There was absolutely nothing easy Monday night for the Cowboys' offense. The Cardinals have a strong defense with solid personnel that was not interested in budging an inch against a Dallas team that needed to bounce back.
It was a classic case of the unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Neither side was willing to give in, and that is what made the matchup fascinating. In the end, the Cowboys accomplished their ultimate goal of leaving with the win, but they expended a lot of energy in doing so and at various points in the proceedings looked frustrated from the issues that were being presented.
Every week in this space, we look at the offense from a number of perspectives. We want to see the raw numbers, the tactics, the commitment to those tactics and the results. We want to see what they were trying to do and how that worked out for them.
And in a game like this, we have to accept the good with the bad. More importantly, we have to understand how it all works together. I think that is the big key here. People want to know why they don't just run the plays that work more often and run less of the plays that don't work. But that isn't football. Football tells us that they are all related. In fact, a play that doesn't work should sometimes be run again right away with one variable changed slightly, as that is all it takes to yield a huge result that wasn't available on the previous play.
So, it tests your resolve. The other side is trying to shut you down and make you scramble for ideas. And sometimes, you need to change how you do things. But last week, I wrote about how disappointed I was that Denver bluffed the Cowboys out of their plan. It wasn't like Denver destroyed the Cowboys' highly touted run game. It was more that they scared the Cowboys out of trying it with any level of commitment and conviction. They stuffed a few runs, so the Cowboys crumpled up the game plan and threw it in the trash. They conceded to Denver that their best idea was not a good one. They did much better in Arizona -- partially aided by the defense giving them time -- of sticking with the plan and allowing the wear and tear of four quarters to help them outlast the Cardinals as the game went on.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
OK, let's look at the numbers above. Twenty-eight points is strong, 273 yards is not. The difference in yardage production from Denver to Arizona? Five yards. In Denver, the Cowboys produced 268 -- in Arizona, 273. In other words, Arizona did great defensively to limit the Dak Prescott- and Ezekiel Elliott-led Cowboys offense under 300 yards for just the fourth time in 19 regular season games -- the past four road games they have played. Games at Minnesota (264 yards), at New York (260), at Denver (268) and at Arizona (273) have been the four worst yardage performances of the "21-4" era, so we better not act like everything is better after Monday.
So that leads us back to 28 points. It was more a function of field position and a few big plays rather than the Cowboys gaining dominance over Arizona.
Another other thing we had better keep a close eye on is the third-down conversion rate. They are very poor this year after being fine overall in 2016. Dallas was 2 for 9 (22 percent) on Monday and is 13 for 38 (34 percent) this season in a league where the average is 39 percent. Last season, Dallas was over 42 percent. They are 4 for 4 on third-and-1 situations, but have converted just 9 of 34 tries (26 percent) when facing third and more than 1. This must get better, or it will result in more of what we saw Monday -- short drives, Dallas getting killed in time of possession and way too much pressure on a Cowboys defense that looks promising at times (but we had better not get carried away about how good it actually is until it sustains some success).
-- They were the best first-down rushing team in the league. They averaged 5.1 yards per rush on first downs, making second downs manageable.
-- When you are willing to run and run well on first and second downs, the defense is forced to step up and stop it. That sets up play-action (a pass that, at first, looks like a run), and the Cowboys ran the third-most play-action plays in the league, averaging almost nine yards per play.
-- Also, because of this, they faced third downs in a very advantageous way. Or, often not at all. They converted third downs at a very nice rate (especially with a rookie quarterback) of 42.3 percent. But, more importantly, they faced the 29th-most third downs. In other words, they never had third downs. And, did you know that in the past three (and even five) years, no team in the NFL has faced fewer third downs than the Cowboys? Thanks, running game!
-- According to Football Outsiders, that also puts the Cowboys as the best red-zone rushing offense and second-best rushing offense in goal-to-goal.
This keeps Prescott in a perfect spot -- passing into "light" secondaries. If everyone is sitting on the run, then you can pass into man-to-man spots and avoid turnovers, because avoiding safeties is the best way to avoid turnovers. He makes sound decisions, but they are all aided by the fact that this team puts him in spots where he can pass when he wants.
But what is the flip side of this equation? Passing when you have to pass, and when the opposition is waiting on you. This is when the windows get smaller, the success rate drops and quarterbacks get into trouble.
And this is why I keep bringing up the Russell Wilson comparisons. Seattle has done this for years, and then they designed a third-down package to complement what he does well. They never ask him to be Aaron Rodgers. They ask him to use his brain, feet and the deception of the design for it to all work in concert. That is the task this organization should embrace over trying to put him in spots where Tony Romo once was. That starts with making sure you are moving the chains on early downs and not putting yourself in third-and-longs very often.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
I think you can see above that there just wasn't much to watch Monday from a passing game standpoint. But what little there was didn't come from the pocket. It came from putting Prescott on the move, which should surprise nobody at this point of his young career. I had some people tell me what Romo could and couldn't do, and I had to remind them that Romo's first start was Oct. 29, 2006, when he was 26 years, six months old. Prescott will be that age in January 2020. At that point, he may be about 70 starts into his NFL career. So, perhaps cool it on comparing Prescott to a 34-year old Romo for a few weeks.
