Entering the season, most everyone knew the 2017 Dallas Cowboys would look very different from the 2016 version, but there was hope that could be a good thing. So much optimism, in fact, that the Cowboys could be found on many short lists of Super Bowl contenders. Through four games though, it’s been the opposite, and the Cowboys (2-2) have taken drastic steps backward on both sides of the ball.
Suddenly those changes seem to be far more ominous, but is it time to push the panic button?
The 2016 Cowboys offense was the perfect example of what a balanced offense should look like in the modern NFL. They were the most run-heavy team in the NFL at 48.7 percent of their snaps, but at the same time, it rarely felt like they had to force the run game. They were sixth in yards per drive and fourth in points per drive, all with rookies at quarterback and running back. In 2017, those ranks are 15th and 17th respectively.
It’s almost difficult to comprehend how they could take such a step back because the offense looks the same. You have all the young stars – Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin — still in place. One would think they’d be getting better based on natural career progressions, yet they’re getting worse.
The reason for the regression goes back to their balance. It’s been non-existent in 2017. The losses of Ronald Leary and Doug Free have hurt more than most thought. The 2016 Cowboys line could go man-for-man against any defensive front in the NFL and be confident they’d win. Overloaded boxes didn’t matter to them as they’d open enough holes to make up for it.
The 2017 Cowboys line does not have the same prowess. Left guards Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper have grades of 34.2 (fifth-worst among starting guards) and 32.8 (third-worst), respectively — while in Denver, departed Ronald Leary is currently the ninth-highest-graded guard. Right tackle La’el Collins has a grade of 38.3 (sixth-worst among starting tackles). Tyron Smith appears to be hampered by an injury. All of it adds up to an offensive line that looks overmatched at times. They’ve still not “forced” the running game in my opinion, but because of that they’ve only ran on 39.7 percent of snaps this season. The balance in the offense is gone. With much more asked out of Prescott — with those on second-and-5 scenarios getting a little longer — they’ve been, and will continue to be, a far more inconsistent offense.
This is where some of the biggest changes have come, by far, both from a personnel and schematic aspect. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was one of the godfathers of the Tampa-2 defense. While he was the Bears defensive coordinator from 2010 to 2012, he didn’t have a defense finish lower than seventh in points per drive against, using a majority Tampa-2.
Last season with the Cowboys though, their personnel didn’t mesh with Marinelli’s zone coverages and so they ran man coverage at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL. Over the course of the offseason though they watched Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne – two ‘man’ corners – leave in free agency and transitioned back to a zone-heavy defense. But in the modern era of the NFL it is nearly impossible to play zone coverage all game long. Certain situations almost require man coverage, and the Cowboys’ teeth haven’t been nearly as sharp in those cases. Below are their stats in man coverage from this year and last.
This side of the ball has also been ravaged by injury and suspensions. As much as it hurts to say, Jaylon Smith having to play is a liability for the Cowboys. He’s not the same player after the knee injury and multiple times a game he’s simply unable to change direction. That was evident last week when he gave up 58 yards on 5-6 targets in his coverage. They’ve also been without their highest-graded defensive lineman from a season ago, David Irving, due to a four-game PED suspension. Fully healthy, they should be a solid defense, but it’s still safe to say they’ve taken a step backwards from 2016.
When you look at the roster as a whole, the talent level isn’t close to the same as the 2016 version on both sides of the ball. They’ve tried to mask it with schematic changes as best they can, but there’s only so much you can hide it in positions like the secondary and offensive line. Getting guys back healthy from injuries and suspensions will help, though there’s no fixing the biggest change from a year ago. The 2017 Cowboys offensive line is not an utterly dominant unit like it was in 2016. The schematic advantage it provided, for all intents and purposes, is gone. And with it has gone Dallas’s spot as one of the favorites in the NFC.
Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.
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