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3 Areas Dallas Cowboys Need to Improve for the Playoffs

John Williams

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2018 Rushing Title: Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley in Neck-and-Neck Race

It’s been a tumultuous season for the Dallas Cowboys. Through the first seven games of the season, they alternated wins and losses falling to the Washington Redskins just before the bye week to bring their record to 3-4. During the bye week, the Cowboys made the move to replace then Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander with Assistant Offensive Line Coach Marc Colombo. Then they pulled off the trade of the season sending their 2019 first round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. 

The Cooper deal was panned by much of the NFL community, but the Cowboys have struck gold with Cooper in the offense. That dude is always open. 

The excitement of the moves made during the bye week quickly wore off as the team fell to the Tennessee Titans 28-14 to drop to 3-5. It was a huge disappointment and seemingly took all the air out of Cowboys Nation.

Then, the unthinkable happened, the Cowboys went on a five game winning streak including wins over the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive weeks. The five game winning streak briefly put them in the conversation as one of the NFC’s best.

The hype didn’t last long as the Cowboys were again beaten by an AFC South opponent. This time it was the Indianapolis Colts and this time it was a 23-0 shutout. It was an enormous letdown, but they bounced back with a solid win on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that they looked to be in control of throughout. 

Now, with the NFC East clinched and a wild card round home game with -- most likely -- the Seattle Seahawks, the Dallas Cowboys still have some things to improve.  

1. Red Zone Efficiency

This has been an area of struggle for the Cowboys for much of the season, though things were better in the red zone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Dallas Cowboys were able to convert on both of their trips to the red zone in the win.

On their first drive of the game -- after a face mask penalty by Buccaneers Defensive Tackle Vita Vea wiped out a sack -- Dak Prescott took the read-option to the left and ran the ball into the end zone for the touchdown. It was a play that the Cowboys had become very adept at running, but one that a lot of teams have sat on this season, which has led to a lot of their red zone struggles.

The other thing that the Dallas Cowboys haven't been able to do inside the red zone is throw fades or back shoulder fades with much consistency. On their second red zone attempt during the third quarter, the Cowboys got the ball back at the Tampa Bay four yard line on a fumble recovery and return by Randy Gregory.

On the first play from scrimmage, Dak Prescott threw a fade to Wide Receiver Noah Brown, which was a catchable ball, but the coverage was really good and the ball fell incomplete. On the second and goal play, Prescott through a fade to the other side and Michael Gallup was able to beat his man off the line of scrimmage and create separation in the back corner of the end zone for the touchdown.

Dallas Cowboys on Twitter

GALLUP-ing in a Winter Wonderland ❄️ Snow stopping @michael13gallup with the TD! #DallasCowboys #TBvsDAL https://t.co/f24I7By1EB

It was a perfectly thrown ball by Dak Prescott that Gallup turned around and snatched out of the air with his hands. It was an encouraging sign as that is a necessary part of a red zone offense. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have to be able to throw some fades and back shoulder fades to the outside to get teams to back off of the run game or the middle of the field where the tight ends and Wide Receiver Cole Beasley work best.

Their two trips to the red zone were encouraging, but they have to continue to prove that they can score touchdowns there. The Dallas Cowboys are the only team in the playoff picture with a red zone conversion rate less than a 50%. Their 45.7% red zone rate ranks 30th in the NFL. only two teams are worse than the Cowboys in 2018; the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers. In 2016, when the Dallas Cowboys went 13-3 and had the top seed in the NFC, they finished third in the NFL in red zone scoring at 66%.

For the Cowboys to make as deep a run, as we all hope they can, they're going to have to figure out how to turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Because the Cowboys most likely opponent in the first round, the Seahawks, score on 65.4% of the red zone opportunities.

Touchdowns win games. 

