Without being a courts reporter and positive about it, this feels like the end of the road for the unstoppable (or not) Ezekiel Elliott train until Dec. 17, when the Cowboys play the Raiders with merely two games left after that.
Elliott is now set to serve his six-game suspension by the NFL, whether the Cowboys like it or not, and it is clearly the job of the remaining offensive players to continue to be as productive as they can possibly be in his stead. In other words, imagine he suffers from a high-ankle sprain or perhaps a shoulder injury that takes him out for six weeks. What would the team do? How would they handle this in a way that would not end with a 0-6 record in that stretch?
The schedule is daunting. There is no doubt about that. Kansas City (at home), Atlanta (away), Philadelphia (home), the LA Chargers (home), Washington (home) and New York (away). There is some good news in that four of those six games are at home (let's assume for a moment the Cowboys enjoy a fine home-field advantage) and more good news that if the season ended today, only Kansas City and Philadelphia would be playoff teams on that list. But, at 4-3, the Cowboys should not assume that anything less than 4-2 during this stretch puts them in a good spot. Be 8-5 when Zeke returns, and you can still get in and make a serious run (with a very fresh MVP-caliber talisman). Being 7-6 puts you in a tight spot, for sure. Fall to 6-7, and your goose is likely cooked.
So as we look back at the Washington road win, let's see if the offensive line is where it needs to be:
WEEKLY DATA BOX
As we indicated yesterday, this offensive performance was about what you would expect in the driving rain. The success of their run game at moving the ball in the second half is probably the highlight, and when you consider a 37-to-23 run/pass split, you should probably have guessed there might be a penalty or two on an offensive line attempting to hold off a defense that knows it is about to see Elliott again.
Above you see the levels we are looking for in total yardage, yards per play, third downs and red-zone efficiency. Basically, if this was a loss or a nice weather day, we would take much more issue with the offensive performance. As it stood, they made significantly fewer big mistakes than their opponent and certainly benefited from offensive line health, which Washington certainly couldn't relate to on any level.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
Was this the week you thought Dak Prescott and the passing game were going to get crazy? Of course not. Josh Norman makes Dez Bryant crazy, partly because the results suggest that Norman does very well against Bryant (commercials or not). There was only one explosive play all day -- the dig to Terrance Williams early in the first quarter. Everything else was short and methodical and plenty to win, but nothing big to write home about.
They will need production from their passing game, but Sunday wasn't the day to risk the ball. Just let your opponent self-destruct in the rain.
Looking at the chart above and watching the game reminded me of a nice development that may no longer be totally relevant with Elliott out for six weeks. That is: their ability to run out of 11 Personnel and really take advantage of a big running back and a big quarterback who are difficult to tackle against a defense that is inviting to run into because you still have three wide receivers spreading them out.
Look at this -- 11 Personnel, so you have three wide receivers in on fourth and 1. That means there are only seven defenders for six blockers. The Cowboys leave the edge player unattended and get a hat on a hat inside. From there, Elliott busts through and has nobody in his hole. He gets 4 and almost broke through for more (like he did at Pittsburgh last year). There should be no way to stop this and there should be no reason to pack in jumbo sets when you are in third- or fourth-and-short. This should be the standard plan.
Let's check out some of these other videos and talk a little about the offensive line and its drive-killers. Drive-killers from the O-line standpoint are two things: sacks allowed and holding penalties. Both are just precursors to punts on about 80 percent of cases in the league. If you give up a sack or a hold on a drive, it is just about dead in almost all cases. So, you can't do it.
Sacks allowed through seven games are not an issue. The Cowboys are second best in the league and it isn't because they are never holding the ball. They have given up just nine sacks all year and you would blame one on Prescott completely and another on a botched screen. The other seven are the fault of the two tackles, with Tyron Smith getting beat twice (by Chandler Jones, Nick Perry) and La'el Collins having been victimized five times so far (Von Miller twice, Michael Brockers and Ryan Kerrigan twice).
