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Spagnola: Cowboys Are Money On Third Downs

It's not all one or the other. It's both, finally, running and passing, each complementing the other.

IRVING, Texas – There is no denying this:

         The Dallas Cowboys can run the football. We have six games of evidence.

         Like, they lead the league in rushing with 962 yards, an average of 160.3 a game, meaning on pace to run for 2,564 yards. For perspective, the single season club record is 2,783 yards, set in 1978, and the franchise-low for a single season is 1,265, and we're only two years removed from that. Huh, at this pace they will eclipse that low halfway through this season.

         The Cowboys also have the league's leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, 785 yards, and is a 100-yard performance away this Sunday against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium – just in case those missing Cowboys fans didn't realize this is a home game – from breaking Jim Brown's 56-yearold record for most consecutive 100-yard games rushing to open a season.

         So seems most think this has established the Cowboys identity as a running team, that the five-game winning streak and the 5-1 record tying them for the NFC East lead with Philadelphia and also San Diego for the best records in the NFL is solely based on how well the Cowboys are running the ball.

           That this is the reason the Cowboys entered Week 7 of the NFL season averaging the fourth most points at 27.5 a game, and really, no thanks to a bunch of returns for touchdowns – only one – or a huge turnover differential advantage – minus-2 – so really no extraneous help.

         There also is this perception the Cowboys lead the league with a 56.3 percent third-down conversion rate simply because the Cowboys are running the ball so well that these third-down opportunities have been mostly a short-yardage cake walk.

         But start asking around if the running game is the overriding reason the Cowboys have been so good on third down, more than 20-percent better than they were over 16 games last year when they were converting at a woeful 35 percent. Ask head coach Jason Garrett. Ask offensive play-caller Scott Linehan. Ask quarterback Tony Romo.

         They all will agree running the football effectively certainly helps keeping defenses from teeing off in for-sure passing downs. But they all also have varying reasons why the Cowboys have been so good at keeping drives alive, which in turn aids their time of possession average of 34:02, third highest in the league, obviously 4:02 more than the league average, and also one of the reasons the Cowboys entered Week 7 ranked fourth in total number of plays 401, averaging 66.8 a game – not to mention driving Murray's per-carry average up to 26.5 a game.

There is no way you are picking up those third-and-longs without good pocket protection.

         For Romo, he believes their third-down efficiency has a lot to do with not only Linehan's basic play designs, but how he designs certain plays to attack what defenses are wanting to do against the Cowboys. As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes to point out, the marriage of Linehan with Romo has been a good thing, Linehan already planning to do what Romo is about to suggest.

         Then there is Linehan, who attributes the success to the balance, and not the balance between running and passing on third down but the balance of not having to rely on just one or two guys to make those key plays.

         And as for Garrett, he'll tell you, "If you are looking for an overarching reason (for third down success) it's protection and the variety of targets," so agreeing with what Linehan is saying.

         Because of all of this, what seems to get lost is just how efficient the Cowboys passing game has been, short Romo's three first-half interceptions against San Francisco in the opener. Romo's overall quarterback rating has climbed from 31st in the league after the first week (60.8) to fifth now, hovering at 100.6

         But get this, his quarterback rating on third down is 113, completing 38 of 58 passes (65.5) percent, with five touchdown passes and one interception. That's stout considering the majority of the time defenses know you are passing on third down.

         And as Garrett and Linehan, they are quick to point out, while having shorter distances to cover on third down helps since you are running the ball well, "we've done a good job and third and long, too," evidenced by the 22-yard catch Terrance Williams had this past Sunday on third-and-20 to keep the winning touchdown drive alive, and also Dez Bryant's 37-yard grab on third-and-eight in overtime against Houston to set up the winning field goal.

         Look on 14 third-down opportunities needing at least 11 yards the Cowboys have picked up seven of those, a highly-respectable 50 percent when considering the distance. That has little to do with running the ball.

         Now when running the ball on third-and-2 or less, the Cowboys have succeeded nine of 11 times. On the three running plays between third-and-3 and 10, they have picked up just one.

         So as you can see, there is no way you are picking up those third-and-longs without good pocket protection, along with Romo getting back to moving so well in the pocket.

         But it's also Romo's options. A lot of them.

         "We've had good balance on who we're going to on third down," Linehan says. "If teams want to take away Dez, we can go to the tight ends. Take away the tight ends and we can go somewhere else."

         He's right. Just take this past game against Seattle for example, one the Cowboys converted 10 of 17 third-down opportunities, 58.8 percent when anything around 45 percent is considered high quality. In that game seven guys picked up at least one first down on third down. Lance Dunbar, one of two backup running backs, had three receptions. Dez Bryant had two. Murray ran for two. Terrance Williams had the one. Witten caught a touchdown pass on third down, as did Gavin Escobar. Cole Beasley had one reception for a first down. The Cowboys picked up another by penalty, and of course they wasted an opportunity when Travis Frederick's snap went off an unsuspecting Romo's knee.

         "Different guys are getting the ball," Garrett said. "Defenses can't just target one or two guys.

         As for the team leaders over six games, it's as would be expected, Witten receptions accounting for 10 third-down conversions and Bryant receptions nine. That type of production certainly helps the club convert 33 of 61 third-down plays between one and 15 yards,

         Then on top of all that, the protection of late has been top-notch. Remember, Romo was sacked seven times in the first two games. My goodness, Romo was on pace to be sacked 66 times. He never would have lasted the season taking that kind of punishment.


         But in the past five games he's only been sacked three times, and no more than one time in any of those games.

         So as you can see, this Cowboys passing game has been highly efficient, and this has nothing to do with the other perception going around: That Romo is being more patient, whatever that means, because he knows they can run the football. It's not like he's throwing the ball away a lot because he doesn't want to force the ball into coverage. Overall, he's completing 68.6 percent of his passes. That is third in the league, and his touchdown to interception ratio is 11 to 5, and to think three of those were in the very first game of the season.

         Again, it's not all one or the other. It's both, finally, running and passing, each complementing the other, no matter what order you want to put them in. It's been highly efficient and effective. Crowd the run, and the Cowboys offense has the ability to light you up with the passing game. Back off and Murray can wear you out.

         Just what you need, isn't it, when a bunch of Giants come snooping around your place on a Sunday afternoon.

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