Kellen Moore places an incredible burden on Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. That certainly won’t and shouldn’t change in 2022, but Moore needs to take the next step in his development as an offensive coordinator and find a way to make his quarterback’s job easier.
Maximizing the Cowboys’ offense without vital offensive weapons
Part of the beauty of Prescott and the offense is his processing ability and even more so his ability to effortlessly place the ball in the right spot. Very few signal callers can do like Prescott when it comes to reading defenses and going through all 3-4 options in a progression. It earned him a $40 million QB despite being picked in the fourth round and lacking the physical tools of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers and Justin Herbert.
But this burden placed on Prescott may also be the Cowboys’ downfall. Moore’s lack of offensive identity or go-to calls that ensure the ball gets into the hands of their top playmaker has hurt them on several occasions, including their playoff loss to San Francisco when they failed to protect Prescott well enough to be efficient as a passerby .
How do you fix it?
The Cowboys will be without Michael Gallup early in the season, although his rehabilitation has gone well. They will also be without new signing free agent James Washington, who they had relied on to give them quality snaps before a Jones fracture sidelined him.
The reported return was 6-10 weeks for Washington. However, from 2010 to 2015, nine of the 15 players who returned 10 weeks ago eventually had to undergo a second operation. The average drop in performance was 53.2%, compared to a 9.4% increase for those who waited longer. Of the 27 players who returned after 10 weeks, only four required re-operation.
And then there was the horrific knee injury Tyron Smith sustained, which will sideline him from the lineup at least until December, if not the entire season.
We could eliminate areas of improvement throughout the offense. However, we’ve already fixed the Cowboys’ roaring attack for 2022, so we can look directly at the air attack here. The key areas the Cowboys could improve to mitigate their offensive staffing problems are their onscreen play, passing game action, and finding ways to quickly produce explosive plays.
Screen game improvement
First and foremost, the cowboys need to get a little nerdy and a little old school at the same time. With all the negative narrative surrounding former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, when and how he called Ezekiel Elliott screens wasn’t one of them. But the more modern Dallas offense uses wider receiver screens as part of that packaging.
Modernity is not always the best. Outdoor wide receiver screens just aren’t very efficient, no matter how many times the cowboys try to use them.
From 2016 through 2020, outside receiver screens produced one negative EPA per game, while slot receivers, running backs, and tight ends all produced positive results. Only three teams in 2020 posted positives more often than negatives: the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Packers.
If the Cowboys want to improve their receiver screen play, they need to do several things.
Wide receivers aren’t exactly known for being the best blockers in the world. Part of the reason tight end and running back screens are so effective is because receivers and defensive backs run away and the men get paid to block those who lead the way for a living.
The Cowboys are getting a few things right here, although finding a positive with just a five in the box is against the norm. Outside receiver screens are more effective against seven and eight man boxes.
First, they found the only correct answer on the test by throwing the ball to CeeDee Lamb for that screen. Dallas can Use KaVontae Turpin sparingly in these situations, but of the non-gadget receivers, Lamb is the only one who needs to touch the ball.
Check out one of his carries from last season to better understand why. His rushed attempt against Washington is probably the best example of his vision, patience and cunning with the ball in his hands.
Second, the dense formation also keeps the defense closer to the formation. But on the snap, Lamb and the blockers both retreat to the sidelines, causing the three defenders below to shoot out at an obtuse angle, much like an inside toss play often causes defenders to chase too much.
There are two more ways to improve on-screen play. Tight end screens are the most effective of all screens. Dallas happens to have a playmaker on the position.
Dalton Schultz is a lot more skilled with the ball than he’s given credit for. Only George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski forced more missed tackles a season ago. Using him more should be one answer to slow down the pass rush against an overwhelming offensive line.
Oh, and the Cowboys also field one of the most explosive and elusive runners in the league in Tony Pollard. And Pollard played the receiver in college, so using it in the pass attack would only be common sense.
Game action improvement
The Cowboys were underwhelming when they used game action a season ago. Dallas only used it on 26% of Prescott’s dropbacks, who ranked 17th in the NFL. But even if they used it, they couldn’t produce splash games. They ranked in the bottom third of explosive pass-play-off play action that even the most casual football fan could tell by watching Dallas’ attack.
Prescott turned his back on the defense and faked the transfer, then turned and looked, looked and looked until he was forced to check the ball to its exit for a minimal gain.
Improving game action depends on Moore’s ability to play the chess game against defense. Far too often the concept didn’t attack the reporting a season ago, but fell straight into their hands. Moore needs to improve his understanding of how the defense is performing against the Cowboys. It’s just part of his maturation as a playmaker.
Dallas wasn’t bad in that area last season. They ranked 12th in explosive passing rate a season ago. Prescott again proved himself to be an outstanding downfield passer in 2021, despite playing through a calf injury that was more serious than was reported during the season.
Getting Michael Gallup back quicker than originally anticipated is crucial for the Cowboys given his relationship with Prescott. With teams in the NFL now playing more two-high shell defenses, Dallas must choose when to attack downfield.
Prescott likes to work through all of his progressions and get the ball to the right option, but his throwing time last season was shockingly low. Prescott got the ball out quickly and Dallas couldn’t bring the deep cross patterns to Lamb for explosive plays in passing attacks. That will likely be the case again this season with what appears to be an underwhelming offensive line.
But consistently getting the ball out quickly can cause the defense to sneak, as Washington did in the video above. But Prescott’s passing ability has never manifested as a consistent back-and-shoulder tosser. Not that he tip Do it, the Cowboys offense just doesn’t do it often. Using Lamb’s jumping and fighting ability on the sidelines in obvious blitz situations could be just what the doctor ordered for Dallas.
Lamb celebrated in the air on the touchline in Oklahoma, and he could do it at the NFL level if he got the chance. While these throws feel like low-percentage shots, the back-shoulder throw is one of the more untenable things in soccer.
Moore and the Cowboys offense must find ways to respond to how the defense defends them during a game. You have to learn to bitch when the defense is jagged. When the defense is running a lot of soft cover 2’s or 4’s, they need to find ways to conflict the linebackers and attack the middle of the field with quick pass concepts.