The Cowboys' performance on the offensive side of the ball Sunday night was very poor. We can focus on which part of the offense was poorer than others, but it probably helps to start with the general overview. If this team wishes to win games of great significance that will be played at very high levels next month, then it is vital that it takes the offensive showings in Minnesota and New York and quickly flushes them down the toilet. Not good enough on either occasion, and the fact that they were able to go 1-1 in that stretch is a testament to the efforts on defense and special teams.
We know this. We are just having a hard time identifying why it all is happening now.
The easiest explanation is that winning football gets progressively more difficult against desperate teams on the road as the weather turns. It happens to every team, every season. That is why the successful teams minimize the number of times they have to enter hostile environments by winning high seeds in the playoffs, allowing them to stay at home.
That is good news, by the way, as this team still is on the path to the No. 1 seed -- meaning, if the Cowboys win their home games, they will ensure that there will be no more road tests of importance between now and a possible Super Bowl.
But when we drill down a bit, we find components that need to be identified and fixed. Let's begin:
The quarterback play was as poor as we have seen this season. Dak Prescott may have only "looked like a rookie," but he did play the type of game that will get a team sent home quickly in the playoffs. He was unsure of himself, uncommitted to his throws and unwilling to use his "dual threat" component to make the Giants chase him down the field. This is something that really bailed him out at Minnesota, and if he (or the coaches) think he can throw his way out of problems without using his feet, they are probably making a poor decision.
The offensive line was not good enough on many occasions. This includes pass protection, but more importantly, it describes a running game that demonstrated very poor work after halftime. As the game went along, the O-line (and tight ends) could have grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and taken over with a few successful runs in a row, but they had their hands full with a New York front that won as much as it lost. The Cowboys don't look across the line after three hours and concede defeat, but the tape reveals that the Giants were winning in the late rounds on my scorecard.
The wide receivers, as a group, did not uncover in situations that required it. The Giants have appropriate personnel to stay on top of Dez Bryant, in particular, and Janoris Jenkins won the day. There was not much to look at down the field as Prescott tried to keep plays alive. Again, as the game went along, it was pretty clear the offense had rare opportunities to capitalize on New York's shortcomings.
The coaching staff fell into a predictable rut of conservative play-calling that allowed the Giants to sit on each and every tendency. There was no help given in a situation when even the slightest changeup might have been welcomed. Instead, they kept ramming their heads against a brick wall.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
We know each component above has done quite well over a 13-game span. The coaches have had a great season, the offensive line has been phenomenal, Bryant is still a guy you want in most matchups and Prescott is still having an absurdly great season. But anytime you put a 2-of-24 stretch together on third downs, you see there is plenty to fret about going into the Tampa Bay game. Sugarcoating reality is no way to win in the playoffs. It must be looked at head-on. So, here we go:
Minnesota gave us season lows/worsts in points, yards, third-down conversions and giveaways, and then the New York game went even lower in each category. Additionally, this was the worst game in terms of completion percentage and yards per play.
And to look at the game as a whole would miss the point about just how bad the second half was. To borrow a paragraph from this week's edition of Morning After:
The second half was an offensive disaster. There is simply no other way to describe eight different possessions that resulted in just three first downs, one play in Giants territory, and zero points. It was absolutely the worst thing we have seen all year from this offense that has been among the best in the league all season. They actually crossed midfield for one play, then committed a holding penalty, and to try to get it all back, Dak Prescott made one of his rare poor decisions as he threw a prayer into coverage that was picked off on a deep ball on third and 15.
Here, we will compare the first and second halves on those very important first and second downs:
Not good. You lose on first down, every little element begins to suffer. You lose on first and second down, and now you are up a creek without a paddle. And lest we put everything on the rookie quarterback right now, let's also recognize that he has nothing to do with this reality:
You can see there that the Cowboys broke off some very nice runs Sunday night. But a few qualifiers must be included in even looking at those: There were four runs between 10 and 15 yards on Sunday (none longer). Of those, three were early in the game and only one was from a run look in 22 personnel. Everything else was from the more finesse packages, 11 personnel and shotgun-11, which suggest that when both teams decided to bring in the big boys and see who was boss, New York had no issues.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
You can see that there are some really disconcerting signs here. This looked like a rookie quarterback and nervous coaching staff that wished to keep the ball out of danger, so they played it safe, and then the defense sat on their tendencies, the holes got smaller, and on and on and on.
