For much of the last six years, the Dallas Cowboys offense has been characterized by a run-first mentality led by their offensive line and standout performances from DeMarco Murray and Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys running game has produced three rushing champions since 2014 and has been considered one of the better units in the NFL. Even Darren McFadden ran for 1,000 yards in a season where the Dallas Cowboys lost Tony Romo and struggled to get anything going through the air.
Much of the complaints of the offenses of Scott Linehan were that the offense relied too heavily on the run game and through formations and down and distance became somewhat predictable.
Early in the 2019 season, it seemed that the Cowboys offense under Kellen Moore had taken a turn and become more of a pass-first offense. In the 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday Night Football, the Cowboys returned to some of their old ways as they stuck with a running game that wasn’t very effective.
Per Sharp Football Stats, the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball on 50% of their first downs and averaged only 1.9 yards per carry. They were successful or gained 60% of the yardage to get a first down, on only 27% (three attempts) of their first-down carries.
Compare that to their success rate when throwing on first down. On 11 first down dropbacks, Dak Prescott was 8 of 10 for 58 yards. Prescott was sacked once but had a passer rating of 90.8 and a 55% success rate when throwing on first down.
The New Orleans Saints did a really good job playing the run on Sunday against the Cowboys, however the Cowboys played into their hands a bit. The biggest issue from the loss is that the Cowboys didn’t do anything to adjust and go away from a running game that simply wasn’t working. Oddly, once they found success in the third quarter, they took the foot off the offensive gas and failed to put anything consistent together the rest of the game.
On the Cowboys only drive of the third quarter and their only touchdown drive, the Dallas Cowboys had six first down plays and had an even run/pass split. When they threw the ball on first down, the Cowboys had a 67% success rate on their three pass attempts and averaged eight yards per attempt on that scoring drive. On all downs of that drive, the Cowboys had a success rate on pass attempts of 83% and averaged 12.2 yards per attempt. One of the biggest takeaways from the Saints game is that it looked like they made a nice adjustment coming out of the second half, but didn’t stick with it through the rest of the game.
As the Dallas Cowboys get ready to play a Green Bay Packers team that has struggled mightily against the run, it’s likely that the Cowboys gameplan will feature heavy doses of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. The Packers are one of the best teams in the league against the pass and one of the worst defending the run.
Over the last three weeks, the Packers defense has allowed a successful run on 62% of their opponents rush attempts per Sharp Football Stats. On the season, they’re allowing five yards per carry.
It seems like a perfect week for the Dallas Cowboys run game to have a dominant performance. They may not want to test the Packers secondary that looks like one of the best in the NFL in 2019, so it’s likely that they’ll take a run-heavy approach to week five.
The only concern I have with that is it could give the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff a false sense of security in their running game. With that potential success, they’ll continue to insist that Ezekiel Elliott and the offensive line are the identity of this football team. While much of the NFL is moving to high volume passing attacks, the Dallas Cowboys under Jason Garrett have been one of the more run-heavy teams in the NFL. In installing Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, the hope was he would bring the Cowboys into the modern era of offense which relies more on the passing game.
If the Dallas Cowboys are successful on the ground on Sunday, it could reinforce what Garrett believes is the way to win football games. Run the ball, control the clock, and grind out close wins. That runs antithetical to the team we saw in the first three weeks of the season that attacked throughout and won by comfortable margins. Did they run the ball, of course, but it was secondary in their offensive approach those weeks and was used more heavily after building their big leads. Under Kellen Moore this has been a team that has attacked defenses vertically and kept their foot on the gas. They’ve been a team that’s used play action whether or not they were effective in the running game and they didn’t simply “take what the defense gave them.” They’ve dictated how the game went offensively and need to remember who they are and what they’re capable of through the air despite any success they have this week vs the Green Bay Packers.
The Cowboys are likely to have success against Green Bay with Ezekiel Elliott and the running game, but they shouldn’t allow that success on Sunday to inhibit the transition to a more passing oriented approach to their future gameplans. The team we saw struggle for most of the game against the New Orleans Saints needs to remember to be aggressive on first and second down so they aren’t facing as many third-down situations. Kellen Moore needs to remember who he is and what brought them success in the first three weeks of the season.