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The Problems With The Cowboys Running Game & The Easy Fixes

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The Cowboys had many points of failure on Sunday running the ball, but can it be corrected?

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

One of the surprises coming out of the 20-19 loss to the New York Giants was how poorly the Cowboys running game performed. With a stellar offensive line and hotshot prospect Ezekiel Elliott running behind them, it was thought that Dallas would rack up big yards on the ground. Expectations did not meet reality on Sunday.

As with most things, there are a variety of reasons they go wrong instead one pinpoint of blame. For the Cowboys on Sunday, the blame can be passed around to many parties.

  1. Let’s get this one out of the way. The Cowboys interior line got handled by the Giants defensive tackles. You can’t get around the fact that Dallas was beaten in the trenches. Even on the edges, the Cowboys could not handle the Giants. Jason Pierre-Paul gave Doug Free fits, and it’s become obvious that Jason Witten is not the feared blocker he once was. The good news? It’s not likely the Cowboys offensive line will be handled like this on a regular basis. One bad game does not make a trend. Let’s wait a few games to see if there is a real problem here.
  2. The Giants were not going to let the Cowboys beat them with the run game. They were rolling safeties down into the box, sticking with a single-high safety for much of the game. They also were moving corners to the end of the line if they could get away with it, and the linebackers were jumping the run on every play. The Cowboys never adjusted. A steady diet of bootlegs, counters, sweeps and reverses probably would have helped. Misdirection might have been the key to opening up the Giants run defense. They also should have run play-action with slants and quick-hitting seam routes to exploit the linebackers aggressiveness. That part is on the Cowboys coaches.
  3. Dallas ran a ton of plays with semi-wham blocks; instead of the tight end crossing behind the line and hitting an interior lineman, they were crossing behind the line all the way to kick out the defensive end or outside linebacker on the opposite side. I can’t recall seeing the Cowboys use this technique so many times in a game. It was curious why the Cowboys didn’t stick with a pure zone-blocking scheme and run the stretch play more often that has been so successful for them in the past. I’m sure the Cowboys saw something before the game on tape that they thought would work, but once the game started it appeared thy were playing to the Giants strengths. Curious decision.
  4. The blocking for Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t very good. But Zeke could have done better with what he had. His biggest fault was impatience. He was much too fast to the hole. Instead of pressing the hole, letting the defense commit, then cutting off of that, he was picking his hole and diving right in. One reason Alfred Morris had more success is the fact that he was patient. It’s also true that Morris got better blocking on some of his runs, but he also used his blocks to set up defenders and then get in the open field. The most likely explanation is the Zeke was just too amped up in his rookie debut and wanted to hit the holes fast. Instead, he needed to slow down a tick and let things develop. Below are some pics to describe what could have happened.

Zeke is in the red circle. The red line represents the path he took. That hole was closed down quickly and it was a minimal gain. Jason Pierre-Paul is pushing inside against Doug Free. If Zeke would have just pressed that hole, then cut around Free’s edge, he might have found open ground.

Here Zeke hits it hard right in the interior (red circle, red line). Again, if he presses that hole then cuts around Frederick (green arrow), he’s on to the safety in a one-on-one situation.

In this pic, Zeke (red circle) is so quick to the line that he almost meets Jason Witten who is coming across the line from the other side for a block. Zeke takes the path of the red line for no gain, but if he’s patient and cuts around Witten he’s probably still running right now.

This pic is of the touchdown and a great example of what Zeke can do, and what he’ll probably do more of in the future. The play is headed to the interior, and on other plays Zeke might have chosen to hit the line hard along one of the red line paths. Instead, he presses up in the middle then cuts back to the outside hole (green arrow) and is off to the races. This is what we’ll see more of once he starts to slow just a tad and show more patience coming out of the backfield.

For contrast, take a look at Alfred Morris on this run.

Morris is the red circle behind the two Cowboys blockers. Instead of committing to a hole, he actually stutter steps and slows down to allow the hole to present itself. At first glance you might think the red line is the best path, but once the blocks are more fully formed, the green path between the defenders opens up and Morris squirts through for a big gain.

All of these elements combined to make the Cowboys run game stall. The offensive line, especially along the interior, did not have a particularly good night. Scott Linehan was determined to test the middle, and didn’t really adjust in the game by using more stretch plays and misdirection. He also could have used play-action to better effect. And finally, Elliott was just too quick to the line, maybe had too much adrenaline going in his debut. Once he slowed down just a tad and let the holes form, he looked better.

The Cowboys run game stumbled in this game, but these issues probably won’t last and they will get back on track next week.