They looked like the 2015 Cowboys. And that resulted in fans understandably looking for the panic button and to try to fix things by getting Tony Romo back in there to save this thing, much like he had been asked to do last year (healthy or not). I am not going that far, but they must figure this out very quickly, or this dream run may vanish.
This tells the stories of how limited the Cowboys were in finding success. When you look at each grouping and the yards per attempt of each group, you see nothing was productive. But, in particular, when the Cowboys tried to run from "under center" -- the lifeblood of any running offense that loves to ground-and-pound -- you see the Giants were up to the task. Just look at the run column, subtract the eight carries for 48 yards out of shotgun and you'll see the reality: 17 running plays for a measly 59 yards. When you are getting just three yards per carry, you cannot do what people wanted you to do -- to just keep pounding them with Ezekiel Elliott. Because first down becomes second-and-8. That becomes third-and-5, or longer. And that brings big blitzes and big moments, when you ask a ton of your quarterback.
Then he gets rattled and you cannot stop the bleeding. It is all connected. It is not one particular spot. Give the Giants credit. They got to Dak and Dez. They got to Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Doug Free, too. They beat Jason Witten and corralled Zeke. The Giants' defense won the day. And it wasn't about one guy or one position.
Let's look at this brutal second half by examining a large helping of bad film:
First play of the third quarter, run out of 11 personnel -- a zone play to the right. Problem is that there is nothing on the front of this run, and the cutback is being closed off with a dive-bomb safety and Olivier Vernon crashing down through Witten. The running back is looking at Free, and the moment No. 78 gets outside of him, he has to look inside. But there he sees No. 98 in the gap. So now he looks to the backside, and Witten is getting pushed into him. They got three yards here, and this is what was available to Zeke all night. The Giants were winning the line of scrimmage. This actually is one of the better runs.
Giants in 2-deep, man under, and this is second-and-7 on the very next play. This is the worst ball Prescott has thrown all season and he's got Bryant open on a rope throw -- that back-shoulder fade throw would work here. But Jenkins is peeling off to get on a throw to Witten. Prescott has Zeke in the flat but when he sees Jenkins move off Bryant, he is unsure of himself (which suggests he was on No. 82). Either way, he doesn't throw it into trouble, and he doesn't try the Bryant throw. Instead, the throw lacked conviction and looked like a wounded duck that fell to the turf with no real intent. I would have liked to see a confident throw to Bryant, or just take the yardage from Zeke underneath. Instead, we start the second half with a very disconcerting throw.
This starts the next drive. That is terrible. The Cowboys' one pass play to start a drive (tendencies) in the second half that wasn't in the two-minute offense is the same roll-out play they have run 1,000 times this year. Every opponent has spent hours on this concept because they know the Cowboys are going to go to it. As you can see, the Giants are sitting on Bryant (crashing free safety) and Witten (triangle of trouble all around him). Prescott also can't run here, as they are on that. His only hope is the sideline for Gavin Escobar, which I think must be the throw. Once Escobar crosses the face of his defender to the sideline, you have to give him a chance. Instead, Prescott throws a dangerous pass that either gets picked or gets Witten killed. Either way, it does not give anyone confidence that he is able to carry out the tasks needed. And that is why it appears they go back to a bunch of first-down runs.
Next drive, first play, 13 personnel. Run right behind the strength and leave No. 54, Vernon, untouched on the backside. Can Zeke get to the corner before Vernon? No. Meanwhile, on the frontside, the Giants are jamming things up and diving a wide safety in there to meet the ball carrier. No. 98, Damon Harrison, is all over Frederick inside. This happened quite a bit. If you don't back them off with play-action in this grouping, it is going to be a demolition derby at the point of attack. No gain. Second-and-10.
Still in the third quarter. Another first down, another run. S11 personnel, run wide right, leave Vernon on the backside untouched (as is the design of the play) and he ends the play again. Partly because No. 82, Witten, loses on his block, so this thing goes nowhere. Gain of two. Frederick loses inside to No. 95 and Zeke is wondering where he is supposed to go with this. There are too many Giants. Why? Because they know you have about two ideas on first down. They are not worried about an ambush over the top here -- at all.
