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Film Room: How has the Dallas offense changed with Andy Dalton at QB?

Looking at what makes Dallas’ offense click with Andy Dalton having stepped in for the injured Dak Prescott

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of things need to happen for the New York Giants to secure the NFC East title and a playoff spot. One of them? Slowing down a resurgent Dallas Cowboys offense. Under backup quarterback Andy Dalton the Cowboys have won four out of their last six games, including three-straight victories. What can Patrick Graham and the Giants defense expect to see from this group on Sunday?

One of the first things the Cowboys are getting from Dalton right now is efficiency. A prime example of this is Dallas’ 30-7 win back in Week 14. In a return to Cincinnati, Dalton completed 16 of 23 passes for 185 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with no interceptions. That works out to an average of eight yards per attempt, a QBR of 70.0 and an NFL passer rating of 122.6. These are not overwhelming numbers, but that passer rating is his third-highest single-game mark since 2017.

What caused such an efficient performance? Timing, rhythm and placement. In this video you’ll see three throws from Dalton illustrating those traits:

What you also saw in that video was a tremendous route from rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Back when the Cowboys made Lamb their first-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft - taking advantage of a bit of a fall - many believed Dallas was putting together one of the best 11 personnel, three-WR packages in the league.

That might finally be coming to fruition down the stretch. Lamb, Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper have all played well in recent weeks, culminating in their Week 16 outburst against the Philadelphia Eagles. The receivers combined for over 300 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the win.

There are more than a few plays from that game that might give Graham some heartburn this week. Whether it is Gallup’s toughness and ability after the catch in the red zone:

Or Lamb beating man coverage off the line and outracing the secondary to the end zone:

Or Cooper turning a simple slant route into a nice 69-yard gain:

These Cowboys receivers are going to pose problems. But that is the danger facing this Dallas offense at the moment, as they do not need big chunk plays with huge intended air yards to deliver big gains. They are relying on timing and precision in the passing game, but that is still leading to big results.

Something that has also been evident, particularly last week, was how Dallas is using the screen game and getting the running backs involved in the passing game. This is something that head coach Joe Judge talked about this week when meeting with the media:

When you talk about this team, this is not the same team we played early in the year. I think notably, the pace they’re playing at is different, the way they’re playing a balanced attack on offense. They’ve gotten away from playing a fast-paced tempo. They’re not so much a pass-heavy team at this point. Really, the offense always goes through Zeke (Ezekiel Elliott) and the run game. That’s what they use to set up those explosive receivers on the outside. Kellen (Moore) has done a really good job of mixing it up, using the screen game and the run game to create some shots down the field.

That also shows up on the film. When Dalton does take deeper shot plays downfield, they often come off of play-action. Dalton’s first passing completion against the Eagles came on this shot play down field, working off of run action:

This play is set up so well by offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. First, it is the Cowboys’ first offensive play of the game, a time you might expect a team to keep the football on the ground. Then look at the design elements. The right guard pulls, helping to sun the run element. Moore moves the pocket as well, sliding Dalton to the right and using Lamb to seal the edge with the guard pulling and the right tackle having to block down. When you use run game elements to sell play-action, good things can result for an offense.

Then there is the other aspect Judge referred to: The screen game and getting Ezekiel Elliott involved. On this play against the Eagles Elliott runs a simple route to the flat in a spacing concept but Dalton, seeing the coverage struggles created by the curl route from the tight end and the rub that results, simply hits his running back in the flat quickly for a big gain:

That spacing concept has been lethal for the Cowboys in recent weeks. Here is Dalton doing the same thing against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 15, only this time Tony Pollard is the target:

Then finally the screen game as Judge discussed. The most dangerous example from recent weeks? The WR screen, such as this play to Gallup with the left tackle helping to get in front of the wideout:

That is a lot to put on the plate of a defense. Now yes, a lot of these plays took place against the Eagles defense, which has not exactly been a great unit this season. But if the Giants are going to get the win they need to keep those slim postseason hopes alive, their defense is going to have to be ready for these elements.