After receiving praise for their playcalling in their first three games, the Dallas Cowboys are being criticized for their lack of play-action in Week Four.
Super Bowl contenders. That’s what many in the national and local media were calling the Dallas Cowboys after their first three games. And while they may ultimately be proven right (fans certainly hope so), that kind of talk has been all but silenced following the Cowboys’ first loss of the season.
The normally potent Cowboys’ offense struggled to score against the New Orleans Saints in a 12-10 loss on Sunday night. The Saints’ defense had allowed their first three opponents to score 28, 27, and 27 points prior to their Week Four battle with Dallas. Yet, a Cowboys’ offense that averaged 32.3 points per contest coming into the matchup was humbled in the Superdome.
The Cowboys’ rushing attack was limited to 45 yards as running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 35 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Quarterback Dak Prescott was held scoreless, completing 22 of his 33 passes for 233 yards and a throw-away interception.
The fact is Dallas was unable to run the ball. Their passing game was a shell of itself as receivers struggled to get open. And the offensive line likely played their worst collective game of the young season.
There’s plenty of blame to go-around in Big D. But it seems a bulk of said blame may rest on the shoulders of a 31-year old play-caller. Here’s what Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently wrote about offensive coordinator Kellen Moore‘s distinct lack of using play-action against the Saints.
“Running a play-fake on nearly half their passes coming into the week, the Cowboys were remarkably successful; they averaged 10.1 yards per play-action play (4th), and Dak Prescott ranked second in completion rate and third in passer rating when using the play-action fake. Despite all of this, the Cowboys used play-action just seven times — accounting for 20% of pass plays — nearly half as frequently as they have through the first three games.”
The Research and Development Team for PFF also pointed out that when the play-fake was used, Prescott completed six of his seven passes, wasn’t sacked, and bolstered a 9.3 yards per catch average. And on the 11-play, 79-yard drive that the Cowboys actually did get in the endzone, Dallas used play-action twice for a combined 44-yards.
Did the Cowboys’ coaching staff try to outsmart the New Orleans Saints a bit too much on Sunday? Was it Moore’s inexperience that led to the choice not to run the single-most impactful play the team had through their first three wins this season? Did the Cowboys believe the play-action would not be as effective due to the lack of rushing success?
These are all questions we’ll likely never know the true answer for. Yet, after a stellar start, the Super Bowl trajectory for America’s Team has hit it’s first big obstacle. And while the Cowboys still sit atop the NFC East with a 3-1 record, Sunday’s performance shows that this team still has a lot to prove before bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to Dallas.