Every Tuesday, we meet to discuss the good, bad and the ugly of the Cowboys' offense. Week 1 is never a masterpiece, partly because so many players play so little in the preseason and partly because the league office wants bitter rivalries to renew right off the bat. Excuses are everywhere, and we grade on a curve as teams are just trying to get up to speed after a modern-day training camp that is both incredibly long and generally dull to those who know they have jobs secured.
So, in Week 1, you take a win any way you can get it. The standards are not as high as usual. You just want to break the seal on the season and get to 1-0. So, as we viewed the results of the offense playing against its toughest foe -- that I suggested yesterday was specifically designed to slow down the Cowboys -- one had to be pleasantly surprised to see the Cowboys checked off the boxes of success on a number of levels in their 19-3 win over New York.
Let's start with how we always start these exercises -- with the big box of data below:
We have a lot here to consume, but let's look at the barriers of success for the Cowboys' offense as we currently know it.
We are looking for total yardage. Anything over 400 is an unqualified success in the NFL against any opponent. So, to get over 390 against the Giants in Week 1 is a very successful day. Bill Parcells always said you want a touchdown from every 100 yards, so 400 should get you 28 points. That didn't happen, and it sure felt like they were productive enough to get to 28 points Sunday, but they were never blessed with much field position. An offense cannot control whether it gets a short field. But, it can control what it does once it takes the ball. More on that in a bit.
We are looking for productivity while not risking the ball. Zero giveaways. This team did not give the ball away in 2016 and that continued against the Giants. Protect the football while moving it. Not always easy.
And now, the two most critical special situations: third downs and red-zone efficiency. Third downs were great at over 50 percent. That will win a lot of football games. Red zone was just 1 for 4, and that will not get it done most weeks. Too much Dan Bailey, but because the defense did so well, they can get away with just 25 percent in the red zone.
Here is what we were talking about with the drive charts and the ability of this team to do what it does. Control the game by controlling the ball. Anyone can have this philosophy, but how do you actually eat the clock, run the ball and exhaust your opponents?
It certainly isn't an accident, nor is it a big secret. You pay those guys up front to control the game and respond to challenges in front of them. You want to keep moving the clock and the chains because you know the best way to stop elite offenses is to keep them off the field. But, again, that is not a secret, either.
This team has installed an offense that fits its personnel and allows it to take each drive and move the chains and the clock. On Sunday, the worst drive was 33 yards and gained two first downs. That was the worst drive. You can check around the league and you won't find many teams that can say that against any opponent. Now, the Cowboys were playing what we consider to be an elite defense. So, to be able to say that coming out of the gate in Week 1 is pretty impressive stuff, for sure.
To follow this offense best, it would really help if you know your personnel groupings. You will hear coaches and players reference them periodically and it can really give you clues as to what is happening. If you know them, I will spare you the plea. If you don't, you might want to catch up by reading this first. To fully appreciate the chess game, it helps if you can tell a bishop from a knight. That is the same in football.
Basically, they had a lot of success in their favorite package, "Shotgun 11," which drives their two-minute drill, their third-down package and their RPOs that we will get into below. They certainly like to go under center for play-action opportunities and for multiple tight-end, run-heavy power packages most weeks, but that did not flourish against a big run-stopping team like the Giants.
Also, the defense can dictate how well things go by deploying troops to stop the run. Then, you can either be stubborn to still do it, or you can take what they just offered you in exchange for what they tried to take away. It is all connected.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
Here, my good man John Daigle creates a chart with spots to indicate where Prescott's throws are going so we can learn on a week-to-week basis about the Cowboys' routes and the sectors of the field they attack. I thought they spent a big part of their night going at Eli Apple. You can see what their offense is -- lots of high-percentage passes that allow the wide receiver to get into space and the open field. You want a repeatable and sustainable offense, so you don't want high degrees of difficulty in getting the ball to your weapons.
Speaking of that, on to my favorite part of Tuesdays -- let's look at some tape!
This week, I want to focus on the run-pass options. RPOs are all over college and pro football, and the Cowboys have really gone to these in the Dak Prescott era. He fits this system wonderfully and it has never been difficult for him. The idea is to put the play call in the hands of the quarterback. Each play has at least one run and one pass attached to it and starts with the mesh point between the quarterback and running back. The quarterback is watching his read the whole time and, based on what he sees, either gives the ball to the running back, keeps the ball or throws it. And we saw them all Sunday night.
We saw it plenty on third downs. In fact, the third play of the game was here -- third and 1:
Watch the quarterback's eyes. This clearly was something he saw that his wide receiver didn't. So, they did not call the keeper, but he tried to make the best of a poorly executed play and still moved the chains, despite the chaos caused by not having everyone on the same page.
Same play, end-zone view:
Must think fast when you are in the middle of a play and realize there are no other options but you.
Next time they did this -- in the red zone. Second and goal from the 3-yard line.
