On the night after Christmas, the Cowboys had the entire league in front of televisions, ready to give the NFC's No. 1 seed a critical eye to see where weaknesses would appear.
The verdict is to hope that the Cowboys team that shredded the Lions' defense cannot be found in January, or the rest of the league may not even bother to try to take it down. For on this occasion, there was almost nothing the Cowboys didn't do well.
First, keep in mind that this Detroit defense had not surrendered 21 points in a game since Week 6. So to allow a season-high 42 points to Dallas, which seemed to be able to name its final score, was a rather impressive show of strength by the Cowboys.
Then to see the efficiency (the Cowboys only attempted 21 passes) and diversity (they used a season-high 11 different personnel groupings and variations) with a number of options they had not previously shown the league, it all appeared as a message sent to the Lions -- and more so to the rest of the NFC -- of "come and get it."
The Cowboys' offense has answered charges of growing stale, predictable, and even careful from two weeks ago, and now after seeing them shred the formidable Tampa Bay and Detroit defenses like they did -- 68 points, 824 yards of offense and just one turnover (a very rare Jason Witten fumble) -- it appears one could argue they are once again peaking at just the right time.
This offense has built a scheme that requires a defense to play everything "honest." That is, if you do not cover what the Cowboys show, they will simply run the play you think they are running. But if you seem to committed to the initial look, they will use your decision-making against you and go in the exact opposite direction of their look. This is what the good offenses can do. They can make you choose, and then your answer will never be right. You cannot cover everything against an offense that can stretch you and pull you in all sorts of directions at once.
This isn't about the Lions or Buccaneers. This is about 15 opponents over four months who have tried to slow the Dallas Cowboys down. We shall certainly give the New York Giants their due, but when you start to study the league stats, you see that the Cowboys -- with rookies at two of the most important spots -- have set the pace for the NFL on offense.
The NFL declares 15 different statistics to measure offensive performances as more significant than all of the others. They are: Yards per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game, rushing yards per play, passing yards per game, passing yards per play, interception rate, sacks per attempt, first downs per game, third-down percentage, fourth-down percentage, red-zone scoring percentage, goal-to-go scoring percentage, time of possession and points per game.
The Cowboys' offense ranks "top five" in 12 of those 15 statistics. Top five! They rank in the top two in six of them. The only three offensive metrics the Cowboys do not rank in the top five of are: passing yards per game (19th), third-down percentage (11th), sacks per attempt (13th). That's it. And we could easily argue that passing yards per game and sacks per attempt are mostly by virtue of not passing in the second halves of games they have in hand. The third-down percentage being as good as it is, with a rookie quarterback, is actually a very impressive accomplishment.
In other words, if you are complaining about the state of the Cowboys' offense and the premise that you think it can be better, allow me to help -- you are wrong. The Cowboys' offense has not ranked in the top-five category of everything in decades. In fact, let me help you on 2014. The Cowboys ranked in the top five in nine of the 15 categories. They were out of the top five in: Yards per game (7th), passing yards per game (16th), interception rate (14th), sacks per attempt (16th), first downs per game (11th) and fourth-down percentage (11th).
It has been some year around here.
WEEKLY DATA - DETROIT
A season high in points, yards per attempt, red-zone scoring, and the third-down numbers are back to where they need to be. The Cowboys set the Lions on fire with three touchdowns in each half and just put on an offensive clinic, so much that I had to stop picking plays to highlight below in the interest of time.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART - DETROIT
Hope you don't mind John making a chart for Dez Bryant. But you want some 20-yard throws for touchdowns? There. Three of them. (We will count the Dez back-shoulder fade as "close enough.")
Dak, once again, never approached the hint of an interception. The fact that a rookie quarterback can throw 23 touchdowns with a 105 quarterback rating and only four interceptions in an entire year of relevant NFL football, while being criticized by a large portion of his own fan base, is truly remarkable. Then you add in the other six touchdowns he has scored with his feet, and you have a 29-to-4 season in the TD/INT department, which generally is known as "Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady" territory. And he is a rookie. Who was picked at No. 135. Evidently, some people would look a gift horse in the mouth.
As you can see above, the Cowboys pretty much expanded their universe to show the NFL a little bit of everything to prepare for, in the event of a matchup with the Cowboys. They shifted groupings, looks and tendencies in a way that made you think they were toying with the overmatched Lions. I am sure they were not that cocky, but it sure started to look that way in the third quarter. They were calling their shots.