SHOTGUN vs. UNDER CENTER
Periodically, I show you this to demonstrate what the defense sees. It often is just a function of where the quarterback is standing on what the Cowboys are likely to do. When you consider that the shotgun runs are mostly zone reads, the number becomes even more convincing. This sets up play action, too. The numbers are to give tendencies, and then those tendencies are broken at precise moments to give you a real chance to attack.
If you combine that knowledge with the personnel grouping information below, you can really target what the Cowboys are doing in each situation -- both good and bad.
Above, you can really see that multiple tight ends was where this thing got rolling Monday. Furthermore, you can see that 11 Personnel is just not rolling yet. Twenty-six snaps for 100 yards is brutal. This will explain quite a few issues with the offense. It will also explain why Cole Beasley has had a hard time getting as much work -- they have to take him off the field when they put a second tight end on.
It will be a massive key to get the 11 package -- under center and shotgun -- rolling quickly, because 11 Personnel is where the Cowboys (and everyone) spend the majority of their offense in due to all of the issues it should give a defense. But, for the Cowboys, we have not seen that materialize at all in 2017.
Now, to all of those who said you cannot run into a loaded box, the Cowboys would show you these numbers and beg to differ. Power against power, the Cowboys won the day. It wasn't easy, but they stayed committed.
Let's look at some film to try to prove that point and see other interesting things:
This is a run at the 9:59 mark of the first quarter -- first offensive snap of the game -- out of 12 Personnel, where Terrance Williams (No. 83) is brought over by Jason Witten and James Hanna to provide another blocker on the edge. But you can see here that Justin Bethel is able to get inside, so Williams actually chases him around the edge (poorly) before the Cardinals defensive back brings down Elliott, who has nowhere to go. This is a lot of traffic for a team that wants to run on a team that wants to stop said run.
Here is another run out of 12 Personnel. The "drive starter" for drive No. 2, and another very poor effort. Anytime your center has his chest facing the running back when the handoff occurs, you can see that the running back has no chance. Travis Frederick loses badly and Chaz Green, on the pull, is not getting it done, either. This is the point in the proceedings when frustration starts to bubble. This won't cut it. A loss of three yards.
Drive No. 3, they keep grinding. This is third and 1, and the Cowboys line up 22 Personnel (love it). There is a huge traffic jam here and Tyrann Mathieu (No. 32) is firing downhill on the run blitz to blow this up. If Elliott can make him miss, it can be huge. Not many running backs will make him miss this easily, but Elliott shrugs him off and is off to the races. Very good sign there. He had no help on the dive-bomber. Well done to Elliott there.
Good work on dusting off the zone read. I think -- like Seattle -- this needs to be a big part of the diet for the Cowboys' offense. You can see that No. 44, Markus Golden (who I think I like), is sitting hard on Elliott. This was not the right decision for Prescott, but, as you know, they went right back to it. As you also may know, it is really easy for me to tell them what to do from behind a keyboard. But it is a blink-of-an-eye decision, and you are not always going to get it right. Nice job from the Cardinals here.
We saw this all night. Scott Linehan went right back to a concept a moment later to try it again. I love that demonstration of self-belief in the game plan and tactics. Look at Prescott finish this run and watch the Cardinals panic when they see what happened. Haason Reddick (No. 43) and Antoine Bethea (No. 41) are particularly turned around here. Prescott just made football look easy there.
Second drive of the third quarter. Here is a play out of 11 Personnel where you try to ask Noah Brown (No. 85) and Williams (No. 83) to block up on an outside run and it doesn't really go anywhere. But since it was second and 2, it did move the chains. La'el Collins (No. 71) needs to do better there.
Now, check out the next play. Does it look familiar?
Same concept, but with 13 Personnel. Hanna (No. 84) and Geoff Swaim (No. 87) are in for the two wide receivers. Run it again with Collins hitting his block better, Witten getting just enough, and now Elliott is off to the races again. Gain of 20, and you could argue this run turned the game. One play later, Dallas takes the lead on that Dez Bryant touchdown.
Here is the look from the end zone:
Witten against Chandler Jones was the big spot here. But one arm is not slowing Elliott down.
On to the fourth quarter. This is where the wear and tear of the first three quarters starts paying dividends. You have run the ball at them and now they are tired and feeling the scoreboard working against them. This is when you pull for some play action.
Second and 7 with 12:03 to go from the Arizona 37-yard line. This is not a rollout. This is improving because you are asking Hanna to block Golden by himself and Prescott knows he has to get the ball out or get on the run. So he chooses the latter, and as you can see, when he rolls to his right, there are no targets but Brice Butler to choose from. He would have had to consider running -- Golden is closing in fast -- if this didn't look right to him. But it did.
You can see from the end-zone angle that this is just beautiful work. Tell me you don't see Russell Wilson here.
Then, on the very next offensive snap:
First down, 12 Personnel, play action over the top!
This is a wonderful job all around. Look at those linebackers get sucked into the play action. And then look at Butler go make a play. Ruthless work, everyone. That is how you go win a road game.
Do that enough times, and then you can actually run out of 11 Personnel. Above is Elliott to the left on the next play.
And then, Elliott to the right with 11 Personnel again for a touchdown. Now you can start up the bus.
This wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty. But, Monday demonstrated what I was looking for -- determination and conviction to not give in when the opponent makes it difficult. You are supposed to be a dominant team with a dominant offense. Act like one. When someone tries to stop you, you try to run them over and break their will.
Wade Phillips and the Rams' defense are next. I am sure he has some plans.