After the Cowboys' 38-31 loss to the Seahawks, here's a handful of issues and topics that I've noticed from the All-22 film about this team.
The offense needs more Zeke, less Dak.
Prescott is quickly becoming a fantasy football darling after posting back to back games with 450-plus yards but the pass-heavy approach is a losing proposition for the Cowboys. Since 2016, the Cowboys are more successful with a 50:50 run: pass ratio compared to a call sheet that skews heavily towards to the passing game. Just check out the records with Prescott at the helm and the run-pass ratios:
- 2016 51.3% pass (13-4 record)
- 2017 52.2% pass (9-7)
- 2018 56.8% pass (11-7)
- 2019 58.0% pass (8-8)
- 2020 65.7% pass (1-2)
Granted, a losing team is forced to throw more while chasing points but the numbers certainly suggest the Cowboys are more effective when the running game is the focal point of the game plan. The Cowboys are able to keep the game under control, eat up the clock and keep their defense on the sidelines with a run-centric strategy that enables them to play ball control football.
In addition, the scaled-back passing games also help Prescott play at his best as a QB1. He is more efficient and effective with fewer pass attempts. Since entering the league, Prescott has a 13-20 record with 33 or more pass attempts compared to his 29-8 record otherwise. Considering he's top the 33-attempt mark in 14 of his last 19 games, Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore should scale back on the throws and make Elliott the driving force of the offense.
O-Line is losing the battle in the trenches.
Injuries have ravaged the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line this season. The absence of Tyron Smith and La'el Collins has forced the team to play musical chairs along the frontline. Brandon Knight and Terence Steele have started on the edges with Conner Williams, Joe Looney, and Zach Martin occupying the interior three spots.
Despite the reshuffling, the group has adequate on the ground and in pass protection. Zeke* has found a few creases to split in every game but he hasn't been able to put up the dominant numbers that we are accustomed to seeing from the All-Pro. Through three games, he's yet to crack the 100-yard mark as a rusher and he's averaging fewer than four yards per carry for the first time in his career. The fall-off is due to the O-Line's inability to consistently secure the point of attack or generate a push, particularly against premier defensive tackles.
Joe Looney and Conner Williams, in particular, have been whooped at the line of scrimmage by an assortment of power players. The quick penetration stops Elliott in his tracks, resulting in negative gains (see safety vs. Seahawks). The duo's inconsistencies also show up in protection with pass-rushing defensive tackles beating them repeatedly with quickness or power at the point of attack.
The duo's vulnerabilities were highlighted against Seattle when an injury forced Looney and Williams to play guard with Tyler Biadasz inserted into the lineup at center. Looney mishandled a simple T-E stunt on a three-man rush that forced a harried Prescott to throw an interception in the game's waning seconds.
On the outside, Knight struggled against speed and quickness on the edges in pass protection. He lacks the lateral quickness to kick-step and shadow upfield rushers from wide alignments. He overcompensates for his deficiencies with a wider alignment that makes him susceptible to inside maneuvers. Alton Robinson exploited the vulnerability by utilizing an inside power move on a sack on the final drive.
Overall, the patchwork unit has played about as well as could be expected but their individual and collective flaws have prevented the Cowboys from controlling the trenches and imposing their will on opponents.
Special teams are a concern.
John Fassel was brought on-board to fix the Cowboys' troublesome kicking game. The special teams' guru is respected as one of the best coaches, if not the best coach, in the game. However, he hasn't been able to get the Cowboys on track this season. The unit continues to gift opponents scoring opportunities with their miscues in the kicking game. Tony Pollard's muffed kickoff eventually led to the Seahawks registering a safety in the opening quarter. The second-year player can't continue to put the ball on the ground (fumble against the Rams in Week 1) and put his team in bad situations.
Greg Zuerlein missed a pair of extra points against the Seahawks. Although one of his PAT attempts was technically blocked, he banged a gimme against the upright to cost the Cowboys points. The inconsistencies in PAT operation is problematic for a team that tends to play in one-score games every week.
Given the fake punt failures, missed extra points and repeated miscues in the kicking game, the special teams have been a huge disappointment and Fassel has to get it worked out for the Cowboys to steal a few wins this season.
Mike Nolan needs to simplify the scheme.
The angst over Rod Marinelli/Kris Richard's simplistic scheme has been replaced with frustration over the number of mental mistakes and miscommunications that are occurring each week in the Nolan defense. Some of the confusion and hiccups were expected based on the truncated offseason and limited preseason work but we are almost to the quarter-mark and the issues must subside for the defense to improve over the course of the season.
Studying the All-22 coaches' footage, the Cowboys' defenders looked dazed and confused at times. The linebackers and defensive backs appear uncertain of their assignments, and the hesitancy leads to voids in coverage (see Greg Olsen's conversion on third down on the game-winning drive). In addition, the miscommunication leads to receivers running free through the middle of the defense on critical downs.
Whether it was Tyler Lockett running unchecked on a deep post against Quarters coverage on his first touchdowns or Lockett scoring on a quick out against a sleeping Diggs for another score or Lockett running across the end zone with the Cowboys confused on if they were in man or zone, the blown assignments are leading to touchdowns. The Jacob Hollister touchdown and the two-point conversion was another example of poor communication (or execution).
The Cowboys' mistakes and flawed executed also make it hard for Nolan to ratchet up the pressure when he attempts to harass the quarterback. The lack of consistent coverage and miscommunications force him to rely on a more conservative approach that's failing due to an inconsistent pass rush.
With the Cowboys unable to get stops, generate takeaways or play sound defense due to the repeated mistakes and blown assignments, the onus is on Nolan to build a simplistic plan that gets everyone on the same page and enables them to play fast and free on the perimeter.
The secondary needs to grow up in a hurry.
The majority of aforementioned woes on defense can be pinned on the shoulders of a secondary that's faltering in every area. The Cowboys' defensive backs are making too many mistakes via blown assignments, miscommunication, or poor execution. The DBs are putting a lot of bad football on tape and the unit must correct it quickly for the defense to climb out of the cellar this season.
Starting with Diggs, the Cowboys need their rookie cornerback to grow up quickly on the island. Sure, he is expected to have a few rough moments while acclimating to the pro game but he's making too many mental errors to trust in coverage. From falling asleep at the wheel in coverage to failing to run with his assigned man, Diggs appears a little confused and uncertain of his assignments and responsibilities. Reps and experience will eliminate some of his issues but he needs to lock in and play at a high level despite his rookie status.
The Cowboys' safeties also need to step up their respective games. Xavier Woods, Darian* Thompson, and Daryl Worley have to perform better as deep defenders, particularly in the team's split-safety coverage. The safeties aren't driving on underneath receivers on intermediate routes or running to the post when the "pattern matching" rules apply. In addition, their eyes are lingering in the backfield and it's made them susceptible to deep balls thrown following play fakes.
The lack of execution, discipline, and awareness is problematic based on the unit's collective experience. The veterans have to figure out a way to get on the same page to prevent the deep balls from flying over their heads in key moments.
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