There are many issues this offense is dealing with right now. I agree, the quarterback position and play of Dez Bryant are both significant issues that are causing about 95 percent of the discussions taking place among the fan base.
Unfortunately, there are several others we should also consider.
Left tackle Tyron Smith is about to finish the season with a career low in snaps by a significant margin. After five years of nearly-perfect attendance from 2011-15, we are seeing some signs of a body that is awfully beat-up and, while that may just be a bump in the road, it is worth stressing after seeing how difficult offensive football has been for this team when he is unavailable. Once again on Sunday, when this team needed strong play from its left tackle, there was none to be found. And once again, when the Cowboys did not help out their third different left tackle used in the second half of this season, that player became a target.
Ezekiel Elliott had a significant problem with blitz pickups Sunday. When we talk about sharpness from a long layoff and then see several mental busts, there is some level of frustration in that it appeared he had never dealt with a DB blitz before -- and Seattle attacked him relentlessly on third downs.
The run game continued to produce well enough -- lots of positive yardage and staying ahead of the chains -- but just like with Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, we saw no big runs with the return of Elliott. This is a massive departure from 2016, and it could lead to a number of explanations. But regardless of the reasons, Elliott has really seen his home runs drop through the floor, even if the overall production is still strong. In 2016, he had 42 runs of 11-plus yards on 332 carries (one every 7.9 carries). In 2017, Elliott has just 14 runs of 11-plus yards on 215 attempts (one every 15.4 carries). In explosive runs (runs of 20-plus yards), he had 14 in 2016 (one every 23.7 carries) and four this year (one every 53.8 carries).
Add in Cole Beasley barely getting to 300 yards, another year of Bryant looking like he is in decline, Jason Witten's production falling off, Terrance Williams' inconsistent production and the fact that the Cowboys have given up 21 sacks since Week 9 (fourth-worst in the NFL), and you see what we have here: A team that has spent the majority of its resources on offense, and then had the offense underperform for the stretch run of the season.
Only twice since the Kansas City game (seven games) have the Cowboys eclipsed 300 yards of offense. One of those was the Oakland game, with 330 and hardly a devastating showcase, and the other was the Giants game three weeks ago, when the Cowboys were pretty weak for three quarters.
In other words, the entire second half of the season has been an offensive failure -- and the principal reason they will miss the playoffs. Furthermore, I am not sure you can find a single part of the offense you would say is blameless.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
They just have no productivity, which makes moving the ball impossible. No big plays to speak of, and that requires precision in execution on third downs and in the red zone. There is nothing wrong with converting 46 percent of third downs in a vacuum, but when you go 0 for 2 in the red zone, have three giveaways and produce less than 300 yards, you get what you had Sunday (or for the past seven weeks): disappointment.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
No, this is not the same chart we run each week. This is the Cowboys' pass game in 2017. Again, you can put all of this offense on a fourth-round pick who is in his second year, or you can ask the coaching staff to consider not playing into the teeth of the opponent with the same route combinations at the same depths week after week. They clearly don't trust their quarterback much and are moving more and more to "13" and "22" personnel packages. This relies on big runs and, like we discussed above, they are not getting those.
If you are new here, the packages include the letter "S" to indicate shotgun. I don't always explain this, but this week it is important. All of the packages without the "S" mean Dak Prescott is under center. This week, you see that they ran 29 plays from under center and 24 were runs. That is an 83-percent run rate from under center and the opponent is well aware of this. So to all of the "Feed Zeke" folks: If Seattle knows that 83 percent of your plays from under center are going to Elliott, you realize you are running into loaded boxes and, while you may get 4-5 yards, it is going to be more and more difficult to break one. You need deception, as we discussed last week. I would prefer that you are much closer to 66 percent so that those linebackers and safeties are not locked in on the run so much. But you can assume the coaches are scared of their quarterback, who has now thrown four pick-sixes this year. That is an amazingly disappointing number -- one of many.
Let's look at some tape:
Small disclaimer here: Assigning blitz responsibility is difficult from this laptop. If we don't know the call, we must simply deduce some things from the action on the field. But, know this: Seattle was blitzing on almost all third downs and was certainly not treating Elliott like the pass-protection master many have claimed he is. The Seahawks were testing his preparedness and acumen with many different looks.
That said, this is the first third down of the game and it is pretty clear that he is watching No. 54, Bobby Wagner, for a blitz (Wagner is also watching him for a release). And Seattle figured as much, which is why it blitzed someone from the opposite side altogether. Is this Elliott's man, or is the free man one Prescott must deal with? I believe the running back was supposed to be aware, but that is my guess. Regardless, the quarterback is certainly not acting like he is expecting pressure and the play is dead. Since it was third down, the drive is dead, too.
