Dallas Cowboys: The best way to limit possessions may surprise you

Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys traditionally stop high powered offenses by holding the ball for long periods of time, limiting possessions, and keeping the opposition out-of-rhythm.

The best way to stop a high-powered offense from scoring points is by keeping them off the field as much as possible. This strategy, often employed by the Dallas Cowboys, has been pretty darn effective this season.

Dallas is notorious for long methodical drives. While they slowly plod down the field, time on the clock disappears and the opposing offense gets cold, out-of-rhythm, and generally impatient. All while the high-octane Dallas defense gets rested and gets hungry.

Keeping the clock moving is important but running a successful play and converting for a first down is more important.

This has worked so well it’s made up for Dallas’ offensive struggles in the red zone. It’s this very formula that allowed the Dallas Cowboys to beat the New Orleans Saints earlier in the season when Dallas dominated the ball 36:53 to 23:07.

Understanding how they did that is important because the Dallas Cowboys will need to repeat those results when they take on the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night. But the way they repeat it may be a different formula entirely…

Dispelling Myths

There’s a common misconception that running the ball is the key component in limiting possessions. There’s some truth it’s effectiveness since failed passing attempts stop the clock and failed running attempts keep the clock moving. Therefore, even in failure, rushing attempts accomplish something.

The only problem is that something is being wrongfully prioritized. Sure, keeping the clock moving is important but running a successful play and converting for a first down is more important.

Would you rather have to punt the ball after going eight yards and burning 1:45 of clock or would you rather have to punt the ball after one conversion, five plays, and 13 yards – but only burn 1:30 of clock?

The question is rhetorical because the second option is clearly the correct answer. You’ve bettered yourself with field position which improves your chances of scoring points (which is kinda the main point of the game).

As our man, Moo discovered: there is actually zero relationship between running the ball and limiting possessions

How to Dominate the Ball

If you want to limit possessions you need to do what you’re good at and convert for first downs as much as possible. If you settle for unsuccessful plays in order to keep the clock moving, you’re making it more likely your drive which will end and subsequently ADD possessions to the game.

The Dallas Cowboys have often relied on a run-run-pass strategy. The thinking is that by leaning on Zeke, Dallas can give Dak Prescott a manageable third down. The only problem is Dak doesn’t always get manageable third downs because the running game isn’t consistently successful.

Whether a play is successful or not depends on if it places the team in a better scoring position than they were before the ball was snapped. Based on analysis of years of historical stats, we have arrived at the conclusion that 40% (four yards) is needed on first down to constitute success. Anything less puts the team in a worse position to score.

Second down needs 60% to first down to equal success (roughly another four yards). And the only truly manageable third down is 3rd-and-two or less. If third down is more than that, you’re statistically less likely to score on the drive than you were on first-and-10.

This is based on actual historical facts of a ridiculously significant sample size. Check out for ESPN’s breakdown of EPA and QBR here for more information regarding this widely accepted analysis.

What’s working for Dallas?

Looking at last week we saw Dak Prescott as the EPA king on the Dallas Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott had some nice runs but since he had 14 “unsuccessful” carries (less than for yards in non-short yardage situations), he put Dak in some pretty unfavorable situations.

Perhaps that’s why the Dallas Cowboys only converted 36.4 percent of third downs and that’s why I wrote yesterday the best way to convert third downs is to avoid them altogether. I actually said a lot more about converting for first downs so check it out now if you haven’t read it already:

Related Story. The best way to convert 3rd downs is this strategy. light

Over the course of the season, throwing the ball to anyone not playing the running back position has resulted in a net positive EPA (placed the Cowboys in a better position to score than where they started before the snap). Throwing the ball comes with added risk of turnover, but it also comes with added reward of points. In the end, the reward outweighs the risk by a significant margin.

I’m not here to say the Dallas Cowboys must become pass-happy and abandon the run (because saying so would be pointless given the coaching staff’s tendencies). I’m saying if the Dallas Cowboys want to win by controlling the ball and limiting possessions they should do what they do best. And what they do best is throwing the ball downfield and using Dak Prescott on runs more often (again, they have a higher success rate with Dak).


While all advanced stats support pass-heavy attacks many coaches, analysts and fans are still operating in the dark ages – reality be damned. For instance, some people still believe 100 yard rushing games lead to winning rather than winning leads to 100-yard rushing games. But the best NFL minds are embracing it (Andy Reid, Sean McVay, and Sean Payton) and we’re seeing their success slowly turn unsupported strategies around.

Next. Could Dallas' secret weapon in LA be this rarely used player?. dark

The Dallas Cowboys need to run the ball. It’s part of their identity and Zeke is one of the best in the game at it. But it has to be in favorable situations because runs are more likely to be unsuccessful plays than successful plays (except in short yardage situations) and the passing game can dominate the clock and limit possessions just as well.

  • Published on 01/11/2019 at 13:01 PM
  • Last updated at 01/10/2019 at 14:46 PM