Cowboys Offense vs. Lions: By the Numbers, Going Short and Getting Burned

Another Week With Little in the Receivers Cupboard

Personnel Packages
                          1st half,  2nd half,  total
Basic:            27 plays, 10 plays — 37 plays
Heavy:            5 plays,  14 plays — 19 plays
Spread:          6 plays,  13 plays — 19  plays

What you might expect of a typical Garrett game.  50% base sets, 25% heavy and 25% spread formations.  It’s how we get there that matters.  Look at the first half splits.  Only 15% spread sets.  And that was the case through the 3rd, when Dallas ran 14 plays from the heavy set and just six from spread.

This was on pace to be a Jason Garrett ’07 special.  Throw early, get a big lead, bring in the extra blocker and hammer in the second half.  This was true even after the first pick-six and up until the second.  Then, a 27-3 game was 27-17 and Garrett went back to the more basic sets, which worked so well in the first half.

In that first half, Dallas moved very well, pass and running, with one primary package, the 12, often with Jason Witten flanking a tackle and Martellus Bennett splitting into the slot.  It gave a 3 wide out look, but kept the Lions in base and discouraged stacking the box.

Dallas didn’t use spread sets much early.  Not once in its first three series, which produced heavy yardage, 10 points and a turnover on downs at the one.  Only 11 of Dallas first 67 plays put three receivers on the field.  When the Cowboys successfully worked a seven-play 2-minute drill at the end of the first half, driving to a short Dan Bailey field goal, all seven plays were run from the 12 package.  More on this shortly.

Running plays, by side:
Left — 10 attempts, 42 yards, 4.2 YPC
Middle — 6 attempts, 52 yards, 8.7 YPC
Right — 11 attempts, 22 yards, 2.0 YPC

by type:
edge  :  9 carries, 34 yards, 3.8 YPC
draws:    4 carries, 47 yards,  11.8 YPC
Isos:        6, carries, 12 yards,  2.0 YPC
Toss/sweeps:  2 carries, 4 yards,  2.0 YPC
Reverses:   1 carry, 5 yards
Counters:  5 carries, 14 yards,  2.8 YPC

A little better, but still very much a work in progress.  The draw play was the big play in the run arsenal.  More continuity is needed, and may come with more reps.  Thirteen runs went for 5 or more yards, but eleven carries went for two yards or less.  Still a boom-or-bust group, though it is improving.

Passing Distribution
Bryant:   5 attempts, 3 completions, 37 yards
Robinson:  11 attempts, 7 completions, 116 yards
Witten:  10 attempts, 8 completions, 94 yards
Jones:  7 attempts, 5 completions, 19 yards
Choice:  5 attempts, 4 completions, 23 yards

A standard superior week for Jason Witten, and a big week for Laurent Robinson.  That’s a great story and a sad one at the same time.  Great in that Dallas seems to have found a player to fill the three man rotation when Miles Austin and Dez Bryant get back up to game shape.

Troubling in that Laurent Robinson was Dallas’ primary wideout in any game.  Kevin Ogletree has faded away.  The team talked a good game about his practice habits and readiness, but aside from that nifty fake-reverse throwback pass to him near the goal-line on Dallas’ opening drive of the 3rd, Ogletree wasn’t part of the game plan.  Only two balls were thrown his way.  Dallas put him on the field for just a handful of plays in the first half, choosing to use Martellus Bennett as a slot man over him.

Go back to the preseason.  This site, the big media sites and most every Cowboys forum anywhere asked whether the Cowboys might pursue a veteran to add receiver depth?  It was obvious then that Dallas was at best three deep, and that relied on the shaky assumption that Ogletree could handle his job.  The team goes light, Austin and Bryant take turns missing games with injuries, and Dallas’ lack of a number three limits them.

Last week’s meltdown has obscured a disturbing fact.  In the Washington game, Dallas didn’t have a number one or even a number two quality receiver target.  They escaped with a win because a Jim Haslett sell out blitz gave a lame Dez Bryant and a battered Tony Romo room to complete a 3rd-and-21 bomb to kick-start the winning drive.

 Against Detroit, Robinson played the Miles Austin role.  He did a remarkable job, but after he hurt his foot making a lunging 2nd-and-6 catch, Tony Romo did not complete a single pass to a wide receiver over the last 22 minutes of the game.  Robinson was limping.  Dez Bryant was aching.  Ogletree was wherever he was.

