September 17, 2018
Ezekiel Elliott let out a long, high-pitched “WOOOOOO!” as he bounced along the hallway that led from the playing field to the Dallas Cowboys’ locker room Sunday night at AT&T Stadium.
Dallas Cowboys find offensive identity in crucial win over New York Giants
With a 20-13 victory over the visiting NFC East rival New York Giants, a weight had lifted from the shoulders of the third-year running back and all of his teammates — particularly those on offense.
Just one week earlier, the Cowboys’ offense looked nothing like the once-promising and potent attack built around Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. Instead — and in continuance with the feeble showing of the preseason — the unit had managed only 232 yards and two successful third down conversions on 11 attempts in a 16-8 snoozer against the Carolina Panthers.
Instead of showing anticipated signs of maturation, Prescott appeared overwhelmed and ineffective while getting sacked six times. His poor play sparked questions about coach Jason Garrett’s game planning and ability to position his young stars for success. The ineptitude of the offense, coupled with owner Jerry Jones’ ever-abounding Texas-sized expectations, also raised questions about Garrett’s job security.
But on Sunday night, the scrutiny subsided and the pressure eased.
The Cowboys’ performance wasn’t at all perfect. The unit still struggled on third downs — converting on only three of 10 attempts. And Dallas fell shy of the 300-yard mark and ventured into the red zone only three times all game (managing one touchdown on those trips). The Cowboys didn’t even win the time of possession battle.
But a more diverse game plan, better execution on first downs, persistence in the rushing department and a handful of big plays (along with the support of a defense that registered six sacks and a fumble recovery) translated into the first win of the season for the Cowboys.
Sunday’s performance also showed the blueprint for further success for the Garrett’s unit.
“We executed a lot better than we did last week, but there were somethings in the plan (that made a difference,” explained Prescott, who completed 16 of 24 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, wasn’t sacked at all, and also rushed for a career-high 45 yards on seven attempts. “We wanted to spread them out and run the ball from the spread a little bit more, from the gun. We wanted to do that. But we executed better, bottom line.”
Indeed, Dallas’ strategy featured more creativity and diversity compared to the approach against Carolina. Garrett and his assistants composed a script that better supported Prescott, while also better capitalizing on the strengths of his skill players.
The Cowboys utilized a variety of looks to keep the Giants defense guessing. Prescott lined up under center. He lined up in the shotgun and the pistol. He handed the ball off. He used the play-action attack. He used run-pass option plays — sometimes keeping the ball and running, other times faking the handoff and zipping the ball to a receiver.
With a number of quick-hitter passes, the Cowboys got the ball out of Prescott’s hands quickly to avoid the pass rush. But those plays came after Prescott and speedy wideout Tavon Austin connected for a 64-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game.
“That play was very big because the (defensive backs) couldn’t sit on our routes more, because they were worried we were going to go deep,” said Austin, who also flashed in the first quarter running a 15-yard reverse. “The biggest thing is we stayed ahead of the chains, which we didn’t do last week. When you get into second-and-12s and second-and-15s, it really limits what you can do.”
Teammates agreed with that assessment. So, while the point of emphasis in the coaches meetings involved arming Prescott with a better game plan, the coaches stressed to players the need to execute better on first downs because manageable situations on second and third downs translate into more diverse and less predictable play calls.
But through it all, the Cowboys remained committed to balance. Prescott attempted 25 passes, and Garrett also called 25 run plays. The commitment to the run wore the Giants down as was evident during a 14-play, 82-yard fourth-quarter-opening scoring drive that featured eight runs — the last of which was a six-yard rumble into the end zone by Elliott.
“It really brought me back to my rookie year when we had five of those (drives) in a season,” said Elliott, who finished with 78 yards on 17 attempts and the touchdown. “That’s just the identity of this team: we are going to be physical from Play 1 to Play 80, and I think it showed in that drive how physical. I think the Giants defense is very good. Stacked. But I think we wore them down and it showed in that drive.”
Indeed, this is the kind of identity and creativity that the Cowboys have to utilize, particularly while waiting for new weapons to emerge and take the places of departed stars like tight end Jason Witten and wideout Dez Bryant. And eventually, as players like Austin become more comfortable in their roles, more big plays, points and victories will come.
And that’s all Jerry needs to remain happy.
“I’m very pleased with how we looked and very pleased with how Dak played and gave their defense something to think about,” Jones proclaimed to a swarm of reporters outside of the locker room.
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