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Why the Cowboys offense needs to start shopping in the big-play department

The Cowboys haven’t had enough big plays in the passing game so far, and that needs to change.

Arizona Cardinals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Coming off Sunday’s win against the Giants, you’re probably under the impression that the Cowboys moved the ball well, at least for parts of the game, and had a good amount of big plays.

There was the 64-yard TD pass to Tavon Austin of course, there were a total of seven plays on 1st-and-10 that resulted in a first down, and there were a handful of passes that saw Dak Prescott going deep although he didn’t manage to connect with his receivers. It certainly felt like there were a lot of big plays in the game.

But there weren’t.

The Cowboys consider any reception of 16 yards or more a “big play”. Any run of 12 or more yards falls into the same category. And on Sunday against the Giants, the Cowboys had just six such plays, one pass and five runs. That’s it.

In the season-opener against the Panthers, the Cowboys had five such big plays, so even if it may have felt like the Cowboys were moving the ball better against the Giants, they weren’t. At least not as measured by the number of big plays.

Here’s how the big plays so far this year compare against the big plays in the last two years:

Cowboys BIG PLAYS 2016 Avg. 2017 Avg. Week 1, 2018 Week 2, 2018
Pass plays 16+ yards 4.6 3.3 3 1
Run plays 12+ yards 3.6 2.4 2 5
Total 8.3 5.7 5 6

After two weeks, the offense looks to be on pace to mirror the disappointing 2017 offense in terms of big plays, and quite a bit off the pace set by the 2016 offense.

What’s even more concerning is the absence of big plays in the passing game. On Sunday, the Cowboys had just one pass that generated 16+ yards, and that was the TD to Austin. Even dink-and-dunk Eli had more with four passes that gained 16+ yards. Eli freaking Manning!

Over two games, the Cowboys have a grand total of four 16+ yard passes. That’s tied with the Bears for the second-lowest total in the league, just ahead of completely inept Cardinals offense.

Somewhat of a saving grace for the offense: they have seven runs of 12+ yards, tied for third-most in the league. Combined, that gives the Cowboys 11 big plays, which is tied for 22nd in the league.

Team Passes
16+ yds
Runs
12+ yds
Total
Big plays
Team Passes
16+ yds
Runs
12+ yds
Total
Big plays
Team Passes
16+ yds
Runs
12+ yds
Total
Big plays
LAC 18 6 24 ATL 11 6 17 MIA 6 5 11
TAM 19 3 22 JAX 11 5 16 PHI 7 4 11
PIT 17 4 21 MIN 14 2 16 GNB 9 2 11
HOU 12 8 20 CAR 8 7 15 NYG 10 1 11
NYJ 15 5 20 SFO 11 4 15 BUF 6 4 10
WAS 10 9 19 CIN 12 3 15 TEN 8 2 10
LAR 15 4 19 DET 12 3 15 SEA 9 1 10
KAN 15 4 19 OAK 12 1 13 IND 7 2 9
BAL 16 3 19 NOR 12 1 13 CHI 4 2 6
CLE 11 7 18 NWE 9 3 12 ARI 3 3
DEN 13 5 18 DAL 4 7 11

The Cowboys are a run-heavy team, but that doesn’t mean the offense can get by without some kind of vertical game.

But the absence of big plays can’t simply be fixed by saying, “let’s have more big plays!”

The Cowboys’ coaches have to call plays that allow for big plays in the passing game, the receivers have to run deeper routes, and even more importantly, they have to get open on those deeper routes. If they don’t, Dak Prescott will default to short, safe completions at the cost of the deep ball.

And if the current starters can’t get the separation the offense needs, perhaps it’s time give more targets to players that can get that separation.

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