Dallas Cowboys: Is the offense a run-first attack once again?

The Dallas Cowboys offense is humming. The Kellen Moore led unit is second overall in yards and in points. They are third in offensive DVOA, fifth in expected points per play, second in rushing yards, and 11th in passing yards. They are first overall in total expected points and are scoring at will against some pretty diverse defenses.

While their dominance is clear, their identity is causing some confusion. Are they a smash mouth ground and pound team than sets up the pass with the run? Or are they a pass-happy air attack that forces defenses back into coverage and ultimately sets things up for the running game?

The Dallas Cowboys offense is an opportunistic attack that happens to be perfectly balanced

Rushing the ball at a clip of 5.3 yards/carry, the temptation is there to call this Dallas Cowboys offense a run-first unit. After all, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are both top-10 in rushing yards this season. That’s a feat rarely seen these days by two teammates.

The Dallas Cowboys offensive line has been playing at a level we haven’t seen since 2016. It’s not uncommon to see Pollard or Zeke run for 10-yards before even being touched. And when the defense does make contact, we’ve seen them each post elite yards after contact numbers. We haven’t seen rushing efficiency like this in Dallas since the early days of Emmitt Smith (too bold?).

balance for the sake of balance is a foolish goal. Teams should focus on what they do best and avoid what they don’t as well.

But just because the Dallas Cowboys have been dominant with the run, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a run-first offense again. For as deadly as Dallas is on the ground, they are nearly 10 times more deadly through the air.

Through the air Dallas is operating with a success rate of 58.3 (2nd in NFL) at a clip of  .259 EPA/play (5th in NFL). On the ground they are one of only seven teams with a positive EPA (.026) and accomplishing it with a success rate of 49.4 (2nd in the NFL).

Is one setting up the other on those early downs?

Not really. Over the course of this young season, Dallas has run the ball 91 times on first downs and 41 times on second down. They’ve passed 66 times on first down and 67 times on second down. This comes out to a 132-133 split on early downs. How’s that for balance?

Something I’ve said many times before is balance for the sake of balance is a foolish goal. Teams should focus on what they do best and avoid what they don’t as well. There’s no hidden value out there lurking for calling a low percentage play just for the sake of balance or “to keep them honest”.

The beautiful thing is – everything seems to be working for the Cowboys offense.

The Dallas Cowboys are a complete offense. They are without weakness and happy to let opponents choose their own death. In Week 1 the Dallas Cowboys aired it out against one of the stoutest run defenses in the league. In Week 2 they pounded the ball against a defense dedicated to stop the pass. In the weeks following, Moore has shown us a little bit of each, allowing Dak to alternate the call at the line based on what the defense gives him.

Defenses aren’t crowding the line, nor are they completely dedicated to coverage. It’s a play by play situation that the Cowboys are happy to exploit.

This unselfish and emotionally mature approach is a testament to the players and the embrace of analytics and probabilities. One week we could see perfect balance and the next week we could see a pass-first attack. And heck, the next week could be constant runs. As we’ve seen, it’s all about playing the opponent.

And so far, opponents have been right down the middle of the road, hence the balance. Looking at the box counts, Zeke has faced an average of 6.7 defenders in the box this season. That’s 20th in the NFL. Pollard has seen 6.4 which is 32nd in the NFL. Defenses aren’t crowding the line, nor are they completely dedicated to coverage. It’s a play by play situation that the Cowboys are happy to exploit.

 

Credit Kellen more and the entire unselfish group on this Dallas Cowboys offense for the success you’re seeing. Teams are afraid of the Dallas passing attack AND the rushing attack and that’s why we’re seeing such a well balanced attack.