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Tale of the tape: Cowboys can place blame on multiple areas for offensive disfunction

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What did the All-22 have to say about the Cowboys dreadful performance on offense against the Saints?

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

These articles are always way more fun to write when the Cowboys win, and a lot of what we’re breaking down is positive. Unfortunately, that will not be the case this week, as we will look at the many causes of concern from the Cowboys 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Today, we will focus solely on the Cowboys offense, as the Cowboys defense had a very good night getting after the quarterback, limiting Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, and keeping the Saints out of the endzone for the entirety of the game.

Let’s get to it.

After successfully moving the ball on the first two first down plays (seven-yard out to Amari Cooper and 10-yard hitch to Jason Witten) on the opening drive, the Cowboys finally went to the ground on their third first down play of the drive. This is a simple inside-zone run, with the offensive line zone blocking. Travis Frederick gets caught between a rock and a hard place here. Off the snap, Zack Martin does exactly what he needs to getting into position to turn #98 out of the play, the issue is Frederick gets hung up on his initial contact with the same defender, and is unable to reach the MIKE that has already beat Frederick to his spot by the time Frederick tries to recover. Frederick has to know the Martin is going to get to his man, and be sure to get Davis who is the only player that has a chance to turn this into a negative play.

This was a frustrating game to watch for someone who loves creativity, explosive plays, and putting players in the best position to succeed on the field. Asking Jason Witten to block Cameron Jordan is the farthest thing from any of those things. This is a play that Dak had the opportunity to hit Amari Cooper at the top of the screen, but Jordan kicking Witten’s butt (understandably) threw the play off before it could even start. Some may be wondering why La’el Collins was so quick to block down on the lineman, or why Olawale wasn’t quicker to get over to help, but with the play-fake in place, the offensive line and fullback also have to play-out that fake, in order for the play to work to its full potential. You may get lucky and have this work against weaker defensive ends, but asking Jason Witten to block Cam Jordan is never going to end well for the Cowboys.

The Cowboys tried to run a rub-route here to get the football out quick to left, but the Saints defense absolutely smothers the Cowboys receivers at the top of the screen. Devin Smith is running a slant at the bottom of the screen, but he is currently the third option on this play. By the time Dak gets to Smith in his progression Marcus Davenport is right on top of him, and the corner and linebacker are sitting on the route. Prescott does a nice job here of seeing an opening and using his legs to pick up a nice gain on the ground, something he must do more when things aren’t there through the air.

First, let’s get to the positive. This is one of Dak’s best throws of the season. He takes an absolute big-time shot at the release point here, and somehow still finds enough velocity to get this ball to Witten on the deep-out with perfect accuracy. Okay, now to the negative. The Cowboys offensive line was about as bad as they’ve been since 2017 Denver Broncos game. In pass protection, almost every lineman had consistent struggles man blocking, picking up the stunts, and rarely gave the passing game time for things to develop. For breaking down the OL here, let’s look at the end zone view.

Zack Martin is late recognizing the design stunt from the Saints defensive line, and Prescott takes a big shot because of it. You can notice La’el Collins even attempt to give Martin some help getting over the “B-gap” by shoving his right hip, but Martin is not in good enough position to recover. This is a play where you can see some positive from the offense (the throw from Prescott), but also see some of the reasons this offense struggled on Sunday night.

The big miss from Dak Prescott against the Saints eventually came back to haunt them. On third down, Prescott leaves a pocket he really didn’t need to, rolls to his left, then frantically fires off target to Randall Cobb in the back corner of the end zone. My biggest issues with this play started with the play design, and ended with Prescott’s mechanics on the throw.

The route concepts here look far too familiar to the Cowboys concepts used in previous years. Three of the five receivers on this play run 10-yard hitch routes right at the goal-line. All three of those receivers are blanketed in coverage. The two outside receivers are running deep crossing routes that take much too long to think about targeting. Now that we know that route concepts weren’t great, let’s look at the result. Dak eventually has Randall Cobb freed-up in the back left corner of the end zone as he rolls out to his left. Dak has plenty of time and space to reset his base before releasing the football, but instead, he fires with a base that is way off base. If he breaks down, and gets his hips and ankle eye pointed more towards the back pylon, and less towards the sideline this ball is probably more on target.

