Don't look now, but the Cowboys offense might have healed its temporary issues that Games #8-12 presented. That lull, which surely was primarily Tony Romo-health-related had some of us wondering if what we saw through the 6-1 start had been countered by the NFL minds and that perhaps it wasn't the "new normal". Instead, maybe they were being defended differently now that the tactics have been studied and the onus was on the Cowboys to figure out a new plan. 3rd Down conversions and Red Zone scoring both had dropped into a month slump after nearly all of September and October moving along smoothly.
Then, after the Thanksgiving disaster, the Cowboys have responded with 2 fantastic showings against the Bears and the Eagles on consecutive road games to start December, and the ship appears to have been righted. The Cowboys have converted 10 3rd Downs in the last 2 weeks and even better have rolled off 7 touchdowns in their last 9 trips to the Red Zone restoring their good standing in the league. They are back to #1 in 3rd Down percentage at 48% on the year (unbelievable upgrade from 2013) and #3 in Red Zone Scoring. Add to that 9 giveaways during Weeks 8-12 dropping to just 1 giveaway in the last 2 weeks and we can safely say that the Cowboys have responded offensively in a way that you had to hope; with determination and attention to detail to not let the season slip away. They haven't won anything yet, but their offense is back to looking like an offense that can lead them in exciting places down the stretch. The same offense that we said after Week 7 could be capable of leading this team deep into the playoffs.
I don't want to get into the "Cowboys MVP" discussion again as a matter of starting a Romo vs Murray argument, but for me, I always defer to the QB because of the importance of 3rd Down conversions for any offense. Many elite RBs have elite seasons (Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson come quickly to mind), but their team cannot move the ball consistently because their QBs were not able to convert 3rd and 5 into a fresh set of downs. But, if you have a QB who can flip a 3rd and 12 into a 1st down, then you can go places in January. Well, Tony Romo leads the NFL in 3rd Down passer rating at a ridiculous 122.3 and in 1st Down % on his 3rd Down pass attempts at 56.1%. He has had a remarkable year and finally, we can say that the slide appears to be over as the conversions are back.
Since we are talking offense in this study, I do want to take a moment to once again address the issues about how the offense is all tied together and that every part of the machine affects every other part. There is no separate scoring for "run offense" and "pass offense". Yes, they keep the statistics for each category, but it seems like that serves to confuse the casual fan on what worked and what didn't. It seems for years we would look at 42 runs for 115 yards (2.7 yards per carry!) and surmise that the run game was a disaster. We would not calculate anything else into that opinion. Simply runs attempted and yards accumulated. The end. Running game obviously was a failure on Sunday Night in Philadelphia.
In fact, I even heard noted media minds yesterday suggest that the Eagles shut down the Cowboys offensive line and "give Murray fits". Well, I will file that away with discussions that Jason Witten is having a horrible year because his yardage is way down. I think both of those opinions miss the entire point of offense that faces Scott Linehan every week. The object of his game is to put points on the board by utilizing whatever pieces he must to do so. End of story. Not to prove he can run the ball or that he can pass the ball or that he can make sure Witten supplements your fantasy team with the proper amount of points. If, he needs Murray to set the Eagles up for a kill-shot over the top or Witten to run a decoy pattern to free Dez of the safety, then there are no isolated stats that prove it or credit them, but the offense has absolutely benefited from the whole operation to make those plays possible.
So, I would like to say that the Eagles did NOT shut the Cowboys down on Sunday night on the ground. They "sold out" to stop the run, but in doing so, they over-exposed the secondary with unsound ideas in coverage and ended up getting ripped apart for 38 points at home. So, personally, I think the only way to look at that is the Eagles over-staffing their run defense and costing themselves the price of doing business. And for me, that only happens if the run game is a major threat. Do I think that those Bryant touchdowns should be credited to the running game? I do. So, would I look at 2.7 per carry and flunk the run offense on Sunday? Of course, not.
Here are the 2 plays that are nearly identical that I believe show you how a balanced offense is the most difficult offense to defend.
This is 2nd down and 10. The Cowboys ran 28 2nd downs on Sunday and ran 11 times. If you subtract the 7 occasions where they went empty backfield, then the Eagles know that the Cowboys ran 11 out of 21 times in this situation. They are quite possibly sitting on the run here - even though it is shotgun. The Cowboys are in 11 personnel.
Fletcher was continuously asked to man-cover Bryant by his coaching staff in a example of a very poor tactical idea.
The Eagles coaching staff had done this continually throughout the season, asking their secondary to not only stop the opponent, but to stop in while in base coverage against 11-personnel. On the Cowboys very next drive – again before the Eagles even had a 1st Down, the Cowboys faced a 2nd and 10 and ran out Cole Beasley in the slot with Bryant and Williams out wide. The Eagles, despite being barbecued with this very tactic at Lambeau Field a month ago and then by Seattle last week, where they put a safety on the slot man and decide to roll with a single-high safety to cover the entire center field, walked right into the furnace yet again by offering Dez Bryant the same silly treatment that they tried with Jordy Nelson.
The results were the same. The Quarterback cannot believe his eyes, tries to not be too obvious in pre-snap, looks the safety away to create the gap, and then lofts a pass into the path of his man with Fletcher trailing by a healthy margin. It seriously looks no more laborious than a warm-up drill and given that this has happened repeatedly to the Eagles, you wonder about the stubbornness of their coaching staff to continue to employ a tactic they are incapable of carrying out. It really makes you wonder what they must think of their 3rd corner, Brandon Boykin to have him on the sideline and ask their safety, Malcolm Jenkins, to run with a slot rather than just play nickel like most teams would if they continuously demonstrated that they can’t stop with 4.