Watch Prescott watch Landon Collins. It is that simple. Collins is walking up because he is keying on Elliott. The moment Collins comes too close, Prescott knows he has the slant behind him wide open to Dez Bryant. The throw missed. But, the concept is air-tight.
End-zone view. Just watch Prescott's head. You can absolutely see his processor. He just has to make this throw and he knows it.
Next time. This is third and 12.
Here, they are using the Elliott fake to sell a screen to the right to Cole Beasley. This makes the Giants nervous and allows the throw back to Terrance Williams on the left. It is third and long, so a run fake doesn't do much. But the field being split laterally allows all sorts of space if the blockers can get out there.
Just look at that convoy. Makes you think this should have gone all the way to the end zone. Well executed, and the timing was just perfect.
Here is another RPO they tried again on third and 2 in the second quarter that just missed:
Same concept. Watch Collins. If he dive-bombs on Zeke, the corner is going to have to deal with a slant with no help. One broken tackle and it's a touchdown against what amounts to Cover 0. No safety.
How are you supposed to defend this? You just have to hope the throw misses. Brice Butler has the inside. Prescott's throws were a bit off early. But, you are starting to see all of the opportunities these RPOs give the Cowboys. And how many points they left on the field Sunday.
It was a matter of time, though, before they cashed in. Here is what Jason Witten told us yesterday about this whole run-pass option installation:
"That's an area we are focused on. They did a good job of giving us a lot of different dirty looks. Landon Collins comes down to get the run. He's a really good tackler. He led their team in tackling. It is a way for them to get an extra guy in the box. So, Dak does a good job of reading that through and we are able to take advantage of it and continue to build on those RPOs as we move forward."
"I don't want to get too technical and don't want give away all our secrets, but it's one of those where you have a run off of that look. Our RPOs and any type of play-action is able to set up when you can sell the run really good. That's one of those situations where you want to widen the corner as much as you can and give yourself room in the alley to create a throwing lane. That's just everybody being on the same page in the chess match. And when things open up like that it's just a thing of beauty when all of your preparation meets opportunity. It's great to experience execution at that level, especially at critical times when it equates to touchdowns."
So, here we go. Back in the red zone. Same concept on second and 7 from the 12.
They really didn't even need to worry about Collins here. If he is giving Witten outside leverage, then all Witten needs to do is widen him with his stem and the throw to the inside is virtually unstoppable.
You either give the ball to Elliott, or you look for tasty matchups elsewhere. Isolation to exploit all over the field.
I also wanted to look at one other play that demonstrates that the Cowboys understand how this offense can be so devastating without risking the ball and asking too much of its quarterback or key players. Just look at this one from the fourth quarter.
They are in Shotgun 11, but they deploy Elliott as a wide receiver (which they will do). But they are just doing it to get a read on the coverage in pre-snap. You then call Elliott back to the backfield to see how the Giants react. Watch:
That is beautiful. They called him back. The Giants thought they wanted him back for protection, so the linebacker who was in man coverage (bad idea) decided he was going to blitz if Elliott was going to protect. The trouble with Jonathan Casillas' (No. 52) logic is that Elliott wasn't there to protect. He was there to leak out the other direction, and since the Giants are in man coverage, there is absolutely nobody on that side of the field to bring Elliott down after a five-yard throw. The end-zone view is even better.
You may never see an easier 30-yard gain than that. They allowed the Giants to fashion their own noose on that sequence. Beautiful.
While we are here, two more. Back on the Williams screen, you can see Chaz Green getting out in the open field. Let's look at him in space again on pulling plays.
Here he is pulling out in 13 Personnel and getting the edge guy, Collins (No. 21), and showing his ability to be really solid on the move.
Here he has to pull and then get B.J. Goodson (No. 93) coming from the inside. Again, really fine movement skills. I would have to say that even though he wasn't my guy at left guard, he certainly did fine in his first game against a very formidable opponent.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
I think we saw a really nice offensive performance. There wasn't much from Bryant against Janoris Jenkins, and for a while it looked like the Cowboys were a bit too obsessed to figure that out. But when you look at this offense, you see that either you find a matchup you like or you should move on to the next one. Here are the results of Bryant vs. Jenkins through three games:
Four catches on 23 targets? Oh, my. Daigle broke those down to see where the actual head-to-head matchups showed statistically, and he found this:
Either way, you can see that Jenkins can defend Bryant as well as anyone on the schedule (Chris Harris Jr. and Patrick Peterson will get cracks here this month). So, just move on to all of the other ways to beat opponents.
They need to clean up some things, and one is not letting opportunities go to waste so often. Hopefully I showed you they could have easily scored 28 Sunday. It was a very strong performance against a really impressive defense.
In other words, I sure feel like this offense has used its offseason to make sure the design becomes even more lethal moving forward. Scott Linehan, Jason Garrett and Prescott are continuing to find ways to move the ball without risking the it and adding a passing game that perfectly complements the devastating running game.
This offense is going to be very good in 2017. I have no doubt.