With wide receiver Dez Bryant out for an extended period of time, the Dallas Cowboys lost its number one big play weapon. However, many were confident that quarterback Tony Romo would be good enough to use the Cowboys’ other weapons to keep the offense moving. Now that Romo is also out of the lineup until late November at the earliest, third-string running back, Lance Dunbar might become the piston that makes the Dallas offense run.
At 5-foot-8 and only 195-pounds, the former University of North Texas Eagle is a nightmare match up for opposing teams. In fact, if offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can find a way to maximize Dunbar’s versatility, the Dallas offense could remain productive while its two biggest stars are on the sideline.
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As it will be constituted for the foreseeable future, Dallas’ offense has only two players capable of making a game-breaking play: Dunbar and wide receiver Terrance Williams. And while Williams has made numerous big plays in the passing game, the absence of Bryant means that he will either face the opponent’s top corner or receive double coverage on the majority of plays.
That means that Dunbar must be a play maker for Dallas. With a backup quarterback in Brandon Weeden, who is talented but often lacks confidence, Dunbar is the perfect security blanket.
The Cowboys should find as many ways as possible to get the ball to Dunbar in space. He’s not going to be the type of back that hammers away at the middle of a defense and he most certainly is not a tremendous blocker in the backfield. But he is a mismatch for anyone to cover in the open field.
Due to his ability to stop and change directions in a flash, the shifty back has the ability to make even the most talented NFL linebacker look clumsy in pass coverage. With both Romo and Bryant out, teams are going to keep a run stopping defensive package on the field on most first and second downs, meaning that sneaking Dunbar out of the backfield could put him one-on-one with a linebacker.
In other situations, Dallas has already shown the willingness to put Dunbar at wide receiver utilizing his speed. As a wide receiver, he probably will not be asked to run anything but fly routes as he did on his 39-yard reception in the 3rd quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles.
On that play, the corner was fearful of Dunbar’s speed and played a soft man-to-man coverage giving the Cowboy back a ten-yard cushion. That was too much room as Dunbar flew past the corner and made a nice catch over his shoulder.
Expect teams with big, physical corners to press Dunbar and try to knock him off of his route thus preventing him from using his speed. So what will the Cowboys do to counter this move? Just look to how inside receiver Cole Beasley is utilized.
Another diminutive Cowboy, Beasley, has made a career off of exploiting match ups over the middle of the field. Expect to see Dunbar line up in the slot as well thus giving him space to maneuver.
Doing so gives Dallas an advantage in that a linebacker, safety or a backup corner will cover Dunbar. In all of those match ups, Dallas will have the edge. Dunbar will run many option routes and slants allowing him to get the ball underneath and use his burst to turn a five-yard pass into a fifty-yard gain.
Last season Dallas was sixth in the NFL with 12 receptions of forty or more yards (a stat made more impressive by the fact that the Cowboys attempted the second-fewest passes in the league.) Though the team’s most accomplished big-play receiver, Bryant, is out of action there are still big plays to be made.
And with a backup quarterback that has a history of throwing interceptions, it is not wise to ask Brandon Weeden to throw numerous deep passes, especially over the middle. In previous appearance by Weeden, the offense has looked more like a dink-and-dunk unit which means Weeden is asked to guide lengthy drives (in terms of plays).
If Dallas can find ways to pick up yards in large chunks, it will change everything the opposing defense does. They will be forced to put fewer players in the box thus opening up running lanes. While Romo-to-Bryant is one of the most explosive and exciting combinations in the NFL, Weeden-to-Dunbar could be the key to the Dallas offense over the next two months.