Since late in the 2021 NFL season, the narrative in Dallas has revolved around the offensive line. The play up front dipped considerably. What was the NFL’s top offense before the bye week changed into something that more resembled average after the bye week (numbers below).
What else besides the offensive line would explain the simultaneous drop off in both the passing game and the running game?
And heck, the film largely supported that verdict. While PFF still thought of the Dallas Cowboys O-line was top-3, those who broke down the film knew differently. The musical chairs had taken a toll on the unit, and even the most reliable performers had games they’d like to forget. The O-line absolutely was an issue last season.
But what if it’s not that easy and what if Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are to blame for the collapse on the Dallas Cowboys offense?
Before I start an uproar let’s keep in mind; both Dak and Zeke suffered injuries last season. Those injuries indisputably impacted their performance….
In the Dallas Cowboys epic win over the New England Patriots, Dak Prescott suffered a calf injury that would plague him the rest of the season. Ezekiel Elliott was already secretly nursing a partially torn PCL he suffered in Week 4.
had Zeke and Dak stayed healthy, they probably could have overcome the disfunction on the line.
The combination of the two injuries impacted both phases of the game in a very significant way. The passing game dropped from No. 3 in expected points added per play (EPA) and No. 2 in success rate (plays that worked), to No. 10 in EPA and No. 17 in SR.
The running game followed suit, dropping from No. 9 in EPA and No. 7 in success rate, to No. 17 in EPA and No. 25 in success rate.
Was the offensive line to blame? Of course. But it wasn’t solely to blame and it might not have even been primarily to blame. In other words, had Zeke and Dak stayed healthy, they probably could have overcome the disfunction on the line.
Prescott’s pressure rate was surprisingly at a career low, 28.9 percent. Granted, that’s largely because the offense adapted and delivered the ball quicker than ever before (2.75 seconds average time for drop back) but it shows us it wasn’t an open floodgate of pressure facing Dak each down. The O-line wasn’t great but they weren’t a disaster either.
Since Dak’s mobility in and around the pocket was stunted, those typical leaks in pass protection were not as easy to escape as they once were. And as we’ve described earlier, the coverages were fooling both Kellen and Dak far too often.
The NFL isn’t just shifting to a 2-high coverage scheme, but it’s getting better at disguising coverage as well. We saw teams show one coverage before the snap and Kellen/Dak call the perfect play to beat said coverage. But when the defense shifted at the snap, the Cowboys found they were running routes right into the defenses strengths.
This “oh crap moment” is normally a situation where Dak buys time with his legs, but the extra porous O-line combined with his noticeably gimpy leg were too much to overcome, resulting in sacks, throw-aways, and hopeless check-downs. To support this, it was shown more plays were perfectly covered against Dallas last year, than either of the previous two seasons.
That’s the Dallas Cowboys passing game collapse in a nutshell.
The running game is equally as telling. The offensive line regressed, we can see that on film and we can see it in yards before contact. But Tony Pollard and Zeke ran behind the same line all season and it was Zeke who struggled mightily, while TP still found a way to thrive.
Rushing yards over expected (RYOE) is a great way to account for the blocking and just grade RB performance. There was a significant delta between the performance of Zeke’s -0.35 RYOE (yes, that is a negative number) and Pollard’s + 0.69 RYOE.
This does not absolve the Dallas Cowboys offensive line, nor is it an indictment on Zeke and Dak as players. It’s to remind everyone of the injuries sustained to the two most vital pieces of the Cowboys air/ground game and to underscore the importance of health in this upcoming 2022 campaign.
Things would have gone much differently had Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott stayed healthy last season. That should make fans feel better heading into the 2022 season. It doesn’t all rest on the O-line. A health Dak and Zeke will make things look infinitely better.
The question is – can the two players stay healthy in 2022?