2. Third Down Defense

The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They're excellent at keeping teams from scoring points, allowing 19.3 points per game, which is fourth in the NFL. As we head into week 17, the Dallas Cowboys rank seventh in the NFL with a third down conversion rate of 41.9%. As a team, they've managed to still be a really good defense despite giving up a high percentage of third down conversions through 15 games.

They were better at getting off the field on third downs this week against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that ranks fourth in the NFL in third down conversion percentage. However, there's a difference between the quarterback play and the overall functionality of the offense they faced last Sunday and the one they'll face in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The Dallas Cowboys will have to be better than they've been most of the season.

The Seahawks are middle of the pack in third down conversion percentage, but they're a more balanced team with a solid running game and an underrated passing attack led by Russell Wilson. Whoever is able to capitalize on third downs, the Cowboys or Seahawks, will tell the tale of the wild card matchup.

3. Play Action Passing Usage

Over the last four weeks, the Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott have used play action passing on 17.3% of Dak Prescott's drop backs, per Pro Football Focus. That ranks 28th out of 36 quarterbacks who have had at least 10 play action drop back attempts weeks 13-16. In weeks 1-12 of the season, Dak Prescott used play action on 24.8% of his drop backs, which was good for 15th in the NFL over that period.

The Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan have gone away from using play action in the offensive attack, and I'm not exactly sure why.

I know that they've had offensive line injuries that has had to change some of the scheme with Tyron Smith and Zack Martin out at different times over the last month and a half, but the lack of play action passing is startling.

Dak Prescott isn't a perfect quarterback, but one thing he's done well in his career is use play action effectively in the passing game. Whether it was a run-pass option (RPO) or a traditional play action, he has excellent ball skills that allow him to make the defense think run before letting the ball go.

The Dallas Cowboys will face a relentless pass rush when they face -- most likely -- the Seattle Seahawks in a week and a half, and using play action is a great way to keep the defense off balance. Given the way the Cowboys run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott, and opposing defenses' focus on the running game, their play action usage should be in the top 10 in the NFL.

Heading into the playoffs, the Cowboys have to figure out a way to get play action back into their scheme to get Dak Prescott doing the things that he does best.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

With what amounts to a tune up game this week against the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys have an opportunity to go into the game to work on some things in particular. Let's hope they're able to find some answers for the things that plague them.

It's been too long since the Dallas Cowboys have had a deep playoff run and this team has the tools on both the offensive and defensive side of the football to make one happen this season. But, in order to do so, they'll have to improve in those three areas.



Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

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Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke

John Williams

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New York Giants are 2-1 Against Cowboys With Ezekiel Elliott

It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?

This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.

Kevin Brady on Twitter

if you can only pay one it should be

The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.

John Williams ✭ on Twitter

Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?

On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.

To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.

Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.

Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.

As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.

Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.

In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.

Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.

Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.

Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.

Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.

Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.



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BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb

Brian Martin

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BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb

According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.

Adam Schefter on Twitter

Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T

The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.

During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.

After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.

This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.

Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!



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REPORT: Dallas Cowboys Re-sign Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur

Jess Haynie

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L.P. Ladouceur

L.P. Ladouceur is returning for his 15th season as the Cowboys' long snapper. The veteran free agent was re-signed by Dalals today to a one-year deal.

Thanks to Jason Witten's one-year sabbatical with Monday Night Football, Ladouceur has now been with the Cowboys for more consecutive seasons than any current player. He just turned 38 last week, but Louis-Philippe remains one of the top long snappers in football.

Todd Archer on Twitter

The Cowboys have signed long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur to a one-year deal worth $1.03 million and $90,000 in bonus money, but he will count $735,000 against the cap. This will be Ladouceur's 15th season with the Cowboys, tying Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark... https://t.co/2iDsi6RX7e

Retaining Ladouceur is an underrated move for the Cowboys given their situation at kicker.

Brett Maher was only 80% accurate overall on field goals last year. The team could be considering an upgrade in free agency.

Whether they bring Maher back or try someone new, having a long snapper with Ladouceur's performance perfection will make things much easier for them.



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