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Duffy: What happened to the Cowboys' offense since the first matchup?

Jalen Carter takes down Dak Prescott.
Jalen Carter takes down Dak Prescott.

The Dallas Cowboys' offense has been one of the most productive units in the entire NFL this season, and they've been especially hot over the last few weeks. Going into this week's matchup on Sunday Night Football, Dallas leads the NFL in points scored per game (32.3), while ranking in the top five in EPA per play (0.127), touchdown drive percentage (30.1 percent), yards per play (5.7), and third-down percentage (48.5). They are doing all of that despite having what almost every metric would grade as a league-average run game, which means that Dak Prescott and this passing attack are shouldering the load, and the film backs that up.

Prescott is playing at an extremely high level right now, and when you look at his numbers over the last four games, he ranks near the top of most of the important quarterback passing metrics. His command of the offense is palpable, conducting like a seasoned maestro in the pre-snap phase while executing with surgical precision after the snap. His ball placement and overall accuracy stand out at all three levels, and he's also creating more often outside the pocket than what he had been doing in the beginning of the year.

When I began my study of the Cowboys' offense leading into the Week 9 matchup last month, I saw a pass game in the beginning of the season that was often disjointed. Receivers were not on the same page as the quarterback. There was no real threat outside of star receiver CeeDee Lamb. Prescott was forcing the issue in key spots, leading to turnovers, especially down in the red zone. Through eight weeks, the Cowboys ranked 29th in the league red zone touchdown percentage, and their efficiency in most other areas was good ... but not great.

Fast forward five weeks and those numbers at the top speak for themselves. So, what has changed? Here's what the film and numbers have shown since the season's mid-point, and it starts with additional aggression downfield.

Through eight games, the Cowboys ranked 21st in the NFL in deep pass percentage (according to Pro Football Focus), attacking downfield (air yards of at least 20 yards) on just 11.2 percent of dropbacks. Now? That ranking is all the way up in the top five. Since the Week 9 matchup at Lincoln Financial Field, the Cowboys have thrown 41 passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air. That's eight more than the second-highest number during that time (the Tennessee Titans). That aggression is paying off, with Prescott throwing four touchdowns on those passes (second highest in the league).

While Dallas has generally been more aggressive downfield with its pass game, the biggest schematic changes on film are with the amount of pre-snap motion they use and the number of Empty sets they deploy.

Before the game in Week 9, the Cowboys were smack in the middle of the pack in the NFL with how much pre-snap motion they used (54.5 percent, ranked 15th in the league at that point). From Week 9 on? They've thrown more passes preceded by motion (125) than any team in football. They're third in the league in EPA per play when they use motion, so they're really good at it as well.

Lamb leads the NFL with 16 first-down receptions and 10 explosive plays off motion since Week 9. They love to get him on the move so that he has free access up to the second level of the defense, as it's harder to press a receiver when he is a motion man off the ball.

Whether it's getting the playmakers the ball on the move or creating voids in coverage by manipulating defenders, pre-snap motion is something the Cowboys will certainly deploy in this game on Sunday night.

The Cowboys also have been leaning much more often into Empty sets for Prescott, putting him in the backfield with all of the five eligible receivers spread out across the width of the field.

Dallas used Empty sets on just 7.2 percent of its snaps in the first eight weeks of the year, ranking just 25th in football. Since then? It's nearly doubled at 13 percent, which ranks second in the league since Week 9.

Prescott leads the NFL with 315 yards passing out of Empty sets, starting with the game against the Eagles. He's thrown for more touchdowns than anyone out of those sets, and he's one of four quarterbacks in football to average more than 10 yards per target in those formations. Prescott gets a lot of pre-snap information from those Empty sets, and his decisiveness really shows up on those plays.

The most important improvement for the Cowboys, however, has come in the red zone. They started the year as the 29th-rated red zone offense in football and now sit in the middle of the pack, marking a huge improvement over the last several weeks. When you look at their successful red zone drives, many of the themes we've covered here show up.

The Eagles' schedule of late has been a true gauntlet of dangerous offenses. Of their last six opponents, four of them sit in the top five in the NFL in points per game (the Eagles have that fifth spot). The Cowboys present another legitimate test, and it's going to be one of the most important parts of Sunday's matchup.

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