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Is Ezekiel Elliott’s absence really the problem with the Dallas offense?

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How effective has the Cowboys’ running game been without their All-Pro running back?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys’ no good, very bad, horrible three-game losing streak has seen virtually every unit perform far below expectations. The one unit that has been at least competent is the running game. Dallas has averaged nearly 100 yards rushing per game and 4.4 yards per attempt during the skid. Those aren’t terrific numbers but they aren’t bad. One thing did catch my eye, however. The 100 yards per game would rank 24th in the NFL while the 4.4 YPA would rank 10th. This would seem to indicate Dallas should be running more. A deeper look might show whether this is true or not, and whether the Cowboys’ running game really has been effective.

Over the last three games here’s the Dallas play selection and result based upon down:

A couple observations:

  1. The passing game has been truly abysmal. Six yards per attempt is considered a bad NFL result and Dallas hasn’t been able to manage that number on any down. The 4.0 overall YPA reveals how truly anemic the passing game has become.
  2. On the flip side, the Dallas running game has been effective, especially on first down. In fact, at 4.9 YPA on first down runs, it’s reasonable to ask why the team doesn’t run more often on that down.

Here’s the same numbers by quarter:

Observations:

  • Again, terrible performances across-the-board in the passing game.
  • Note the 18-to-12 run-to-pass ratio in the third quarter. This seems to be the coaching staff recognizing the passing game isn’t working and trying to use the running game to establish some semblance of an offensive attack.
  • Note also the poor rushing performance in the fourth quarter. This is surprising in that Dallas has been trailing badly throughout most of these fourth quarters and (theoretically) facing prevent-type defenses willing to give up small ground gains. Instead, what few runs have been called in the fourth quarter have netted very few yards.

Here’s the play selection by quarter:

The third quarter warrants more attention for several reasons:

  1. It’s the only quarter where Dallas has called more run plays than pass plays.
  2. It’s the quarter where the Dallas running game has enjoyed the most success (6.6 yards per attempt).
  3. It’s been a pivotal quarter where all three games transformed from competitive (single score games in all three cases) to blowouts (Dallas outscored 36-0 in the frame).

Let’s look at each third quarter offensive drive to understand why Dallas couldn’t capitalize on those effective running plays.

Atlanta third quarter drive

Dallas had only one third quarter offensive drive against the Falcons. It was their best, most successful drive of the game and it featured almost all run plays... until it didn’t and failed. Five runs (52 yards) and a single pass (6 yards) moved the ball from the Dallas 30 to the Atlanta 12.

It’s here where the Cowboys decision-making seemed to go haywire. If I’m calling plays at this point I call another running play because I know two things:

  1. Atlanta hasn’t been able to stop the run this drive
  2. Our left tackle can’t protect the quarterback

Scott Linehan decided instead to put the offense in shotgun formation with no running back to help protect. This was a first down play. Prescott was promptly sacked for seven yards. On 2nd and 17 Alfred Morris then lost two yards and a 3rd-and-19 pass gained only one yard before Mike Nugent missed a field goal attempt.

This was the key sequence of the game and the abandonment of the running game in this situation was questioned at the time and looks even dumber in retrospect.

Philadelphia third quarter drives

Similar to the Atlanta game, the Dallas running game came out with big runs on the team’s first second half series. Trailing 15-9, two runs moved the ball from the Dallas 29 to the Eagles’ 39. A first down run then lost a yard, a second down pass gained the yard back and a 3rd-and-10 pass fell incomplete. Hard to fault the decision-making in this situation.

The second drive also saw the Cowboys running the ball effectively. Two running plays gained 17 yards and a three-yard pass set the Cowboys up at the Dallas 45. The Cowboys now trailed 23-9 and had surrendered two long touchdown drives. The team desperately needed a score and any other result would be a true failure.

The second of the runs went for eight yards and set up a 2nd and 2 at the Dallas 45. Five second half runs had netted 48 yards. But rather than run it again Linehan chose to pass on 2nd-and-2 and the pass went incomplete. Then, on 3rd-and-2 came the infamous Rod Smith crossblock run that went nowhere.

Facing a 4th-and-2, near midfield, down 14 points and with a season in the balance, Jason Garrett did the most Jason Garrett thing ever and chose to punt. Ten plays later the Eagles finished off their third consecutive touchdown drive to put the game away.

It’s hard not to wonder what might have been if Dallas had simply chosen to run the ball three straight times from the 2nd-and-2 situation, seeing as the running game had been chewing up big yards on that drive.

San Diego third quarter drive

Like the Atlanta game, Dallas had only a single third quarter offensive drive. In this case the offense moved the ball effectively with two passes netting 22 yards and two runs adding another eight yards to set Dallas up with a 3rd-and-3 at the Chargers’ 38. Linehan then called a run-play-option that worked to perfection allowing Dak Prescott to scamper for the easiest 38-yard touchdown he’ll ever score.

The Cowboys did everything right and it would have been a truly pivotal play, reducing the Chargers lead from 9-0 to 9-7 and swinging momentum in the Cowboys’ favor. It would have easily been the biggest Cowboys’ play not only of that game but in all three games. Of course we all know Tyron Smith was called for holding, putting the team in a 3rd-and-13 situation. They were unable to convert, punted, the Chargers immediately drove the length of the field and the rout was on.

Summarizing, the key sequence in all three losses came on third quarter offensive possessions. In all three cases the Cowboys smartly moved the ball behind effective running. And in all three cases the drive stalled, twice due to baffling play-calling and once due to a dubious penalty.

As far as evaluating the running game, however, it never really failed on any of the three drives. Yes, there was a 3rd-and-2 situation that wasn’t converted. But it only set up a 4th-and-2 that Garret refused to attack. Otherwise, every drive failed for reasons other than what happened with the running game.

First down runs

For completeness I looked at a couple other things, like first down runs:

Four yards on first down is a good result. As we can see the team managed four yards or more quite often, with 61% of first down runs netting 3+ yards:

I also wanted to look at red zone opportunities. Prior to the three-game losing streak Dallas was one of the best red zone offenses in the league, averaging 5.4 points per red zone opportunity. Since then, however, both the opportunities and the efficiency in the red zone has evaporated. Dallas has scored only 19 points on six RZ opportunities. I wanted to look at what the team did in those red zone situations:

For those keeping score:

  • Four running plays, 20 yards, two touchdowns
  • Eight passing plays, 9 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 1 sack and one defensive score

Admittedly a lot of those passing plays were called in the fourth quarter when desperation warranted throwing the ball. Still, it’s clear that when addressing our original question of whether the running game has truly been effective over these three weeks the answer is a vocal affirmative!

Finally, just because I’m a statistical masochist apparently, I decided to run the numbers for all running plays versus all passing plays. I’ve assigned the following judgement to the table you see below: turnovers cost a team 30 yards. That’s the old coaches’ saying I remember from my youth. Considering most punts average nearly 40 yards in field position nowadays I would say that’s a conservative estimate. Thus, we have the following:

What this tells us is, if we subtract the sack yardage and the 30-yards per turnover, over the last three weeks the passing game is generating barely half of a yard per play. The running game, meanwhile, is generating a healthy 4.3 yards per play. Any time one phase of the game is wholly and completely inept it makes stopping the other phase easier, thus making the rushing performance more impressive.

The numbers and context make it clear: the Dallas running game may be diminished without Ezekiel Elliott but it’s been more than competent. Yes, his absence allows teams to focus elsewhere. But the running game enjoying at least moderate success, it’s safe to say the real issue with the Cowboys’ offense is the inept passing game.