On Tuesday, I wrote a piece on what the team is and isn’t. A key component of that had to do with the offense being a “precision unit”. The unit was uniquely assembled, starting with an elite set of All Pro’s on the offensive line. Throw in an All Pro, high flying WR named Dez & there’s future HOF TE, Jason Witten. Add in a the spitfire slot receiver, who led the squad in receptions last year and then, the last option, Mr. Toe Drag himself, Terrance Williams. Don’t forget the leading rusher in the NFL in 2016, Ezekiel Elliott. He’s a rare player, a home run hitting RB, great hands and a rare pass blocker. To round out the unit, the NFL rookie of the year for 2016, QB, Dak Prescott. Two players didn’t return and the loss of Ron Leary, to me, was the most painful to this day, though the retirement of Doug Free lent to the pain & suffering.
What were they looking to accomplish with the composition of the unit? It was designed to be the ultimate unit to control the ball, dominate the time of possession (keep a marginal defense on the sideline), score TD’s and force teams to chase the scoreboard because of the efficiency of this group. But what made this unit so dynamic, so special and so hard to defend? You know the answer is Zeke Elliott as the centerpiece. What is it about him that made this specific unit so stinking special. Where do I begin? Let’s start with, he’s an incredibly strong, powerful runner, that can cut on a dime and take the ball the distance. Not many with his ability come around very often. We, in Dallas, have been blessed through the years with HOF’ers, Dorsett & Emmitt at the position. Zeke has the rare ability of turning nothing into 3-4 yards or put him in space and it’s a TD. His 16 TD’s in 2016 tell a huge tale. Zeke led the league last year in how many of his runs resulted in first downs. Move the chains, eat up clock and score TD’s, what a combo. That made it a game of pick your poison as it related to the passing game. Because of the success / fear of the running game, it made the passing game highly efficient. If teams stacked the box, then the QB could find an assortment of receivers with the LB’s in no mans land in coverage. Teams had to play the run first and kept them from being very aggressive. Play action was a bread and butter staple. The fear of Zeke controlling the game and Dez being left one on one would keep coordinators up at night. The field was stretched from sideline to sideline although rarely did it stretch vertically. The lack of elite speed doesn’t stretch defenses vertical and that’s the point, I’ll be looking to elaborate on here. Dallas is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to speed on offense, they have none and defenses today are built on fast players.
Now, after 11 games, three without the Zeke Factor, the field has shrunk dramatically. Without the same level of play from the offensive line, the problem has only been compounded. The line hasn’t been able to get into sync as a group, who hasn’t noticed that? Injury to Tyrun proved to be a disaster in the Atlanta game and wasn’t a whole lot better against Philly. In the 3 games of the Zeke suspension, the running game has been serviceable, but they’ve not reaped any benefit for an adequate running game. Morris & Rod Smith have struggled on at least half of their runs, particularly early in a game. There have been some nice runs by Morris and steady banging away by Smith at times, but neither bring that home run threat. The consistency just isn’t there. Opponents focus now on controlling the run, but taking away the quick open routes that typically moved the chains. For the most part they’ve done that particularly in the first two games when Tyrun was out. It not only exposed the LT position but Cooper had his troubles at LG. What has resulted is that there is less time to get the ball out. What was already a predominantly short passing game, has become, three yards and a cloud of dust. There isn’t time for Dak to wait on the routes in their “normal” offense. Dak has not had time to survey his receivers, like he did last year. The middle of the pocket was outstanding with Leary, Travis & Martin & few ever get the better of Smith at LT.
If there’s a fault with Dak thus far in his early career, is that he’s so cautious that he’s looking for his receiver to be wide “open’ before throwing to that player. In the NFL, if you have a leverage advantage, you’re open. Many don’t realize that typically the CB’s have more speed than do the receivers. Getting real separation from DB’s doesn’t really exist often in man coverage, especially with all the hand checking down the field. That’s what created the back shoulder throws that are so common in todays game! There just isn’t that wide open guy very often. Getting back to the point, Dak’s looking for a fairly wide open player to throw to, if he’s not, he’s comes off that guy and goes to his 2nd option and so on. Well this year and particularly these three games the pressure isn’t allowing him to do much more than go to the primary receiver, check it down or scramble to buy time. I’ve seen plays on the All 22, where a guy is ready to come open & does, but Dak is high tailing it out of the pocket and can’t let it go at the moment necessary to execute the play. Its simple to see on tape, that a WR got the DB to take a wrong step or lean his weight the wrong way which enables the WR to break free in 3 or 4 strides. QB gets a fraction of a second to see it, so tap the brakes with the blame game. Those are things that come with time, trust and experience. Dak last year rarely was willing to go down field about 20 yards and yes, I scratched my head watching open receivers bypassed for shorter completions. Players know, coordinators know, that Dak rarely goes downfield or taking deeper vertical shots. When he does it’s throwing it up to Dez for a 50/50 shot, but his accuracy hasn’t been solid with that this year. There just isn’t that time, especially without Zeke in there, to make teams respect or fear the run. They don’t fear the big play either on the ground or through the air. Because the Cowboys lack speed & know that Dak won’t challenge them deep with their wide outs, the safeties play 2-3 yards closer to the LOS.
