Cowboys Struggles on 1st Down Disrupt Offensive Balance(vs NYG)





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.

General Observations and Stats

It is always harder to write a game review after a loss. Watching the Cowboys offense struggle for the 2nd week in a row creates some immediate questions. Do good defensive coordinators with solid defenses finally have enough film to neutralize what Scott Linehan has been doing with Dak Prescott to make him so successful?

The loss to the New Giants can not be blamed on Prescott. Although he may have played well enough to win in a game in which all his teammates executed well, he did not continue his tradition of heroics by leading them to a 4th quarter win. He played his worst game of the year, and it wasn’t all the blitzing or pressure: it was his worst game even when he had a clean pocket.

The real question is: if Dak continues to play merely average, when do you play Tony Romo? Is it when they play for the No.1 seed? Is it in the playoffs? If the Cowboys lose to Tampa this week, the debate will heat up. If Prescott continues be mediocre, Garrett will have an extremely tough job in trying to decide which personnel gives him the best shot at winning important football games.

Dak’s drop-off the last two weeks is significant. Against the Vikings, he completed just 12 of 18 passes (66.6%) for 139 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs. Against the Giants, he was 17 of 37 for 165 yards (45.9%) 1 td, and 2 INT’s. Compare that to his 2016 per game averages (including last 2 games): 241 yards passing per game and a 65.8 completion rate.

As impressive as Dak’s stats for the season seem impressive still: has completed 65.8 of his passes (290 of 365) for 3139 yards, 20 TD’s, 4 INT’s.  He also has 218 yards rushing (48 attempts) and 5 TD’s. Prescott still has the 3rd highest QB rating at (102.7 dowm from 108.6) for a starting QB (after Brady and Ryan). After one week at the top of ESPN’s Total QBR rating, Dak Prescott fell back to #2. rated as the best QB in the NFL.

But none of those season stats pass the “eye test” of many of the #CowboysNation “faithful”.

Critics are saying that Dak has “hit the rookie wall” and that good coaches have “figured it out”. I am curious what Mensa thinks. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a very good defense, so the pressure will be on both Linehan and Prescott to find a way to be more successful.

The impotency of the aerial attack is even more alarming when you realize that the Cowboys actually ran the ball fairly well against the Giants (Elliott had 24 carries for 107 yards – although their 108 total yards rushing was well below their season average coming in of 155.8 yards a game).

Many of the season stats that I normally examine seem less important after the Cowboys offense has played in the last two weeks – any stats that include a 8 game streak of 400+ yards of offense would only obfuscate the realty of the last couple weeks, so I am skipping them this week.

The Raw Data (Shotgun vs. under center)

Where my stats are different from the official ones, it’s because I included plays that were nullified by penalty. Similarly, if a play was a designed pass, but Dak took off after being under pressure, I included that as an attempt to pass, not a rush. The idea here is to try understand Scott Linehan’s play-calling.

Given the frequency that Dallas runs when Dak is under center and throw when he is in the shotgun, offensive balance starts with limiting to the use of the shotgun to around 50%.

Against the Vikings 2 weeks ago, despite being a tight game, Scott Linehan was able to continue a good balance between the run and pass.

The Cowboys ran 68 plays against the Giants (they only ran 51 against the Vikings).

Dak Prescott lined up under center 26 times and in the shotgun 42 times.

There have only been two games this season in which Scott Linehan put Dak Prescott in the shotgun significantly more times than under center. The first was the previous game against the Giants (27 snaps under center and 50 snaps from the shotgun). The 2nd time was against the Eagles (27 snaps under center but 53 from shotgun).

Of the 26 times that Dak was under center, they ran it 20 times and attempted 6 playaction passes. This continues the trend of never asking Dak to drop straight back from under center and pass.

Of the 42 times Dak was in the shotgun, they passed the ball 32 times, ran it 6 times, and tried 4 play-action passes. .

Coming into the game against the Giants, the Cowboys had run the ball on more than 80% of the plays that Dak lined up under center. In New York, they ran it 77% of the time that Dak was under center. (6 play-action attempts on 26 snaps). More on the play-action aspect of Prescott’s game in an upcoming post.

1st Downs History

The Dallas Cowboys offensive success in 2016 (and their ability to stay balanced offensively) is based on two things: the ability to run the ball for 4+ yards on 1st down even when defenses are expecting it and the ability to use that 1st down success to be effective using play-action.  Scott Linehan has stayed devoted to running the ball on first down since week 2, even in tight games.

Coming in to the New York Giants game, the Cowboys had run 352 plays on 1st down. Dak was under center 247 times and in the shotgun 105 plays.

Of the 247 times Dak lined up under center on 1st down, they ran the ball 195 times (78.9%), threw it 6 times, and tried play-action passes 46 times (18.6%).

Of the 105 times that Dak was in the shotgun on first down, they passed the ball 80 times (76.1%), ran the ball 13 times, and tried 8 play-action passes.

Adding both formations together (352 plays), the Cowboys ran the ball 208 times on 1st down (59%), threw the ball 86 times (24.4%), and tried 54 playaction passes (15.3%).  There were also at least 4 designed runs by Dak Prescott off the play-action (all from shotgun).

1st Downs vs New York

To a certain extent, the Cowboys offense struggled against the Giants for the same reason they did against the Vikings: they failed to gain 4+ yards on too many 1st downs. Of their 26 plays on 1st down, 16 of those plays netted 4 yards or less (11 runs, four incomplete passes, and one completion for about 4 yards).

There is a direct correlation between the inability to run for 5+ yards 0n 1st down and the fact that the Cowboys were an embarrassing 1 out of 15 for 3rd down attempts (they were a dismal 1 of 9 on 3rd down conversions against Minnesota) despite converting 47% of their 3rd down attempts before Minnesota.

The Dallas Cowboys ran 26 plays on 1st down against the G-Men.  The only game in which they had fewer 1st down plays was Cincinnati (25).

Dak was under center for 18 of the 26 plays on 1st down: 15 runs and 3 play-action passes.

Dak was in the shotgun for 8 plays on 1st down: 2 runs, 5 passes, 1 play-action passes. After the Philadelphia game, Dallas has alternated back and forth between 0 and 1 run from the shotgun each week.


We will post the rest of this weekly series (3rd & short, play-action, and Dak under pressure) in due course.


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 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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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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