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Breaking Down the Cowboys O

Posted Oct 4, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at a Cowboys offense that has averaged 33.5 points per game at home this year.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The talent is there for Dallas: an elite wide receiver, a productive running back, a tight end who is at least a decent bet to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an efficient, statistically productive -- if publicly maligned -- quarterback. 

Yet through three games, the parts haven't come together for the kind of consistent results the Cowboys want. Two losses by a combined 10 points on the road to AFC West foes Kansas City in San Diego were set up by crucial fumbles. Lance Dunbar's fumble in Kansas City gave the Chiefs the football at the Dallas 31 and set up what proved to be the game-deciding field goal four plays later; Terrance Williams' ill-fated stretch with the football near the goal line at San Diego last week cost the Cowboys at least three points, and effectively ended any chance at a comeback.

They're arguably three plays away from making Week 5's duel one of unbeatens.

"We’re 2-2. The games could have easily gone the other way but they didn’t," said Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. "We’re in this position and we need to play good football, play our way right back to where we need to be."

Although Romo remains at the epicenter of quaking Cowboys fan frustration, he's been responsible for just two turnovers in four games, including none in the last two weeks. He's thrown 142 passes without an interception and is fourth in passer rating (105.1), third in fewest interceptions (one) and fifth in percentage of passes to gain a first down (38.8) among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 100 passes.

"(Romo) has had this thing where he’s turned the ball over in the past in tough situations. He’s not doing that this year," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. "That is probably the biggest difference in the offense from the previous offenses I’ve seen from them."

But the lack of mistakes is also tied to an absence of risk. Most of his passes have been short. He's third in complexion percentage among the 100-pass club, but 18th in yardage per attempt (6.7) and has just one pass of longer than 40 yards and nine of longer than 20, which pales compared to Peyton Manning's four and 17, respectively. 

The lack of a vertical game hasn't hurt the Cowboys' running game; DeMarco Murray is averaging 89.0 yards per game on the ground. And while wide receiver Dez Bryant hasn't broken loose for massive numbers yet; he already has four touchdown receptions and has moved the sticks on 82.6 percent of his receptions, third-best among the 34 NFL players with at least 20 catches this season.

But Jason Witten remains arguably the most reliable element of the offense, even though he has not scored a touchdown since Week 1, when he nabbed two. Witten's metronomic consistency often means he passes under the radar, and he doesn't get downfield as often as he did before, evidenced by a sub-10.0-yards-per-catch average the last two seasons. 

Witten is on pace for his sixth 80-catch season in the last seven years, but his 9.1-yards-per-reception average through four games would be the least of his career if he maintains that pace for 16 weeks. Still, he remains Romo's primary underneath option, and the Broncos must focus on limiting his yardage after the catch.

"He's the guy. He catches everything. He reminds me of Tim Duncan of the Spurs. You look up and the dude has 10-12 catches, easily. He runs precise routes; he knows the game; he and Romo have a great rapport, you can tell," said Broncos safety Rahim Moore. "He does everything right. There’s a reason why he’s been at a Pro Bowl level and he’s a future Hall-of-Famer in my eyes.”

Added defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio: “He’s just everything you want in a tight end. He’s a big guy, athletic, great hands. He can block. He can catch. He can run. He’s a good football player. I remember being at Tennessee scouting some defensive guys way back when (in the early 2000's) and saw him work out. All I could do is drool over him. He’s a good looking player. He’s been a good player for a long time.”

Even if Miles Austin doesn't play to complement Murray, Witten and Bryant, the Cowboys have an explosive game in them. And it's much more likely to come at AT&T Stadium, where they have averaged 33.5 points at home through two weeks this year and 32.3 points per game dating back to last Thanksgiving.

The Cowboys' offense is close to elite status. The Broncos hope to delay its progress to that point by at least one week.

NOTES:

-- If you see Dallas in a one-tight end, three-wide receiver ("11 personnel") package on second or third down, Dallas is more likely to go to the air. They have a four-to-one pass-to-run ratio in 11 personnel on all downs other than first down, when the ratio is an even 50-50 (27 runs, 27 passes).

-- When measuring offensive points relative to yardage gained, the Cowboys rank 13th in the league, with one point per 16.24 yards gained. Denver leads the league in this statistic (one point per 12.23 yards gained); Jacksonville is last (one point per 29.87 yards). The league average this year is one point per 16.92 yards gained.

-- The Cowboys tried to work in more two-tight end formations early this season to aid in the development of second-round draft pick Gavin Escobar. Escobar already has a touchdown, scored against St. Louis, but was de-emphasized last week, playing just two snaps.