The Dallas Cowboys have not inspired the confidence we’d like to have as the season winds down and the playoffs edge closer. Dallas rode into Sunday on a four-game winning streak, but the Arizona Cardinals were the toughest opponent Dallas has faced in more than a calendar month, so while things seemed fine in the standings, this game was a test of whether Dallas was ready for the playoffs. And it did not go too great.
The Cowboys lost, of course, but this is more about how they did than the result itself. Dallas trailed for 53 minutes of this 60-minute football game. The offense managed only seven points through three quarters of play, and one half of the offensive game plan, in particular, explains why.
The number to know for the Cowboys’ Week 17 loss to the Cardinals is 2.1. That’s the combined yards per carry average of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
The Cowboys’ rushing attack was, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Dak Prescott finished the day as the leading rusher, with five carries for 20 yards, but four of those carries were scrambles on called pass plays. On designed run plays, Elliott and Pollard managed only a combined 25 yards on 12 carries, with a single first down between them.
Overall, the offense played about as well as Arizona’s. Both teams converted a little over 75 percent of their series. That is, 75 percent of the time that they had a 1st-and-10, they earned a new set of downs or scored a touchdown. Here’s the big difference: on the eight times Dallas started a series off with a run play, they earned a new set of downs on the series only 50 percent of the time. They just couldn’t get the ground game going.
The blame lies on more than just those two backs, however. Football is a team sport, and teasing out how to divide the credit for a play among the 11 players on the field is an ongoing, never-ending effort. In general, most analysts who focus on the statistical side of things tend to credit the play of the offensive line more than the running back. And, as it turns out, the Cowboys offensive line was indeed much worse at run blocking than usual.
Dallas has the second-ranked run-blocking crew in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus. On Sunday, four out of those five starters received worse run-blocking grades than their season average. That right side, in particular, had themselves a really rough day. It was Zack Martin’s third-worst run-blocking grade of the season and La’el Collins’ worst grade of the season. Normally, running behind those two isn’t much of an issue. Elliott and Pollard have a higher yards-per-carry and first-down rate running to the right than they do running to the left or up the middle. Take that away, and the run game struggles.
The NFL, as it stands today, is a passing league or a quarterback-centric league—however you want to put it. But rushing is still very much a part of it for the simple reason that teams don’t throw the ball on every down, so running repeatedly and failing can torpedo an offense.
A great way to see this in action is through what Daniel Houston (better known as Cowboys Stats & Graphics on Twitter) calls the “Feed Zeke threshold loss.”
We’ve discussed EPA on StrongSide before, but the main thing to remember is that it measures performance using points scored as the unit of measurement. Elliot’s rushes combined for a total of -5.2 expected points. Elliott and Pollard combined for a -7.5 EPA on their carries—over a full touchdown’s worth of points. And this, of course, came in a three-point loss.
This isn’t meant to imply that the team should have pivoted entirely away from the run game. It’s more descriptive than anything else. The team ran the ball, they failed at it, and that contributed significantly to their loss.
Looking forward, the question is whether the Cowboys can get that element of their offense back on track, because the pass offense has diminished significantly since the bye week. Dak Prescott was a top-10 quarterback as measured by EPA/play through the first six weeks of the season. Since the bye, he’s dropped all the way down to 20th. If the run game isn’t working, either, then this offense just can’t compete with the rest of the teams in the NFC come playoff time.
Dallas doesn’t even necessarily need the running game to be elite; if they can get it back to their season average, they’ve got a chance. Looking at the rushing performance each week, it’s safe to say this last one was an anomaly. They shouldn’t be this bad at running the ball in the coming weeks.
The two-headed backfield is supposed to be a strength of the offense, but it was the polar opposite in Week 17. Running the ball for 2.1 yards a clip simply will not do, especially when so many of those runs aren’t even in short-yardage situations. Putting the team in 2nd-and-long or 3rd-and-long situations makes life harder on the entire offense. The run game needs to get fixed, fast, otherwise Dallas will need those elite performances from Prescott to win going forward. Those have been few and far between lately, and they won’t come any easier without Michael Gallup, who has been lost for the season with a torn ACL.
The Cowboys have a short week to fix their ground game. We’ll see Saturday night, in a game against a tough defensive line in Philadelphia, if they’re able to turn things around.