All the downfield completions in that span were to Jason Witten.  He’s a great tight end, but you can’t sustain a passing attack around a tight end, unless you have the 2000 Ravens defense and their running game on your side.

Dallas has gone three games with no more than one healthy, quality receiver on the field at any time. It’s had Bryant and Austin together for all of 20 minutes this season.  Last week, the Cowboys were relying on  a waiver claim, whom they had already cut once, to be the go-to-guy on 3rd downs.  Laurent Robinson looks like a keeper 3rd receiver, but why has it come to this?  Why has Dallas gone so short at this position, when it’s trying to break in a new offensive line, and while Tony Romo’s ribs and his head have taken their respective physical and critical beatings?

How can a team with playoff aspirations walk such a tightrope, by choice?  I thought the idea was to take pressure off of Romo, not pile more upon him.


— In case it isn’t clear, Felix Jones is the bell-cow back.  Dinged shoulder and all, he got 21 touches.  This was a heavy week for the running backs, with Jones and Tashard Choice getting 34 chances, and 31 touches between them.  Given the poor health at receiver, that’s to be expected.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst Cowboys at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela

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  • Buried is right. I still like Felix actually.

  • Lee1936

    I regret that Disqus does not offer a DISLIKE button, in addition to the LIKE button. 

    • Rafael Vela

      But they do.  There’s a thumbs down button right next to it.  

      • Rafael Vela

        Do you mean for posts, or for replies?

        • Lee1936

          Posts and replies look the same on my screen.  Puzzling.

          • kameleon_o

            I went ahead and clicked Like for you just in case

      • Lee1936

        No, not on my screen.  I’m given only two choices: I can click on LIKE or I can  click on REPLY.  There’s no DISLIKE button, and no THUMBS DOWN button.

        Why do you see a THUMBS DOWN button, and I don’t?

  • Gpd300

    Very Good piece here!  Great work ….. It really points out the problems and stress on the offense as a whole.  We were very fortunate in our two wins as we looked average at best.  Washington exploited our weaknesses on offense and made us look very limited.  We looked great in our two losses for most of each game.  But the inability to run consistently allows defenses to load up against the pass.  These INT’s are passes that are less than perfect by about a foot each, too high or a shade out in front.  Robinson played well, but his one mistake helped cost us the game.  The burden is on Romo who gets blamed, but on a timing route they throw to a spot and rely on their receiver.  Now will he trust him again?  This whole negative situation concerns me that we will change things to appease the media, fans & critics?  This guy Romo is damned good, but will make a bad pass or an ill advised pass or does he?  I rarely see our receivers get any separation?  He fits the ball into tight spots so often that we expect, he expects and his team expects it.  When it doesn’t work everyone roasts him on the highest setting.  On either pass to Dez for TD’s how much room did he have to fit it in there?  We loved it when it worked and lost our lunch when it didn’t.  Tough having it both ways.  I wouldn’t trade him for anyone on talent or ability.  Maybe Brady or Manning but those are 2 of the best of all time.  How to stop the negative and keep the positives? When he’s good he’s terrific.  

    • Fan since 1966

      Yeah, my brother has been bitching most of the season about how much trouble our receivers have getting separation from the coverage. When they do, like the Holley near-TD, the results are spectacular — the problem is how relatively rarely that’s been happening.

       Tony has been working with very small windows most of the time, and has had to force a LOT of his throws. Yes, that’s life for a QB in the NFL for a lot of passes, but you expect your guys to get fairly/wide open for at least a good percentage of attempts — and the Dallas receivers seem to be well below that average.

      Injuries to Dez and Miles have certainly been a large part of the problem so far. Route-running/assignment issues have plagued the lower-tier receivers. Tony has worked miracles in the passing game this season, considering the parlous state of the Cowboys WR corps the last four games.

      I’m waiting to see how things work out when (IF??) he ever gets to work with a healthy group of his top receivers. If the separation problems continue after the bye, and continue to to contribute to the forced balls/bad decisions INTs, there’s gonna be real trouble in Big D.

      Of course, if the separation problem is resolved with the return of a healthy Miles and Dez and the TOs continue, then there’s gonna be even bigger trouble in Big D…..

