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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Biggest issues for the playoffs

It was a win, but the way the Cowboys won points to some bigger problems.

Dallas Cowboys v Tennessee Titans
They need to get better on first down.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys pushed their win total to 12 for the second season in a row with the 27-13 win over the Tennessee Titans. They already had a playoff bid locked up, and this kept their slim hopes alive of catching the Philadelphia Eagles in the division, and an even slimmer shot at the number one seed. It was a case of taking care of business against a team that was clearly protecting many starters by sitting them.

There are some who are concerned about how the Dallas starters did not dominate a bunch of backups for Tennessee, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs. However, if you look at the win probability graph, it is fairly obvious that the Cowboys were in control of the game from start to finish.

It may not have been dominant, but the game was certainly under control. So why do so many feel disgruntled about things? Well, if you look deeper, there are some real issues that were evident. Tom Ryle and David Howman have ones that particularly disturb them.

Tom: Last week when I looked at the win over the Eagles, I found a very concerning failure by the offense to succeed on first down runs. At first glance, it argued for going more to passes than runs in those situations. But against the Titans, it was even worse. Not only did the team fail almost completely running the ball on first down, they had very limited success throwing the ball. A common way of evaluation first down success is that a team needs to get at least four yards, or they fall behind schedule and face longer yards to go to get to the next first down. Of the 34 first down plays for them, they gained less three or fewer yards on 25 of them. That is bad. Clearly if they don’t improve on that, playoff success is going to be elusive, to put it mildly.

And this game, it was a problem whether or not they ran. While they failed on 15 of 19 running plays, they also came up short on 10 of their 15 first down passes. That includes both of the interceptions as failed passing plays.

Another measure of the futility was how seldom they got a new set of downs on first down. Against Philadelphia, this was where the passing game really came through, with six instant conversions, and another play where a nine-yard completion set up second and one. But against Tennessee, they only did that three times, including the last touchdown throw to Dalton Schultz from the six-yard line.

This was absolute futility on first downs against a team that was badly depleted on defense. No matter how they approach the regular season finale against the Washington Commanders, they need to work on getting some positive plays on first down to quit having to rely on Dak Prescott and the receivers to bail them out.

David: I’ll echo everything you just said: the Cowboys were bad on first down in this game. It was especially surprising because that hasn’t really been the case much of this year. Entering Thursday night, the Cowboys were boasting a 44% offensive success rate on first downs since Prescott returned from injury; that’s good for tenth in the league over that span. But against the Titans, their first down success rate was a measly 22.9%. Statistically speaking, they were half as efficient on first downs as they normally are.

So why was that, and what does it mean going forward? Well, like I alluded to, the Cowboys have been pretty good on first down most of the year, so I’m willing to believe it’s just a case of an off night. The Titans may have been resting most of their starters, but they still play tough regardless of who’s out there. There’s also the fact that this was a Thursday night game, and teams usually don’t play their best on short rests like this anyway.

Another factor is the offensive line, which underwent a good amount of change in this game. The thing that worries me most about this team right now is Tyler Biadasz and his status going forward. Biadasz has been having a sensational year, and is one of just five starting centers to not allow a sack yet this season. We saw in the game how his loss prompted changes at three different positions, and the offensive line just looked out of sync due to all the shuffling. Connor McGovern didn’t look horrible at center, but there was a noticeable drop-off. I question this offensive line’s ability going forward if Biadasz is out for any extended period of time. Fortunately, it looks like he is likely to be ready for the playoffs, although it is reported he will be held out against the Commanders.

Tom: I can’t disagree about the concern over Biadasz, which puts them in a real bind for the final game. They elevated C Brock Hoffman for the game, but he only saw a handful of snaps on special teams. Holding Biadasz out of that game certainly looks necessary to try and have him as ready as possible for the playoffs.

But what to do in the meantime? Is Jason Peters up to playing an entire game? Who could they elevate to try and handle some of that load? Josh Ball is not an option at LT, I believe, and it would be very risky to switch Tyron Smith back to LT to put Ball at RT. The team has had a lack of offensive line depth all season, and it now threatens to bite them on the butt.

And that looks very bad for doing anything to fix the first down issue. Like so many things in football, it all is interconnected. The line was not getting the job done on first down runs already, and now we face some tough decisions for the final game. If Biadasz is not good for the playoffs, it could be the thing that dooms them in the postseason. The only part of the offense that is working is the passing game, and we all had a scare when Prescott came up limping a bit after one play. Fortunately, he shook it off. Should the last game be rendered irrelevant, the best course would be to sit him and let Cooper Rush get some more work.

But then how do they work on fixing the first down issue? Perhaps a lot of handoffs will let them try. This would of necessity be behind a patchwork line due to Biadasz. I am very concerned they will have to go into the first round of the playoffs not really having solved the issue. Then we would just have to hope they figured it out in practice. It is not a comfortable place to be, at all.

David: One thing that does help alleviate all of these concerns is reflecting on the way this season has gone. This Cowboys team has responded remarkably well to adversity all year. Each one of their three losses has been followed up with at least two straight wins, and two of their three losses have come in overtime on the road. Simply put, this team has shown an ability to win games consistently, and much of it has come with key players - Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Terence Steele, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, etc. - not on the field.

So how do they fix these issues? There is an answer, obviously, but perhaps the simplest one is that they’ll find a way because that’s what they’ve done all year. Or they won’t, and they’ll endure another early exit from the playoffs because of it. But the Cowboys have been immune to adversity all year, so there’s reason to believe they’re equipped to handle this week’s issues, even if we may not feel so warm and fuzzy about it right now.

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