In the week leading up to Minnesota, we spent quite a bit of time discussing how the Cowboys had one of their worst days possible on defense against Washington and still won.
They allowed the Redskins to run up 500 yards of offense, never sacked Kirk Cousins, nor did they force a single turnover. And they still won.
We discussed how that was a fortuitous conclusion to a really tough day, and that they should like to avoid similar experiences in the near future.
Well, this occasion, seven days later, was nearly an opposite experience.
The offense -- a group that has had almost no days all season when anything appeared difficult to them -- sputtered all night long and looked vulnerable in many ways against a fired-up Vikings defense that forced Dallas into discomfort routinely.
Behold, the results:
-- Dallas scored a season-low 17 points on offense (including a special teams-aided touchdown).
-- Dallas totaled a season-low 264 total yards.
-- Dallas turned the ball over twice (tying a season high for turnovers).
-- Dallas converted a season-low one third down. Eleven percent.
-- Dallas won.
It really is quite a year when your stinkers go for victories, but given the fragile nature of wonderful seasons, we should begin to examine some of the issues that appear to be present as this team heads down the stretch. It isn't that we should freak out or anything. But this is a football organization that had a 13-3 season in 2007 and 12-4 season in 2014, when they went to the playoffs and were dismissed before the NFC Championship Game on both occasions.
That can happen. You can have amazing seasons that are dismantled in just under three hours.
With that in mind, what Minnesota did to provide a blueprint to certain potential playoff opponents must, at least, give one pause.
The Cowboys have been a dominant rushing team all season. Things have gone very well for them on the ground, which we believe is the foundation of what they like to accomplish. However, it should be noted that a disturbing trend has formed regarding their success rates since the injury to Geoff Swaim, the blocking tight end from Texas.
Swaim tore his pectoral muscle against Pittsburgh. Before that day, the Cowboys were getting a majority of their running game from multiple-tight end sets. Since then, Dallas has been trying to figure out a way around this obstacle because it makes its offense so much more powerful.
Why? Why do you think running with multiple tight ends is a big deal?
Because, when you are in a multiple-tight end set -- 12, 13, 21 (if a tight end is lined up as a fullback) or 22 personnel, you will see the defense attempt to defend you in their base personnel. They will not have a fifth defensive back on the field because they realize how difficult it is to stop the run being outsized so badly. Now that Swaim is out, there is a lot of the offense that is now trying to be replicated by Gavin Escobar, who, unfortunately, blocks like a wide receiver sometimes. If you make him block a linebacker or a defensive end, we see his issues bubble to the surface.
So the Cowboys are left with the unenviable choice of either trying to get Escobar to reach Swaim's level of blocking, or rip out a big part of the playbook that got the Cowboys to where they were when leaving Pittsburgh.
What you will find below gives you an idea of what we are talking about. This is just raw yardage numbers, but I didn't want to complicate things too much. You can see, though, when the Cowboys declared power runs by running two tight ends onto the field, the defenses did not have much success between Week 3, when the offense figured out how to get Ezekiel Elliott going, and Week 9, when Swaim got hurt -- with the lone exception of the Eagles' impressive showing.
Since then, the power runs have really slowed to almost nothing.
This doesn't mean they can't run at all. It just means a lot of it now will come from 11 personnel, when teams are not outsized on defense and a team like Minnesota (or Seattle) is not going to be manhandled in the same way.
It isn't a devastating issue, but it certainly is one to think about moving forward.
WEEKLY DATA - MINNESOTA
The numbers above are just not very good at all. Only 13 first downs. Look at the average yards-to-go on third down! Over 10! Too many penalties and no success on the early downs. Basically, this is the type of day we expected to encounter on a regular basis with a rookie quarterback.
This is what an overwhelmed offense vs. an elite defense looks like. Luckily, the Cowboys have not run into this much this season.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
Wow, that is a very careful throw chart. Dak Prescott refuses to risk bad things in a game like that, which I am sure came at the hands of the coaches offering a game plan. They knew odds were very good that if the Cowboys could hold the ball, they would eventually win in a very hostile situation.
