Cowboys vs. Chargers: Breaking Down Dallas' Game Plan

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Cowboys vs. Chargers: Breaking Down Dallas' Game Plan
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When the Dallas Cowboys travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers in Week 4, they’ll be two-point favorites. That’s somewhat surprising since the Chargers have played better than their 1-2 record indicates, losing by just a field goal to both Houston and Tennessee while dominating Philadelphia.

Both teams should be able to move the ball offensively. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is playing outstanding with a 70.0 percent completion rate, 8.0 YPA, eight touchdowns, one interception and an unbelievable 116.2 passer rating. When you consider all of the injuries that the Chargers suffered on offense before and during the season, it’s all the more amazing.

For Dallas, the name of the game will be getting pressure on Rivers without blitzing. Rivers is one of the league’s least mobile quarterbacks, so if DeMarcus Ware & Co. can get to him in a hurry, Dallas should be able to outscore the Chargers. Here are a few more DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas if they want to win in Week 4.

 

DO run more play-action.

Quarterback Tony Romo has compiled a 110.2 passer rating through three games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), a year after totaling a 109.1 rating on play-action passes. Yet the ‘Boys have barely increased their play-action pass rate over 2012 and Romo still ranks 28th in the NFL in play-action passes.

While the Cowboys established some obvious rushing success last week against the Rams, it’s not really a prerequisite for the play-action game. It’s fun to think that “running sets up the pass,” but half of the league’s best play-action passers in 2012 were on teams that ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rushing.

Defenders play situations, so the Cowboys should be running play-action passes in just about every scenario in which they could theoretically run the ball. San Diego will play the down-and-distance, not the Cowboys’ pass-rushing efficiency.

 

DON'T run the ball just to run it.

Running back DeMarco Murray finally broke out for 175 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries last week. The rushing success was certainly helpful to Romo, who had by far his most efficient game of the year.

But the Cowboys didn’t win because they just “stuck with the run"—that’s not why it worked. Instead, they “stuck with it” because it was already working. There’s a big difference.

Running the ball just for the sake of running it, or to set up easier third downs, is a pretty sub-optimal offensive strategy. Even better than short third downs is not even facing third down because your team didn’t run the ball twice on first and second down.

Everything should set up well for the Cowboys to pass the ball this week. The Chargers have given up the most passing yards and the second-worst passing efficiency in the NFL, which has led to poor run defense.

San Diego has allowed at least 100 yards rushing and 282 yards passing in all three games. The league averages right now are 106 yards rushing and 248 yards passing.

 

DO to get the ball downfield.

Having thrown accurately on 71.4 percent of his passes over 20 yards, Romo is the NFL’s most accurate deep ball passer through three weeks. He’s averaged 14.4 yards per pass, thrown three touchdowns and tossed no picks on deep looks. And yet, only St. Louis’s Sam Bradford has attempted fewer deep passes than Romo.

Some of the lack of downfield passing has been due to game situations. The Giants played a two-high safety scheme that made it really difficult to attack downfield, for example. The Cowboys could do just about everything they wanted last week against the Rams. They won’t be every game by three scores, though, which means they’ll need to optimize offensive efficiency by attacking downfield, namely to Mr. Dez Bryant.

 

DON’T target tight end Jason Witten so much.

Prior to the season, I predicted that Witten wouldn’t be able to pass the 900-yard mark this season. That wasn’t a popular prediction, of course, but it looks good right now with Witten on pace for only 795 yards, despite having some favorable matchups through three games.

In reality, the prediction wasn’t a difficult one from a statistical standpoint. Most of the media won’t admit it, but Witten’s efficiency has been declining for years.

We can make all the excuses in the world for Witten’s declining yards per route, but at some point, maybe the reasoning should be that he’s just not as effective. He’s still a good tight end, but to argue that Witten is the same player he was a half-decade ago is silly. The Cowboys need to replace some of his targets with looks to other receivers.

 

DO attack cornerback Johnny Patrick.

It looks like cornerback Shareece Wright will be out this week.

That means cornerback Johnny Patrick will draw the start. According to Pro Football Focus, Patrick has given up 138 yards on only 11 targets—12.5 YPA. At only 5’11", 191 pounds, the Cowboys should use their bid-bodied receivers to attack Patrick any chance they get.

 

DON’T blitz quarterback Philip Rivers.

Rivers has historically been mediocre against the blitz, but not so in 2013. The quarterback has an unbelievable 122.9 rating when defenses send five or more rushers. So why the change?

It could just be a small sample size, but it appears to be something more. Rivers has gotten rid of the ball extremely quickly this year, throwing in an average of 2.46 seconds—sixth-fastest in the league. As much as great offensive lines protect their quarterbacks, great quarterbacks also improve their offensive lines. We’re seeing the same from Romo, too, who has gotten rid of the ball in 2.42 seconds, on average.

For the Dallas defense, the best plan of attack might be to sit back with seven defenders in coverage. If extra rushers are rendered useless by Rivers’ quick strikes, it makes sense to play conservatively, hope the four-man rush can get to him and force San Diego to continually beat you underneath.

 

DO double-team tight end Antonio Gates in the red zone.

Gates looks rejuvenated in 2013. He’s on pace with 90 catches for 1,216 yards, and only two tight ends have totaled more yards per route.

Historically, Gates has been at his best in the red zone. Amazingly, he’s scored at least seven touchdowns in each of the last nine seasons. He’s been targeted inside the opponent’s 20-yard line 154 times during his career, hauling in 92 of those passes for 64 touchdowns. That means he’s taken 41.6 percent of his career red zone targets into the end zone, which is an astounding rate.

 

DON’T worry about wide receiver Eddie Royal.

Gates has just one touchdown on the year, while wide receiver Eddie Royal already has five. There’s little reason to think he can keep it up, though. First, Royal is a small receiver at 5’10", 185 pounds. He’s never been red-zone relevant in the past, catching 10 career touchdowns in his five previous seasons.

Outside of the 2013 season, Royal has been targeted 39 times in the red zone. He’s scored on just six of those plays—15.4 percent. He’s a big-play guy who can certainly beat the ‘Boys if given the chance, but the idea that he’s a new receiver because he scored a few fluky touchdowns is absurd.

Last week, I predicted that wide receiver Tavon Austin wouldn’t surpass 50 receiving yards or score a touchdown, and he didn’t. The same goes for Royal this week.

 

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