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Giants vs. Cowboys: Why doesn’t the Dallas offense look right?

Let’s check the film and see what’s going on with Dak & Co.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The actions taken by the New York Giants — firing their head coach and general manager mid-season — have understandably sent shock waves throughout the NFL. It’s understandable, they are a team that has only twice before terminated a coach before the season was over, and never fired a general manager.

The ramifications of the Monday Massacre will be far-reaching. Not only was it a historic day, but both open jobs are considered some of the most sought-after in football.

But amid all of that is the fact that right now the Giants are preparing to face division rival Dallas Cowboys. And for the first time in a long time, we are going in to the game without really knowing what to expect. The architect of the offense is out, and OC Mike Sullivan, who is a disciple of the “Run n’ Shoot” (which he learned from Kevin Gilbride) will now be in charge of the offense. And in a change in philosophy at the top, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be crafting the game plans.

It’s unrealistic to assume everything is going to change, but we also can’t know exactly what to expect.

But that is true of the team they are facing as well.

The Dallas Cowboys’ offense just hasn’t looked right over the past few weeks — though they did score 38 points against the Washington Redskins. It all comes together with Dak Prescott, who hasn’t played well of late, but is it his fault?

Offensive line and running game

The 2017 Cowboys feature something of a new-look offensive line, with the departure of LG Ronald Leary to the Denver Broncos and the retirement of RT Doug Free. In their place are Jonathan Cooper and La’El Collins. With three All-Pro linemen already in place, and at least one upgrade on paper, it should have been a seamless transition. However, the line hasn’t always worked like the well-oiled machine that it did in previous years.

But lately that machine has also had to deal with a gremlin in the form of back and groin injuries to it’s best piece — LT Tyron Smith. He missed two weeks with the injuries, and in those two games (plus the following week), Dallas scored a combined 22 points.

This isn’t to say that their offensive line is suddenly bad — far from it. However, they aren’t consistently dominating opponents as they usually do.

Play 1)

This is a play that Smith doesn’t normally allow. The play is the fairly standard outside zone run that forms the foundation of Dallas’ offense. What isn’t standard is that it only gains about a yard and it is the player that Smith is blocking who makes the stop.

The Cowboys’ line starts the play well, moving with choreographed unity off the ball. They get the Washington defensive front flowing perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, almost exactly the way the play is drawn up. Just as Alfred Morris makes his cut, you can see a gaping hole open up back between the tight end and left guard. As long as Smith sustains his block long enough for Morris to get past the line of scrimmage, he is almost certain to pick up at least five or six yards before he could be brought down by the free safety.

However, Smith doesn’t sustain his block. The defensive lineman is able to hold Smith off with a long-arm, then shed the block with apparent ease to make the tackle. Historically, it is rare to see Smith unable to sustain a block like that.

Play 2)

This time we have a man-gap power run to the right. The Cowboys are in a heavy “13” three tight end set, with Morris once again the tailback.

The crux of the play is for the tight ends to crash inwards, taking out and walling off the left side of the Washington defensive front, while center Travis Frederick (no. 72) and RG Zach Martin (no. 70) — a pair of All-Pro linemen — pull around to wall off the other side of the running lane.

That part of the play works beautifully, and Dallas has a 5-on-4 numerical advantage and a big running lane for Morris. Unfortunately for them, left guard Jonathan Cooper was supposed to execute a cut-block to keep the nose tackle from being able to be involved in the play. However, the NT is able to effectively use his hands to press Cooper down and defeat the block before picking his way through the trash to make the stop after just a couple yards gain.

If anything, this play highlights how fragile plays can be. The right side is blocked up well, but a missed block well away from the play is its undoing. It is also a mistake that Leary, the former LG, might not have made. He isn’t anywhere near as athletic as Cooper, but he is a very consistent player.

Those highs and lows from new additions have been part of the reason why the Dallas running game hasn’t flourished this season — even considering the suspension of Ezekiel Elliott

Dak Prescott

Between the suspension of Elliott and the injuries to Smith, the Cowboys have had an inconsistent running game. Predictably, they have had to rely more on their sophomore quarterback to carry the load.

Prescott was erratic against Washington, completing just fifty percent of his passes, and he hasn’t eclipsed 200 yards passing since Smith missed the game against Kansas City. In particular, he has struggled throwing outside of the numbers, to players sprinting toward the sideline.

Play 1)

This is an example of a play on which Witten and Prescott failed to connect multiple times. In fact, they failed on a similar concept on the play immediately before this.

Time is running down in the first half and the Cowboys want to put themselves in a better position to try a shot into the end zone before half-time.

It is a simple two-man route combination on the left side of the formation. The wide receiver runs a corner route down the field, which creates a natural “rub”, ensuring that Jason Witten is wide open running toward the sideline. The receiver and tight end execute the route combination well, preventing the officials from throwing an offensive pass interference flag. The problem is that the quarterback can’t complete the pass

Throwing across his body, outside the numbers isn’t an easy throw, but it is one that quarterbacks are routinely asked to make. Prescott is under pressure, but able to get the throw off. The problem is that Prescott is off target, and outside of Witten’s catch radius. So while the incompletion stops the clock, their third down Hail Mary try is from that much further away.

Play 2)

While Prescott has been erratic throwing outside the numbers — at times over-throwing, under-throwing, or just missing his targets — he is much more accurate and precise working the middle of the field.

Here we see Dallas in a third-and-6 situation, running an empty-backfield spread formation. Washington only rushes four, with man coverage across the board under a Cover 1 shell.

The Cowboys’ route scheme forces the safety to make a choice between double-covering Dez Bryant on his 12-yard dig route or the tight end as he runs up the seam. Prescott helps the safety makes his decision, using his eyes to force him to shade his coverage to Witten — which isn’t a terrible idea given Witten’s penchant for making defenses pay for losing him. However, Bryant matched up 1-on-1 with Breshaud Breeland is something of a mismatch, and Prescott takes advantage of it.

Breeland plays off, looking to defend against the deep pass, but that means that Bryant is wide open after his break (which isn’t especially crisp). Prescott delivers the ball perfectly — stepping in to the throw, delivering it with accuracy, anticipation, and timing. From there Bryant breaks the initial tackle and forces another to miss, turning a turning a 12-yard gain into a 24-yard pickup.

Final thoughts

Since Tyron Smith went down with an injury and the saga of Ezekiel Elliott’s appeal finally ended, Dallas’ offense has been (understandably) impacted. When Smith was out, their offense looked as bad as the Giants’ has all season. And even with him back in the lineup, it hasn’t looked the same.

They aren’t running with the authority or consistency to which they had been accustomed. Likewise, without their rushing attack dictating to offenses, Prescott has been forced into uncomfortable positions as a passer — and under more pressure than he is used to.

None of this means that the Cowboy’s offense should be underestimated — at all. As their last game was played on a Thursday night (their second in a row), the last week has been more like a mini-bye week than normal for the week following Thursday night games, giving Smith that much more of a rest. More importantly, this is a division game, and while the Giants have nothing left to play for but the coaches’ jobs, Dallas is still fighting for a playoff berth.

However, some cracks have appeared and their offensive machine isn’t running nearly as smoothly as it did a year ago.