Dal­las finds its of­fense:

Di­verse game plan now on dis­play

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Mike Jones

Di­ver­sity, cre­ativ­ity vs. Gi­ants show signs from mem­o­rable 2016 sea­son.

AR­LING­TON, Texas – Ezekiel El­liott let out a long, high­pitched “WOOOOO!” as he bounced along the hall­way that led from the play­ing field to the Cow­boys locker room Sept. 16 at AT&T Sta­dium.

With a 20-13 vic­tory over the NFC East ri­val 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 the unit had man­aged only 232 yards and two suc­cess­ful third-down con­ver­sions on 11 at­tempts in a 16-8 snoozer against the 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’ ev­er­abound­ing Texas-sized ex­pec­ta­tions, also raised ques­tions about Gar­rett’s job se­cu­rity.

But on the night of Sept. 16, the scru­tiny sub­sided and the pres­sure eased.

The Cow­boys’ per­for­mance wasn’t at all per­fect. The unit still strug­gled on third downs, con­vert­ing on 3 of 10 at­tempts. And Dal­las fell shy of the 300yard 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.

The per­for­mance also showed the blue­print for fur­ther suc­cess for Gar­rett’s unit.

“We ex­e­cuted a lot bet­ter than we did last week, but there were some things in the plan (that made a dif­fer­ence),” ex­plained Prescott, who com­pleted 16 of 24 passes for 160 yards and a TD, wasn’t sacked at all and 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.

Dal­las used a va­ri­ety of looks to keep the Gi­ants de­fense guess­ing. Prescott lined up un­der cen­ter, 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. Those plays came af­ter Prescott and speedy wide­out Tavon Austin con­nected for a 64-yard TD pass on the game’s third play.

“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 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 sec­on­dand-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 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-quar­teropen­ing scor­ing drive that fea­tured eight runs, the last of which was a 6-yard rum­ble into the end zone by El­liott, who fin­ished with 78 yards on 17 at­tempts and the TD.

This is the kind of iden­tity and cre­ativ­ity the Cow­boys have to use. 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 out­side the locker room.

MATTHEW EM­MONS/USA TO­DAY

Dal­las’ Dak Prescott said of the win, “We ex­e­cuted a lot bet­ter than we did last week, but there were some things in the plan (that made a dif­fer­ence).”

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