Why would the Eagles stay in base coverage? Because they want to make DeMarco Murray’s day difficult by keeping 7 “bigs” in the box and sometimes walking in Jenkins to make it 8. They figure if they go to nickel, then Murray will have success and they want to make Romo have to beat them. Well, they did make Romo beat them, and he did without looking too terribly taxed to do so. Once again, 3rd and 10 with 12:55 in the 4th was the kill shot, and it was a near instant replay of the play in the 2nd Quarter. Leave Bryant on an island with Fletcher, and Romo calls the “warm-up drill” play again. Instant Replay touchdown.
Later, in a situation that must simply be a big 3rd Down conversion, the Eagles are in their nickel defense. But, they are going to blitz 5, play man-under with a single high safety. It looks like the same situation and it ends up being identical in its execution, but this is just showing Fletcher is being asked to do something he can't do.
Again, this is a warm-up drill. You cannot ask a corner to defend Dez in that scenario. Dez gets a half-step, stacks the corner, and unless there is a safety to meet him in the air, this is literally the easiest thing you can ask Dez to do. It is over.
The questions need to be whether the Cowboys offense was able to be effective as a whole. Fantasy football has caused us all to lose sight of what real football is all about. It is the ultimate team game and most the time, the players on the field know exactly that.
If, the Eagles conservatively defend Dez with 2-deep safeties over the top, these plays likely don't happen, but then DeMarco is well above 2.6 yards per attempt. The Eagles only have 11 defenders and can deploy them however they please, but their choices do have consequences.
Well, now, the weekly check on the overall availability and health of the offense was part of the game in Philadelphia and it will have ramifications moving forward. Doug Free was out for the 2nd half and will reportedly miss this week and perhaps the finale in Washington, as well with an ankle injury. This puts Jermey Parnell into the mix who has performed well in most cases he has been called upon (he did have some rough moments on Sunday), but we hesitate to guess the plan if the Cowboys were to lose another tackle to injury. We know who they have, but we certainly don't know how competent the play of Tony Hills or Donald Hawkins would be. Let's hope they don't need to find out.
Then, the hand injury to DeMarco Murray that required surgery yesterday. Again, we assume that it is minor, but most around the team expect that Sunday is not very likely. Whether this means more Dunbar or Randle has yet to be decided, but it sure seems like they trust Lance Dunbar more at this point.
STATS FOR WEEK 15 AGAINST EAGLES
The thing that really jumps off the page when you look at these stats is the average yards to go on 2nd and 3rd Down. They are as high as they have been at any time this season and this is all about those negative runs and penalties. The Cowboys had some huge 3rd Down distances on Sunday and they generally stay out of "3rd and forever". That needs to improve.
PASSING CHART - My buddy John Daigle has designed this passing chart each week. Each color represents the possession number listed in the key. The numbers are separated by the half. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 15 Summary
This chart seems to clearly indicate that Tony did his damage to the right for most of the night - in other words, to Dez's side.
DRIVE STARTERS - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here.
2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
Lots of shotgun snaps can often mean they spent plenty of time behind. The Cowboys the last 2 weeks have played with the lead a lot and the shotgun numbers have gone back down, nicely.
2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS (Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.)
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
38 plays from under center, the Cowboys ran 33 times (87%)? 35 times they were in shotgun, they passed 30 times (86%)? Those are some pretty convincing tendencies, coach.
Against the Eagles, they tried play-action, but the Eagles were sitting on it each time and Romo had to check down.
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
Wk 7: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 TD, 1 FD
Wk 8: 5/6, 92 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 9: 1/1, 1 Yd
Wk 10: 2/3, 21 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 12: 4/4, 86 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 13: 2/3, 11 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 14: 5/6, 85 Yds, 4 FD, 1 Sack
Wk 15: 0/1, 1 Sack
2014 Total: 39/58, 67 Cmp%, 648 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 25 FD, 6 Sack - QB Rating: 111.8
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 35 Passes against Philadelphia
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: TEN Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47%
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34%
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26%
Wk 6: SEA Blitzed Dallas 5/33 - Blitzed 15%
Wk 7: NYG Blitzed Dallas 5/25 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 8: WAS Blitzed Dallas 21/40 – Blitzed 52%
Wk 9: AZ Blitzed Dallas 13/36 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 10: JAX Blitzed Dallas 6/29 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 12: NYG Blitzed Dallas 3/27 - Blitzed 11%
Wk 13: PHI Blitzed Dallas 8/33 - Blitzed 24%
Wk 14: CHI Blitzed Dallas 7/27 - Blitzed 25%
Wk 15: PHI Blitzed Dallas 8/35 - Blitzed 22%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 122/455 - Blitzed 26%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%
I have to admit, the Eagles did not blitz as much as I thought on passing downs, but they made up for it with a ton of run blitzes.
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:
There is no doubt that after a win like this, the offense can feel great about what it was able to do. Make no mistake, the Eagles defense was very good for much of the night and nothing came easily. The pass protection was in a real battle and the running game was unable to gash the Eagles in both meetings. But, overall, to put those 2 drives together at very crucial junctures of the game were things of beauty.
They scored 7 when they got into the red zone, they converted enough 3rd downs to be dangerous, and their QB was locked in and burned the Eagles for unsound ideas.
Now, they must refocus their sights on a tricky matchup with AFC power, Indianapolis, in a game that needs to be won - perhaps without the help of your Right Tackle and the NFL's leading rusher.
But, they do go into it with the offense having regained their swagger after 2 powerful shows of strength in the last 2 weeks on the road. Now, they must figure out why they can average 33 points per game on the road and 21 points per game at home. Surely, Tony Romo's health has conspired against the home schedule, but they need to get 30 to feel good on Sunday and will need to have a big offensive day to have a chance to stay on course.