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Five takeaways from the Cowboys vs Saints game: What is happening to the offense?

It wasn’t all pretty, especially on the offensive side of the ball. But a win is a win, so let’s enjoy the two-game losing streak being snapped.

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

Let’s get this out of the way, that was somehow a discouraging win, and the Dallas Cowboys should have won by 20-plus points based on how the New Orleans Saints played. With that said, an ugly win at this point is exponentially better than an encouraging loss.

Dallas stays in contention for the one seed for at least another week, and the division will be all but over if they can win against the Football Team next Sunday. So, why are we still disappointed? It is likely because we gained more clarity about who the 2021 Dallas Cowboys are, and here are a few of the lessons we learned.

Dak Prescott’s downfield throwing ability is off

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most underrated aspects of Dak Prescott’s game is his ability to throw the ball downfield with incredible accuracy. This is part of what made him an elite quarterback entering the season. But whatever the reason, the lack of receivers or lingering pain from the injury, Dak’s deep ball has just not been there.

For a bit of perspective, his deep ball coming into this season was arguably one of the best in the league.

And he started the 2021 season doing much of the same. Through the first six weeks, on passes that traveled more than 20 yards, Dak had a 44.4% completion percentage for 14 yards per attempt, throwing for five touchdowns and two interceptions with the sixth-best PFF grade on those passes. By all accounts, he is an elite deep-ball passer.

But things have changed. Since the bye week, on throws of the same distance, Dak has a 32.1% completion percentage for 10.3 yards per attempt, throwing for one touchdown and two interceptions. All of those stats are bottom seven in the NFL over that stretch.

Not to blame everything on Prescott, for some of those games he was without a healthy Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. But with Lamb and Cooper back, Dak still threw for a 28% completion percentage on 9.4 yards per attempt with an interception on Thursday night.

This is part of the reason the offense is struggling. If you can’t rip off those big plays, the offense has to methodically move downfield, which is not an efficient game plan.

Prescott will figure it out because this is one area where Dak is undeniably elite. But he has to ramp up his production on the deep ball before January. The offense needs that explosiveness back, so let’s just hope that things change quickly.

The reinforcements have arrived

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

Dear Demarcus Lawrence, Amari Cooper, and CeeDee Lamb, we missed you. Granted, the Saints played an awful game, but it is not a coincidence that these three returning ended the two-game losing streak. It is especially true for Lawrence and Lamb; they immediately impacted this team.

Despite only being on the field for roughly half of New Orleans’ plays, Lawrence finished as the second-highest graded defender across both teams, only behind one Micah Parsons.

On the 29 pass-rush snaps he saw, Lawrence generated six pressures and five QB hurries, one batted pass, missed 0% of his tackle attempts, and finished with an average depth of tackle on run plays of just two yards past the line of scrimmage. Demarcus Lawrence was unstoppable in the snaps he saw and is a large part of why the defense looked great on Thursday.

While the offense wasn’t particularly impressive, Cooper’s and Lamb’s ability to catch the ball and create yards after the reception was a facet of the game the team didn’t have the past few weeks.

Lamb finished with seven catches, on 12.7 yards per reception, forcing three missed tackles, creating another 41 yards after the catch, and most importantly, did not drop a single pass.

On the other hand, Cooper only ran 21 routes and thus was used sparingly. But he still finished with 41 yards, 20 of those yards being after the catch, 1.95 yards per route run at 20 yards per reception, and once again, did not drop a single pass.

This is what we were hoping for. The guys that were out due to injury brought a different element to this team in their return, and despite it not being pretty, produced a win in the end. With a “mini-bye” to rest the injuries a little more, you can expect these three to be out on the field for most of the game against the Football Team.

And remember, Randy Gregory, Neville Gallimore, and Donovan Wilson should return before the playoffs. This team is getting healthier, and it shows.

The defense might be better than the offense at this point

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine even thinking this statement in 2020. Well, after thirteen weeks into the 2021 season, the argument can be made that somehow the offense is the one holding this team back.