So now -- in the most obvious situation ever, third-and-15 -- is when the Cowboys decide to go vertical. You know, in exactly the situation when the Giants expect it. Here, Prescott decides to give Bryant a chance, but this is not the right read. There is nothing there and Bryant knows it. By the way, on third-and-15, there will not be much in the middle of the field for Dez Bryant. The entire game plan of the opposition is built around it. Honestly, if there ever was a time to run a draw on third-and-15, this was likely it. Take your punt. Which, I guess they did here. But this series ended when they took a holding penalty two plays earlier.
Now down 10-7, this is the first play of the following drive. Here is the most successful drive-starter of the second half. Behold, a four-yard gain! In 13 personnel with just nowhere to go. Witten on Romeo Okwara (No. 78) is not happening, and the Giants have their whole defense in the box. But the Cowboys are now working with a playbook of about three plays, it appears. On to the fourth quarter.
First play of the fourth. Third-and-5 (reasonable) and the Cowboys will run Bryant on a dig across the line of scrimmage. I do not love this because this is the route everyone knows is coming, but I guess they are scared of the slant because of the interception in the first half when Bryant fell down. Here, he is open, but Prescott is late on the ball. I assume he is late because he sees Keenan Robinson (No. 57) peel off his blitz and drop into the passing lane (as if they know what is coming) and this makes Prescott adjust his throw to be safe. I think he has to trust it, but he doesn't, and he throws it to a bad spot, where Bryant can't do much with it because it allows his defender to contest. You have to make this throw.
Next drive, first play -- 11 personnel. Free has a hard time here, but it's still four yards. This has a chance to move the chains, which they did on the next play with a pass to Terrance Williams. Is this the drive?
... No. Harrison destroys Frederick for a tackle for loss. This is proof that great players do have bad plays. You won't see this much, but Harrison is legit, and this play was where the offense was Sunday. So, second-and-11. No problem, right?
This is another chance to get Jenkins off Bryant with a back-shoulder fade. Jenkins has to sit on the go route, so if this is timed, it should be a great chance. I have seen these guys run this play to perfection at times this year -- including in the very first preseason game in Los Angeles. The back-shoulder fade should be a great weapon. But here, either Bryant or Prescott is not on the same page as the other (which we now have said a few times). Usually, we say that the receiver must get on the same page as the quarterback, but in fairness, Prescott seemed out of sorts all night, too. I really don't know why this looks so poor. Here is a good one:
See? Easy as can be. Same two guys.
Next drive, first play. Cowboys are determined to make "13" work, so they sit Escobar and now have No. 73, Joey Looney, as a tight end and No. 41, Keith Smith, as another, even though both clearly are not tight ends. Anyway, this play looks blocked pretty well, but there is Vernon (No. 54) again. This time, he bottles Elliott up by getting outside of Tyron Smith, and then closing him down until help arrives. This Vernon is a real player, as Tyron Smith will attest to based on the Miami game last year and two games against the Giants this season. Elliott might have had some options inside, but you can understand he is a bit rattled now as well.
Second-and-8. What is going on here? Well, the dig to Bryant is here, but this time, Free is beat in pass protection and your quarterback is getting rag-dolled as he tries to make the throw. I swear, if it wasn't one thing, it was something else.
Next drive. We officially are in the two-minute offense here. This was a near pick, but I wanted to show you this as an example of: "Where would you like your quarterback to go with the ball here?" There is nothing close to open that I can see. Oh, and your pass protection is breaking down.
Third-and-6. Game is on the line. Need something from the quarterback when you know the Giants are blitzing everyone. Here it is. Prescott puts the slant pass right on the game-changer. So what happens? Bryant fumbles it.
Fourth-and-10. Last play of the game. Prescott is in his own end zone and has to move the chains. Bryant needs to keep running for me, because if he stops, Jenkins is going to spike this ball into the turf. Not a real convicted route, and not a real solid throw at the shoe tops. Game over. Mercifully.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
I definitely overdid the breakdowns this week, but everyone wants answers and someone to be mad at. I would submit to you that I am not sure who on the offense gets a passing grade. That unit was dominated in the second half. I think the quarterback could have been better, but I also think there are 10 others who join him.
Give the Giants credit. That was a great performance from them. The Cowboys need to put this behind them quickly. Prescott needs to demonstrate that he can respond to adversity, or this job won't be for him. The offensive line needs to get back to winning their blocks and the coaches need to go back to being part of the solution, rather than getting scared and becoming predictable.
This can all happen. But while this weekly feature has been nothing but praise all season, this week shows that there is an awful lot of awful right now. It needs to be fixed -- fast.