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Charting the Cowboys offense against the Panthers confirms some things, disproves others

A deep-dive into the Cowboys offense can prove things true, or shatter some illusions.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the worst things about a Cowboys loss is having to watch it again, and then watch some of the plays two, three or four times apiece. Still, it can be very instructive, it takes the emotion out of the process that you are feeling in the original viewing and you can be more clinical.

So it was as I went through the every play the Cowboys offense ran in their 16-8 loss and the Carolina Panthers. Some things were confirmed, like the offensive line and Dak Prescott had poor games. Other things we must question, like the conventional wisdom that has sprung up around the idea the Cowboys tried nothing new. That is false, although there is open debate about whether the Cowboys tried the right new, or different, things for the situation. That is still very much a subjective call.

Scott Linehan is under fire, and when your offense has bogged down like the Cowboys has over the last nine games, you should be. His approval rating with the fan base is pretty low, but there can be no doubt he tried some different stuff in this game. They also lined up in more varied formations than most of the time in the last few years. It didn’t work, and there were things he left out of the game plan that might have been worthy of inclusion. Designed runs for Dak Prescott were almost non-existent, they didn’t rely much on read-options or run-pass options in the game. With the Panthers laser-focused on stopping Ezekiel Elliott, that might of helped. We also never saw Tavon Austin in the backfield except for one jet sweep. The Cowboys also never went deep; they could have used some max protect schemes and taken a few shots down field. This might have helped loosen up a Panthers defense that was crowding the line. So there is obvious debate that can be had about the coaching in the game.

What there can be no debate about is the poor play of the offensive line, compounded by a bad game from Dak Prescott. It’s hard to judge the receivers and the passing-game route combinations until the All-22 tape comes out because you just can’t see that on television the way you need to. But for the offensive line, you can see it all, and with Dak Prescott, you can generally get a good read on his game.

Let’s dive in.

First drive

On the second play of the game the Cowboys went a little unconventional for them by throwing a quick screen to Tavon Austin, but Tyron Smith was caught for a block in the block. The penalty wiped out a nice gain and put the Cowboys in the hole. This is a prime example of execution, or lack thereof, wiping out play-calling. If that play stands, we are praising the team for something a little out-of-the-box by Cowboys standards and for getting Austin involved. Instead, the team is in a hole complicating matters greatly.

Now the Cowboys are in 2nd-and-21 and go conservative with a Zeke run. Here’s the thing though, the play is set up beautifully as they pull Smith and Connor Williams to the right side. But Smith runs right by a closing Luke Keuchly, doesn’t even touch him and he messes up the play. If Smith makes that block the play has a chance. So we say that’s conservative play-calling, but if Smith makes the block we might be praising that play, too. It’s all about execution. Now backed up on their own nine-yard line and after another penalty and facing 3rd-and-26, they essentially decide to punt with a run on third down.

Second drive

One thing the Cowboys did in the first half was use some three TE sets in the running game. Even with that, they didn’t have the power to move the Panthers line. Carolina was indifferent to the passing game and loaded the box, the Cowboys could never really get them out of this.

The Cowboys actually had a little bit working on this drive. A slant to Beasley (one of their best plays throughout the game) and a screen to Geoff Swaim pick up nice yards. We already have a screen to a WR and a screen to a TE in the first two drives. That’s not really normal for the Cowboys offense. But they get in trouble again when Smith is called for holding. They almost manage to get out of it when they run yet another screen, to Beasley, on third-and-12. It’s perfectly set up, but Joe Looney has a poor block on Luke Kuechly and Smith totally whiffs on his block. Again bad execution wipes out a play that has real promise. If you’re thinking Smith had a poor game, you’d be right.

Third drive

The Cowboys fall behind schedule immediately when the Panthers run a blitz on a play-action pass. Zeke has to run the fake, then try to curl back to the other side to pick up a blitzing linebacker but it’s asking too much and ends up being a sack. This was a case of the Panthers calling the exact right play at the right time. The Cowboys try a run but Zack Martin is late getting to the second level and the linebacker holds a nicely set up play to only five yards. The Cowboys try a screen to Rod Smith on third down, and again it is set up nicely, but La’el Collins has let his man in too far and it messes up Dak’s ability to make the throw and it fails. Again, the Cowboys had a chance with the right play, but executed poorly.

Fourth drive

The Cowboys try to get Austin involved with a jet sweep on first down. It goes nowhere as La’el Collins just leaves the safety unblocked right in the hole and wanders up-field and blocks nobody. On the next play Connor Williams uses extremely poor technique and gets beat for a sack. On third down, Prescott throws a little off-target but his receiver was pretty much covered.

Fifth drive

This is the drive that has the play that could have changed things. It’s start out okay with a completion to Michael Gallup then one to Swaim. After a couple of plays the Cowboys face third-and-seven and Blake Jarwin gets behind the Panthers secondary as they bust the coverage. This is one of the few times the Panthers defense makes a mistake all game. If Prescott can hit Jarwin, it could be a score. Instead he throws it at Jarwin’s feet and the Cowboys punt. Really bad play by Prescott

Sixth drive - Kneel down before the half.

Seventh drive

The Cowboys start this drive with another run where they pull two offensive linemen. They were doing a lot of this in the game. Sometimes a straight pull to get outside, other times a counter to try and confuse the defense. This was another change from their normal running game. They didn’t run their staple stretch play a lot, and they only did straight ahead power blocking a few different times, they really mixed in a lot of pulls to the outside or on a counter. You can guess they were worried about dealing with those defensive tackles in the middle. Still, it didn’t always work. They tried it on the first play in this drive and Connor Williams was late getting to one of the charging defensive tackles who helped blow up the play. The Cowboys tried variations in their running game, the Panthers tackles and linebackers were just better than the blockers on this day.

