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Spagnola: High Time For Cowboys To Put A Tiger In Their Offensive Tank

FRISCO, Texas –OK, time to go for this Dallas Cowboys offense.

         Time to get their git-along on.

         Darn it, time to get it together.

         Why, it's been three games, and save like a few big plays, this high-octane offense from a year ago has been putzing along. Couple yards here, couple yards there. Dump passes here, a few six or eight yarders there.

         When it comes to yards, just 311 a game so far. That ranks 19th in the NFL.

         When it comes to first downs, like 17 a game. That's tied for 23rd.

         When it comes to third-down conversions, a staple from last season, just 13 of 38. That's 34.2 percent, just 23rd.

         And most importantly, points, 64, a tad better than 21 a game. Tied for 16th, so middling in the NFL at best.

         Come on. That is Dak Prescott at quarterback, Ezekiel Elliott at running back. Dez Bryant is out there. So is Jason Witten. And Cole Beasley. Three Pro Bowl offensive linemen. And all the Cowboys have scored in three games is seven touchdowns, with four of those in the final 31 minutes, 11 seconds of the third game.

         Hmmm … well, if that's the case, maybe this offense has turned a corner. Maybe these guys are getting in tune.

         And telling you what, they had better be because guess who is coming to a noon lunch kickoff Sunday at AT&T Stadium: The Los Angeles Rams, and so far, after three games, they are not your baby girl's "Rams, dude."

They are the 2-1 Rams. They are the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense (35.7). Their quarterback, Jared Goff, he's owner of the NFL's third-best QB rating (118.2). As for the NFL's non-kicker scoring, Rams running back Todd Gurley is tied for the lead, already having scored six touchdowns (4 rushing, 2 passing), just one less than the Cowboys' entire team has scored. Gurley, the NFL's fourth leading rusher, and his 13 receptions ties him for the team lead.

         Get my drift?

         Sure, this Cowboys defense might be on the verge of a renaissance, holding two of its first three opponents to no more than 17 points. Sure, this defense is 10th in total yards. Sure, opposing quarterbacks are dropping faster than fall leaves (for them), the 11 sacks leaving the Cowboys tied for second in the league, just two behind Jacksonville.

         But come on, it's time, the fourth game of the season, to give those guys a little help. Never know when you might find yourself in a track meet out there. Oh wait, the Cowboys did in Denver, and they were left gasping for air, and that had nothing to do with that Mile High thin stuff.

          And the offense knows it.

         "We don't ever want to let the word frustration get involved in this game because all that does is make you lose your focus," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan says when asked if the F-word has seeped into their lexicon. "The game is eventually going to turn, you have to trust each other to get it going, we have the players to do it. And we've gone through a gauntlet of very good defenses. You have to just keep banging away at these guys. It's not going to be easy."

         No kidding.

         So, what's the deal?

         Well, let's be honest. The Cowboys have indeed run into three pretty stout defenses in the Giants, Broncos and Cardinals, dealing with the latter two complicated by playing on the road.

         "I think we probably expected better stats," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Friday on his 105.3 The Fan segment, "but we've played three of the best defensive teams we'll play."

         Granted on both counts.

         Then there is the running game. Not been consistent at all. Only once have the Cowboys run for 100 yards, that being the 109 in the opener. Last season they ran for 100 yards 15 consecutive games, only coming up short in the finale they punted away with nothing to gain in their playoff standing. The worst was Denver, checking in with 40 yards. Come on, that's one good Zeke run usually.

         Now, the easy conclusion is to blame Zeke, right? Oh, he's lost a step. He can't make people miss. He's slow. He's overweight.

         Ha, gotta love Zeke. Someone suggested as much to him on Thursday. His response was direct, succinct, terse:


          Well, it's hard to make someone miss when you are getting dragged down from behind, behind the line of scrimmage.

         So in the Arizona game, Zeke had 22 carries for 80 yards. And I do subscribe to the theory that when defenses crowd the line of scrimmage the running back has to make someone miss. Fine, but can you please find me a hole to get into before making someone who is supposed to be blocked miss.

         Of his 22 runs against Arizona, four were minus runs, totaling 16 yards. Of his 22 runs, 13 were for a grand total of minus-1 yard. And you know what, on that 30-yard blast on third-and-1, had he not broken Tyrann Mathieu's tackle behind the line of scrimmage, turning a 1-yard loss into a 30-yard gain, then 14 of those 22 carries would have totaled 1 yard. I kid you not.

         And you want to blame Zeke for that?

         "When you look at it at the end of the day, we haven't been as productive as we want to be," center Travis Frederick said. "But we answer these questions every year. When we have a game we're not rushing for as many yards, you say, well, if they're going to stack the box, you want to throw it. There are a lot of circumstances that go into it.

"I do think that we're not as productive as we like to be, and as efficient as we like to be in the run game, so we do need to work on it."

Not being efficient in the running game has stunted their production on first down, which in turn as made one of last year's most productive third-down teams less than productive. Check these numbers out.

On 36 first-down runs, the Cowboys are averaging 3.28 rushing yards. On 44 first-down pass plays, the Cowboys are averaging 6.39 yards. Both are rather lacking.

And usually, when you have problems on first down, you're inheriting problems on third down. Again, the Cowboys have converted just 13 of 38 third-down plays into first downs. But get this, on 21 of those plays the Cowboys have faced third-and-6 or longer. And guess what? They have converted just four of those, for a humbling 19 percent. Last year in 99 similar down-and-distances, they converted 34 percent (31) into first downs.

Some of this misfiring must rest on incorporating two new guys into the offensive line, La'el Collins and Chaz Green replacing Doug Free and Ron Leary. What we forget, and not saying those two guys are the problems, but it's a five-man operation, and certainly the continuity is not yet the same. One guy's mistake makes it the unit's mistake.

"We felt like there were going to be some growing pains," Linehan says. "Losing the two guys we lost, you don't replace them with the same veteran experience. These guys, the only way these guys are going to get better is to go out and play these games.

"We felt like there was marked improvement last week from the previous weeks, and certainly from Week 2, so it's going to be a growing-pains work in progress over the year, and we felt like that's going to be something that the expectations will continue to grow and get better at new positions for us."

That improvement must continue, although there might be a shakeup Sunday since Green missed Friday's practice with a hip ailment, and is listed as questionable for the game. If he can't go, backup Jonathan Cooper likely would take his place.

Nevertheless, the Cowboys must get their run on against a Rams defense getting nicked for 229 rushing yards by Washington and another 113 last week by San Francisco, which just happened to score 39 points, only to lose by two.

Running more efficiently will help the Cowboys passing game, and also the defense if the offense is sustaining drives. Will also aid the scoring of points, of course increasing your chances of winning.

"We're getting better and getting into our rhythm, and we're trying to get better every week," Elliott says, having totaled 192 rushing yards in 55 carries and just one touchdown. "We've got to do a better job on first and second down, that's where we've been shooting ourselves in the foot."

Yep, need to do better on first down, second down, third down. Need to do better running the ball, protecting the quarterback, throwing the ball. All of that.

And it's high time. 

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