      • Gpd300

        Glad to see someone gets it!  Until we get a running game going I don’t see “separation” happening too often.  You have to hold the linebackers and safeties if you are going to get some space for the receivers.  If they can sit on your receivers those windows get real tight.  Some if it is the scheme of the OC, who I’ve never been happy with the last 4-5 years.  We’ve been very good 20 to 20 but struggle way too much in the red zone.  No running game equals no separation.  That puts pressure on your team in all phases.  Romo covers up this weakness when things click and we get a rhythm on offense, but when they don’t he’s left to sizzle on the barbie!  Think of the Washington game, where could he throw the ball?  No one was open all night.  Yet he didn’t get picked, 6 trips to the red zone and 6 FG’s.  These stats show to some degree that being turnover free by Romo doesn’t work out for us as much as for other teams.  I do believe I’d take my chances with O picks, but what is the OC doing or not doing that this stat isn’t any better?

        • Gpd300

          Romo did get picked by Washington, forgot about that for a minute.  What happened to Eil last year when the running game disappeared for the Giants? Some schemes can’t work without the running game.  Some just need enough to keep them honest and more creativity than we have offensively.  

        • Fan since 1966

          Well, the good news is that our running game does seem to be getting better — but you’re right, it’s most effective between the 20s right now. Until Dallas solves the problem of being unable to make successful short-yardage 3rd down/goal line plays, the offense is going to remain severely handicapped.

          It’s gotten to the point where I absolutely HATE to see Dallas running plays inside the opponent’s 10 yard line. I feel our chances to score go down the closer we get to the enemy end zone.

          Especially when we get down there and then either hand the ball off to Choice or throw those ^*#@! fade passes….

          • Gpd300

            No, I want them to run in the red zone, but if you know you can’t take it between the tackles then work to the outside.  Just mix it up!  You have to make it work, then the passing game will also work down there.  Didn’t Felix run it in against the Jets from the 5 or 6?  Yes and he took it outside of Free!  Why didn’t we try that again or something similar.  No, we kept trying to pass it in and when Romo didn’t find anything he ran to the middle and we know what happened then.  Don’t believe we have tried taking it wide since that one TD.  We keep beating our head into the wall up front.  The other day, we went right at Suh, but Brent got turned and that ended that opportunity.  Not fond of a D guy coming over to block.  How about a back up guard who at least plays offense and blocks for a living?  We’re not getting the pop up front, but we also don’t make a corner or OLB respect the run to the outside or a back releasing to the side.  Our line is built for getting on the move, not power blocking.  So get em on the move and try.  As long as you didn’t take yourself out of FG range, mix it up.  Give them more to think about instead of them packing it in.  We don’t, Garrett doesn’t. 

  • Weareblma

    Raf, thanks for another good read! But I just realize that no matter which receiver the team has or running back, it’s still the basic fundamental question: which Romo will show up the next game? You’ve been telling good/bad stories about Romo and I guess you still don’t know, right? So if we fans cannot trust Romo, I don’t know how the owner/coaches can.  If the quarterback is a bad or with limited talent, you can build the game plan around a bad or limited talent qb, but with a qb like Romo, I really don’t know how they can game plan him. So sad, so sad, so sad!

    • ym

      Not saying I trust Romo, but it’s not unreasonable for the fans to have a different level of trust than people people inside the team.  For example, I remember when Rex Ryan was hired, Jets fans were not happy.  They were saying that he was chosen because Woody Johnson wanted someone he could control.  But I’d say Rex is one of the top 3-4 coaches now.

  • Cash

    Is Romo still the starter? He is? Back to my hole in the ground. I can’t bear to watch.

  • joey2zs

    Thanks for this blog, Rafael.  It is as a tranquil infinity pool at a Maui resort to the low end community pool where many others go to shriek and splash.
    Now… some cucumber water and can you send the girl over to massage my feet?

    • Rafael Vela

      Buy me a massage and it’s a deal.

    • Edubz

      You gooey fanboy

      • joey2zs

        Hey, that’s MY line.  I have that copyrighted. 
        Why you bitin’ me?

  • CanadaCowboy

    I’ve racked my brain to figure out why the Cowboys wouldn’t start the season with another experienced receiver. The only answer: cheap is as cheap does. I think that this is a Jerruh decision through and through.

    • Jarhead

      you think Jerruh wanted to cut the guy he traded 3 picks for (and gave a whole lotta money too)?

    • greatwhitenorth

      GM Jerry is a lot of things, but cheap has never been one of them.

      • Fan since 1966

        That was before building Jerry World and having the economy go to hell hit him so hard in the wallet. Jerry used to spend $$$ on his players like a drunken sailor on shore leave in a foreign port, and his willingness to do this set him apart from most owners in the league (and was one of the reasons I liked having him as an owner — if only the ^%#*! GM could have spent those $$$ more wisely….).