The main reason for this takeaway is that the defense brings weekly consistency, whereas we don’t quite know what to expect from the offense. But whether it be Dan Quinn, Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs' development, depth at safety, or a combination of these factors, this is at least a top-eight defense in the NFL.

If you think it is crazy to even consider this notion, look at the Cowboys rankings on both sides of the ball by various outlets:

2021 Dallas Cowboys Rankings

Source Offensive Ranking Defensive Ranking
Source Offensive Ranking Defensive Ranking
EPA 11 5
DVOA 7 4
Success Rate (percentage of successfully run plays) 13 6
Third Down Coversion Rate 15 2
Points per Game 3 10

Don’t interpret this as a criticism of the offense. Having both a top ten defense and offense, which the Cowboys do, is a recipe for post-season success. The offense needs to ramp up their production, but the ingredients are there.

Dan Quinn has completely turned this team around, and if not for him, who knows what the outcome of Thursday night’s game would have been. We have to start believing that this defense is a unit that can singlehandedly win the Cowboys a game.

If the offense gains consistency, the ceiling for the team is limitless. But Kellen Moore needs to pick it up to complement an elite defense. What a weird season this has devolved into.

We might need to adjust our expectations for this team

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a Chicken Little “the sky is falling” narrative. If you read the previous takeaway, this team has incredible potential if the offense can pick it up. However, if they don’t, this might be another year where the Cowboys face a divisional-round exit.

Per Football Outsiders, Dallas currently holds a 28% chance to make the NFC Championship, a 13% chance to make the Super Bowl, and a 6% chance to win it all. Everything is still on the table for this team.

But be honest for a second; if Dallas plays the way they have since the bye, do you have confidence they can beat a Packers team in Lambeau? What about a Buccaneers team in Tampa Bay? Do you think they’ll be able to do anything against a top-three Cardinals defense?

It is difficult to admit, but once again, we might have gotten ahead of ourselves during the six-game win streak, myself included. The offense looked unstoppable, and the defense was playing well; why wouldn’t we think about the potential of this team?

Well, in recent weeks, we have snapped back to reality, and the offense now needs to get back to what they once were. If that doesn’t happen, this could be a disappointing season that once seemed promising. Sound familiar?

It should be reiterated, the ceiling for this team has not changed. But for that ceiling to manifest itself, the offense needs to get rolling, and the team needs to prove they can consistently dominate on both sides of the ball. All hope is not lost, but it doesn’t seem as hopeful as it once did.

Tony Pollard deserves the bulk of the touches for the time being

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

At this point in time, Ezekiel Elliott is the second-best running back the Cowboys have. It seems like everyone knows that to be true except for the Dallas Cowboys.

Before this gets too controversial, this is not an argument that Ezekiel Elliott is worse than Tony Pollard. He is clearly dealing with an injury, and he absolutely can return to the level he was playing at before the bye. However, for right now, Tony Pollard is the better running back.

Since week seven, Ezekiel Elliott is rushing for 3.4 yards per attempt, gaining two yards after contact per attempt, has zero 15+ yard runs, with his longest run over that stretch being 11 yards. Elliott is playing hurt, and as a result, it is negatively affecting the team.

Whereas Tony Pollard has played great. Since the bye, he is running for 5.1 per attempt, with four yards after contact per attempt, he has three 15+ yard runs, with his longest rush being 58 yards.

If the Cowboys didn’t have a competent backup to replace Elliott, then playing injured might be justifiable. But when you have a running back who puts up league-high numbers waiting on the bench, why not give Elliott some time off?

When Elliott is healthy, he proved he can still be a top-ten running back in the league. The issue is that he is clearly injured, and if the Cowboys don’t start giving Pollard more touches, the offense will continue to struggle.

Someone, please sit Elliott down and explain that he will be far more valuable to the team healthy in January than playing injured in December. Give him some time to rest because Pollard can handle the workload in the meantime.

The Cowboys are back in the win column and hopefully gain some confidence before their five-game stretch facing four NFC East opponents and the Arizona Cardinals. This is a pivotal moment in the season for a team that still has a lot to prove.

But for now, take a quick sigh of relief because 8-4 is a whole lot better than 7-5.