For the first time this season, Amari Cooper didn’t look himself. Whether it’s due to his lower body injuries or not, Cooper struggled mightily against Marshon Lattimore, finishing the game with only five catches for 48 yards. Cooper also had two big offensive pass interference calls on the night that set the offense back in tough down and distances. His production and OPI’s did not concern me, but the stiffness he ran his routes in did. Cooper is nursing an ankle injury, and the heel injury he’s had dating back to training camp. Cooper’s matchup may get even tougher this weekend as Jaire Alexander, one of the best young corners in the league comes to town. We’ll see if he can bounce back.

While we’re being pretty hard on the Cowboys offense, let’s give the Saints defense some credit, they played a heck of a ball game. The Cowboys come out in 12 personnel, and run play-action. Great, but the Saints are all over it. The Saints are in cover two which eliminates Devin Smith running a deep post, but does give Amari Cooper a chance running the deep crosser. The Saints LB does an excellent job of carrying Cooper all the way across the field step-for-step. The big concern here, is the Saints linebackers barely flinch to the play-fake, which is one of the reasons the linebacker was able to hang with Cooper.

While it was few and far between against the Saints, here’s another great play design from Kellen Moore to free Randall Cobb up on the third and short. Devin Smith does an excellent job of evading the defensive backs route to Cobb without making illegal contact, but at the same time creating some space. That space gives Dak and Cobb just enough of a window to pick up the yardage to move the chains. When the receivers are struggling to beat man coverage, and the offensive line is struggling to hold up, these are things the OC has to do to create natural separation through scheme.

The most frustrating play of the night came on 1st and 20 before halftime. Dallas has done an excellent job of picking up big chunks of yardage on first/second and long, setting themselves up for manageable third down plays. The play call is a read-option, and the strongside defensive end stays home to play the QB run. Dak makes the correct read here giving the ball based on the pre-snap look and the defensive end read, but the play call is just a massive head-scratcher.

Travis Frederick’s comeback story has been incredible to watch. There were many who thought he may never play football again. While it’s great to see Frederick back on the field and in what seems to be a healthy state, the last few weeks haven’t been too kind to Frederick. He is really struggling with power, and is far too often getting blown up at the point of attack. Connor Williams does a really nice job passing of the stunt effectively here, but Frederick getting blown off the ball disrupts Zack Martin’s attempt to help double team Sheldon Rankins.

Travis Frederick wasn’t alone in his struggles. Four of the five (La’el Collins played extremely well) Cowboys offensive lineman had rough nights. Here’s another zone run, that Elliott has to try and cut back on due to lines inability to block. As bad as it sounds, this is a rather embarrassing rep from the unit, and one Marc Colombo will not take kindly too when they review this one this week.

The biggest play of the game came on a play-action concept from Moore to beat cover two where he used a pulling guard to really sell the run. You will notice how hard Demario Davis bites on the play-fake, but he’s reacting more so to the guard pulling, not the running back. The linebacker in coverage here barely bites on the play-fake, but the slight hesitation gives Jarwin enough of a cushion to use his speed to win the seam route. Dak Prescott puts this ball right on the money over the linebacker, but not deep enough where the defensive back has an opportunity to make a play on the football. This is something the Cowboys should have used more to beat the Saints cover two look.

During and after the broadcast, many placed the blame of this play on Dak Prescott, but upon further review that would be partially inaccurate. Some will say this is pretty poor ball placement from Prescott, but there is a mitigating circumstance. Dak sees the defensive back in the flat, and realizes that a ball out in front of Cobb could potentially be a big hit, and possibly even an interception if the DB breaks on the ball perfectly. Prescott tries to make a safe throw here putting the ball on Cobb’s body instead of out in front, saving him from a big hit. Unfortunately, the ball gets far too deep into Cobb’s body and he can’t make the catch. This could have been the difference in the game if Cobb was able to haul this in.

Lastly, we will end with some positive. This is by far one of the best throws we will ever see from Dak Prescott. Especially given the down, distance, and spot in the game. After evaluating all of the tape, it is irresponsible to place the blame of this game on Dak Prescott. While he wasn’t perfect, he made more than enough throws to win this football game. The play-calling, scheme, offensive line play, and just how good the Saints defense played was the difference in this football game. Let’s hope they adjust, and next week we’ll have more positive takeaways from the All-22 review.