Breaking Down Dallas Cowboys' Most Troubling Trends
Through Week 15 of the 2017 season, the Dallas Cowboys have somehow managed to survive. After getting blown out on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys were 5-6 and the season looked to be over. But after winning three straight games, the team's playoff aspirations are still alive (barely).
However, the team is on the outside looking in. That is in terms of the playoff picture, due to a few disturbing trends they can't seem to break.
What are the biggest things holding the Cowboys back from being an elite team in 2018? Here are the more troubling trends haunting Dallas this season and possible ways to get the team back on track.
Dak Prescott Without Ezekiel Elliott
The biggest concern facing the Dallas Cowboys right now is Dak Prescott. But let's be clear about one thing: He is the team's franchise quarterback. He is someone you can win with, and he has the mental makeup you want from the player leading your team. Cowboys fans just have such a high standard for Prescott because of how well he has played in the past two seasons.
However, he is not the same quarterback without Ezekiel Elliott. As harsh as it may seem, that's just the truth. We saw how dominant the two were together last season, but the same was true this year in the first half of the season. In the eight games that Prescott played with Elliott, Prescott had a passer rating of 97.9 as he scored 20 total touchdowns and threw just four interceptions. Without Elliott, Prescott's passer rating drops all the way down to 76.6 as he has thrown seven interceptions.
Without Elliott, Prescott just never seemed like himself, which makes sense. Elliott is the Cowboys' biggest playmaker on offense, and his loss is hard to overcome. Personnel matters, and it affects everyone. Even the New England Patriots and Tom Brady struggled when they lost their star tight end in Rob Gronkowski.
Luckily for the Cowboys (and Prescott), Elliott returns to the field this week, and hopefully, his off-field issues are behind him. Assuming they pick up right where they left off, Prescott should revert back to the player we saw over the first 24 games of his career, rather than the one we saw in the last six.
Dak Prescott to Dez Bryant Connection
After 27 games, it is officially time to be concerned about the Dak Prescott-to-Dez Bryant connection. The two just can't seem to get in any sort of rhythm this year. Over the last two seasons, Prescott has targeted Bryant 214 times, but the pair has only been able to connect 113 times. There have been numerous times when the two read coverages differently and the play resulted in an interception. It just hasn't been the season many were hoping to see from each player.
The hope is that over the offseason and with the return of Ezekiel Elliott, these two can start humming again. However, the problem might be much deeper than just Elliott returning from his suspension. Prescott doesn't always throw with a ton of anticipation, and Bryant doesn't create a ton of separation. Bryant is a gifted receiver when the ball is in the air and when he is on the move, but those types of catches require throws that are accurate and on time—neither of which are strengths of Prescott (not yet, at least).
While many are suggesting that the Cowboys move on from Bryant this offseason (won't happen), that still doesn't help this team's passing attack. Somehow, these two need to get back on the same page if they want to be any real threat in the NFC in the upcoming seasons. They each have the talent to do so, but as of now, it's a frightening trend the two can't seem to find a way to shake.
Terrance Williams' Impact
When the Cowboys re-signed Terrance Willams, the move seemed fantastic. Williams took a team-friendly deal in order to stay with the team that drafted him in 2013. However, despite the modest contract, Williams hasn't performed like a starting receiver this season. In fact, he's hurting the team at this point.
Through 14 games, Williams has just 47 receptions for 520 yards and zero touchdowns. He is averaging just over 11 yards per reception, which would be by far the lowest of his career. As a rookie, Williams averaged 16.7 yards per catch and scored five touchdowns.
Williams has clearly regressed as a player, and the reason why is still unknown. Like Dez Bryant, Williams isn't a receiver that creates a ton of separation and needs to be thrown open by his quarterback. With Dak Prescott entrenched as the team's franchise quarterback, Williams may not be the fit long-term opposite of Bryant.
In order for the Cowboys' offense to take the next step, they have to be able to beat man coverage more consistently. With Williams not being able to scare defensive coordinators deep or beat No. 2 cornerbacks often enough, Dallas could look for his eventual replacement this offseason. The Cowboys' lack of production in their receiving corps is a concerning trend moving forward.
Jason Witten's Yards Per Catch
Jason Witten is a sure-fire Hall of Famer when he decides to hang up his cleats. He is the all-time reception leader for the Cowboys (he leads second-place receiver Michael Irvin by 395 catches and counting) and one of the best tight ends to ever play the game. But in his 15th year in the NFL, he is slowing down the Cowboys' offense.
Witten is averaging just nine yards per reception this season. That's down nearly a full yard from 2016 and nearly two full yards from his career average of 10.8. Teams are playing more man-to-man coverage against Dallas and daring Witten to beat them. At this point in his career, it's just not something he can do consistently.
This decline should have been expected, and in fact, the Cowboys are fortunate that it didn't come sooner. Witten can still contribute as a blocker and as a reliable receiver in certain situations, but Dallas needs to find a different way to beat man coverage in the middle of the field in 2018. Unfortunately, the answer likely won't contain No. 82.
Lack of Interceptions
Once again, it has been a season in which the Cowboys can't find a way to consistently take the ball away. On Sunday night, it nearly cost them as Anthony Brown had the game-winning interception in his hands but wasn't able to make the play. Usually, those plays come back to haunt teams, and that was almost the case again here (thanks, Derek Carr).
The Cowboys' defense has just nine interceptions this season, which puts them in the bottom half of the league in 2017. What is concerning is that they had the same amount last year with a different secondary. Even if you combined the team's interception total over the past two seasons, Baltimore and Jacksonville would have more this year alone (22 and 20, respectively).
Is it the scheme that isn't allowing Dallas to create turnovers? Unlikely, considering that they are playing more zone defense this year in order to force more interceptions. The pass rush has been more than adequate this season, so it shouldn't be an issue of quarterbacks getting comfortable in the pocket.
The Cowboys have a lot of youth in their secondary, and that, more than anything, is what is likely causing the team to be so inept in the interception department. As these young defensive backs grow, the hope is that they can start making more plays. There is a bit of luck that goes into the interception total, and certainly, the quality of quarterbacks can matter too, but this is an area the Cowboys have to improve on in 2018.
The first five trends listed all contained concerns about the Cowboys and their on-the-field production. But the final trend has more to do with their front office and how they choose personnel on the defensive side of the ball. The Cowboys are ignoring shorter defensive ends in the draft because they believe the odds of them having success are significantly shorter.
In a recent interview on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, Stephen Jones, the director of player personnel for the Cowboys, confirmed that the team believes shorter defensive ends have a lower hit right in the NFL. That is why they decided to select Taco Charlton in the first round over shorter defensive ends such as T.J. Watt and Carl Lawson.
If you look at the rest of the defensive ends on the roster, you can see that this holds true. Their team consists of a bunch of 6'4" to 6'7" defensive ends who can play both inside and on the edge. While that versatility is always wanted, the Cowboys are missing on talented and productive players in the draft due to their strict height requirement.
Ultimately, the Cowboys have had some success drafting defensive ends. However, they could help their odds if they were to relax some of their physical requirements of edge defenders. With Rod Marinelli running the defense and picking out his type of defensive linemen, don't expect that to change anytime soon, unfortunately.