A week ago, as the Cowboys were sitting on their bye and preparing for the game against the Rams, these McCarthy Chronicles took a deep dive into the offense that Mike McCarthy now runs, breaking down the good and the bad through six games. The general takeaway was that there were some good things for McCarthy to hang his hat on, but some other key areas needing improvement. A brief summary of the latter:
- An anemic run game
- Not enough deep shots
- Limited use of tight ends
- Red zone woes
- Lack of motion at the snap
Perhaps McCarthy himself read that breakdown, because the Cowboys came out against the Rams and diligently checked off every single one of those bullet points. While the defense and special teams still managed to score in this one, the offense had itself a day too with four touchdowns and two more drives that resulted in field goals.
This game resembled just about everything that many had been hoping to see from the offense once McCarthy took over. It appears that the coaching staff really did their homework during the week off and took advantage of the opportunity to self scout and make adjustments.
The run game didn’t necessarily light the field on fire - the team averaged 3.9 yards a carry - but it was definitely an improvement. Tony Pollard ran 12 times for 53 yards and McCarthy got both CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks involved in the run game too: Lamb took one carry for 12 yards and a first down, while Cooks took one carry for three yards right before a touchdown pass.
It seemed as if the Cowboys came into this game with a greater focus on getting Pollard out in space. Half of his carries in the game were to the tackles or wider, and that accounted for 31 of his rushing yards on the day. That, along with the use of Lamb and Cooks on jet sweeps, hints at a minor shift in the identity of this running game that, one game in, looks to be working better.
There was also a more concerted effort to stretch the field vertically despite the Rams running a defensive scheme aimed at taking away those types of throws. Through the first six weeks, Dak Prescott had thrown the ball 10+ yards down the field on just 30% of his passing attempts. Against the Rams, that number went up to 38.7%, including five passes more than 20 yards downfield. Three of those five passes went for touchdowns, and all four of Prescott’s touchdowns were on throws of at least 10 yards down the field.
The best part is that McCarthy didn’t just funnel all of the deep shots to one receiver. Lamb had six targets of 10+ yards; Cooks had three; Michael Gallup had two; and both Jake Ferguson and KaVontae Turpin had one apiece. Ferguson made his lone deep target count, too, as it resulted in a touchdown.
That brings up the next point, which was a better use of the tight end position. First of all, Dallas came into this game with four tight ends on the active roster for the first time all season. Three of them saw at least one target. Sean McKeon’s lone target resulted in a tipped interception, but rookie Luke Schoonmaker caught his lone target and gained 13 yards after the catch (YAC) while moving the chains. Ferguson caught all four targets and his 5.8 YAC per reception led the team among players with three or more receptions. His touchdown also highlighted the value of the tight end role down the seam of the defense, a feature that had been underutilized thus far.
The red zone got better too, though the Cowboys’ 50% success rate in the game doesn’t reflect it. Their first two red zone trips of the day resulted in touchdowns, and the Cowboys’ other two offensive touchdowns came from distances of 22 and 25 yards, just outside of the red zone. The two failed red zone trips on the day were the tipped interception and then settling for a field goal late in the third quarter up 33-17. That second one can easily be chalked up to the Cowboys being in clock-killing mode.
Finally, the lack of motion at the snap, something that I had chalked up to being something that Prescott just doesn’t like. If that was the case, then he may change his mind after this one. The Cowboys saw a significant uptick in motion at the snap, in addition to the shifts (defined as any movement where the player gets set before the ball is snapped) they regularly run:
Coming into Sunday, the #Cowboys only used motion at the snap on 33 total plays (5.5 per game).— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 30, 2023
Against LAR, DAL utilized motion at the snap 18 times.
To put this into more perspective, the Cowboys were dead last in the league in motion through the first seven weeks, using it on just 8.1% of all offensive plays. Against the Rams, they did it on 28.6% of their plays. That would rank them seventh in the NFL, just slightly behind Kellen Moore’s Chargers, if the Cowboys had that rate for the entire season.
It worked well, too, as the Cowboys posted a positive EPA on two thirds of their plays that featured motion at the snap. Prescott had himself a day, too, throwing four scores and crossing 300 passing yards for the first time all year. That should make the pitch easier to keep this up going forward.
While it’s easy to discount this by saying it was just the Rams, keep in mind that Los Angeles had only allowed four touchdown passes all year, and Prescott dropped four on them in just one game. Beyond that, though, it’s hard not to be at least a little encouraged by the schematic adjustments McCarthy showed on Sunday. It really did feel like he checked off all the complaints people had, and it paid off in a big way. That’s making good use of the bye week, Coach.