By all accounts, the Cowboys offense was just okay this week in their 33-10 win over the Panthers. They scored touchdowns on three of their nine drives, with field goals on two other drives, and they significantly outgained the Panthers.
That said, it felt like a letdown given this offense’s recent performances. Dak Prescott, who had averaged 338 yards on a 72.1% completion rate the last four games, finished with just 189 yards while hitting 65.8% of his passes. CeeDee Lamb had just six catches for 38 yards, with only nine targets. They also earned five first downs via defensive penalties, with four of them coming on third down.
Why did the offense take a step back this week? There wasn’t anything fundamentally different in the scheme. Mike McCarthy introduced a Wildcat package to this week’s game plan, the first the Cowboys have used such a formation all year, and they saw really bad results on those two plays. Other than that, though, McCarthy stuck with what had been working: high early-down pass rate, lots of motion, quick hitters designed to generate yards after the catch.
The difference in this game, though, was that the Panthers defense did a good job of bottling it up. Prescott threw into a tight window on 21.1% of all his attempts, the fourth-highest rate in Week 11. The Panthers also did a good job of pressuring Prescott, doing so on 33.3% of his dropbacks; Prescott only completed 46.2% of his passes on those plays, and averaged 1.8 yards per attempt.
In short, receivers weren’t getting open the way they have been in recent weeks, and when Prescott did throw those quick hitters, his pass catchers couldn’t generate many yards after the catch (YAC). Over the last three weeks, the Cowboys were averaging 4.7 YAC per reception, but they averaged just 3.1 YAC per reception on Sunday.
That’s been a recurring theme for this Panthers defense, which has allowed the second fewest yards after the catch so far this season. However, a closer look at their numbers reflect a fascinating split. When the Panthers have played on the road, they’re giving up 5.8 YAC per reception, a fairly high mark. However, in home games this defense is giving up just 3.8 YAC per reception, the lowest such mark if extrapolated for the whole season.
This could suggest an external factor for the Cowboys’ struggles on Sunday: the turf at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. In fact, there is a history of complaints about the playing surface in this stadium. Last year, several Lions players voiced frustration over the subpar conditions of the field in a game they lost. The NFL Players Association later filed a grievance on behalf of the Lions.
It wasn’t just the Lions players, though. Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, among others, also publicly criticized the field, likening it to concrete and saying he’s lobbied Panthers owner David Tepper to replace it. That hasn’t happened yet, largely because FC Charlotte also plays in the stadium during the Panthers’ offseason, thus limiting the window for such renovations.
Shaq Thompson said BoA turf was like “concrete” for the Lions’ game. pic.twitter.com/xloM1nmqpn— Joe Person (@josephperson) January 2, 2023
Knowing this history with the playing surface in that stadium re-contextualizes the game. At several points in the game, Lamb got up off the ground and appeared to be looking inquisitively at his shoes. KaVontae Turpin notably got tripped up by the turf monster on his lone carry of the day, which went for 13 yards but could’ve gone for more; instead, he fell to the ground after successfully breaking a tackle. Jalen Tolbert also had a couple plays where he was falling to the ground as the pass reached him, one of which he dropped.
It’s hard to necessarily prove that the Cowboys offense struggled because of the turf, but the data does support such a theory. An inadequate playing surface could definitely make it harder for pass catchers to get open on their routes, which hasn’t been an issue for Dallas in recent weeks. The same goes for their ability to generate YAC, which was largely nonexistent this week.
In the end, it didn’t matter, as the Cowboys got enough offensive production to win by a comfortable margin. And they won’t have to worry about this going forward either, as the Cowboys play their next three games in the comfort of their own home. Hopefully, that means a return to the high-flying offense that McCarthy, Prescott, and the rest of this group have been putting on display lately.