What Was Wrong with the Dallas Cowboys' Offense in Carolina?

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What Was Wrong with the Dallas Cowboys' Offense in Carolina?
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Only four NFL teams have scored fewer points than the Dallas Cowboys this season. Fortunately for Dallas, Carolina is one of those teams, which is a major reason why the Cowboys survived to beat the Panthers Sunday and even their record at 3-3.

But the offense still struggled for much of the game against a mediocre defensive unit missing two starters in Chris Gamble and Jon Beason. 

Unfortunately, there isn't a single explanation for what's ailing this offense. No, there are several problems right now. Let's list them, focusing squarely on examples and statistics from Sunday's matchup with the Panthers.

 

They refused to use play-action

Tony Romo was 3-for-4 for 38 yards on play-action Sunday and has now completed 80 percent of his passes while posting a 135.4 passer rating in those situations this season, according to DallasCowboys.com

Here's an example of a comically clean pocket Romo had off of play-action in the first quarter:

That would result in a 14-yard completion to Miles Austin.

And another one on the penultimate offensive series of the game:

That would result in a first-down pickup for Jason Witten.

I realize that play-action usually only works in small doses, but the 'Boys can afford to run such plays more than three or four times per game, especially when they're having that much success off of it. I think that by continuing to stay away from something that's working, Jason Garrett is over-thinking things.

 

They didn't take enough shots

This goes hand-in-hand with the play-action point because those types of plays usually lead to opportunities downfield. Romo attempted only one throw that traveled more than 20 yards on Sunday, and sure enough it was a 26-yard touchdown throw to Miles Austin. 

Romo was the second-most accurate deep passer in the league last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And he attempted 61 passes of 20 yards or more. This year, he's attempted only 21 of those throws, and his accuracy percentage has plummeted from second in football to 17th. 

The pocket's been cleaner as of late (more on that in a moment), but Romo's just not getting it deep. More on that right here...

 

The receivers continued to let Romo down

That accuracy percentage and the frequency of those deep balls is probably related to the fact that Romo's receivers have struggled this season. It's well documented that Jason Witten was a mess early and Dez Bryant's been a non-stop disaster. If Romo can't trust his receivers, he'll throw deep to them less often.

On Sunday, Romo had dropped passes from Witten, Bryant, Kevin Ogletree and Felix Jones.

On a third-and-four on the first drive of the game for the Dallas offense, look at how well the line holds up against a rare Carolina blitz. Romo's pocket is clean as can be, and he has Ogletree getting open on the right sideline.

Romo hits Ogletree right in the chest, but he drops it. 

But the drop of the game again came from Bryant in the end zone in the fourth quarter:

That has to be a touchdown. Bryant again showing a complete lack of focus in a big moment.

This offensive line is getting it together and buying Romo more time, but there's still no support from the receivers. And yet Romo still completed 71 percent of his passes. That's because he was checking down a lot. 

There were a number of times when Romo stepped up into clean pockets but just couldn't find an open target for a deep completion. Here's something we saw multiple times throughout the game...

That's why Romo's completion percentage was so high (it would have been 82 percent without the drops) and yet his yards-per-attempt number was a mere 6.7.

Throw in that Austin also had a fumble after a stellar Romo completion and you can begin to see why Romo might be losing faith in his guys.

 

Lack of support from the running game

A unit that has lacked consistency all year didn't have DeMarco Murray on Sunday, but I get the feeling they would have failed to deliver regardless of who was in the backfield. There were rarely opportunities for Felix Jones or Phillip Tanner to even get started.

This is Jones the moment he took the handoff on the first play of Dallas' second possession. He's hit immediately by multiple Carolina defenders, still four yards short of the line of scrimmage.

Jones and the rest of the backs would deal with situations like those all day. 

It was often as simple as not being able to pick up linebackers, or at least make contact. That was the case on this run later on the same drive, when Thomas Davis is able to walk through the trenches to meet Jones.

Not much Jones can do and an easy tackle for a loss.

Jones and Phillip Tanner actually did a half-decent job, considering what they had to work with. It's amazing Jones was able to get nine yards out of this, for example...

They continue to take too many penalties

On a per-game basis, they're the most penalized offense in the NFL. And those penalties always seem to come at particularly bad times.

Like, for instance, when right tackle Doug Free committed a false start (his ninth penalty of the season) on a third-and-four on the Carolina 26-yard line with a three-point lead late in the third quarter. That essentially forced Dallas to settle for a field goal, and it remained a one-score game.

The 'Boys actually only had six penalties against Carolina, but that one was huge. Witten also had what could have been a costly hold and now leads all NFL tight ends with five penalties in six games.

 

Can't pin this on the pass protection

Romo wasn't sacked, wasn't hit and was hurried just nine times (per PFF). Sure, they did a terrible job run blocking, but the offensive line held up in pass protection. 

Here's Romo on a third-and-four completion in the third quarter. The blitz pickup was perfect, and the pocket was clean. He had plenty of time to let Austin and/or Bryant get open. 

I cited a few similar examples earlier. Romo can't fault his line for what happened Sunday.

 

So just stop dropping passes, taking penalties and failing to open up holes, which will give you the ability to run more play-action and attempt more deep passes. It's that simple. 

And yes, that's sarcasm. 

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