Then, the ball started to come loose. Lucky Whitehead fumbled. Elliott fumbled (and the play was overturned). Penalties and sacks, and then a quarterback strip fumble. It was all very chaotic, which made the offense be even more careful.
I think you need to make sure to include Jason Witten in the middle to occupy the safeties more. They had one connection brought back for an Elliott holding penalty.
Above, note the production from each personnel grouping. This is something to keep an eye on. We don't fully know how much of that is the loss of a player, or how much of it has to do with the situation and opponent. But from here, it looks like the Cowboys' success is coming out of shotgun, when many of the runs are from 11 personnel. Spread them out and use the space. Trouble is, I don't know if that is the recipe to win in the playoffs, when smash-mouth football was the Cowboys' best move.
Let's look at the video:
That is an early run from 12 personnel that did not count. But both tight ends did a nice job and Zeke gets outside and hits the turbo. The issue here was a call on Free for holding the linebacker, Eric Kendricks (No. 54). I think that's a horrible call, and the linebacker sold it by acting like he was held. A truly ridiculous call, in my opinion. I know Free has struggled, but this is not a hold and it alters the game significantly.
This is third and 13. Prescott was phenomenal with his feet in this game. Imagine what a dual threat you have when a quarterback can do this against that defense on third and long. Very impressive work here.
Deep ball to Dez Bryant. The one really big offensive play in the game. We talk all season about how Dez has the same move over and over, so how do they let him get that DIG every time? It is a 15-yard route that takes a sharp turn to the inside of the field. The deep in. The Dez Bryant signature route. Well, here is Harrison Smith getting ready to jump that and Dez has a double move. Smith is awesome, but the Cowboys set him up with a season's worth of film and Dak delivers a nice ball that required a great catch. A little less on the ball and that might have been a touchdown. But this is pretty great as it is.
Look at the protection on the same play. This also is out of empty, which I would like to see the Cowboys do more if they are unable to power-run. Spread them out, but they have to figure out how to use Zeke as a receiver more if they do this. That is the downside.
Really rough night for Free. It appears this is becoming more and more of an issue. They just don't have very good pass protection from the right tackle anymore. I really appreciate his career, but we have seen a decline in 2016. Brian Robison (No. 96) gets him here and the ball comes loose.
Now, the very athletic Danielle Hunter (No. 99) gets Free from the same spot. Dak is going to need to start feeling that situation and escape in that direction if this continues. I am not sure how much a chip from Elliott would help this. Free just can't handle this type of edge guy, which complicates things, too. Seattle has plenty over right tackles to replicate this.
Here, the Cowboys break one late as Zeke bounces it to the outside on that same roll-out action we have seen so much out of 12 personnel. I think the game Kendricks had was very impressive, and here he saves a touchdown. This became a field goal, so his effort to get off the block and beat Elliott to that angle is remarkable.
And then there's this play, when it looked like Dak ended the game with a scramble. It is a screen play right to Zeke, but the Vikings sniff it out and take Elliott away. Dak doesn't panic and keeps heading for the marker, which he gets to comfortably, but a review backed the ball up a few yards and the Cowboys blow third and 1, leading to a punt (which turns into the Vikings' touchdown). I am sure next time Dak will dive head first and end the game right there, but we shouldn't lose sight of all of the good he did here, and all night, with his decision-making. He got it right quite a bit.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
There was a lot that was unsteady about that performance. You would have liked to see a lot more, but do not take the easy way out and just talk about the quarterback. There were too many penalties. Too many blown assignments. And just an overall poor performance from the big guys up front. Now, that is a product of playing a great defense at its place -- something the Cowboys likely will earn the right to avoid with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But it did reveal some vulnerabilities and some issues at right tackle and No. 2 tight end. The Cowboys will have to closely monitor those situations and, perhaps, attempt to understand what everyone they have available is capable of these days.
A quality win, for sure. But, easily the 11th or 12th-best offensive performance of the season. Look for a bounce-back on Sunday at a very tough place against a defense that is designed to slow Dallas down.