Before the season began, I posed a bunch of questions about how Dak Prescott would play and how Scott Linehan and Garrett would adjust the offense to compensate for the loss of Romo (click here to read to read that post). Each week, I continue trying to answer those questions.
My first set of answers regarding the Cleveland Browns game was published on Monday.
After the Cowboys had so much success with using the play-action bootleg in the first couple games, it seemed like defenses were anticipating that from Dak and therefore (almost) sacking him on a couple bootlegs per game. The pressure that Dak has faced on bootlegs has been drastically reduced in the most recent few games. Against the Packers, Eagles and Browns, there was only one (or less) play-action attempt on which Dak was immediately under pressure from a defender.
The Cowboys play-action continues to be so effective that it is arguably the second biggest reason for their success (after successfully running the ball on first down).
The Cowboys ran 8 play-action passes against the Browns. Linehan called 6 play-action against the Packers, 10 against the Eagles if you include fake handoffs followed by Dak running and the fumble, 7 vs Bengals and against the 49ers, 7 against the Bears, 12 versus the Redskins, and 9 against the Giants.
Linehan continues to run the play-action almost exclusively when Dak is under center (except vis PHI), and he uses it predominantly in two specific situations: 1st and 10, and 2 & goal.
Despite being open to accusations of being predictable, Scott Linehan continues to get everything you want out of the play-action pass: the occasional big gain of 25-40 yards, TD’s from inside the 10, and conversions of key 3rd and 4th & 1.
Against the Browns, 7 of the play-action attempts were from under center, while only 1 was from the shotgun. (Against Green Bay, all 6 of the play-action passes were attempted after Dak lined up under center, but against Philly, they tried the play-action from the shotgun 4 times.)
Scott Linehan called play-action passes 4 times on 1st & 10, twice on 2nd & goal, once on 4th & 1, and once on 2nd & 23 (that was the one time from the shotgun).
Dak Prescott completed all four play-action passes that were attempted on 1st down (Swaim for 3, Williams for 15, Witten for 15, Witten for 35). Although it may look like long throws on 1st down off the play-action, they are not medium or deep throws: they are exclusively short throws with long runs after the catch. Credit the Cowboys for excellent downfield blocking on these throws and some nifty running (even Witten was breaking tackles and looking nimble).
The Cowboys scored a TD to Escobar on a play-action pass, they also converted a 4th down attempt on a play-action pass to Swaim. The other two play-action passes: a Dak throwaway on 2nd and goal and a 5-yard completion to Beasley on 2nd & 23.
On the play-action attempts, Dak was 7-of-8 for 84 yards and a TD.
Bryan Broaddus pointed out this week that the Cowboys success moving the ball on 1st & 10 is a major reason for their offensive success:
“How efficient has this offense been on first down? Dallas has run 249 first down plays and on 132 of them they’ve managed a gain of 4 or more yards. That is 53 percent of their snaps, which ranks them fifth in the league.”
But, he is missing the real beauty of Dallas’ success on 1st down: all year long the Cowboys have lined Dak up under center and run the ball on 1st down.
Against Green Bay, the Cowboys ran 29 plays on 1st down. They rushed the ball 20 times and passed in 9 times (6 from shotgun, 3 play-action) on first down. Even against the Eagles, a game which they trailed by 10 points in the 2nd half, the Cowboys ran more often than passed on 1st down (15 rushes, 11 passes, 2 play-action pass attempts).
This week, the Cowboys ran 30 first down plays against the Cleveland Browns. Dak was lined up under center for 26 of the 30 plays on 1st down: 21 of those plays were runs, 4 were playaction passes, and one was a quick WR screen. The Cowboys lined up in the shotgun 4 times on 1st down and passes all 4 times.
In total, the Cowboys ran the ball 21 times on 1st down, threw it 5 times, and tried 4 play-action passes.
This is the genius of Jason Garrett’s offense: defenses know that they will almost always put Dak under center on 1st down, and that they only have to defend the play-action, not a standard drop back, and that the Cowboys run out of this QB formation about 80-90% of the time, and the defenses, at least seven NFL defense, have not been able to consistently stop the Cowboys rushing attack on 1st down.
The Cowboys are not successful on 1st down because of great coaching or genius play-calling, they are successful on 1st down because the players are good enough to execute a simple running game-plan against almost any defense.
The 2016 Dallas Cowboys are starting to look more and more like the Jimmy Johnson team of the 90’s. The 90’s were beautiful, over and over we got to see the Cowboys, line up and run variations of the same basic running plays that everyone knew they would run. Teams just couldn’t stop them because they were more talented and they executed better as a unit. This current squad is building the same persona: they are going to pound the ball on first down even when the opponent expects it, because most teams can not stop their rushing attack. And if a defense does manage to stop the rushing attack early in the game, they will keep running the ball in the faith that eventually they will wear you down and/or Elliott will break off a big run.
3rd and Short
My decision to try to track Scott Linehan’s play calling on 3rd and short was premised on what I perceived to be a serious flaw in his history of play calling on 3rd and short with Romo at QB.
When Romo was the QB, it seemed like Linehan went to the shotgun, and then emptied the backfield far too frequently on 3rd and short. I can’t count the number of times I cursed Scott Linehan for abandoning even the illusion of running the ball when it was 3rd and 3-or-less.
Linehan doesn’t do that very often with Prescott at the helm.
The Dallas Cowboys were an impressive 8 for 12 in converting 3rd downs against the Browns. They were also 2 for 2 on 4th down attempts.
Running Lucky Whitehead through the backfield, like he might take the handoff on a jet-sweep, has become a staple for the Cowboys on 3rd and short.
The Cowboys faced 3rd and short (3 yards or less) 4 times against the Browns. They converted on all of their attempts, except the 3rd & 3 they faced in the 4th quarter (a 3 yard run from Whitehead resulted in a 4th & 1 which was successfully converted).
The Cowboys converted 3 times on 3rd and short: a pitch to Elliot, a run by Morris, and a catch by Beasley (6 yards and the only 3rd and short play in which Dak was in the shotgun).
The Cowboys continued their habit of giving L. Whitehead one rush per game. He has now carried 6 times in 6 different games for 65 yards. Whitehead’s stats do not reveal how important he is to the short-yardage game: the threat of him taking the ball on the jet-sweep on 3rd and short is a significant part of Linehan’s success on 3rd and 4th down.
J. Witten led all receivers with 8 catches for 135 yards. The Cowboys have had 4 different leading receivers in their 8 games (Witten vs Giants, Dez vs Washington, Williams vs Bears, Beasley vs SF, Williams vs Cinci, Williams vs GB, Bryant vs Philly).
Cole Beasley continues to lead the Cowboys in receptions (43) and yards (499) and TD’s (4). Jason Witten is 2nd in all receiving categories (38 catches, 424 yards, 2 TD’s)
For at least the 3rd or 4th time this season, the Cowboys had only one “3-and-out” series on offense.
Dallas punted the ball just twice against the Browns.
Remember when people thought JJ Wilcox might not make the team? I’ve always advocated that the defense needs a few players with Wilcox’s attitude. I am looking for him to make a statement with Bell or Brown or both this Sunday.
The Steelers will be a big test. If the OL can establish a strong running game, it will be reasonable to assume this offense is good enough to do that in almost any NFL stadium. If the defense can contain the Steelers version of the the triplets (Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell) in Pittsburgh, then everyone will have to admit the Cowboys defense is much better than people thought.
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 dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers.
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