        His spending habits have changed the last coupla years, and he’s being a lot more careful with his funds; you saw that this year with so much of the team getting younger and cheaper, as well as the lack of splashy FA signings.

        Overall, I think this approach is going to work out better for us — it’s what the best teams in the league have been doing for quite awhile. But it definitely goes against Jerry’s nature, and the transition might be a little bumpy….

        • greatwhitenorth

          I would have bought into a cash-flow problem argument during the truncated FA season this year, but since the season’s started he’s thrown big money at Scandrick, Witten, and Ratliff.  No reason to do that right now; if Jerry’s wallet was thin he could/would have waited on all three (and gone the Eagles’ route for Rat).  

          I don’t think he’s being cheap, I think he’s (finally) trying a different approach since the free-spending ways got him nowhere.

  • greatwhitenorth

    The only way I can make sense of your final question is that Garrett doesn’t really have serious playoff aspirations this year.  Sure he’s going like gangbusters to win every game, and if things break the right way they’ll still have a shot at the playoffs and more.  But there are too many holes in the roster, many of them intentional, to think that Garrett’s counting on winning this year.

    I think he’s building something this year, testing out weak spots (Ogletree) and growing some solid foundations (Lee, OL).  It’s too soon to be saying “next year” in Dallas, but I’m pretty sure that’s the plan.

    • Jarhead

      they are 1 game out of 1st and have defeated the team in 1st place.

      There is no reason to think this team cant compete within the NFCE this year. If they cut their turnovers in half over the coming two months, they could very possibly win the division.

      Im pretty sure JG’s plan is to win. this year and next.

      • jazzbo251

        I think that his plan is to get better, every day.

      • greatwhitenorth

        it’s fine to say that, and they are certainly in a place to compete for the division crown.  (I think we’d be celebrating the 2-2 record if not for how excruciatingly close they were to being 4-0.)  But if the plan is as simple as that, then how do you explain the horrendous lack of depth at WR (or OL, or DB, etc)?  The only other explanations I can think of involve a serious underestimation of current personnel, major cap/financial issues, or straight-out gambling with the season.

        • joey2zs

          I tell ya what… they are 4-0 with a bullet if Romo can just frickin’ throw the ball away when he sees what he knows to be a situation that calls for ball security.
          The Packers of last year did it with duct tape and twine while their stars were injured, because Aaron Rodgers is a winner… I’m being serious when I say that this Cowboys team and these coaches have already proven ( to me anyway ) that they are man enough for the challenge and can do what it takes.  There are just a few weak links that seem to appear when it’s the worst time possible.

          • joey2zs

            Except for every other season for the past 15 years, I’ve never been more frustrated with a Cowboys team. 


          • greatwhitenorth

            I don’t intend to take anything away from the Packers, but I think their injury situation was a bit overblown by the media.  Sure they had a ton of injuries and they just took the “next guy up” approach and made it work.  But it wasn’t their stars that were injured for the Super Bowl run, it was mid-level guys and role players.  Rodgers, Jennings, Raji, Matthews, Woodson, etc were all there, so that’s hardly duct tape and twine.  Take away Rodgers two best WRs and see how long he’s able to maintain that “winner” status.

            I’m right with you on the Cowboys not being too far away, and anything can happen with a hot team down the stretch in the NFL.  But I don’t trust Romo to recognize a ball-security situation (nor his coach, but that’s another matter), so it’s going to take a bit of luck to pull it off this year.

        • Jarhead

          how about some bad drafts, trading away high draft picks for a guy like roy williams, and making some mistakes in giving big money to guys like MBIII?

          Those are all reasons the cowboys lack some depth in critical areas and have a some cap issues.

          They also appear to have made a conscious decision in the last off season to cut high paid non-producers/guys with a sense of entitlement regardless of the cap implications.

          Making tough decisions can be equated to “gambling with the season.”

          I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: There are NO guarantees in the NFL.
          Another way to say it is: you will have to accept risk somewhere.

          • greatwhitenorth

            Yeah, I can’t disagree with any of that.  I just think that, given the tough decisions they did make and the risks they’ve decided to live with, their honest expectations for this season can’t be sky-high.  They had options to lower their risk factors, but they consciously went with the high risk instead of backing up their investment.  That says to me that they don’t think a whole lot of their chances this year anyway and are playing this season with an eye towards the next.

