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3 Areas Dallas Cowboys Need to Improve for the Playoffs

John Williams



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

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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Player News

Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick

Jess Haynie



Devin Smith

The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.

Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:

Jason Bernstein on Twitter

Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back.

Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.

Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.

The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.

For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!

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Dallas Cowboys

Breaking: Scott Linehan and Dallas Cowboys Part Ways

John Williams



Scott Linehan Acknowledges Need for New "Wrinkles" in Cowboys Offense

Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network is reporting that the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan have mutually agreed to part ways following a tumultuous season that saw the Dallas Cowboys offense finish outside the top 12 three out of his four seasons in Dallas.

Ian Rapoport on Twitter

Sources: The #Cowboys are firing OC Scott Linehan. Taking their offense in a new direction. An announcement is coming.

Scott Linehan was brought in prior to the 2015 season and saw his offenses finish 31st, fifth, 14th, and 22nd in his four years as the Cowboys play caller. The 2015 season can be excused as the Cowboys rolled out Kellen Moore, Matt Cassell, and Brandon Weeden for 13 starts after Tony Romo was injured twice during the season, but the team 2-11 in those 13 starts and the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs despite a strong performance on the defensive side of the football.

The Cowboys saw an offense that finished fifth in the NFL in points in 2016 decline each of the last two offseasons and Linehan has been continually criticized by analysts, fans, and players as well.

Many believe that the reason that Dez Bryant and Brice Butler weren't brought back in the offseason was because of the public criticism of the offense and the play caller instilling the offense and that criticism has carried over to this season when Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper acknowledged that the Philadelphia Eagles were sitting on the slant routes that they had run all game. Dak mentioned that he changed Amari's route to a go route, which led to a 75 yard touchdown that helped open up the offense.

Cole Beasley has been frustrated with his role for much of the season and deservedly so. He was often non-existent in the offensive game plan until the final five minutes of football games.

In the running game, the offense had become too predictable and reliant upon jumbo formations that led to Ezekiel Elliott having to run against eight in the box anywhere from 25-30% of the time. For perspective, Todd Gurley only ran against eight-man fronts around eight percent of the time. Scott Linehan never looked to attempt to take players out of the box, instead insisting on motioning more players into the box for the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott to run against. It's amazing when you think about it, that Ezekiel Elliott was able to win the rushing title when facing loaded fronts as often as he did.

This was a move that needed to happen and the Dallas Cowboys didn't need to waste anymore time to make it happen. The offense had become stale and frustrating for the players as well as the fans. While Jason Garrett started the offseason saying he "didn't expect any changes," this was a move that absolutely had to happen for the offense to take a step forward. Below, you can read Jason Garrett's announcement on the move.

Mike Garafolo on Twitter

Cowboys have fired Scott Linehan

Even after the move for Amari Cooper, the offense looked better, but it still struggled at times to move the football.

The Cowboys have a young team with especially young players on the offensive side of the football. They have a quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but has excellent movement skills and capabilities of throwing the ball on the run. He's an excellent runner on designed runs. Despite us knowing all that, Scott Linehan looked reluctant to use him on designed quarterback runs that weren't read options or speed options. What you saw on designed runs in the Seattle game is what this team should be doing five times a game.

Now the question becomes, who should the Cowboys next offensive coordinator be? Our own, Staff Writer Brian Martin, laid out 5 Options to be the Next Offensive Coordinator earlier this week. I suggest you give it a read.

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Player News

DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class

Kevin Brady



Breaking Down DeMarcus Lawrence's League High 5.5 Sacks Through Week 4

Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.

Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.

One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring. ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.

ig: josinaanderson on Twitter

ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures.

DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.

Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.

Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.

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