The Dallas Cowboys have something like a 99% chance of locking up the NFC East against the Washington Football Team, if it hasn’t been done before they even kick off on Sunday Night. And they already have a playoff spot assured. The current three-game winning streak has greatly improved their situation as they would hold the two seed in the NFC if the season ended today. It doesn’t, of course.
The Cowboys need to keep winning over their final three regular season games. During the streak, it is hard to argue against the reinforced and resurgent defense having carried the team. That may be enough, but what they really need is for the offense to start playing up to the level Dan Quinn has set on defense. Our David Howman has made a cogent argument that the issues are actually in much better shape than some may think. Tom Ryle kind of agrees - but how that is happening is a subject of some debate.
Tom: The big question being asked revolves around Dak Prescott. Most people think he is just off since his calf injury. Not to be contrary - ok, to be contrary - I don’t believe that has been the real issue. I know that the passing game is how NFL teams move the ball best and score, but what has really stymied the Cowboys is the sudden decline of the running game. Opponents have not been forced to defend much against an attack that has trouble getting three yards a carry. That has allowed them to stay in the Cover 2 defense that has made a real comeback across the league.
But as you pointed out, things were better against the New York Giants than most realize. And that was most evident to me in the running game. Dallas got 126 yards from their running backs and averaged 4.2 yards a rush. Two things contributed to that. Tony Pollard ran the ball at a 6.2 yards a carry pace. He remains much more effective than Ezekiel Elliott, even with Elliott’s very nice 13-yard TD run. And Connor Williams is back at left guard, where he always should have been. That is exactly where the team had the best success attacking the Giants. If that continues, and the coaches realize that they need to start using Pollard more, especially early in the game, I am confident the running game will set the table for this offense to return to what we saw early in the season.
David: I’ll be the first one to join you in saying Connor Williams makes this rushing attack so much better, and I’m very interested to see how Dallas handles his expiring contract this year after the failed experiment with McGovern. The issue I take with what you’re saying is that it more or less assumes this offense can’t throw the ball as long as defenses are playing Cover 2 and sitting back deep. I don’t think that’s accurate, even though it has thus far been true in recent weeks.
Obviously, things get much easier for Dak and these receivers if the running game forces more guys into the box. That’s true for just about everyone. But Dallas has all the talent to crush this new defensive approach with ease. The league is filled with Cover 2 beaters, and the extra-conservative defenses the Cowboys have faced lately have been leaving lots of openings in the shallow zones. In those situations, it’s up to these receivers, tight ends, and running backs to take short passes and gain some YAC. CeeDee Lamb is great at that, so long as he catches the ball, and both Zeke and Pollard are elite threats on the running back screen play when they’re not nursing injuries. They’re also missing Blake Jarwin, but not for his run blocking as someone might say; rather, Jarwin’s ability to stress the seam of a defense can be a killer against these deep zones. To that end, it’s a good thing he’s nearing a return.
Cowboys are hopeful that TE Blake Jarwin (hip) will be able to return to practice within the next two weeks— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 22, 2021
Tom: I agree with some of that, but the screen pass has not exactly been a strength for the team, and I think the team should just focus on making the ground game even better.
It certainly would be nice to get Jarwin back for the playoffs as well. That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the team needs to show they can catch the ball effectively. I am intrigued by your theory that Mike McCarthy is instinctively much more conservative on the road. That means this is the week the brakes should come off.
But things are just so much harder if they Cowboys run on early downs and get just a couple of yards. It limits the options for the offense and makes converting harder. That is why the staff needs to put Pollard out there early, and run wide rather than just bang it into the middle of the line. Get the team to second-and-five or less, or third-and-short, and Kellen Moore can really open up the playbook. Throwing the ball will get the big gains, but even in today’s NFL, the running game is a foundation to build your success on. Dallas cannot afford to become one-dimensional. They had been before the Giants game. Now they are not, and can be even more effective. Let Pollard do the early damage, and then Elliott can come in and beat on the offense late when they hopefully have a lead.
David: I still think it’s the opposite of what you’re saying. Back when the offense was flying high and Zeke and Pollard were both in the top five in the NFL in Next Gen Stats’ rushing efficiency metric, they were both routinely facing some of the lowest rates of eight or more defenders in the box. That’s because the threat of the pass was so much that teams knew they had to commit to stopping it. They all saw the Cowboys nearly beat the Buccaneers with a pretty one-dimensional, pass-heavy attack.
The issue in recent weeks was that Dallas was incapable of running it even when they wanted to, which was a big change from earlier. That put more pressure on the passing game, which is a bad development when missing several key receivers for a stretch of games. But the lighter boxes have remained for this offense, suggesting that there was a specific problem in the run blocking rather than just facing great run defenses. Williams’ return seems to have fixed that, and if that proves to be true then defenses will have to start crowding boxes again. And if/when that happens, it’ll be time for Prescott and the passing game to really let loose. Given how we’ve seen this offense perform at home this year, we could see it happen as early as this week.