Third down and red zone efficiency are frequently discussed as key factors for any winning team. It’s clearly important to move the chains then cross the plain rather than constantly settling for three points when in scoring position.
It’s significantly easier to reach that scoring position, however, with an explosive play. And right now, that’s something the Cowboys’ offense is severely lacking.
Though the definition varies throughout the league, explosive plays are generally categorized as a completion or run that results in a gain of 20 or more yards. The Seattle Seahawks, for instance, define explosive plays as pass completions of 16 or more yards and runs of 12 yards or longer. For this case study, we’ll meet in the middle: completions of 20 or more yards and runs that result in a gain of 10 or more.
Through Week 2, Dallas has compiled five explosive passing plays and three explosive runs. There are those in the media clamoring for Dak Prescott to throw a touchdown as a professional before anointing him as Tony Romo’s successor, but I’ve seen enough from the rookie to know I want to see more — something that was never said about Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore. Still, Dallas’ struggles in piecing together a jaw-dropping explosive play or two remains concerning.
Last season, seven of the top-10 teams in explosive plays produced qualified for the postseason. Not so coincidentally, seven of the top-10 teams in fewest explosive plays allowed also made the playoffs. Through two weeks of football, Dallas is on the wrong end of both.
Their eight explosive plays rank bottom-three among offenses, all the while seeing their defense allow an above-average 15. It’s too early to concern ourselves with the defense since DeMarcus Lawrence (and the pass rush he single-handedly generates) has yet to arrive. For the offense, the time to get right starts this Sunday.
The Bears are currently dealing with a barrage of injuries to their defense, a list that includes standout linebacker Danny Trevathan and starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Kyle Fuller. Kirk Cousins’ inaccuracy resulted in Washington leaving several (hundred) yards of offense on the field against Dallas, an issue Chicago’s defense knows all too well.
Brock Osweiler and Carson Wentz, for example, combined to go 5-for-15 in passes thrown 20 or more yards down the field against the Bears in Weeks 1 and 2. But, had Will Fuller, Jordan Matthews, and Nelson Agholor not dropped at least three of those passes, Chicago’s suddenly allowing a 53 percent completion rate to explosive passing attempts rather than their current rate of 33 percent.
In order to truly exploit Chicago’s defense, Prescott will have to use the same approach that carried him through Week 1. He attempted six passes of 20-plus yards against the New York Giants, five that were targeted at Dez Bryant.
Against Washington, his longest pass traveled 16-yards in the air. Keeping his passes close to the line of scrimmage has left Dallas’ offense with a relatively high floor, but their ceiling clearly needs to be tapped into in order to find long-term success.
Maybe that means feeding Terrance Williams, who hauled-in 13 receptions that resulted in 20 yards or more last season.
Maybe that means targeting Brice Butler, who averaged four catches for 67 yards against the Buffalo Bills and Washington in the final two weeks of the season.
Maybe that even means pulling the right side of your offensive line more, since that’s what allowed Ezekiel Elliott to rush for his largest gain of the season (21 yards) in the third quarter against Washington.
Whatever the case, there’s blood in the water and Sunday isn’t the time to surgically manufacture offense. The Cowboys need to find and unlock whatever allows them to create plays down the field.
That’s how they’ll ultimately be successful.
For more insight on the Cowboys this season be sure to follow John on Twitter @notJDaigle.