middle of the defense poised to meet him behind the line of scrimmage. It was a very predictable play call, which is to be expected so early in the preseason.
The rather paltry output from the running game is not something that should sound any real alarm bells. The Cowboys, for the reasons mentioned above, had little reason to focus on running the ball. They needed to see what they had in the passing game with the two quarterbacks, and they got that, especially from Prescott. The running game should be fine once all the pieces are in place. We may not see that until the "dress rehearsal" game. If there are struggles then, we might have reason to worry. But for now, things are good. The positives from the opening game of preseason look to outweigh the negatives on offense. That is fine for now.