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After further review: Strength, execution, and overextending TEs are hurting the Cowboys running game

The Cowboys running game has really struggled as of late, so let’s find out why.

Dallas Cowboys v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

There is just a week of football left in the regular season as the Dallas Cowboys prepare for another trip to the postseason. There are a lot of things to feel good about with this Cowboys team, however, we’d be lying if we said there weren’t some reasons for pause as well. A couple of the most glaring issues as of late have been the pass rush from the defense and the decline in production from the running game. Last week, we explored three possible theories as to why the pass rush has become less effective. Today, we want to explore why all of a sudden the Cowboys running backs are being tackled in the backfield so frequently.

The first thing that crossed our minds was the absence of Terence Steele. We know he had a great season this year and he and Zack Martin created monster running lanes on the right side. Is the Cowboys' lack of running directly related to Steele not being around? Here is a look at the yards per carry from the Cowboys' running backs throughout the year. It doesn’t go unnoticed that the efficiency of the running game has continued to decline since Steele’s absence.

So, what’s going on? Are they getting stuffed on the right side now? Or are they trying to run somewhere else? To better understand this, we decided to take a deep dive into nine bad running plays the Cowboys had against the Titans on Thursday.

Play 1

Tyler Biadasz is having his best season as a pro, and he’s very good at finessing his way in space. The team is hopeful he won’t miss much action after hurting his ankle against the Titans as he’s a valuable piece to the Cowboys' running game. But he’s not perfect.

On Thursday, Biadasz had a few bad plays. In this first play, the Cowboys had something cooking as the guards did a good job moving in space, but Biadasz’s inability to square up and secure his block allowed Titans backup linebacker Jack Gibbens (undrafted rookie making his first start) to shed his block and get a free shot on Ezekiel Elliott.

Play 2

It was open season on the Cowboys' running backs in this game as the offensive line regularly allowed unblocked linebackers to get a free shot at the ball carrier. Sometimes they were being beaten at the point of attack, other times it was just a mental lapse. In this play, Biadasz got to the second level but appeared unsure of which linebacker he was supposed to block. He momentarily turned to his left, but by that time it was too late and he just committed to the middle linebacker.

Sometimes the difference between a negative play and a big play is one man’s assignment. If Biadasz impedes the outside linebacker just the slightest, Malik Davis might still be running.

Play 3

Biadasz wasn’t the only lineman who had some negative plays on Thursday. Rookie Tyler Smith has been asked to do a lot this season. And while he’s done a good job, for the most part, he’ll have his bad moments too. In this next play, Tyler Smith was slowed down just a smidge by the edge rusher and wasn’t able to get to his second-level block in time. And the result was another clean shot on the Cowboys' running back.

Play 4

After Biadasz left the game with an injury, Connor McGovern slid over to center causing Smith to slide over to left guard. On this play, the Cowboys tried to run the ball straight up the A gap, but the Titans' backup defensive tackle Kevin Strong (also undrafted and only has two NFL starts across four seasons) overpowered Smith, closed the running lane and left Zeke dead to rights.

Play 5

Inconsistency on the offensive line is one problem. Another issue is just how much responsibility the Cowboys put on their tight ends. They regularly ask Dalton Schultz to fend off edge rushers and have one of the rookie tight ends, Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot, execute at a high rate. And when they don’t, the play often fails.

In this next play, the Cowboys' offensive line did a good job with their blocking assignments, but one slip-up by Dalton Schultz caused this play to go nowhere. Schultz was out-finessed by a swim move of veteran edge rusher Mario Edwards, who quickly darted inside forcing Malik Davis to change his course, where he ultimately ended up going nowhere.

Play 6

Asking young tight ends to go one-on-one and secure the edge against skilled pass rushers so frequently doesn’t seem like a winning formula. On this next play, Edwards again abused the tight end, only this time it was Jake Ferguson, who got shoved back into the lane where Davis wanted to go. Davis hesitated when he saw the lane close up. Just this slightest hesitation caused him to be wrapped up in the backfield.

Play 7

Even though the Titans employed many of their backups along the defensive line, the talent and power of their depth was rather impressive. They caused all kinds of problems for the Cowboys starters. In this play, Ferguson again was overpowered at the edge, only this time it was 280-pound defensive end starter DeMarcus Walker. With the defender shoving his way inside, Davis again had no chance.

Play 8

Not only were the tight ends physically beaten at the point of attack, but there were other times when they just weren’t in the correct position. In the next play, rookie Peyton Hendershot went in motion and was supposed to secure the outside edge. He overshot his blocking assignment. Tight end Sean McKeon, who pulled across the line of scrimmage at the snap, recognized this and picked up Hendershot’s unblocked man. Hendershot then tried to turn upfield to take McKeon’s man, but by this time it was too late. Hendershot was out of position and the linebacker came shooting through the gap at full speed.

Play 9

Even when things went right, they didn’t always go right. In this final play, the Cowboys pulled a couple of their linemen to the right trying to get something going on the outside. But the rookie Davis opted to cut through a hole inside rather than bounce outside. This play might’ve had a chance, but Tyler Smith wasn’t able to secure his block on the second level and the Titans linebacker once again had a free shot at the Cowboys' running back.

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