Next drive, same concept. Elliott has a man covering him who has no intention of blitzing. But the Seahawks are bringing pressure again from the other side. It starts with the defensive tackle going to the center and the defensive end going wide, which leaves a hole you can drive a truck through to blitz a slot defensive back through the B-gap on the side opposite of Elliott. We did not see teams challenge the Cowboys like this in 2016. But they realize time is precious on third down and are banking on the Cowboys reading it incorrectly. Again, it is difficult to say what exactly the assignments are, but the options are pretty much Elliott, or that it is Prescott's free rusher and he has to get the ball out immediately. As you can see, none of the receivers appear to be reading blitz. So, he throws a hopeful back-shoulder fade downfield.
Here is another. This one -- early in the second quarter -- looks like one when your running back must get the extra rusher, and Elliott looks like he chose incorrectly. There are six rushers, so everyone has to take a guy. Five offensive linemen and Elliott, and you cannot necessarily match big on big. In spots like this, you will need precision decision-making, and Elliott or Jonathan Cooper here got confused and the play is again dead. Prescott cannot worry about those guys doing their jobs. They have to sort it out and he has to keep his eyes downfield and depend on them. Branden Jackson (No. 93) going untouched means Prescott has no chance.
Key spot in the third quarter. This one is easy. The Seahawks are feeding off each successful third-down situation and are now enjoying throwing confusing looks at Elliott. His demeanor now shows his frustration. This is a very big deal and was glossed over when his coach suggested, "I thought he did really well. He practiced well all week long and I thought he did very well in this ballgame."
I don't think he played really well on these third downs and the Seahawks were feeding off of it. He normally handles this well, but being a three-down running back means you help the passing game protect on third down. Sunday, that aspect was pretty poor from him.
Then, with Tyron Smith out, the Cowboys still thought "Empty" was a good plan. Of course, what that means is your backup left tackle (or your backup's backup) was on an island against Seattle edge rushers. First, Dion Jordan got Byron Bell on Prescott's blindside.
And this isn't "Empty," rather, a quick release from Elliott that means Bell is again on an island against Frank Clark. Goodness gracious, that is Chaz Green again. You can't leave most left tackles on their own against good rushers for long. This is why.
Now, the two killer interceptions:
This one is disconcerting for two reasons. One, he has Witten open down the middle of the field. Two, he sails a short throw to Elliott so badly that a defensive back who isn't even covering him is able to grab the ball and strolls in to the end zone. Just very poor quarterback play here. And this is absolutely the type of play that, on its own merit, loses the game in one snap. It can be overcome, but Seattle was not moving the ball. Provided that you don't give them a touchdown, you very likely win.
And then this one reminds you of the pass in Oakland that was intercepted. The issue was that Bryant was going to be run right into NaVorro Bowman, and that is partially on the quarterback to try not to get his wide receivers hurt. So here, you can see Prescott thinking, "I want a safe throw to Dez to keep K.J. Wright away." So, he purposely throws it to the other side but puts way too much speed on the pass. My dad would blame Bryant on this, but at most, it is a 50/50 shared blame. The throw could have been way better and he clearly has the yips on touch passes right now.
They are at the Seattle 25 right here and will very likely take the lead with a field goal as long as they don't give the ball away. Which they did. Very poor offense.
Finally, what everyone wanted examined: What were the Cowboys doing in the fourth quarter not giving the ball to Elliott on first and goal from the 3-yard line?
So, this is literally the same RPO they have run over and over all year in the red zone. Mesh point to Elliott but, if you don't like the numbers, look to Beasley on the slant. And if you don't like that, keep it and run yourself. I think on first down from the 3, you give it to Elliott regardless of the numbers, but this is clearly not what is taught. This is, however, an argument for taking control back from the quarterback. Hey, even Tony Romo had issues with this. We can find situations when he should have been stubborn with DeMarco Murray but instead elected to throw. But here we are. As you can see, Beasley looks like he is open on the backside -- but, I submit that Earl Thomas is baiting the throw and is planning on playing the slant because he has seen it on film all season. He never sells to run support until Prescott stops looking at Beasley. I believe that Thomas is sitting on Beasley (not his man, but the free safety) and Prescott sees Thomas. Wisely, Prescott doesn't throw it, but then the play is in trouble. That's OK. Live to play another down.
End-zone view of that same play. Watch Thomas, No. 29. This is fantastic safety play and give Prescott credit for not throwing a dangerous pass. Once Thomas sees Prescott pull the ball down, he closes quickly, but this premise that Beasley is wide open is only partly true. When he is headed to the post, I think Thomas is ready to pounce and, at best (for the Cowboys), deflect it. At worst, that is a pick.
So now it is second and goal and this is the one I really have an issue with. This is a designed rollout pass that has no chance and ultimately ends with a Witten holding penalty, as the double-team on Michael Bennett goes very poorly. But there is no run-fake and no chance for Elliott to affect the play. I don't like this call at all and wish they would have pounded it here.
I guess we wish a lot of things about the offense this year. It just never clicked for very long.