On Sunday against a bad Giants team, the Cowboys managed only 328 total yards and two touchdowns all game long. Dak Prescott averaged less than six yards per attempt and had another turnover late in the fourth quarter. And Dallas scored only 21 points against a team they put up 44 on last time they met.
So what the heck is up with this headline, you may ask.
The Cowboys offense did not, by any stretch of the imagination, light up the scoreboard this week. It wasn’t the triumphant return to form that their performance against the Falcons was earlier this year. And the truth is they left some points on the field in this game. But on the whole, the way this offense played in this one compared to their recent performances was much better.
First, some context is needed. We spent much of last week debating if Prescott was in a slump or not, and pointed out how injuries to the wide receiver corps and swapping Connor Williams for Connor McGovern have caused plenty of problems too. But perhaps the biggest change was just how much opposing defenses have been rushing four and dropping seven back into zone coverage lately.
It’s been a noticeable trend, and it continued Sunday. Of course, this isn’t some magic blueprint to stymie the Dallas offense. The Chargers in Week 2 and Eagles in Week 3 played a lot of split-safety deep zones with very little blitzing, but the Cowboys crushed both teams in the run game. But lately, the run game has been almost nonexistent for Dallas, a symptom caused in part by McGovern’s struggles at left guard and the injuries sustained by both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
So the Cowboys brought Williams back into the starting lineup Sunday, and Pollard returned after missing last week’s game. The result? Elliott and Pollard combined for 126 rushing yards on 28 carries. Williams was especially productive as a run blocker:
Connor Williams was the Cowboys MVP in the Giants game. When Dallas ran behind him (7 attempts) they:— Aidan Davis (@aidan1214) December 20, 2021
- Averaged 6.4 YPC
- Picked up a first down on 43% of attempts
- Ran for 10+ yards on 43% of attempts
- and Williams committed 0 penalties and allowed 1 total pressure
The Giants continued to spend most of their day sitting back in deep zones, but the revival of their run game allowed Dallas to just eat up yards on the ground while Prescott took what was given to him on the underneath throws. What we saw, at least in the first half, was a highly efficient offense that resembled, in many ways, the Cowboys offense we once knew.
The Cowboys’ opening drive was a textbook Kellen Moore opening game script. They moved the chains early and often, facing just two third downs as they marched into enemy territory. The problem was that one of those third downs saw Zack Martin get busted for a false start, which killed the drive and led to a punt. But the Cowboys scored on each of their next four drives - one touchdown, three field goals - to take a 15-3 lead into halftime.
The biggest criticism of the Cowboys’ offensive production in that first half was their inability to score in the red zone. That is undoubtedly a problem, but it’s been a recurring one all year. In fact, over those first six weeks of the year when the offense looked unstoppable, Dallas was scoring touchdowns on 51.8% of their 27 red zone trips. In their last seven games (so, since Prescott came back from his calf injury) they’re scoring touchdowns on 50% of their 26 red zone trips.
The numbers are virtually the same. That’s a problem that needs to be fixed, but it’s not some new problem that’s developed recently and certainly not a reason to believe this offense is still in a slump. Aside from the continued red zone woes, this Cowboys offense played a great first half.
Where much of the criticism of this game seems to come from is the lack of points in the second half. Just one touchdown, accompanied by your regularly scheduled missed extra point from Greg Zuerlein, isn’t enough to sate the appetites of the fans.
But what if I told you that it was supposed to be that way? Throughout this season, we’ve seen the Cowboys go into clock-killing mode as early as they can in road games while trying to run up the score when playing at AT&T Stadium. That’s just their strategy, and with a 6-2 record on the road it’s hard to argue it’s a bad strategy.
In fact, the Cowboys’ 21 points scored by the offense on Sunday tied for the second-highest such mark this season. They put up 29 points against the Buccaneers and Patriots - both games that came down to the wire - but have otherwise scored 20 or less in all their other road games save for this week’s and last week’s wins.
Bob Sturm of The Athletic summarized this mindset perfectly:
You need a win badly and you are playing compromised offenses through and through. Should you then risk your good sense and start chasing the highlights or should you do exactly what is needed to be sure that 7-4 converts to 10-4 if you don’t do anything too silly?
I can tell you that Mike McCarthy is not a “high-risk for no reason” kind of coach and he is as pragmatic as they come. He likes wins more than he cares about the social-media reaction and if those teams are going to sit in deep zones and allow Dallas to bleed them dry over three hours of risk-less football, then order it up for him and he will take it right now.
And that’s exactly what happened. For the third week in a row, the Cowboys took a lead into halftime on the road and did their best to grind the clock into dust in the second half. And for the third week in a row, the Cowboys emerged victorious. The difference this time was how well they moved the ball in the first half. That’s new, and it’s very encouraging.
Now they go home to AT&T Stadium, where they’re outscoring opponents 213-138. Who wants to bet this offense puts up more than 21 points this time around?