The Cowboys offense will need to make changes this season
They can’t surprise or overpower opponents, but there are fixes Dallas can make
The Dallas Cowboys are further away from their Super Bowl hopes than it appears. To win in the playoffs, their offense needs modification. And I don’t think they realize there is a problem. I do, and I have the answer. But, before we get to that answer, I have a different question. Why did the Cowboys get beaten so badly by the Denver Broncos?
Answer: Man-to-man coverage.
The Broncos defensive backs were able to cover the Cowboys receivers in man coverage, but the Cowboys defensive backs couldn’t do the same with the Broncos receivers. That’s the simplest explanation for much of what happened in that game.
The Broncos have three cornerbacks who excel in man coverage in Pro Bowlers Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. and fourth-year pro Bradley Roby. And because of injuries, the Cowboys were without three of their best corners for much of the game. But there was more to it than that. The Broncos offense made it hard on the Cowboys defensive backs by running routes with dramatic changes of direction, like the pivot route, and using tight splits to force the corners out of press coverage. Pivot routes are a nightmare for corners and develop quickly, neutralizing pass rushers.
The Broncos also ran a few play-action bootlegs to get quarterback Trevor Siemian away from the pressure, forcing the Cowboys corners to cover longer.
On the other side, the Broncos defensive backs didn’t have to cover for long, thanks to Broncos outside linebackers Von Miller and Shaquil Barrett. It seemed like one or both of them were pressuring Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on at least half of his dropbacks. Surprisingly, Dallas ran very few play-action bootlegs, which is normally an offensive staple for them. And when Prescott did have time, the routes his wide receivers were running were simple one-break routes that didn’t challenge the Denver defensive backs.
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On some early third downs, Dallas did run some stack combinations that are tough for defensive backs in man, but they didn’t come back to them later in the game.
Often, Prescott ended up just throwing the ball in the direction of Dez Bryant hoping he would make a play. Bryant did catch a touchdown pass, but the Denver defensive backs were the playmakers for most of the game. Harris and Talib each had interceptions. Talib could have had three, but he couldn’t hold on to two other interceptable Prescott passes.
It is no secret that Dallas runs the ball well, so its opponents often play man coverage on early downs, which ensures that the defense will outnumber the Cowboys in the run game. So, wisely, the Cowboys have been calling play-action passes on first down. When those are effective, the opposing defensive coordinator has a dilemma: Stay in man and put pressure on your defensive backs or give them help and rely on the front players to shed a block and tackle Ezekiel Elliott. And even if the defense chooses to keep extra defenders in the box, the Cowboys stick with the run, and it normally works.
But on Sunday, they were down 18 points after the Broncos’ first drive of the second half, so the Cowboys had to abandon their running attack. Their defense does deserve a considerable amount of blame. The only reason the Cowboys had a first-half touchdown was Dallas defensive end Demarcus Lawrence’s sack fumble of Siemian, which set up a 3-yard touchdown drive. Without that, the Cowboys’ first-half offense would have produced only three points and 97 total yards.
Fix the Cowboys Offense
I am not overreacting to one bad game. The Cowboys’ offensive schemes need to progress from what made them formidable last season. A year ago, they had a dominant offensive line, an exciting running back and a rookie quarterback. So they relied on their punishing and explosive rushing attack to protect their mediocre defense and set up play-action and clear reads for the young quarterback. The wonderawful result was a 13-3 season. Wonderful for the fans and the team’s confidence, but awful for the evolution of the offense.
Coming into this season, the strengths of their offense are different, but their strategy has changed very little. Their offensive line is weaker after having to replace two of the five starters and their running back’s future is uncertain, but they have an experienced and confident second-year quarterback. The offense needs to be more Prescott-dependent. But just giving him more opportunities to throw the ball is not enough. The next time the Cowboys face a top-tier defense, Scott Linehan and the offensive staff must produce a better game plan … or just read this:
- Run more no-huddle, but not hurry-up. Allow Prescott to get to the line with plenty of time to interrogate the defense with shifts and motions. Trust that he will figure out the defense and get the team into the best play.
- When facing teams that want to stop the run with man coverage on early downs, use play-action to attack the safeties and linebackers, rather than the corners. In man coverage, corners will ignore the play-action and cover their wide receiver. But linebackers and safeties will bite on a good run action, pulling them out of position to cover the back or tight end for whom they are responsible.
- To run the ball effectively, use a physical wide receiver like Bryant to crack-block the safety. If a team is determined to outnumber you in the box, then it will have an unblocked tackler — but it doesn’t get to choose which player. With a tight split at the snap of the ball, the wide receiver goes inside and blocks one of the box defenders. That leaves the cornerback as the unblocked player who must tackle Elliott.
- Once you’ve run the crack a couple of times, you can run play-action from the same look. When the wide receiver angles in to block the safety, the corner will sprint toward the line to fill replace the safety’s run responsibility. Then the wide receiver can continue uncovered, running a deep crossing or deep corner route.
- On third downs against man coverage, use stacks and bunches to execute rub routes.
- Or use motion to create a favorable match for Cole Beasley and give him deceptive routes to run. Although Bryant is a better overall receiver, Beasley is quicker and much better at deceptive route running. Also, third down is a good time to target tight end Jason Witten on a double mover versus a linebacker.
- Speaking of tight ends, there is no rule that requires a team to have three wide receivers in on third down. If the defense is playing man coverage and has a tenacious pass rusher, the Cowboys could bring in a second tight end and keep both tight ends in to block. That’ll give the two wide receivers more time and space to get open.
The Cowboys probably won’t make many improvements to their offense. And it may not hurt their record for the next several weeks. But in the second half of the season, when they face better teams, they’ll wish they had made some additions.