Anyway, the drive eventually picks up steam. Allen Hurns makes a good catch, and then a pull of Looney and Martin to the outside, along with a Jarwin block, springs Zeke for a long gain. The Cowboys also start mixing in empty backfield sets on this drive, and keep doing it on an off, another variation they usually don’t do a lot of. On a third-and-three, the Cowboys use a bunch formation with three receivers to one side, something they used more in this game than they did last year, and Allen Hurns uncovers late in the play for the first down. But the protection is breaking down and instead of Dak sliding to his right and attempting the pass, he scrambles and ends up throwing the ball away. They almost had what they needed, but late pressure and a questionable decision by Dak scuttles the play.

Eighth drive

We’ll call this the Brett Maher drive. Starts well with a slant to Beasley, but almost dies from a couple of curious decision from Prescott. He seems jumpy in the pocket, he’s not relaxed and calm and is scrambling out at any perceived danger. He does it on first and second down and leaves the Cowboys with a third and long, but is saved by hitting Beasley for a 16-yard catch and a first down. The next play is a holding on Collins, now the Cowboys are behind schedule again. The Cowboys use a lot of backfield fakery to mask an Elliott screen, but there is a lot of traffic in the way and Dak has to pull it down and scramble for a few yards. Eventually the Cowboys have a third-and-11 and face a blitz. Dak dumps it off quickly to Zeke who can’t make the defender miss and it becomes fourth down. The thing is, the protection was holding up on the blitz. I get that Zeke was the hot read, but if Dak holds the ball and scans the field, could he have gotten something down field pass the sticks? You know what happens next. FG - missed - cue Dan Bailey remorse.

Ninth drive

This drive starts out with Smith getting beat around the edge forcing Prescott to make a hurried throw, but a pass interference calls makes it all good. Then the Cowboys bust out another long run by pulling Looney and Martin around the edge. Pulling those two in combination around the edge led to a couple of the Cowboys biggest runs. The Cowboys are moving with passes to Beasely and one to Thompson after Prescott avoids the rush after another bad play from Smith. Smith is really struggling now as he misses a block on a Zeke run that is stuffed. Prescott bails everyone out by scrambling for a first down on third down to keep the drive alive.

The Cowboys run the ball straight ahead and Collins absolutely buries Kuechly and Zeke almost gets into the endzone. Next, the Cowboys run an option play, definitely outside of their normal offense, for a touchdown. Besides the option play, though, this was a pretty straight ahead offensive series. Definitely Dak’s best series overall as he also added the two-point conversion

Tenth drive

The Cowboys drive starts with promise after passes to Beasley and a couple to Thompson. Then things start to fall apart and you can blame the offensive line, again. Williams is slow to disengage and pick up a Kuechly blitz, meanwhile Collins is getting beat badly around the edge and gets called for holding. The Panthers actually decline the holding because Collins’ man got the sack. That’s a bad play that is all on player execution. On the next play, Michael Gallup comes open on a short pass but can’t corral a pass that is a little behind him, but the Cowboys get bailed out with an illegal contact penalty way from the play. Still, this was a missed opportunity because the Panthers had blown the coverage, if Prescott hits Gallup in stride, he has a lot of open field ahead of him to make a run. It could have been a pretty good play.

Then the collapse of Connor Williams begins. He gets beat on the outside shoulder for a sack, and then on the very next play is bull-rushed right into Prescott’s lap forcing an errant throw. Eventually the Cowboys decide to go for it on fourth-and-10, but Collins allows his guy around the edge putting pressure on Dak. But Dak should have thrown the ball earlier, if he doesn’t hold it and releases it when Thompson is making his cut, he probably gets the first down with an accurate throw. As much as we want to blame others, the players are the ones failing here.

Eleventh drive

The Cowboys are in desperation mode and the Panthers know what’s coming. Still, the performance of the team on this sequence is sad. On first down, it’s Zack Martin who gets beat easily on the pass rush and forces Dak to scramble and throw it way. On second down, Collins is beat badly and Williams also struggles forcing Dak to run it for a short gain. On third down, Dak gets jump without any real pressure in his face and starts running around. Curiously, it looks like he’s got a real shot at Allen Hurns for the first down but doesn’t take it. Instead, he runs around and gets hit from behind and fumbles. Game over.

The point of this exercise was two-fold. One, who was the problem on the field? Two, did the Cowboys try some new stuff on offense? As to the first question, the problem was mostly with the offensive line, especially Collins, Williams and Smith. Dak Prescott was also a problem with poor accuracy and some questionable decisions in the pocket where he looked uncomfortable and anxious. When you have much of your line, and your quarterback, playing poorly, you’ll get results like Sunday.

As for the offense and trying new stuff, they certainly did that. They ran more screens to a variety of positions, they mixed up their running game much more than usual, they tried some misdirection, they utilized different formations including bunch formations and empty-set backfields. It wasn’t the same ol’ Cowboys. Was it the right stuff? That’s up for debate, if the players would have executed better we would have a better idea. I’m not here to defend Scott Linehan, I have my own issues with him. But after watching this game in detail, the execution by the players was a huge factor in how things played out. As mentioned towards the beginning of this article, there may have been other things Linehan could have used that would have been more effective. He certainly shoulders some of the blame.

But I keep going back to that line by John McKay. When asked after a game about his team’s “execution” he replied “I’m in favor of it.”

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