A big reason why the Cowboys had such high expectations this year was due to their offense. That felt validated over the first half of the season, when Dak Prescott was playing at an MVP-level under Kellen Moore’s guide, but things took a drastic left turn in the second half of the year. Ultimately, Dallas’ inability to move the ball consistently was their downfall against the 49ers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Barring an unexpected turn of events, Moore will be back in 2022 to lead Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and others, but they’ll need to make improvements from this year. These three areas will be key to improving if the Cowboys want to recapture their early-season magic from 2021.
Throughout the 2021 season, there were 19 quarterbacks who got sacked more that Dak Prescott, and 17 quarterbacks who got pressured more, so it’s not exactly like this offensive line is in shambles. However, the pass protection had its fair share of weaknesses throughout the year.
Those who followed along with our weekly analytics roundup pieces know that Dallas was consistently near the bottom of the NFL in pass block win rate - which measures the rate at which the offensive line holds their pass blocks for at least 2.5 seconds - and the Cowboys finished the year 23rd in the metric. Zack Martin was their only lineman who placed in the top ten in pass block win rate at their position.
Furthermore, Prescott’s 2.75 seconds per throw was the 13th quickest average time to throw out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks. In his five games last year, when he played without La’el Collins or Tyron Smith, Prescott’s average time to throw was 2.77 seconds; in 2019, it was 2.88.
Suffice it to say that the Cowboys’ offensive line struggled in pass protection too often this year, and it may have played a role in Prescott’s decline in play as well. If his internal clock was sped up due to a lack of trust in the protection, Prescott wouldn’t have had time to go through his proper reads. That needs to change in order for the passing game to have a chance of getting back on track.
Connor Williams’ contract is up, and Tyler Biadasz’s starting role may not be set in stone still. Outside of that, Smith is getting up there in age and continues to have persisting injury issues, while Collins was temporarily benched in favor of Terence Steele this year. The Cowboys have plenty of questions to answer on this offensive line, and the path to improving their pass protection may just involve some fresh faces along the line.
Red zone play design
One common theme through all of the high’s and low’s of the Kellen Moore reign on offense has been subpar performances in the red zone. In Moore’s first year at the helm, when they finished second in the NFL in offensive DVOA and sixth in points scored, they also ranked 15th in red zone touchdown rate. They regressed all the way to 29th in 2020, although the quarterback situation explains some of that.
This year, Dallas finished sixth in red zone touchdown rate, although it should be noted that this involved them scoring on 100% of their red zone appearances in their final three regular season games. Prior to that, they were on pace for another middle-of-the-road finish.
Simply put, Moore’s offenses have not done well once they get into the red zone. One of the challenges with running an offense down there is the shorter field, which allows defenses to cover ground more easily. The best red zone offenses - such as Tennessee, Tampa Bay, and Seattle, all of whom have had top ten red zone offenses in the last three years - employ spacing concepts in the passing game that are specifically designed for the red zone.
Whether or not Moore does this as well, there is a clear improvement needed here. Perhaps he tried something different over those final three games, or maybe it was just the quality of opponent they were facing. Moore’s offenses have generally exceeded at moving the ball and picking up first downs, but he’ll need to get better at actually putting the ball in the endzone in order for this offense to really take off and remain consistent.
Expanding the use of pre-snap motion
This is something our own Connor Livesay addressed recently, pointing out that the Cowboys ranked near the bottom of the league in motion at the snap on both run and pass plays. It’s important to note, however, that the Cowboys have routinely ranked near the bottom in motion at the snap despite ranking near the top in pre-snap motion.
And yes, there is a difference. Motion at the snap is defined as when a player is moving parallel to the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. The Cowboys don’t do that very often, but they do have players move around pretty often before getting set prior to the snap. The data has found an increase of 0.08 expected points added (EPA) per play on pass plays with motion at the snap, while run plays with motion at the snap has an increase of 0.11 EPA per play.
There is likely a reason for Moore’s insistence on players getting set before the snap - perhaps he doesn’t want to create one more opportunity for penalties - but it deserves some introspection. The 49ers dominated the league in terms of motion at the snap this year and they made it all the way to the NFC Championship game with subpar performances at quarterback week in and week out. The Ravens have done the same motion-wise and routinely fielded one of the best offenses in the NFL when Lamar Jackson is healthy.
Maybe the answer for the Cowboys isn’t to start using more motion at the snap on their plays, but there are still other ways to expand their use of motion. There is clearly an advantage to be had from doing so, and Moore could find a way to level up this offense by reexamining the way he uses pre-snap motion.