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Diagnosing the Cowboys’ offensive woes in recent games

Things are broken for the Cowboys on offense right now, and won’t be easy to fix.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys lost to the Arizona Cardinals not with a bang but a whimper, to coin a phrase. While there were some flaws with the defense, including a failure to get a takeaway (although they should have had one on the missed fumble call just before the two-minute warning at the end), the most obvious problem was a faltering and ineffectual offense. They only amassed 301 yards and 22 points. If they are to have any success in a playoff run that will most likely start with a rematch against the team that stymied them so thoroughly, they have to find solutions. One thing is certain. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Figuring out what went wrong to identify possible answers has to start with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. He probably would have preferred to have put a better product on the table given his plans.

The poor job against the Cardinals follows several others where the offense sputtered and the play-calling seemed to offer few real surprises for opponents. The run game has largely been abandoned, the deep ball seldom gets thrown, and the focus is on screens and short completions. That is not exactly an exciting approach to pitch in his interview.

When looking at the ground game, it is an interesting chicken or egg question. Ezekiel Elliott has looked like a shadow of himself since getting hurt falling on a pylon back in week five of the season. But Tony Pollard has shown flashes of explosiveness, yet against Arizona, the run game was almost unused. There were only twelve handoffs in a contest that the Cowboys never trailed by more than ten points in the first half. While a couple of scores in the third quarter forced the team into catchup mode, Moore went away from the run long before that. It is especially puzzling because Pollard gained nine yards on two carries just before the end of the first quarter, and then had an eight-yard gain called back for holding on the first play of the second. He would not get a handoff the rest of the game. Was it a case of giving up too early on the run, or just a belief it was not there in the first place?

Defenses love to make an offense one-dimensional. Moore seemed far too acquiescent in allowing this to happen, particularly in the second quarter when there was still plenty of opportunity to still run the ball.

And there was almost no attempt to throw long in the game. The biggest pass play against the Cardinals came not from Dak Prescott, but on a trick pay with Cedrick Wilson taking a lateral and then throwing across the field to Pollard for a 31-yard gain. Prescott’s longest completion was for 26 yards. He did try to throw some deeper balls but misfired on them. Only one of his other completions exceeded 20 yards.

Prescott was part of the issue as he had his share of off target throws. There were some dropped interceptions, at least one of which would have been an easy pick-six. He also seemed eager to check down. Some of that was a really good defensive plan by Vance Joseph which was in turn well executed. They did an excellent job keeping the receivers short. But a bigger problem for Dallas was the way the offensive line got bullied. There were at least four passes tipped or knocked down. The Cardinals’ pass rush was in the passing lanes almost like they knew in advance where the pass was going. Prescott also did a poor job of avoiding those tips, but his offensive line was also allowing too much penetration. The Cowboys had their projected starting line together for the first time all season, but they looked bad and once again were hit with multiple drive-killing penalties. They also were part of the issues with the run game, as Elliott in particular had little to no room to operate.

The receivers also had drops in the game that contributed to the problems. But circling back to Moore and Prescott, they did not have that many opportunities. Amari Cooper, the best receiver they have, only was targeted seven times, some of those on balls he had no chance at. He wound up the night with just three catches for a paltry 18 yards. CeeDee Lamb was even more underused, with three catches on only four targets for 51 yards. The only target Prescott seems willing to go to with regularity is tight end Dalton Schultz. He was targeted ten times and got six catches. Michael Gallup was lost for the season in the first half and is no longer part of the equation. The team will have to rely on Wilson the rest of the way to fill the void. That may be something of a bright spot, as he caught all six of the balls that came his way. Most were unfortunately checkdowns or short throws, but he was at least very reliable.

The difficulty with sorting all this out is that the problems compounded one another. In turn, that means you are trying to resolve three or four separate issues at the same time. After everything had seemed fixed a week ago, it all broke down again. The Cowboys have the season- finale against the Philadelphia Eagles to right the ship before the margin for error is gone.

This all seems grim, but let me leave you with a possible thing that could help. Tight end Blake Jarwin has been out since the game on Halloween. He was not being used much as a receiver, but was still crucial in two tight end sets. He blocks considerably better than Schultz. That may help with the running game if he is able to return for the playoffs, which seems to be the plan. However, that is a small thing in the overall scheme. Any help is desirable, but a lot more needs to be done in a very short time.