Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons was a classic tale of two halves for the Dallas Cowboys. Because starting quarterback Brandon Weeden displayed no intention of testing the defense deep, the Cowboys’ offense was stymied and it will continue to be so unless Dallas makes opponents respect the deep passing game.
On the surface, Weeden’s stats appear respectable and efficient but all is not as it appears. Weeden completed 84.6% of his passes, which at first glance seems rather impressive.
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So to does his 9.2 yards per attempt, a stat that often measures how much a quarterback is pushing the ball deep. However, a closer look reveals that Weeden’s performance was far more timid than effective.
Last year, the Cowboy’s regular starting quarterback Tony Romo led the NFL with a completion percentage of just under 70%. In 2011, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints (which Dallas will face this week) set an all-time NFL single season completion percentage of 71.2%.
The point being that if an NFL quarterback completes 84.6% of his passes in a game, he is most likely taking the easy throw and not taking chances deep. This is exactly how Weeden played against the Falcons last Sunday.
The most alarming statistic is that not one wide receiver caught a pass. Of Weeden’s 22 completions, 12 went to running backs (10 to Lance Dunbar and two to Joseph Randle), 6 went to tight end Jason Witten and 4 went to slot receiver Cole Beasley.
The fact that Dunbar was able to take 10 short passes and make them into big gains (totaling 100 yards) by using his speed skewed Weeden’s stats making them look better than his actual performance was.
Weeden and the offense’s conservative game plan seemed to work in the first half when Dallas scored all 28 of its points. With the Falcons still respecting the deep passing game, Joseph Randle rushed for 85 yards on his first three carries of the game.
But once Atlanta was certain that Dallas was not going to test the Atlanta secondary, the Falcons went to a single-high man-to-man defense to stop the run. This means that the defense dropped one safety in the box to create an 8-man front leaving the Dallas pass catchers in mostly one-on-one match ups.
Weeden made no attempt to exploit this alignment preferring to take the safe throw and abide by one of sport’s most awful cliches, take what the defense gives you. In football, a team must take what it wants, not what the defense wants it to have.
But what should Dallas fans expect of a man that has thrown two more interceptions than touchdowns in his NFL career? Weeden still plays like a college quarterback in that he is not willing to hit a receiver unless there is huge separation between his target and the defender.
Consider how former Cowboys’ quarterback and Hall of Fame member Troy Aikman used to fit the ball into the smallest of windows trusting his abilities and the ability of his receivers to make a play. When watching Weeden play, his lack of confidence is the most obvious aspect of his game and it is hurting the entire team, not just the offense.
Unable to sustain drives in the second half of the game because Weeden’s pay-it-safe mentality paralyzed the offense, the Cowboys’ short-handed defense was over-exposed. After halftime, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s unit ran only 19 plays mainly because the run game was stuffed forcing Dallas into numerous third-and-long situations that would require Weeden to throw the ball deeper than he seemed comfortable doing.
With Atlanta’s high-powered offense on the field for the majority of the second half the Cowboy defense, which is missing two defensive ends in Randy Gregory (injury) and Greg Hardy (suspension), starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain (suspension) and starting corner Orlando Scandrick (injury), wilted.
Since the next two games come against terrific offenses in the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots, Dallas can’t expose its defense that way. Meaning that Weeden must make the offense more diverse by forcing opponents to respect the deep passing game.
If he is unable, or unwilling to do so, Weeden will find himself once again the backup watching newly acquired quarterback Matt Cassel lead the offense. But regardless of who plays the quarterback position, Dallas must find a way to get the ball to its wide receivers on deep patterns or the season may be lost before the injured Tony Romo and fellow inured superstar, wide receiver Dez Bryant, are able to save the day.