Five weeks into the 2021 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys have emerged as the NFC East division leader and sit second in the conference. While their defense is much improved under coordinator Dan Quinn, it has been the Cowboys offense that has been the driving force behind their strong overall play. They gain yards and they score points, ranking second in the NFL in both yards per game and points per game. It is the tactical approach producing those numbers that is most intriguing.
Since the opening Thursday night of the season, when they lost to the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs and Dak Prescott dropped back more than 60 times, the Cowboys have become an offense fueled and driven by the running game. In an era where all but three teams pass the ball more often than they throw it, and many smart football people believe the run game should not be the foundational starting point of an offense, Dallas has turned back the clock to power their offensive success. The Cowboys offense beginning Week 2 has started with their run game featuring Ezekiel Elliott, who looks rejuvenated in 2021, and Tony Pollard, who balances him well in the Dallas backfield.
It all starts on first down, and that’s where the Cowboys have run the ball extremely effectively. That opening down production has been enhanced by two other critical factors. They have been able to convert very well on third down, and they have been able to generate explosive plays in the passing game. These three elements have produced a balanced offense that can attack and dictate to defenses in a variety of ways.
With 53 carries for 295 yards at 5.6 YPC, Elliott has the second most first down carries in the league behind Derrick Henry. Pollard has been even more efficient on first down, turning his 31 rushing attempts on first down into 221 yards for 7.1 YPC. The Cowboys have been the second-best team in the league at converting on third downs, moving the chains 51.6% of the time. On this crucial down, Prescott has been efficient and at times explosive as he has completed 30 of 41 third down passing attempts for 420 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Meanwhile, 80% of his completions on the money down have resulted in first downs.
Dallas has also been very successful in producing explosive plays this season (defined as passes of 20+ yards and runs of 10+ yards). They rank first in average explosive run rate at 16%, and first in overall explosive play rate at 13%. Interestingly, the Cowboys rank in the bottom third of the league in pass attempts per game and Prescott has yet to attempt more than 32 passes in a game since that Week 1 game against the Bucs. With the run game as the foundation, and a quarterback continuing to improve and play at a high level, Dallas has produced a balanced, efficient, and explosive offense through the first 5 weeks of 2021.
I mentioned the importance of third down to this offensive profile. In their 44-20 Week 5 victory over the New York Giants, the Cowboys exhibited the ability to not only convert on third down, but to attack vertically and produce explosive plays. On 3rd-and-8 in the second quarter, Prescott hit Ceedee Lamb for a 49-yard touchdown. On the play, Dallas aligned in a 3×1 set out of 11 personnel with a bunch distribution to the field and Lamb as the boundary X receiver (Lamb as the boundary X is something we are seeing more of this season); the mechanics of the play featured return motion by wide receiver Cedrick Wilson away from the bunch and then back to the bunch. The Giants defense matched up with Cover 1 blitz and a 5 man pressure out of dime (6 defensive backs) personnel. The three Dallas receivers on the field side all ran in-breaking routes at three different levels. Cornerback James Bradberry was matched on Lamb to the boundary; Lamb ran a go route and got on top of Bradberry. Prescott did an excellent job with his head and eyes to make certain that post safety Julian Love would not react to Lamb’s vertical route down the sideline. Even though Love initially aligned outside the hash on Lamb’s side, he worked toward his middle of the field responsibility and Prescott kept him from flipping his hips and tracking the deep ball. It was high level execution on third and long.
Let’s get back to the Cowboys running game, especially on first down. Dallas has run the ball 63% of their first down snaps, which is tied with the Cleveland Browns for the highest rate in the league. Of Elliott’s 53 first down carries, 28 of them have come out of 12 personnel; he’s turned those 28 carries into 178 rushing yards and a drive-sustaining 6.6 YPC. Elliott has run very well this season, showing great patience and vision. As a determined, tough, physical runner, he is excellent at running in confined spaces, navigating tight areas in the middle of the defense and getting the hard yards with his strong finishing traits. He shows an outstanding feel for reading defensive fronts both pre-snap and post-snap — when gaps become more fluid. Elliott has always been very proficient at reading the defensive flow and getting downhill and this was clearly on display in a Week 4 run against the Carolina Panthers.
With a one possession lead midway through the third quarter, the Cowboys had a 1st-and-10 at their own 47 yard line. Dallas aligned in 12 personnel with both tight ends attached to the boundary side of the formation as they called a duo run that resulted in a 47-yard rush by Elliott. On the play, Cooper, the Z receiver, used Z motion into the formation to align in a wing position off the outside tight end, Blake Jarwin; Cooper then blocked cornerback A.J. Bouye after the snap. Jarwin and fellow tight end Dalton Schultz duo-ed on the defensive end, Brian Burns, up to the stacked player to play side, which was safety Jeremy Chinn. Right tackle Terence Steele and right guard Zach Martin doubled the 3-technique defensive tackle Derrick Brown and did such a good job they drove Brown right into the lap of stacked linebacker Jermaine Carter. Carter was unable to play his gap effectively. As a quick aside, RT Steele in particular has jumped off the tape with how well he has played this season. An UDFA in 2020 out of Texas Tech, he struggled as an injury replacement last season. However, he has improved significantly, especially in the run game, and is now a driving force behind the success of the Cowboys offense.
Back to Elliott. He understands who the unblocked defender will be in any given run concept, and this 47-yarder against the Panthers showed that clearly. He knew before the snap, based on the formation and the blocking scheme, that corner Rashaan Melvin would be the unblocked defender play side. Elliott worked off his blocks to the outside, but once he saw Melvin, Elliott cut back inside off the Jarwin and Schultz double team to run away from the unblocked defender. This play also was yet another example that disproved one of the biggest myths in football: that you can’t run effectively against an eight-man box. Dallas in fact invites a loaded box with Cooper’s zin motion and still generates an explosive run.
I learned long ago that there are many ways to win in the NFL, and many ways to build and design an offense. We know, in today’s NFL, run games are not seen as the most effective way to create explosive plays and score points. The Cowboys have done both with great success through the first quarter of the NFL season. In fact, the Cowboys are running the ball 17% more on first downs in 2021 than in 2016, Prescott’s rookie season, despite his growth into a higher-level quarterback and a strong wide receiver combo in Cooper and Lamb. With great running efficiency and a quarterback that can make big-time third down throws, the Cowboys have an offense that can both sustain and explode.
Aadit Mehta Contributed to this story