After the Thanksgiving matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys fans had reached a point of pure panic. Had the team just been overperforming during their winning streak? Is the offense broken? Will the Eagles catch us in the standings?
Well, three games later ushered in three more wins, and the Cowboys are one game away from clinching the NFC East. Yet somehow, the panic has not totally subsided. Legitimate questions surrounding the Cowboys remain, but we learned a lot about this team in their matchup against the Giants. Here are just a few of the headlines.
Takeaways are not a fluke, it is a staple of this defense
It is only fitting that the first takeaway of the week references Dallas’ ability to generate takeaways. We have evolved past the point where they can be considered “flukes,” Dan Quinn and Mike McCarthy know how to coach a team to force turnovers.
But just how impressive is their takeaway ability?
17% of drives by Dallas’ opponents end in a turnover, yet only 19% of opponents’ drives end in a touchdown. Meaning that when a given team possesses the ball against the Cowboys, they are essentially equally likely to score as they are to surrender the ball to Dallas.
Malik Hooker’s interception was Dallas’ third takeaway today. The Cowboys now have five games with three-plus takeaways in 2021, tied with Buffalo, New England and Arizona for the most in the NFL this year.
— Dallas Cowboys Public Relations (@DallasCowboysPR) December 19, 2021
What’s even more impressive than the Cowboys’ 2.2 takeaways per game, and a four per game average over their last three games, is they have played the second hardest strength of schedule. So, not only are they forcing turnovers, but they are doing it against good teams.
Now the obvious rebuttal: the turnovers are great, but what happens when the takeaways don’t come? Well, let’s look at the top five teams by takeaways and where their defense ranks.
- Colts (2.2 turnovers per game): 12th ranked defense by EPA per play allowed
- Cowboys (2.2): 1st ranked defense
- Buffalo (1.9): 2nd ranked defense
- New England (1.9): 3rd ranked defense
- Tampa Bay (1.8): 7th ranked defense
The takeaways are helping the defense overall. However, it is not the only factor keeping this defense ranked highly, and we should believe this is a top-three unit in the league.
But the defense is excellent and will continue to play well; we already knew this. So, we will save the remaining four takeaways for the most baffling aspect of this team.
Kellen Moore is a bigger issue than Dak
To preface, Dak Prescott was far from perfect. But he looked solid in Sunday’s outing, yet the offense struggled to hit 20 points. If not for favorable field position, this game might have ended 9-6.
The offenses’ struggles have extended far beyond Prescott alone; Kellen Moore once again fell flat and is holding the Cowboys back far more than Dak is.
Kellen Moore has been ultra conservative all game long and now with his team up 15 in a position to ice the game he suddenly wants to swing for the fence.
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) December 19, 2021
Here is a quick exercise to illustrate this statement. Let’s compare two quarterbacks in week fifteen, without revealing touchdowns, and tell me which finished with a better stat line:
- Quarterback one: 19 completions, 55.9% completion percentage, 210 yards, .109 EPA per play, 58.2 PFF grade
- Quarterback two: 28 completions, 75.7% completion percentage, 217 yards, .095 EPA per play, 70.4 PFF grade
We can all agree that quarterback two posted a better game than quarterback one, and if you don’t agree, then you have to admit it’s at least close. But here is the thing, quarterback one is Josh Allen, who put up 31 points despite playing a conservative second half. Quarterback two is Dak Prescott, whose offense did not score a touchdown when they started on their own side of the field.
The issue is that Dak posted the fifth-lowest average depth of target in week 15, the tenth lowest yards per attempt, and attempted only one throw over 20 yards. Dak is clearly no longer this offense’s biggest problem. If Kellen Moore called another screen pass against the Giants, every Cowboys fan in the stadium would have rioted.
Sure, Dak is dumping the ball off more, and it is not all on Moore. But Moore is calling passes close to the line of scrimmage, most of the time behind the line of scrimmage, and there is nothing Dak can do about it.
Moore has devolved into a conservative shell of his former bold, play-calling nature. Dak hasn’t been particularly spectacular lately, but he should not be bearing the weight of the criticism.
Dak is getting no help from the other ten players
Before this turns into a Dak apologist article, it is worth reiterating that Dak Prescott is not helping this offense like he used to. The Cowboys’ QB1 needs to be better, but the other offensive players are not free of blame.
Let’s start with the receiving corps. Over the last four weeks, both Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb have a drop percentage above 10%, Lamb has caused two interceptions, leading to Dak averaging a 55.8 passer rating when targeting Lamb over this stretch.
Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb: “I played terrible, to be honest. I feel like I could play better. I had three drops, something like that. I feel like I could’ve played better. …Just have to lock it in.”
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) December 19, 2021
Lamb still has a bright future ahead of him and will assuredly be a staple in this offense for years to come. But the drops are not only hurting Dak, they are stalling drives and causing turnovers.
The offense line isn’t assisting Dak either. It is inconceivable that the Giants, who have the seventh-worst pass rush in the NFL and only blitzed on 15 plays, generated pressure on 35% of Dak’s dropbacks despite Dak averaging the fourth-fastest time to throw in Week 15.
So let’s review the last two takeaways; the Cowboys’ offense is led by a play-caller who has reverted to a conservative, Jason Garrett-esque offensive gameplan. On top of that, Dak is throwing to receivers who are frequently dropping the ball and stalling drives, after struggling to get the ball out in the first place because his offensive line is giving him no protection.
And yet somehow, we are surprised Dak is struggling?
One last time, Dak deserves a share of the blame and has definitely regressed since the beginning of the year. But what we learned last Sunday is that Prescott is far from the main issue with this offense, and if the other players fail to assist him, Dallas will continue struggling to put up points.
With that said, Dak is playing well enough where, if he receives help by way of play-calling or consistency from the other players, the offense can get back on track.
The Cowboys made a big mistake benching Connor Williams
Outside of Dalton Schultz and Tony Pollard, the only bright spot of the Cowboys’ offense on Sunday was Connor Williams. He proved in one game that benching him was a detriment to the team.
On top of Williams being the highest graded pass blocker on the Cowboys team in Week 15, he allowed zero sacks, one total quarterback pressure, and committed zero penalties.
But what Connor Williams brings to the table is an elite run-blocking skill set, and he singlehandedly made the rushing attack look formattable again. Ezekiel Elliott’s 13-yard run was his longest since week six, Tony Pollard and Zeke combined for five 10+ yard runs, and the Cowboys’ finished with the sixth-best rushing EPA per play in week fifteen.
It was the Giants, but the rushing game is quickly getting back to what it was at the beginning of the season. And it is no coincidence that this resurgence corresponds to the game Connor Williams plays again.
In fact, there is proof Williams is the biggest reason for the rushing attack’s newfound life. On the seven attempts where the Cowboys ran behind Connor Williams, Dallas averaged 6.4 yards per attempt, one touchdown, three first downs, three 10+ yard runs, and 42% of those rushing yards were before contact.
It took one game for Connor Williams to make an impact and prove he is the better option at left guard. When the Cowboys get Tyron Smith back, the left side of the line will be a brick wall to run behind, meaning these metrics will only get better. Thank you for making the right decision on Williams again.
There is zero aggression from Mike McCarthy
When did McCarthy lose confidence in this team? Kellen Moore has received criticism for reverting to a conservative game plan, but McCarthy has similarly lost faith in this offense.
There were three head-scratching instances in this game that highlight this takeaway.
- At the end of the second quarter, Dallas had put together its best drive of the day and found themselves within ten yards of the endzone with eight seconds left in the half. McCarthy decides to call a timeout with only three seconds left and settle for a field goal, even leaving Dak Prescott confused about why they wouldn’t give it another chance.
- Earlier in the second quarter, Dallas faces a third-and-seven on the Giants ten-yard line. The Cowboys call a draw to Ezekiel Elliott for two yards. The decision would make sense if they were going to try and convert on fourth down, but they instead settled for a field goal.
- Dallas faces a fourth-and-five at the Giants 44-yard line with eight minutes left in the third quarter. Only up nine points, the Cowboys need another score for comfort, and with favorable field position, it would make sense to go for it. On comes Brian Anger for another punt.
The Cowboys still have one fourth-down conversion attempt since the Falcons game. While they were once a top-three team in the NFL at fourth down decision making, they fall 26th since hosting Atlanta.
Using all four downs to convert a series is incredibly valuable in the situations that warrant it; however, it remains an untapped asset when you simply rely on the punter to flip field position. Part of what made the Dallas offense hyper-efficient in weeks one through six was their willingness to take risks. Unfortunately, that aggressiveness and propensity to go-for-it has disappeared and has similarly resulted in a decline in overall scoring ability.
At this point, we’re crossing our fingers and hoping the offense regains its momentum before the postseason. We shouldn’t be confident that it will happen anymore, but it is far from impossible. The Giants game perfectly illustrated what is going wrong; however, fixing it becomes a far more difficult challenge.
If somehow the offense regains its early season success, the sky is the limit for this team. We patiently wait and hope for a Christmas miracle.