When you look at the box score, the story of the Cowboys week one loss to the Los Angeles Rams feels clear: third down.
Dallas went 3 for 12 on third down conversions, while the Rams went 9 of 17. Dallas was not able to finish drives in the red zone, and could not find any reliable third down conversion plays all night.
But those numbers don't tell the full story. Yes the Cowboys were bad on third down Sunday night, but they also made it way too hard on themselves to convert.
3rd and 16. 3rd and 7. 3rd and 9. 3rd and 20.
These were the types of downs and distances the Cowboys found themselves in all too often during their season opening loss. Of course you are going to struggle to convert if you are that far behind the sticks almost each time you reach a high leverage down.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is one of the most aggressive second down play callers in football. As @CowboysStats pointed out on Twitter, Moore is willing to pass upwards of 80% on neutral second down situations. And yet he chooses to run the football on first and ten far too often?
1. I am skeptical there are benefits to handing the ball off on 1st down more than maybe 20% of the time.
2. I think Kellen Moore is probably a true believer in handing off on 1st down ~55% of the time.
3. Kellen is one of the league's most aggressive playcallers on 2nd down.
Every first down run is not bad, and yes Ezekiel Elliott did have some positive plays when given the ball on first down. But the fact is you are playing right into the defense's hand by running on the majority of your first downs, making your offense far too predictable.
A first down run, even if “successful,” results in a second down situation where you are probably looking to pass. Then if you fail to convert on that second down, you are now likely sitting in a third and medium where the defense knows a pass play is coming.
Mixing in Ezekiel Elliott on early downs is a good idea, but by relying on ball control and run plays too often too early, you're not optimizing your offense's chances of scoring on that drive. Rather you are creating more chances for mistakes, such as penalties or unlucky turnovers, that can stall a drive altogether.
Sure the Cowboys need to improve on third down this week against Atlanta, but it's more important to me that they improve on first down going forward.