Why did Cowboys offense go bust against Colts?

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys won five straight before playing against the Colts, who shut them out and raised new questions entering Week 16.

Heading into Week 15, the Cowboys were one of the hottest team in the NFL. They had won five straight games and were starting to get some “sleeper” buzz from some in the media. As of late, they were complementary football, and it was their offense that really started to improve. On Sunday, they were tasked with playing the Indianapolis Colts, who had won six out of their last seven games.

Like most weeks, the game plan was simple. Dallas wanted to control the time of possession with long offensive drives to keep their defense and Andrew Luck off the field. To their credit, they executed that plan.

In the first half, each team had just three drives. Considering the opponent, the Cowboys couldn’t have asked for a better game script. On Dallas’ three drives, they ran 10, 15 and 14 plays on each respective drive. Against Luck and the Colts, that is precisely what they wanted to do on the road.

On all three drives, Dallas marched the ball inside of their opponent’s territory and put themselves into a position to score. But the Cowboys were never able to come away with any points. Today, I want to take a look at how each of the three drives ended.

On the opening drive of the game, the Cowboys had a 10 play drive that took them inside the 30-yard line of the Colts. After a Cole Beasley catch, Dallas had 2nd and 1 from the Colts’ 27-yard line. On 2nd and 1, Dallas ran a delayed counter to Ezekiel Elliott, and he was tackled for a three-yard loss, setting up 3rd and 4.

Dallas was still in a good position here. Against a Colts’ defense that has struggled on third down all season, the Cowboys should have had no problem picking this up. But instead, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan drew up a deep route to Allen Hurns instead of just trying to pick up the first down.

Dallas’ overaggressiveness came back to haunt them. Not only were they forced to settle for a field goal on a promising drive, but the Colts blocked the field goal and took it back to the Cowboys’ 44-yard line. This was an excellent drive by Dallas that stalled because they got a little too “cute”. Throwing to your fourth-best receiver down the field isn’t what makes this offense work. But let’s move on.

Dallas’ second drive of the game was all too familiar for Cowboys’ fans. Once again, they moved the ball fairly easily on the Colts and had a 1st and 10 from the Colts’ 12-yard line. But one of the biggest problem this season for the team has been their lack of ability to convert in the red zone.

On the season, the Cowboys are the 31st ranked red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 44 percent of their offensive drives. The only team that is worse is the San Francisco 49ers, who are starting an undrafted free agent quarterback in Nick Mullens after the injury to Jimmy Garoppolo. For a team that has playoff aspirations, that is entirely unacceptable.

Dallas doesn’t really have a plan in the red zone this season. From 2013 to 2017, no team in the NFL had a higher touchdown percentage in the red zone than the Dallas Cowboys (61.3%) per Sportradar. For many years, the plan was to target Dez Bryant anytime the team was near the red zone. During those five years, Bryant caught 31 touchdowns in the red zone, the second-most in the NFL. If Bryant wasn’t catching a touchdown, he was demanding a double-team that led to an easy score for someone else.

Without Bryant, Dallas has really struggled to find any groove in the red zone. Sunday was no exception. On the second drive of the game, the Cowboys had the ball on 3rd and 1 from the Colts’ three-yard line. Instead of running the ball up the middle, Dallas opted to throw a play-action pass to the fullback. The play call worked. But the Cowboys failed to execute as Jamize Olawale dropped a sure touchdown.

Without Bryant on the roster, they are forced to rely on lesser players to do the heavy lifting in the red zone, especially if Elliott isn’t touching the ball. Instead of kicking the field goal, Dallas opted to go for the first down. Considering how good Indianapolis’ offense is, I applauded the move.

However, I did not love the play call. Instead of running the ball up the middle or using the play-action pass once again, Dallas decided to use a zone-run against a loaded box. All it took was center Joe Looney missing his block, and the play was over before it began.

Dallas just couldn’t get out of their own way. A touchdown here by Dallas via Olawale or Elliott would have tied the game. But once Dallas was stopped there, the entire momentum of the game shifted, and Dallas was never able to turn it back into their favor.

However, that wasn’t the end of the game. Not even close. On Dallas’ next drive, they marched the ball inside of the Colts’ 40-yard line once again, down just seven. On 3rd and 9 from the Colts’ 37-yard line, Dallas was in field goal range even with just an incompletion. But once again, Dallas’ just couldn’t find a way to limit mistakes. The Colts rushed only four defenders, but despite Dallas leaving in six to block, Prescott was sacked as Tyron Smith, and Adam Redmond failed to handle the stunt on the left side.

For the third drive in a row, the Cowboys chewed clock and advanced the ball into scoring territory, only to come away empty handed. After this drive, the Colts kicked a field goal before halftime and scored another touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter. The score the next time Dallas touched the ball on offense? 17-0. The game was basically over.

Some will question the Cowboys’ “effort” on offense, but that wasn’t the case here. Dallas had their chances in this game and time, and time again, they failed to execute when it mattered most. If the Cowboys were able to score points on any of those three drives in the first half, you would have seen a much different game. Instead, things snowballed on Dallas in the second half, and they were shutout.

Dallas has been able to survive over the last few weeks due to their defense and ability to hit big plays. They certainly still have the ability to do both of those things next week and will try to do them next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But if they can’t find a way to cut back on the mental mistakes and self-inflicted wounds, they aren’t going to go very far in the playoffs.

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