Let's take a look at some video to show you what was so impressive. Like I said, we could have looked at 20 plays, but since we are all on Christmas break, let's limit it to my favorite half-dozen:
Motion of Gavin Escobar (No. 89) shifts the Lions to the offense's left. They must respect the run left with Tyron Smith pulling out into space and Escobar setting the down block, or Ezekiel Elliott will punish them. This is a play we have seen, but seldom with the quick pitch element. The fake pitch does a great job of setting the trap, and the Cowboys roll back right, with Jason Witten uncovered and an easy way to get 23 yards off a very basic variation of showing run left and going pass right. If the defense doesn't shift, you run left. If it does, you come back right. They are always wrong.
Here is another view, and on plays like this, it will be the quarterback's decision on what looks best to him. The O-line and even Zeke don't know if they are getting the ball or not. But just look at the movement of the Lions' defenders and listen for them cussing when they realize they just fell into a trap.
Here is a throw that demonstrates that Dak is a good quarterback. Third-and-14. He has to read coverage here, check into the right situation, and then execute an accurate, on-time throw to the appropriate place. I will express again the opinion that good quarterbacks make their throws to places where the math makes sense. That means if he is doing it right, you never see the death-defying throws because he is not trying them. But when he sees a tasty matchup, he makes you pay for a dicey coverage plan. Like here, where they have three to cover three on the left.
Once Witten clears out the lane, it is now just two vs. two, with the Lions looking like they want to zone with the inside defensive back taking the shallow and the outside defensive back taking the deep. But, with leverage and the receivers' paths, there is just no way to close this lane to Brice Butler and the middle safety is not going to get there in time. Dak has to see the options and execute a quick and accurate throw to make this look easy. And he did.
Here are the Lions looking at Cover 1 with a run blitz to try to shut down this 11 personnel run from Zeke. They crowd the line and cover every gap. The problem here, of course, is if you are going to put seven in the box against six blockers, you better get the running back. If he breaks through, he is gone. Most of us said "gone" when Zeke took one step through the hole. There is no way the safety is going to bring him down. It is a deadly game the Lions played here.
Zeke chooses the B-gap between Zack Martin (No. 70) and Doug Free (No. 68), and because the Lions defensive back is taking the C-gap around, this thing is gone. And when you have a running back with a home-run gear, all he needs is a bit of daylight and he will do the rest. Run blitzes against 11 personnel works quite a bit. But that one time you miss, it hurts the scoreboard. Like Russian roulette, you only have to be wrong once.
This is the true test of a quarterback for me. Tony Romo used to make teams look silly in this and now Dak is, too. Empty in shotgun with 01 personnel, or S11-empty. Either way, it spreads the defense out with five targets on the line. You must pick your poison, but a quarterback will have a few options. No. 1, it chases you out of a blitz because it is so hard to disguise it when everyone is spread from sideline to sideline. No. 2, you want to leave a quarterback spy, because this is where a quarterback can look to break contain and move the chains on his own. This is another third-and-7. So, five wide with a quarterback spy is always going to mean Cover 1. Dak knows Darius Slay is not playing, so he is going to target the overmatched Johnson Bademosi (No. 29). Dez does the rest.
Watch Dak's eyes. He is taking the safety to the other side. He might even go there, but you know in the back of his head he is thinking that Dez is locked up in man coverage against a guy who is only on the field because the Lions have no other choice. At worst, he will draw a flag. At best, he will get a touchdown. How about both?
Here, 12 personnel. This is the Lucky Whitehead end-around. But this time, Dez plays the role of Whitehead. Probably because he is a left-handed passer, right? Well, this one definitely felt like something the Cowboys wanted to get out there to show the league for January preparations.
As you can see, Witten's man is thinking end-around, so he has to shed his block and get to the corner. And of course, when that happens, it is Witten who is five yards clear of everyone.
He must have wondered why he shed Witten so easily. Again, this is scheme and execution working together in perfect harmony.
And finally ...
A few weeks ago in this space, after the Giants game, we talked about the fact that the back-shoulder fade had disappeared. Why? Dak had hit Dez with it a number of times earlier in the year, and what better way to punish tight coverage? Well, they brought it back. This was the cherry on top, and it is a huge confidence builder that this can appear at any time again. This needs to be a big throw for Dak moving forward.
Again, Dak looks to the opposite side and then comes back. With great protection (again), this has the time to develop, and then Dak allows Dez to use his strength and body position to make this easy.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Given that Sunday should see a lot of regulars on the sideline for big parts of the game, this served as the last real rehearsal before the playoffs. And what a rehearsal it was. With nothing on the line against an opponent that had plenty, the Cowboys toyed with and destroyed the Lions with a flick of the wrist. Every component is operating at a high level and benefiting from the others.
This is not to say that they will never hit a rough patch. But it is to say that we see what happens when scheme meets execution. To go back to what we were saying in this space in October -- this appears repeatable and sustainable.
And if they roll out anything close to this, their playoff run will be lengthy.