The Cowboys emerged from New Orleans with a hard-fought win, but a scan through the stat sheet reveals a troubling trend, one that the team will need to reverse if they have any hope of success beyond their 17th game.
Despite having all offensive starters available and active, coordinator Kellen Moore’s unit managed to convert just two third downs the whole night. Out of 13. A 15.38% success rate. Worst in the league in Week 13.
Moore agrees it’s a problem that’s been worth exploring during the mini-bye, but suggests there’s a bigger issue at play.
“I’d certainly say you study it and you dig into it, because obviously, it’s not what you want. You don’t want to be 2-for-13 on third downs,” the coordinator said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “There’s going to be certain things that you want to make adjustments on third down. I think it’s also important to recognize the impact first and second down has on third downs. Too many long third-down situations in that game. So we’ve got to be better on first and second down; the good teams that are really good on third down are sitting on third-and-3, third-and-4, and not the third-and-6, third-and-7s that are sometimes more challenging than third-and-10-plusses.”
Down and distance has been a notable bugaboo for the Cowboys as of late. The team currently ranks fourth leaguewide in number of first downs made per game- 23.3 through 12 games- a sign that the offense can and has moved the ball fairly well, at least over the course of the entire season.
But across the last three games, that number is 18.7, dropping them to 18th place.
Third down has been far more worrisome. For the year, Dallas has converted 40.13% of third downs– statistically worse than 2020, when the club played most of the year with a rotation of backup quarterbacks and running back Ezekiel Elliott turned in his poorest season as a pro.
Over the past three games, though, the Cowboys are moving the sticks on third down at just a 24.39% clip, next-to-last, below the likes of Houston, Detroit, and both New York teams… not the kind of company one wants to be in entering the postseason chase.
The rundown of teams that have been most effective at converting on third downs this year- by and large- reads more like the list of squads prepping for a deep playoff run: Kansas City, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and Arizona among then.
Moore, however, isn’t overly discouraged by the Cowboys’ numbers. Getting Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup back to full speed and gelling with one another- all have missed time- and finding a combination that the offensive line can stick with will hopefully help the offense pull out of their three-week slump.
“I think confidence comes with performance,” he said. “I think we feel good about where we are. It’s an NFL season. There’s going to be highs; there’s going to be lows. You go through these dips. It’s a long, long season. I think our guys understand that. You’re not going to go smooth sailing for however many weeks we’ve gone, 13 straight. There’s going to be a few ups and downs. I feel great with where we’re at. Kind of getting those guys back into the groove. I think the importance of just having some continuity, practice together, spend time together. I think we’ve got a great opportunity to get this thing going in a special way in December.”
The 33-year-old admits that running the ball effectively needs to be a bigger part of the gameplan. Given Elliott’s recent struggles as he plays through a knee injury, change-of-pace back Tony Pollard may well see an increase in snaps as the Cowboys try to compile more yards earlier.
“I certainly think it comes down to just being really efficient on first and second down,” Moore continued. “That’s the biggest thing. When you stay ahead of the chains, when you stay in favorable situations, good things happen. You’ve got to win first down. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to get 10-plus yards on first down. That means you get four yards on a run- a good, solid run- get to second down, get a good solid, another completion, maybe get a first down there, get into third downs. When you get into those drives- the good drives, those 10-, 11-, 12-play drives- those are what teams have got to stack in the NFL. I think we’re close. We’re going to be there, and I’m excited for where we’re going.”
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