Cowboys: A Tale of Third Downs


The 2-1 Dallas Cowboys’ struggles this season can be explained by many things, chief among them are their problems with third downs.

Third downs can make or break a football team, and right now, they are breaking the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys, #2 in the NFL last year in 3rd down offense, are struggling to find that same success three weeks into the new season

Ranked #21 in the NFL in third down conversions, the Cowboys are a shell of their former selves this season. Last week the Cowboys didn’t do themselves any favors as they only converted only 16.67% of third downs with Brandon Weeden at the helm.

A 16.67% offensive conversion rate equates to converting 1 in every 6 third downs. For a Cowboys offense that’s missing their lone, true big-play threat, Dez Bryant, 1 in 6 isn’t going to cut it. Under Brandon Weeden, the Cowboys offensive philosophy relies exclusively on short passes in the middle and offensive check-downs.

Weeden was able to execute this plan well, completing 22 of 26 attempts for a completion percentage of 84.6%. Unfortunately, those were the completions the defense wanted Weeden to complete as they limited Weeden’s third down conversions to only one.

The defense isn’t doing any better on third downs. The Cowboys defense is similarly ranked at #21 in the NFL this season, letting opponents convert 43.59% of their third downs. Keep in mind, this doesn’t even count those 3rd down penalties the Cowboys like to give up at least a couple times per game. Considering the stats, it’s hard to believe the Cowboys have a winning record on the season.

"“Well, we didn’t play well enough on defense, and that’s really were it was,” said Jason Garrett. “They did a really good job in this game converting their 3rd downs, and if you look at it, I think they were 9 out of 14 and I don’t know that they had a conversion that was longer than 6 yards…So they were really efficient on early downs, they were really effective converting those things, keeping those drives alive.”"

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While Garrett was speaking specifically about the defense here, his words translate to the offense as well. “They were really efficient on early downs”, speaks to how a team gets to manageable third downs. All too often this season, negative plays and penalties ruined drives before they ever really started. False starts, illegal formations, offensive holding, or negative runs, all dig a hole that has trickle-down consequences on the series.

If the goal is to give your offense a manageable 3rd down situation (2-4 yards), then the offense needs to have incremental gains on the early downs. Big play attempts are important in keeping defenses open and honest, but everything needs to play a part in achieving manageable 3rd downs.

As I’ve said before, the best QBs in the NFL struggle to convert 3rd and longs, how do we seriously expect Brandon Weeden to do so?

The Cowboys need early down efficiency to make this happen. They need to eliminate pre-snap penalties and they need dominate the line of scrimmage. If the Cowboys can convert more third downs, the defense will see more rest on the sidelines and be better prepared to improve on their own third down percentage.

In order for the Cowboys to win games, they will need to find a way to win 3rd downs first. Oddly enough, that begins on first and second down.

Next: Why the Cowboys Need Ron Leary Back

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