Five sacks allowed for Collins put him on a pace to surrender 11 sacks. That is very poor, and while it doesn't shake my confidence in his ability, it does suggest that at some point against the elite edges, you may want to consider some help. The Cowboys insist on scat protection -- the front five and no help -- but there comes a point when you concede that Kerrigan is too much for him and offer at least a chip, if not a tight end.
Then, the holding penalties:
As you can see, after Sunday's quadruple holding penalty performance, the Cowboys have zoomed into the range of the dubious league lead in holding penalties against. You know teams are complaining to the league that the Cowboys are holding -- even if they are not. Every team is looking for an advantage and I would imagine the league gets sent video of "how the Cowboys are so good at running the ball." The competition is not just going to concede. They are going to look for ways to slow them down. So, don't hold. Not something you want to lead the league in, at all. Let's look at the video and see what we can see.
Here is Elliott's early touchdown run and man, Jonathan Cooper (No. 64) and Smith (No. 77) are so good here. This is really athletic work for both of them to turn their guys in a fashion where Elliott is literally untouched running to the end zone. This is the type of thing where literally any running back gets in on this. Jason Witten gets across nicely and gets the contain guy centered perfectly. Easy as can be. Unfortunately, the day would get more difficult.
This isn't so great from Cooper (No. 64). Washington's Will Compton (No. 51) dive-bombs inside him and is going to get to Elliott on a play that appears to have no chance for more reasons than just that one. D.J. Swearinger (No. 36) comes out of nowhere from across the defense to get into the gap and Witten likely doesn't see him until it is too late here, either. Doomed play.
Here is Witten on the quick pass to Bryant that was a nice gain on third and long but came back because they caught Witten for getting a handful of Bashaud Breeland (No. 26) at the point of attack. It wasn't much, but when you are out wide in space, a tug of the jersey is easy to see. This is Witten's first holding penalty of the season, so for all of you saying he does this every week, let's check those numbers before getting carried away.
Here is Collins' first issue with Kerrigan, a legitimate top edge rusher in this league who has been doing it every year since he arrived from Purdue. He is that perfect edge who can beat you inside or outside, with speed or power, and will fight relentlessly for three hours every Sunday. Love his game and he has whipped Cowboys tackles for many years. Collins sets a bit outside and once Kerrigan gets even with your hips, you have two choices: hold him or give up a sack. Collins did both Sunday.
You can actually see Collins consider holding him here, then letting him go and surrendering the sack. Kerrigan's outside move is his best and once you give him a sliver of light, he is gone. Collins has to get into his drop faster, but he is still thinking about getting beat inside, too.
Now Kerrigan will use power and just one-arm Collins back into Prescott before getting the sack. This is pretty clinical, but you will see the Cowboys still aren't interested in offering a little assistance here. As you can see, when you are empty, there is nowhere for Collins to hide and no help to be found. He is out there, and if Prescott doesn't get the ball out fast, there will be a problem.
Here is the Tyron Smith hold on Preston Smith on the other flank. You can still see Collins trying what he can to deal with Kerrigan, but now Tyron Smith is having the corner turned on him, too. The Redskins' defensive line is still trying to stay in this. Not a big hold there, but Tyron Smith is in a vulnerable spot when you give up the edge -- something we have seen more of in the past 12 months than at any other part of his great career.
Finally, this holding call really bothered me. They blocked this up really well, but they called Tyron Smith for a hold. His hands are inside and his technique is fine. If you called this hold consistently, you would never see a run play without a flag. This is textbook and way too touchy for my taste. Also, this is a play where you recognize that not any running back could do this. This ability to get to the second level and get to the pylon is unique to Elliott on this roster. The other guys move the chains and get what is blocked, but he kills safeties in the open field with his speed and angles. You have to slow-play him because he is considering crossing your face back to the right, hits the speed and it is over.
Elliott is gone now, so the pressure cranks up for all involved. Prescott has to be better. His line has to be perfect. The running backs have to be strong. The wide receivers have to get open and make plays. Your advantage has shrunk. It will be interesting how the Cowboys respond.
It will start with establishing your physical edge without taking penalties and surrendering sacks. All of the elite pieces that remain on this offense will be tested thoroughly starting Sunday against that very formidable Kansas City front. You may consider building in some help for our guy, Collins, at right tackle.