The Dallas Cowboys made a commitment to the ground game this offseason, and that decision seemed wise after a preseason injury. However, their rushing attack was unable to gain much traction. Patrick Conn explains why the Cowboys run game was stifled in Week 1 by the New York Giants.
Going into the 2016 football season the general consensus was that the Dallas Cowboys run game was going to be a focal point for the offense. The loss of quarterback Tony Romo to a back injury prior to the season’s start, and were forced to turn to rookie fourth-round pick, Dak Prescott. However, the Cowboys possess one of the better zone-blocking-scheme weapons in Alfred Morris, and the top running back of this year’s draft, Ezekiel Elliott, running behind their dominant offensive line. Elliott really turned heads with the way he performed against the vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense, however it was only the preseason.
During Week 1’s matchup against the New York Giants, the Cowboys weren’t able to establish their running game the way fans were accustomed to seeing since the beginning of the 2014 season. Elliott rushed the ball 20 times to the tune of 51 yards and a score, as he averaged 2.6 yards per carry, Morris had seven carries for 35 yards for an average of 5.0 yards per carry. Fullback Keith Smith toted the ball once for three yards and Prescott had two carries for 12 yards, 11 coming on one play.
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On the first play from scrimmage Dallas lines up on its own 25-yard line. The Cowboys are using their 21 personnel package, with Elliott (#21) in the backfield. At the snap, notice that there are eight Giants defenders within seven yards of the line of scrimmage (LOS). Once Elliot has the ball in his hands there are nine Giants within 10 yards of the LOS. The Cowboys have seven designated players to block up front for the runner.
At the snap, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (#90) gets inside of tackle Doug Free (#68), and defensive tackle Damon Harrison (#98) beats center Travis Frederick (#72) immediately. This early penetration causes Elliott to get hit immediately. Free safety Nat Berhe (#29) is able to come off the outside of Free for the tackle. This was the kind of pressure that Elliott faced most of the game. The Giants were obviously loading up the box all afternoon to make sure Elliott wasn’t going to beat them.
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On the first play of the second quarter the Cowboys bring in Morris (#46) and again line up in 12 personnel. The Giants have seven defenders in the box (3-5 yards from the LOS) and safety Landon Collins (#21) creeps up on the strong side. The free safety Berhe has to come up from his spot over 10 yards from the LOS to assist in run defense.
Tight end Geoff Swaim (#87) motions to the weak side to pick up the linebacker coming off the edge. On the Elliott run Jason Witten (#82) had to take on defensive end Olivier Vernon, on this run however, offensive tackle Tyron Smith (#77) kicks Vernon out to open a hole. Morris is able to make his way up field for a 6-yard gain. Once again the Berhe makes the tackle but not before the running back gets five yards before contact. As you can see between these two carries, Morris wasn’t commanding near the attention of the defense as Elliott.
Charting out the running game from Week 1 revealed some interesting aspects of the Dallas offense. The Cowboys attempted to run the ball on first down quite often. With Elliott in the game, Dallas ran the ball on first down 11 times for 27 yards. Essentially they were in 2nd and 7 quite often. Of his five first-down carries, Morris ran the ball twice for 15 yards. Both times he faced seven defenders in the box. Elliott on the other hand faced seven defenders or less in the box six times and gained 24 yards, scoring one touchdown while the other five carries on first down came against eight or nine players in the box and only resulted in three yards.
|Back||Ezekiel Elliott||Alfred Morris|
As indicated by the chart, the two running backs did better versus the seven-man box, which is your typical four down linemen and three linebackers. For Elliott, seven of his carries against that front came when the Cowboys had 11 personnel on the field. The offense was able to spread the defense around. On those carries against the seven-man box Elliott ran for 31 yards including his touchdown in the second half. The other three carries only netted four yards.
Morris on the other hand did his most damage with 12 personnel. He carried the ball twice in that formation for 19 yards, which included the longest run of the day for either back with a 13-yard scamper. Morris had one carry with 11 personnel that went for nine yards. When the Cowboys had two backs in the backfield, Morris got one yard but it was short yardage for a first down.
Defensively the Giants are pretty stout up the middle with Johnathan Hankins and Damon Harrison. When the Cowboys attempted to run up the middle the backs were able to only net 13 yards on five carries. One of those attempts was stopped for a loss.
The Cowboys ran to the left side of the line behind La’el Collins and Smith on 12 attempts for 40 yards. Once again the Cowboys had one negative run on those attempts. Running to the right side behind right guard Zack Martin and Free the offense attempted 13 carries for 48 yards and scored their lone touchdown.
The Cowboys ran from under center two-thirds of the time but gained less per play than when Prescott was in the shotgun. From the gun the Cowboys’ longest run was Prescott’s 11-yard dash. Outside of that run, this amounts to an average of 2.7 yards per carry. On the 19 runs under center, the Cowboys ran for no gain or negative yards on four attempts. Six runs gained one or two yards. The other nine carries netted 55 yards.
Any run game should affect play-action passing. Early in the first half the Cowboys used the play fake four times. On three of those passes it resulted in a first down. The Cowboys biggest play from scrimmage came on a play action rollout to the left. Prescott connected with Swaim on 1st and 10, for 21 yards. In the second half the offense only incorporated play action on five of Prescott’s 26 passes for 17 yards and one first down.
The Cowboys have lived off of yards before contact in the past. In 2014 DeMarco Murray ran for more than 800 yards before contact during his franchise-record-setting campaign. The Cowboys are expecting Elliott and company to follow suit. However, on the 13 attempts to the inside, the run game only produced 23 yards before a defender touched a running back. They produced 27 yards after contact. On outside runs the Cowboys’ runners accumulated 30 yards before contact on 17 carries, with 21 yards following contact.
The Cowboys head to Washington, D.C. to take on another division rival. Luckily for the Cowboys, Washington should be easier to run on, as Pittsburgh was able to run for 147 yards on 30 attempts against them last week. Also, Morris should be geared up to take on the team that let him walk this past offseason.
With the way the Dallas offense is built, it needs to get ahead early and allow the team to play ball control. The Cowboys held the ball 13:30 longer than the Giants but their inability to finish off drives left them with the one-point loss. The Cowboys need to focus on finishing drives and letting their offensive line take over the game.
Follow Patrick on Twitter @DraftCowboys, and check out his article on the Cowboys rushing attack.
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All film courtesy of NFL Gamepass.
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