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Cowboys vs. Chargers: Game Plan for Dallas

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At Bleacher Report, I posted my game plan for Dallas in Week 4:

DO run more play-action.

Quarterback Tony Romo has compiled a 110.2 passer rating through three games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), a year after totaling a 109.1 rating on play-action passes. Yet the ‘Boys have barely increased their play-action pass rate over 2012 and Romo still ranks 28th in the NFL in play-action passes.

While the Cowboys established some obvious rushing success last week against theRams, it’s not really a prerequisite for the play-action game. It’s fun to think that “running sets up the pass,” but half of the league’s best play-action passers in 2012 were on teams that ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rushing.

Defenders play situations, so the Cowboys should be running play-action passes in just about every scenario in which they could theoretically run the ball. San Diego will play the down-and-distance, not the Cowboys’ pass-rushing efficiency.

DON’T run the ball just to run it.

Running back DeMarco Murray finally broke out for 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries last week. The rushing success was certainly helpful to Romo, who had by far his most efficient game of the year.

But the Cowboys didn’t win because they just “stuck with the run”—that’s not why it worked. Instead, they “stuck with it” because it was already working. There’s a big difference.

Running the ball just for the sake of running it, or to set up easier third downs, is a pretty sub-optimal offensive strategy. Even better than short third downs is not even facing third down because your team didn’t run the ball twice on first and second down.

Everything should set up well for the Cowboys to pass the ball this week. The Chargers have given up the most passing yards and the second-worst passing efficiency in the NFL, which has led to poor run defense.

San Diego has allowed at least 100 yards rushing and 282 yards passing in all three games. The league averages right now are 106 yards rushing and 248 yards passing.

DO to get the ball downfield.

Having thrown accurately on 71.4 percent of his passes over 20 yards, Romo is the NFL’s most accurate deep ball passer through three weeks. He’s averaged 14.4 yards per pass, thrown three touchdowns and tossed no picks on deep looks. And yet, only St. Louis’s Sam Bradford has attempted fewer deep passes than Romo.

Some of the lack of downfield passing has been due to game situations. The Giants played a two-high safety scheme that made it really difficult to attack downfield, for example. The Cowboys could do just about everything they wanted last week against the Rams. They won’t be every game by three scores, though, which means they’ll need to optimize offensive efficiency by attacking downfield, namely to Mr. Dez Bryant.

DON’T target tight end Jason Witten so much.

Prior to the season, I predicted that Witten wouldn’t be able to pass the 900-yard mark this season. That wasn’t a popular prediction, of course, but it looks good right now with Witten on pace for only 795 yards, despite having some favorable matchupsthrough three games.

In reality, the prediction wasn’t a difficult one from a statistical standpoint. Most of the media won’t admit it, but Witten’s efficiency has been declining for years.

We can make all the excuses in the world for Witten’s declining yards per route, but at some point, maybe the reasoning should be that he’s just not as effective. He’s still a good tight end, but to argue that Witten is the same player he was a half-decade ago is silly. The Cowboys need to replace some of his targets with looks to other receivers.

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