    • Rafael Vela

      Have to agree.  I’ve been saying forever this is a 2-year project, if you’re good at picking draftees and F.A.s.  

      Still, I think they want to win every game.  And missing the playoffs and getting a decent draft slot would not be the worst thing in the world for this team.  

      • Jarhead

        Two big decisions coming this off-season. One on Romo and one on the D-coordinator (assuming he is a HC candidate this spring).

        • Weareblma

          If RobRyan stays w Cowboys next year, he will have a much better chance to wear a SuperBowl ring than if becomes a headcoach somewhere else and wait couple of years b4 getting a chance….  all assuming Cowboys cannot go all the way this season…

          • Rafael Vela

            It all depends on which jobs are available and if he gets offered one.  

            On the ring thing, yeah, he’s got a better shot, but he’s got a couple already from his New England days.  

          • greatwhitenorth

            While Rob’s been very impressive so far, I think he’s got to either make a deep playoff run or have two consistent years with a top-10 D before he’ll get a HC offer.  His track record just isn’t as shiny as Rex’s and his style rubs a lot of teams the wrong way for a HC candidate.  I think he’ll be back in Dallas for year two of the Garrett regime.

  • Egtuna

    If Dez and Austin can stay healthy, the offense will be lights out. It will make it so much easier to run now that Tyron Smith, Costa, and Nagy have proven to be more than adequate pass-blockers. Teams won’t be able to put 8 in the box with Witten, Bryant and Austin posing serious receiving threats. This will make it easier to run draws and bends. 

    Despite the recent Romo brainmelts, the offense will be just fine. And with the return of Scandrick and Hatcher, the Defense will be fine too. The NFC East is there for the taking. They just gotta believe they can grab it.

    • jazzbo251

      I really would love to see this offense far more healthy. It would be great to see Felix and Murray doing their thing, with Witten, Austin, and Dez healthy, particularly with the hope of Robinson filling the 3rd receiver role reliably. I wonder if Romo is being thrown off (no pun intended) by the lack of stability at the WR position.

      I would also love to see a healthy defense, including Carter.

      • Weareblma

        remember: the key to win the New England game is to limit as much as possible the time their offense is on the field, otherwise, no matter how many points we can generate, they still have time to do more damage. guess Raf said this many seasons ago

    • joey2zs

      I think you’re right.  The team is thin at all positions, but the starters are gold standard.

      BTW.. Romo Brainmelt?  That is on rye and served in some Transylvania amusement park, right?

  • Raja

    Guess this is early to talk about NE game – Pats have a problem defending the pass.  If the WR trio is healthy, Dallas should be able to pass out of the 11 set.  Question is, can the Pats generate enough pass rush out of their DLine alone while playing coverage.  This could be a game where Belicheat goes to a 4-3 look and let Haynesworth (if healthy) and Wilfork go at the weak spot in the Cowboys OLine – center and guards.

    Given Sean Lee’s comment about Dallas having issues with Detroit spreading out everyone (and going empty backfield), I’d expect Pats to trust their OLine to handle the Dallas pass rush and get the ball out to their TEs and Welker and get the Cows to cover.  Brady had long drives in the Oak game last week – he would be happy taking 6-7 yards at a clip. 


  • Jarhead

    the other “proven” receiver was a guy named roy williams, and i think dallas did the right thing cutting him loose, regardless of the fact there was no WR option behind him.

    We had a 3rd WR. His name was Crayton, and he played ST too, played it well.

    The Roy deal and the drafting of Dez made Crayton the odd man out.  Had JJ not pulled the Roy deal…….

    Romo never trusted williams, and never had faith in him, neither did the coach I believe.

    I would imagine very few in cowboy nation had any faith in him either. he is just not that good. I am glad he is gone, and lets hope we’ll see more games with Dez and Miles on the field after the bye. Robinson seems to be filling in fine so far as the number 3 man.

    Kevin O can go the way of Roy too.

  • Ridgelake

    Excellent article, Raf, as usual.

    To me, one surprise is not that we ran so much 12.  But that Marty was the one in there, not Phillips, when we were in the spread.  Phillips seems the more reliable pass-catcher.  Perhaps the Boys still think Marty B threatens a defense more, thus his presense on the field.

    • Rafael Vela

      Phillips isn’t fast.  Not a down the field threat.  Marty B isn’t a burner, but he’s faster than Phillips.

      I’m very happy with the 12 as it.  They scored 30 points with it as their base package.  That’s damn impressive.