Let’s analyze our WR corp, starting with Dez Bryant. He’s an electric WR, who’s specialty is high pointing a ball and with his size and strength DB’s are at a disadvantage, unless the stripes level the playing field for them. Too many times, Dak’s only giving the initial look and comes off Dez quickly. The same goes for each receiver. Dez doesn’t possess elite breakaway speed, so the DB’s are playing him tight those first few steps so that Dak goes elsewhere. Its how’d I’d game plan against him. Frankly, the stripes appear to be allowing the DB’s to grab Dez on nearly every play. It serves many purposes as teams know that he gets frustrated easily and quickly. He was pushed squarely in the numbers in the Atlanta game on an end zone play, which even Pereira called as PI! Have you noticed how his slants are much shorter in depth, they used to be 10 to 18 yards in the past? The safeties being closer is a major factor. This happens because there’s no one to speak of, that makes safeties respect the deep middle. Frankly, I’d have Dez in the slot, with Terrance & Butler on the outside. Give your best player a greater opportunity to use the whole field and it would only occupy the safeties in the middle of the field. Opens things up for everyone, yet I’d still want more speed out there going forward. One of the most important things to notice, in hindsight is that defenses are attacking the Cowboys offense. not the other way around in the absence of Zeke and the missing element of speed.
Terrance Williams returned this year in FA and while we like him and love that loyalty, he isn’t and wasn’t a special #2 WR. He’ll make some outstanding receptions along the sidelines, as he has great body control and awareness in those situations. His speed isn’t special and without that he’s not the greatest compliment to Dez. He may be the #2 WR, but he’s almost always the 4th option or less. I was hoping for an upgrade through the draft, to be honest, but the team elected to resign him.
Beasely had an outstanding year in 2016 and much more was expected in 2017. Watching him in camp, was laughable as no one could cover him. But his effectiveness has been limited to routes that range from about 6 to 8 yards typically. This year they’ve bracketed him to control his two way routes. In the last few games, his routes depth wise are 5 yards or less. He rarely runs a vertical route and the one time he did in Atlanta, he caught the DB off guard. The All 22 showed that Dak was getting pressured and unable to deliver a pass. He’s a receiver that is quick and shifty but there’s virtually no concern about his getting vertical. Getting him the ball for 5 yards, when 3rd and 10, is of little use. Once again the lack of speed at the skill positions is hurting.
At the TE position, we have a HOF player and the ultimate warrior, but he’s another player lacking speed and his routes are getting shorter too. The last few weeks he’s had to stay in to block or chip and his routes aren’t yielding much yardage. Getting six yards on third and ten, helps with field position but its not helping keep drives alive.
Brice Butler appears to be the closest thing we have to a deep threat and has been productive in that role. But his snaps are limited behind the starters and Beasely is ahead of him on the pecking order. In camp, Dak found Swaim down the field every day I was there. Yet, they never try to get him the ball in that role, which is a bit baffling to me. We’re probably the only team that doesn’t challenge defenses down the seam with the TE’s. Again remember how the offense was built and how the parts were designed to function. Can Rico provide a source for getting down the seam next year?
Dak’s certainly has had a hard time the last three games, I just don’t put it on him, without analyzing the unit as a whole. Through the first half of the season he had a huge hand in getting them their first five victories. Would have been six, but the coach snatched that Packer game from the win column. The last three weeks he’s been under siege, like I’ve not seen since the playoff game against the Vikings when Columbo was getting whipped for 4 sacks and Romo was being blasted. Against Atlanta & Philly, Dak was sacked 12 times and while only dropped twice by the Chargers, he was harassed and hit all day long. We as fans, have high expectations for our players and none more than Dak after his incredible first season. If you weren’t happy with his performance, tell me who could have done better, given the pressure he’s faced? Or tell me who would have survived the beating he’s been taking?
The offensive unit isn’t set up right now for success the way it was designed, without Zeke, most of all. You see it and this is how I see it. I won’t pretend to have an answer on who to sign or draft that can turn on the jets, but they have to occupy safeties and stretch the field vertically next year. Dez in the slot will help regardless, but add the missing ingredient of speed and all receivers will benefit. The games a track meet in the NFL these days and we’re stuck in the mud! We have a monumental, Need For Speed! Keep pace, or get out of the race!!!!