Why Cowboys need to create more big plays on offense in 2018.

As I was skimming through Twitter late in the evening, I stumbled across one of those tweets that sparks curiosity:

Of course, this little nugget got the brain working and it had nothing to do with the NFC North. Fennell is certainly right, the NFL is a big play business with an emphasis on being able to create and defend those plays when necessary. As we’re being forced to take a long six-week hiatus from football, I wondered where the Cowboys stack up in the NFL in regards to both sides of the big play argument.

Earlier this week, Dave and OCC took a look at big plays allowed by the defense and found that the Cowboys have been a borderline top 10 defense the last four years against the big play.

Today, we’ll stick with the big-play definition from Fennell’s tweet (20+ yards), and to start, we’ll dissect the last two seasons for the offensive side of the ball. As you can see by the chart below, the Cowboys need to focus on maximizing big plays in the passing game. They’re a run-first offense so it’s no coincidence to see them as one of the more explosive rushing teams.

[Green = Top-10, Orange = Middle of the pack, Red = Bottom of the NFL]

Season Passes 20+ yds 20+ Passing Rank Passes 40+ yds 40+ passing Rank Runs 20+ yds 20+ Rushing Rank Runs 40+ yds 40+ Rushing Rank Pass TD Pass TD Rank Rushing TD Rushing TD Rank
2016 39 28th 8 19th 17 3rd 3 8th 25 14th 24 2nd
2017 34 28th 8 17th 12 8th 2 11th 22 18th 18 2nd

Now a quick rundown of the Cowboys receivers last season in terms of their yards per catch, yards after catch rankings, and catch percentage rate. For this, we’re only charting those with 15 or more receptions:

2017 Dez Bryant Terrance Williams Jason Witten Cole Beasley Brice Butler Rod Smith Ezekiel Elliott
Yards per catch 12.1 10.7 8.9 8.7 21.1 10.6 10.3
YPC Rank (of 141 WRs) 57th 81st 109th 113th N/A N/A N/A
Yards after catch 281 229 101 109 32 174 271
YAC Rank 55th 86th 193rd 184th 319th 179th 64th
Catch % 52.30% 67.90% 72.40% 57.10% 65.20% 82.60% 68.40%
Catch % Rank (of 208 WRs) 180th 81st 49th 146th N/A N/A 76th

It’s clear that every major receiving threat outside of the running backs underwhelmed last season and Brice Butler saw limited action. The Cowboys have hit the reset button at receiver with the goal of significant improvement in yards per catch and yards after catch this upcoming season. Just for comparison’s sake, we ran the same statistics for free agent acquisitions Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. As you can see below, Hurns had similar production to Dez Bryant but edged him out in a few categories albeit on less total production. Thompson actually performed quite well overall, putting up decent WR2 numbers in Buffalo.

2017 Allen Hurns Deonte Thompson
Yards per catch 12.4 14.6
YPC Rank (of 141 WRs) 52nd 23rd
Yards after catch 178 84
YAC Rank 176th 213th
Catch % 69.60% 55.10%
Catch % Rank (of 208 WRs) 69th 165th

Unfortunately, college football doesn’t keep nearly the number of statistics on hand as the NFL. However, both Michael Gallup (14.2) and Cedrick Wilson (18.2) had solid yards-per-catch stat lines and were known threats after the catch. Gallup also led his draft class with 20 broken tackles after the reception. The Cowboys are hoping to make far more explosive plays on offense this season now that they have made some philosophical changes to their scheme and personnel preferences. Simply put, the current receivers on the roster, as unheralded as they may be, must maximize their opportunities for RAC yards.

Shifting focus to the defensive side of the ball and the Cowboys have had a much better success at preventing big plays than creating them over the past two seasons:

Season 20+ yds Passes Allowed 20+ Pass Def. Rank 40+ yds Passes Allowed 40+ Pass Def. Rank 20+ yd Runs Allowed 20+ Rushing Def. Rank 40+ yd Runs Allowed 40+ Rushing Def. Rank Pass TD Allowed Pass TD Def. Rank Rushing TD Allowed Rushing TD Def. Rank
2016 45 7th 7 8th 6 6th 0 1st 25 17th 9 3rd
2017 43 8th 6 9th 7 6th 1 6th 28 26th 7 3rd

Of course, the defense saw major changes from 2016 to 2017 and the rookies gave up a few more passing touchdowns than they wanted to. When you look at those statistics, they really match up well with everything we’ve come to learn about a Rod Marinelli-coached defense. He likes to keep everything in front of him and you can see they have done a nice job at limiting explosive plays. Truly, the only area that they need to work at is not allowing close to 30 passing touchdowns. Still, only seven NFL defenses kept their passing touchdowns allowed in the teens.

With Kris Richard coaching the secondary, there is little doubt that they can find a way to limit the passing touchdowns allowed by the defense. Overall, the Cowboys have much more work cut out for them on the offensive side. They need to become active participants in creating more big plays within reason on their offense. If Dallas can improve their passing offense, they’ll have an even more lethal offense and frankly a more balanced team from top to bottom.

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