There is plenty to love about this Dallas Cowboys offense right now. For the fourth consecutive week, they controlled time of possession in a game where they followed their blueprint for success. For the fourth consecutive week, they attempted more than 30 running plays behind an offensive line that is now officially in a groove.
They were over 70 plays again, and this time they had another 400-yard day with a backup quarterback. They don't turn the ball over, and you are looking at a top-10 team in red zone efficiency and the top team in the league on third downs.
Let me repeat what I said last week -- this offense is not "good for having a backup QB." No. From a statistical standpoint, this offense has been performing at an above-average level by any standards.
We shall grant you that they have not played the Steel Curtain four times, but they play who is simply put on their schedule. I guess my job today is to demonstrate that this running game could work against anyone if they are going to perform like this.
... Which brings us to a fun little game of figuring out where the credit goes. Should we all marvel at the great attributes of Ezekiel Elliott and what he has brought to the team? Or should we go on about this offensive line? What about the people who drafted all of them -- including the draft-day acquisitions of reserves who may have to play in a pinch like Chaz Green and Ron Leary? Can we stop giving Bill Callahan credit for everything on the ground?
These are all topics on sports radio, and since that is where my primary employment lies, I have engaged in all of them. And I certainly made the case that I believe this offensive line is so top-notch that an ordinary running back should be able to have great success with it. I still believe that to be true, and the evidence continues to stack up that DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Elliott have all had various levels of great games behind them. In other words, pretty much anyone they have ever "fed" by giving them the ball more than a dozen times has ultimately broken through.
Sure, there were others who never popped -- Christine Michael, for instance -- but I submit that was because there were no games where Michael ever had more than five carries.
Now, like Emmitt Smith before him, we can safely argue that a lesser running back could have had great success behind the lines they were blessed with. The question then becomes whether the difference is worth the price of the investment. Emmitt made it well worth the price and now Zeke is going to spend the next several years convincing us that he can do it, too.
Sunday, we saw the Cowboys follow the script. Pound the rock. Pound it early and often. Not because every run is a thing of beauty, but because it puts the defense on its heels. Every carry is a body blow. And over three hours, those take a toll. It tests the durability and the conditioning level of a defense. The 49ers are no joke and they are very stout against the run. They have one of the best middle linebackers in the business, and he had eight tackles and a sack before going down with an injury. And when he left the game, the Cowboys went from good to great on the ground.
Again, as you will see, Bowman wasn't blowing up every play. The Cowboys were doing fine, but all three of their biggest runs came after his exit in the third quarter.
Let's look at some tape:
OK, first run of the game -- 14:20 left in the first. This is a zone right play where Travis Frederick and Zack Martin put on a clinic. They both have to get combo blocks at the line to push their guys to Ron Leary and Free, respectively. Then, both can get to the second level to get the linebackers, too. I mean, this is dominant. So good from Martin that he launches No. 92, Quinton Dial, into midair and then gets on No. 57, Michael Wilhoite. Frederick pushes No. 64, Mike Purcell, on to Leary and is on No. 53, Bowman. This is a massive lane for Elliott on an inside zone and he gets eight easy yards. Beasley's guy fights back to make the stop (No. 41, Antoine Bethea), but you can tell it is going to be that kind of day.
Late second quarter now. This is the play after that big third-down flag on San Francisco. Shotgun run and again, I don't want to make this all about Frederick and Martin, but again, they both stick out here as flat-out beasts. Green and Leary are winning, too, but just look at No. 72 get his combo and then go run over a linebacker, too. Elliott just reads Frederick's butt and cuts the other direction from where he turns. Meanwhile, Martin has no chip to help him get leverage against big No. 91, DeForest Buckner. But he still turns him and drives him back. This is a clinic.
Next play. Now, San Francisco sees how it's going to be, so they are charging on this play. That sets up the cutback after Frederick pushes Bowman to the left -- Zeke knows to plant his foot and get north right off his back again. Look at Leary help combo Green's guy and then go get a linebacker. I think Leary was great Sunday and is showing that there is virtually no drop-off from La'el Collins right now. In fact, you could argue that he was wronged to lose his job, to be honest. The theme continues here -- no front-seven defenders are even touching Elliott, let alone making a tackle.
This one is great. Mid-third quarter. Bowman is out and the middle is even more wide open now. No. 50, Nick Bellore, tries to replace Bowman, but Martin is untouched to go get him and take him to the sideline. Frederick and Leary win easily, and then you see the juice of Zeke, who knows where he is headed and how to get there fast. Holy cow. This is another awesome run where the defense isn't even close to dealing with it.
Watch Jason Witten -- just watch him. Don't crack a smile. I dare you. Martin gets jumped, but recovers. Frederick almost beats Zeke to the end zone. The dam has broken.
I just showed you a half-dozen plays. In almost every case, the O-line is winning by so much that all the running back has to do is run the ball through the wide-open spaces. Leary just knocks Buckner, the 2016 first-round draft pick, into the stands. Dominant. Wow.
That is why I call this offense so sustainable. When you can do that, there isn't a team on your schedule that isn't impressed by this film. They know that San Francisco is good at run defense.
So you are down two starters and Dez Bryant. The 49ers are going to stack the box, and then what?
Well, you just saw.
You see the numbers. You have room for improvement and Prescott had some accuracy issues, but overall, this is such a solid road performance for the offense.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
As you can see (thanks to this chart from John Daigle), the only accuracy issues were on those right sideline comebacks and out routes. I am not too concerned about it. The red dot in the middle of the field on that hash mark was a near interception. But, another quarterback clean sheet.
But where are my deep shots off play-action? If I'm the Bengals or Packers, I have to assume that is coming soon. When you are running like this, the safeties have to know the deep shot is right behind these runs.
We have seen less variance in personnel groupings with Prescott as the quarterback and we understand that those might be connected and they might be what they were planning on this season anyway -- especially with Escobar not completely fit and back from his major injury and James Hanna still out. In other words, they are rather limited at tight end and therefore, the obsession of Jason Garrett to roll out the 12 personnel offense is on a limited basis, too.
That is fine, because the league believes in 11 personnel, and now, the Cowboys are prepared to use it to their advantage as well. They needed an all-purpose back and a slot threat. They have both, and it shows when they can run and pass out of 11 personnel with a total of 42 snaps (split between 19 runs for 123 yards and 23 passes for 147 yards). All told, 11 personnel gets you 42 plays for 270 yards. Very impressive, young Cowboys.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This offense did not come out of the locker room and dominate from the opening kickoff. They needed some time to find their rhythm, but they won Sunday on the strength of their offense without Tyron Smith, Tony Romo, La'el Collins and Dez Bryant.
When that much of your offense is not with you and you win a road game in the NFL against a stiff and talented defense, you give everyone an "A" and move on to the next week.
Very impressive, gentlemen. Scott Linehan deserves some fine praise as does this front office.