DALLAS — The bye week has arrived and the Dallas Cowboys appear to be in the driver’s seat in the NFC East. With a five-game winning streak, Jerry Jones’ squad has a three-game lead in the division with none of their rivals showing signs of being able to compete with the Cowboys.
Things can change quickly in the NFL, and with the extra regular season game added, nothing should be taken for granted. Dallas also plays four of their last five against division opponents, which could make things interesting down the road.
The Cowboys still have work to do and even though winning the division is one of the goals, the team is surely setting its sights a little higher after the hot start.
Nevertheless, through a third of the season, the Cowboys have the look of a contender. The offense has been one of the best in the league and the defense has been opportunistic.
Despite a better performance from the defense in Dan Quinn’s first season as defensive coordinator, if the Cowboys are going to continue playing at a high level, the offense remains the key. Quarterback Dak Prescott is playing at an MVP level and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has been putting the unit in great positions to succeed.
If the offense plays well, it will continue to force opposing teams to play catch up, and that’s how the Dallas defense has been positioned to score their takeaways.
The process is simple for the Cowboys, score points and put pressure on teams to keep pace. Very few teams have that ability and, with the offense playing such quality football, the Cowboys are putting their opponents behind the 8-ball.
As was hoped with Prescott’s return this year, the Dallas’ offense is ripping the league up. They are first in yards and points per game, and inquiring minds might want to know how they’re accomplishing this level of success.
Here are some of the tendencies for an offense that is more than holding up its end of the bargain:
When Prescott is under center, expect a run
The Cowboys have one of the more diverse offenses in the league, but when Prescott is under center, a run is likely coming. Through six games this season, the Cowboys are running it at over 71% when Prescott’s under center.
That’s also why the play action passing game has been so effective for the offense. When Prescott is under center and throws it – which he’s done 37 times this season – the results are usually good. The tight ends, especially Dalton Schultz, have gotten big gains and easy yards on the play fake, bootleg rollout from Prescott.
It feels as though this alignment for the Cowboys hasn't been stopped all year and it even set up the winning touchdown against the New England Patriots in Week 6.
The Cowboys had run it so successfully through the season’s first six weeks that the expected throw to the flat for positive yards turned into the game-winning score. Moore and Prescott took advantage of their own tendencies and dialed up a perfect play.
If Prescott is in shotgun, expect a pass
This isn’t breaking news; offenses routinely pass out of the gun. Prescott is throwing over 73% of the time when he’s in shotgun and it’s been very profitable for the Cowboys. Of Prescott’s 16 passing touchdowns, 11 have come with him in shotgun.
Also not surprising, Prescott is more likely to be under center than in shotgun on first down.
That leads us to this discovery: The Cowboys like to run on first down
This used to be a major point of contention under Jason Garrett, whose offense had no problem lining up and running it on first down. As the game evolved, more fans/analysts screamed for the Cowboys to throw it more on first down, since it typically produced more yards.
Thus far this season, Moore’s dialed up a good number of runs on first down. It didn’t start out that way, as the Cowboys avoided running it against the stout front for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, but the last few weeks have seen an uptick of first down runs.
In Week 5, against the New York Giants, the Cowboys ran it on 19 of their 28 first downs. On those runs, four resulted in no gains or a loss of yards, eight had a gain of three yards or fewer, and five runs that resulted in gains between four and six yards. That leaves just two runs that gained more than six yards.
Those aren’t great numbers for a team that is second in the league in rushing.
Against New England, the Cowboys ran it on 17 of their 32 first downs. The offense had nine rushes for less than three yards, including two runs for negative yards, four runs of four or five yards and just four runs of over seven yards.
However, each of those four large runs came in the second half when the Cowboys had begun to wear the Patriots down.
Despite being the highest scoring team in the league, Dallas is perhaps running it too much on first down. If they were having more success at it, it might make sense, but that hasn’t been the case, especially early in games.
One of the strengths for the offense thus far has been taking what the defense gives them so it’s possible that teams are showing looks to halt the quick strike passing game and demanding that the Cowboys beat them with sustained drives. Moore, Prescott, and the passing game don’t seem to be having any problems with that style. And the Cowboys are running it well overall behind a resurgent Ezekiel Elliott and his change up partner Tony Pollard.
These are just a few trends that have been noticeable for the Dallas Cowboys on offense through six weeks. It’s a group that has shown the ability to beat defenses any way that they want. Now we’ll find out how teams opt to adjust to Dallas’ offensive juggernaut over the final 11 weeks of the regular season.
Special thanks to C. Joseph Wright (@cjosephwright) for helping to compile data to break down the Cowboys’ first half tendencies.
Do you think the Cowboys will be able to maintain their league-leading offense on the other side of their bye week? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.