Cowboys Struggle on 1st Down and With Play-Action (vs MIN)





Before the season began, I posed a bunch of questions about how Dak Prescott would play and how Scott Linehan would call plays without T. Romo (click here to read to read that post). Each week, I continue trying to answer those questions.

My first look at the Minnesota Vikings game focused on the Cowboys use of the shotgun (click here to read).

1st Downs- History

The Dallas Cowboys ability to stay balanced offensively is premised on their ability to run the ball for 4+ yards on 1st down, even when defenses are expecting it. Scott Linehan has stayed devoted to running the ball on first down since week 2.

Coming in to the Minnesota game, the Cowboys had run 325 plays on 1st down. Dak was under center 225 times and in the shotgun 100 plays.

Of the 225 times Dak lined up under center on 1st down, they ran the ball 178 times (79.1%), threw it 5 times, and tried play-action passes 42 times (18.6%).

Of the 100 times that Dak was in the shotgun on first down, they passed the ball 75 times (75%), ran the ball 13 times, and tried 8 play-action passes.

Adding both formations together (325 plays), the Cowboys ran the ball 191 times on 1st down (58.7%), threw the ball 80 times (24.6%), and tried 50 playaction passes (15.3%).  There were also 4 designed runs by Dak Prescott off the play-action (all from shotgun).

1st Downs vs Minnesota

Part of the problem with the offense against the Vikings was the inability to break off big runs on 1st down. They only had two runs over 10 yards on 1st down – one was on the opening drive, the other was the 30 yard scamper by E. Elliott in the 4th quarter. As gratifying as it was to see their devotion to the run pay off with a big play at a pivotal point in the game, the Cowboys failed to gain 4+ yards on too many 1st downs runs. They had 8 runs on first down that were 4 yards or less. There was also a 42 yard run by Elliott on a 1st down that was negated by a holding penalty on D. Free.

There is a direct correlation between the inability to run for 5+ yards in 1st down and the fact that the Cowboys were a dismal 1 of 9 on 3rd down conversions despite coming into the game converting 46% of their 3rd down attempts.

The Dallas Cowboys ran 27 plays on 1st down in Minnesota. The only game in which they had fewer 1st down plays was Cincinnati (25).

Dak was under center for 22 of the 27 plays on 1st down: 17 runs, 1 quick pass, and 4 play-action passes.

Dak was in the shotgun for 5 plays on 1st down: 0 runs, 5 passes, 0 play-action passes.

3rd and Short

The Dallas Cowboys were an uncharacteristically dismal 1 of 9 on third down attempts.

The Cowboys only faced 3rd and short twice, and both plays resulted in negatives: one was the fumble by L. Whitehead, the other was a botched snap that almost resulted in a turnover.


After running the ball effectively on 1st down, one of the biggest keys to the Cowboys offense success is their ability to use the play-action pass when Dak lines up under center. Scott Linehan and Dak Prescott continue to use the play-action to both move the chains and get big chunks of yards.

Using the play-action with Dak under center continues to be effective for three main reasons: the Cowboys are successful most of the time they run the ball out of that formation, the Cowboys run the ball almost 80% of the time they are in that formation, and Dak is executing the play-action skillfully.

The most play-action attempts in one game was in Washington (12) and the fewest was in Green Bay (6).

The Cowboys ran 7 play-action plays against the Vikings. I call them “play-action plays”, not play-action passes, because Dak took off and ran, after surveying the field and/or being pressured, on 3 of the 7 plays.

Linehan continues to run the play-action mostly when Dak is under center (zero attempts from shotgun this week). The most play-action plays the Cowboys have called from the shotgun in one game was 7 (Washington), but the only other time the Cowboys failed to try play-action at all from the shotgun was against San Francisco.

Linehan continues to use play-action predominantly in three specific situations: 1st and 10, 2 & goal, or 2nd & long. (In the past, he has also used it in 3rd or 4th &1).

This week, 4 of the 6 play-action plays were on 1st & 10, while 3 of them were on 2nd & long.

Dak was 2 of 4 for 28 yards on his play-action throws, but the three times he took off running after finding no open receiver on play-action netted 27 yards.

In total, the Cowboys gained 47 yards on 7 play-action plays (2 incompletes).

On the season, Dak Prescott has 65 completions on 90 play-action attempts (72.2 completion rate) for 913 yards, 3 TD’s, at least one fumble (maybe 2), zero interceptions. Dak has 2974 passing yards, so 30.6% of his total passing yards have come off of play-action.

69 of the 90 play-action attempts (75.5%) have come when Dak is under center (21 from shotgun).


The Cowboys continued their tradition of giving L. Whitehead his one rush per game, but he fumbled the ball. It will be interesting to see if they continue to give him a rush or pass in every game.

D. Bryant led all receivers with 4 catches for 84 yards and a TD. The Cowboys have had 4 different leading receivers in their 9 games (Witten vs Giants, Dez vs Washington, Williams vs Bears, Beasley vs SF,  Williams vs Cincy, Williams vs GB, Bryant vs Philly, Witten vs. Cleveland, Dez vs. Pittsburgh, Dez vs. Washington and Dez in Baltimore).

C. Beasley continues to lead the Cowboys in receptions (60) and yards (670) and TD’s (5), but Dez continues to close the gap in yards every week (37 catches for 634 yards, 6 TD’s). J. Witten is now 3rd in receiving categories (52 catches, 533 yards, 2 TD’s)

The Cowboys had a season-high four “3-and-out” series on offense.

Dallas punted the ball a season-high 6 times against the Vikings.

So far this season, the Cowboys have attempted 360 passes (244 completions) for 2878 yards, and they have run the ball 391 times for 1870 yards.

Against the Vikings, the Cowboys passed for just 139 yards (below season average of 239.8) and ran the ball for 140 (also below their average of 155.8).

Rod Marinelli did something against the Vikings that we haven’t seen him do much, if at all, this season: send more than 1 extra blitzer. The Cowboys had some success when they blitzed two LB’s.  I started saying it weeks ago: if the Cowboys lose a game, it will almost certainly be because the defense has given the opposing QB way too much time in the pocket.

As always, we encourage you to review the original questions posed (click here to read) and then provide your answers below, especially if you disagree with the observations offered above. We would also like to hear what specific things you will be watching for when the Dallas Cowboys play the New York Giants.

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Series Navigation<< Analyzing Linehan’s Use of Shotgun & Prescott’s Success (vs MIN)Cowboys Struggles on 1st Down Disrupt Offensive Balance(vs NYG) >>
C. Joseph Wright

C. Joseph Wright

Analyst, Editor, Writer at SportsTalkLine
C. Joseph Wright began his professional life as a litigation attorney. He left the profession when it started to resemble "The Wire". He is now traveling the world working as a lecturer at international universities. Currently editing with occasional specials for

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