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.
GALLUP-ing in a Winter Wonderland ❄️
Snow stopping @michael13gallup with the TD! #DallasCowboys #TBvsDAL https://t.co/f24I7By1EB
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) December 23, 2018
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.