After a rough start to the season, the Dallas Cowboys are at a crossroads in their season. Here are two keys that will help them turn 2017 into a positive.
Even during a week in which the Dallas Cowboys do not play, it seems like they lost. With an opportunity to rest, recover and rejuvenate, the Cowboys still took a step back.
How you ask?
Every single team, even the lowly New York Giants, won during Dallas’ bye week. Without question, the Giants victory had to be the most inexplicable given their opponent.
One month ago, the Cowboys went to Denver and came away with an embarrassing loss, highlighted by an ineffective ground game. On Sunday, New York goes to Denver, wins and racks up almost 150 yards rushing.
Welcome to life in the National Football League.
As if the prosperity of the divisional foes was not enough, the Cowboys will also be without one of their best players for six weeks. Yes, you guessed it, the on again, off again suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott is, once again, on.
So, everybody’s winning, the Cowboys are losing both ground in the standings and star power on the field. Oh, and let’s just throw in the whole “should be 4-1 but really are 2-3” aspect of things for good measure.
Just how in the world will the Dallas Cowboys save their season and make anything out of 2017?
Well, the first thing is to own who they are and why they’re here.
It’s time to forget about expectations. There should be no expectations anymore. That includes looking down the schedule and trying to figure out who they should beat over the final eleven games.
The Dallas Cowboys are in no position to expect a victory over anyone. It’s time to figure out the formula that makes this team successful, then replicate it week-to-week.
Part of that formula is time of possession. In 2014 and 2016, the Cowboys won 25 games, in large part because they dominated the ball. Whether it was DeMarco Murray or Elliott, the Cowboys leaned on a relentless rushing attack. In both of those years, Dallas finished third in overall time of possession.
This year, Dallas is 20th overall. Now, I know what you’re thinking… and you’re right. The Cowboys have not been able to run the ball as effectively. How can they control the clock if they can’t run the ball like they did in previous years?
The answer is to open up the offense more. The best way to do so is to use quarterback Dak Prescott in different ways. Prescott needs to be more of a ball handler, a la Cam Newton. The offense, especially in the next six weeks, needs to revolve around his playmaking ability.
Allowing Prescott to be more of a running threat will give defenses yet another things to be concerned about. It’s not just in the run game, however, that Prescott can relieve some of the pressure offensively.
Dallas needs to utilize Prescott’s accuracy more by calling more screen passes and slant routes to move the ball. Too often, this offense seems to want big chunks of yards. The problem is if you’re successful, you’re not controlling the clock. If you’re not successful, you’re getting off the field too quickly.
Hitting on short and intermediate routes will help open lanes in the run game which will help the Cowboys control the clock.
The other part of that formula is being better at getting off the field on third down defensively.
Last year, the Cowboys were in the middle of the pack, allowing teams to convert on just under 40% on third down. This year, they are one of the five worst teams in this area, allowing conversions 45% of the time.
The two biggest reasons for this regression are play calling and tackling. For whatever reason, the Cowboys are playing less of what is known as “sticks” defense this year. Sticks basically means that the defense protects line to advance, usually forcing the offense to dump the ball short of the first down. The defense then comes up, makes the tackle and forces a punt.
This used to be a staple of the Cowboys defense. The inability to tackle isn’t helping things either. Wrapping up ball carriers and taking appropriate angles have been atrocious failures so far. It doesn’t help that two of their best tacklers, Anthony Hitchens and Sean Lee, have missed time.
It’s feasible that tackling will improve with their return. Replacing Jeff Heath with Xavier Woods at safety would also be a step in the right direction. Ultimately, each man on this defense needs to take more pride in their craft, however, and finish plays.
If the Cowboys can improve these two areas, the talent is there to change the course of this season.
The question is not can the Dallas Cowboys save their season. They absolutely can. If they increase their time of possession, tackle better and get off the field on third down, they will do just that.