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Running the Numbers: Offensive Film Study Versus Falcons

If you told me before the game that the Cowboys would hold the Atlanta Falcons and their potent offensive attack to just 19 points, I would have been thrilled. But having scored more than 24 points just one time all year and fewer than 20 points in all but three games, the Cowboys' offense again faltered, mustering only 13 points against the Falcons en route to their fifth loss of the season.

  • Sunday night's loss is the perfect example of why passing attempts are strongly correlated with losing; it isn't that frequent passing is a cause of losing, but rather that teams that are already losing are forced to pass the ball late in games. The Cowboys aired it out on 12 of their 13 fourth quarter plays, bringing the final pass rate to 66.7 percent. The truth is that the Cowboys attempted to be balanced through the first three quarters, passing the ball just 23 times compared to 17 runs.
  • Romo threw for 9.17 yards per attempt (YPA) and recorded a 109.3 passer rating. The late passing attempts were too-little-too-late for a team that managed only 3.61 yards per carry (YPC) on the ground. Amazingly, 50.8 percent of the offense's rushing yards came on two carries to start the third quarter.
  • Coming into Week 9, no NFL team had attempted a lower rate of play-action passes than the Cowboys. They lowered that percentage against the Falcons by attempting two play-action passes, both of which were completed for 19 total yards. On the season, the Cowboys have completed 79.2 percent of their play-action looks for 11.5 YPA and a passer rating of 107.8. They haven't given up a sack on any play-action pass all year.
  • After two screen passes against the Falcons, one to Lance Dunbar and the other to Miles Austin, the Cowboys have now attempted 12 on the season. Seven of those screens have been to a running back. If the reason for the lack of downfield attempts is a perceived lack of pass protection, an increase in screen passes could help alleviate that. Plus, screens should be viewed as an extension of a running game that simply isn't clicking.
  • Speaking of pass protection, the Cowboys gave up just one sack on the night. I attributed it to left guard Nate Livings. Overall, the Cowboys' pass protection really hasn't been as poor as many people think. Yes, Romo uses his athleticism to avoid pressure at times, but the line has still allowed a sack on only 4.1 percent of dropbacks, ranking them among the top 10 in the NFL.
  • Once again improving his deep-passing success, Romo completed two of his three throws that traveled at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, totaling 94 yards and a touchdown. On the year, the Cowboys have attempted 35 deep passes, 10.7 percent of all attempts. That's higher than Romo's 6.6 percent rate from 2011, but it still ranks the quarterback near the bottom of the league. More deep looks could (or should) be coming for a quarterback whose rating on such passes is now 106.5 this season.
  • Ogletree's 65-yard catch came on an out-and-up, just the fifth pass attempted on a double-move all season. Romo has completed three of those five passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. One of the incompletions was the near-game-winning pass to Dez Bryant against the Giants last week.
  • There were rumblings that Romo requested that Garrett call plays in a fashion similar to how he did when the Cowboys were losing against the Giants in Week 8, i.e. spread the ball out and pass often. I couldn't agree more with that type of approach, but perhaps not for the reason you might think. Specifically, a spread offense has helped the Cowboys rush the football effectively in the past, and it worked again against Atlanta. Although the Cowboys managed little success on the ground, they averaged 5.1 YPC on their 10 runs from spread formations. On their eight tight runs, only one of which was in a short-yardage situation, the Cowboys totaled 12 yards.
  • Note that running more spread formations doesn't necessitate the use of three receivers. Garrett often calls for "12" personnel – one running back, two tight ends and two receivers – allowing him to line up in either tight or spread looks. Actually, utilizing spread formations with run-heavy personnel is an effective way to open up holes for the running backs without the need for sub-optimal personnel.
  • I counted the Falcons as blitzing on only nine of the Cowboys' 54 offensive snaps (16.7 percent). The Cowboys really struggled against those blitzes, dropping back to pass seven times and rushing twice. The runs combined to lose a yard and one of the dropbacks resulted in a sack. Romo completed just two of his six passes against the blitz for 15 yards.
  • One of Atlanta's blitzes came on a crucial third-and-12 and it resulted in an uncharacteristic drop by Miles Austin. While drops have been the norm for just about every Cowboys receiver in 2012, that's the first one I've attributed to Austin.
  • I tracked three of Romo's passes as being off-target, just under half the rate he's averaged over the past three-plus seasons. Although the offense totaled only 13 points, I thought Romo played exceptionally.
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