The Dallas Cowboys Third Down Problems

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For the first time in three months the Dallas Cowboys lost a game a week ago, creating a potential quarterback controversy between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo. At least that’s what Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones and Head Coach Jason Garrett are being asked about. To which they both essentially responded there isn’t one. A rational response at this point in time considering their current quarterback has helped the team to a 12-2 record, tied for the best record in the NFL. Last night, Prescott went 32-36 for 279 yards with a rushing touchdown in a 26-20 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quickly quieting the critics calling for his benching.

However, that does not mean there aren’t legitimate concerns with the Cowboys offense. In the past weeks against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants defenses, Dallas has scored 17 and 7 points, respectively – being held below 300 total offensive yards in both contests. Prescott had his two worst performances during those games, completing 29 of 55 passes for a completion percentage of 53%. Perhaps the Cowboys main concern should be their paltry third down conversion ratio. Prior to last night’s game, they converted 2 out of 24 third down opportunities in the previous two weeks.

The problem is their lack of success on 1st and 2nd downs as much as their failures on third down. Fourteen of the 24 third downs the Cowboys attempted were 3rd and 8 or longer. As a result, Dallas was in obvious passing downs and defenses was able to send more pressure at Prescott.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Play One

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On the Cowboys’ first possession against the Vikings, Dallas faces a 3rd and 8 lines up in 11 offensive personnel. Jason Witten (#82) is in the backfield providing blocking assistance with Minnesota disguising their pass rush until the last moment.

The Vikings only send four, however, Brian Robison (#96) is able to beat left guard Ronald Leary (#65). Robison is tripped up, forcing Prescott to adjust himself in the pocket. Terrance Williams (#83) is lined up to the outside, with Cole Beasley (#11) in the slot. Dallas runs a sail concept on the right side of the field with Williams running the vertical route, Beasley running the corner, and Witten running to the flat. The Vikings are playing combo coverage. It can be called Cover 7 – a Nick Saban principle – with three defenders covering two offensive players to the weak side and four defenders covering three receivers to the strong side. On the left side, Xavier Rhodes (#29) plays man coverage on Dez Bryant (#88) and Anthony Barr (#55) is lined up against Lance Dunbar (#25) in the flat with Harrison Smith (#22) playing over the top. The backside of the defense is playing pattern matching quarters coverage over the top as part of the combo Cover 7 look. Trae Waynes (#26) goes vertical with Williams and Captain Munnerlyn (#24) is responsible for Witten in the flat. Andrew Sendejo (#34) has to come to play up on Beasley.

Beasley has space between him, the flat defender, and the safety when he breaks to the sideline. Ideally, this is when the ball should be out of Prescott’s hand. Instead, Prescott hesitates and pumps while repositioning himself in the pocket because of the pressure. He steps up in an attempt to position himself to make a stronger throw, but he is met by the Vikings rushers, causing him to attempt an awkward throw that falls incomplete and short of Beasley.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Play Two

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Last Sunday night, with a little under five minutes remaining the 2nd quarter, Dallas faced a 3rd and 11 on New York’s 32-yard line with the Cowboys up 7-0. This would have been well within Dan Bailey’s range if the offense were to not pick up another yard on third down. The Cowboys lined up in 11 personnel with Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott (#21) in the shotgun. Dallas had Williams, Beasley, and Witten in a trips formation to the left with Bryant alone on the right.

Prescott eyes Beasley and pumps in his direction, but holds onto the ball allowing Coty Sensabaugh (#30) to get in a good position to make a play on a pass thrown in the slot receiver’s direction. Prescott tries to escape the pocket to extend the play, but is sacked from behind by Devon Kennard (#59). The ball comes out, but Dallas recovers. However, the sack knocks the Cowboys out of field goal range forcing them to punt in a game where points were at a premium.

The mistake Prescott makes here is once again hesitation. There’s a moment when Beasley is able to run behind the corner with a good amount of separation between him and the safety. The safety help is leaning more towards Witten. The ball should be out at that point, and with a well placed throw that’s a first down. After deciding not to throw the pass to Beasley, Prescott should have attempted to throw to his check down, take the 3 points, and live to fight another day.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Play Three

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Later in that game, during the 3rd quarter the Cowboys faced a 3rd and 7 on their own 28. Dallas was again in 11 personnel. Prescott motioned Beasley to the left side of the formation with Bryant and Williams. New York is showing blitz and it seems that Witten is trying to point out potential blitzers for Prescott to make adjustments to protection presnap.

New York sends five rushers against Dallas’s six blockers, but the rush comes from an unexpected place. Defensive end, Romeo Okwara (#78) drops into coverage as does LB Keenan Robinson (#57) to try to take away anything quick underneath to the trips side. On the opposite side Jonathan Casillas (#52) blitzes and is picked up by Dunbar. However, Spagnuolo makes the correct call to blitz safety Landon Collins (#21) to that side because there is no one to help pick him up on the play. Collins has a free path to the QB and forces an incomplete pass.

Prescott is a rookie and while he has played exceptionally well up to this point, it was going to be difficult for him not to have a couple rough patches along the way. Getting the ball out more quickly and trusting his eyes will help get him back to his high level of play. Poise was the word that was used most when describing Prescott’s play for the first 11 games of the season. He’ll need to channel that poise once again to be successful in December and beyond.

It is extremely unlikely that the Cowboys will continue to play this poorly on third downs in their remaining games. It’s not all on Prescott as the receivers need to do a better job of getting open as well. We have more reason to believe the Cowboys will play closer to how they did in their first 11 games than the two most recent ones. Prior to their recent slump they were one of the better third down offenses in the NFL. They are now 12th in third down percentage converting 42% of their third downs on the season. Dallas’s offense faced a test on Sunday night when they hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who have the league’s second ranked opponents third down conversion percentage with 34%. The result? The Cowboys converted 5 of 13 third downs, for 38%. The trend continues. 

Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Scott Linehan and the Dallas Cowboys’ Jet Sweep Screen, the offense Doug Pederson will run with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the impending QB decision in Dallas.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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