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Spagnola: Must Start Cutting Down On Big Chunks


FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys are 3-1, first place in the NFC East, riding a three-game winning streak, losing only the season opener by two points to the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers on a walk-off field goal.

The offense is soaring, the NFL's third-ranked team in total yards, second in rushing yards and fourth in total points with an average of 31.5 a game.

Ezekiel Elliot's 342 yards rushing ranks fourth in the NFL, but just 21 shy of second, and his 5.3 yards a carry among those with at least 50 carries is second.

Dak Prescott's 116.9 QB rating ranks fourth in the NFL, his 75.2 completion percentage second and his 10 TD passes third.

Defensively, the Cowboys' 10 takeaways in four games, just less than half as many as they had all last year (23), ranks second to Buffalo's 11 and the team's plus-7 turnover differential is tied for first with the Bills.

Oh, and with eight of those 10 takeaways interceptions, they are just two shy of last year's 16-game total.

And second-year corner Trevon Diggs is on a record-setting tear with five interceptions in four games, half of last year's team total and already nearly half of Everson's Walls' single-season franchise record of 11 in 1981, a total no NFL player has eclipsed in the past 40 years.

Life is good, but just four games into a 17-game season, with the New York Football Giants (1-3) heading into AT&T Stadium for Sunday's 3:25 p.m. kickoff, the Cowboys riding the wave, trying to sweep this three-game homestand knowing there is a three-game road trip looming the first of December.

But . . . and you just knew that but was coming . . . but there is one concern, and likely highlighted by the Giants' presence despite their record and the fact since losing twice to the Giants his 2016 rookie season Dak has beaten the G-Men in his last seven starts.

Big Plays.

Further to be known as BPs, since baseball is known for shortening all their daily stats with acronyms. As in Big Plays given up by the Cowboys defense, plays of at least 20 yards passing and at least 10 yards rushing, and the main reason this team ranked 16th in points against, 24.25 a game, is ranked 26th overall in total yards.

Doesn't that bother you, too?

Bothers me.

And seems to bother this coaching staff, too.

Said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn after Sunday's 36-28 dismantling of the erstwhile undefeated Carolina Panthers (3-1), while happy about the fact in four games the Cowboys have actually played 30 players at some point on defense, "We got plenty of stuff to work on, don't get me wrong. Completely pissed about the red zone, still too many _big plays_ for my liking.

"But I like the energy, the attitude and the style the group is playing with."

Head coach Mike McCarthy concedes the defense needs to be better when it comes to giving up those chunk plays. And better had better arrive come Sunday.

Listen up:

"I highlighted their whole perimeter group this morning in the profile tape," McCarthy said Wednesday of the Giants receiving group that includes Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and John Ross, though once again will be without veteran wideouts Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton, both also missing last week's 27-21 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints with injuries. "They have a lot of flexibility there.

"I think it's a perimeter that can really challenge you – big plays, I think they are No. 3 in the league. So, this obviously will be a challenge, so this is a focal point and a definite objective going into the game."

Me, I'm endorsing that objective.

So, there are various ways to judge what's a BP. Now the Cowboys stats show big plays in the passing game as at least 20 yards. And so far, the Cowboys defense has given up 19 of them for 588 yards, or 30.9 yards a BP. Six of those occurred in the season opener against Tom Brady and the Bucs, a long of 47 yards on Brady's touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.

Then in the next two games, five each to Justin Herbert and the Chargers and to Jalen Hurts and the Eagles. And this past game, another three by the Panthers, one of those a 55-yard Sam Darnold completion to Brandon Zylstra on a darn fourth-and-eight at the Panthers 32.

And when it comes to running plays, opponents have gashed the Cowboys seven times for 111 yards on runs of at least 10 yards, four of those occurring in the Carolina game.

As for the Giants, counting on the same criteria, the Giants have 13 pass plays of at least 20 yards and another nine run plays of at least 10 yards. Most noticeable, though, is six of those pass plays are for at least 33 yards, while six of those BPs came in this past game against the Saints. Why Jones hit Saquan Barkley on a 54-yard wheel route for a touchdown and then a 52-yarder for a touchdown to Ross.

And when it comes to the Giants nine runs for at least 10 yards, six of those belong to Jones, including a 46-yarder against Washington.

Now Elias Sports Bureau considers any big play, run or pass, at least 20 yards, with the Giants coming in eighth in the NFL with 17. And as for the Cowboys defense, the 21 big plays against rank 29th. Plus, seven of those BPs went for at least 30 yards, with two more going for 28 yards and another for 29.

After four games that's on pace for 89 plays of at least 20 yards for 2,499 yards, compared to last year's total of 69 for 2,182 yards.

Talk about some gashing.

But how come?

Some of those plays can be chalked up to busted assignments. Others a credit to offensive play callers just getting 'em. And then just physically beating the Cowboys defense.

Nevertheless, this is worrisome, especially if the takeaway well runs dry. Think about this, after four games the Cowboys are on pace for 42 takeaways in 17 games. How rare would that be? The last time the Cowboys had at least 40 takeaways in a non-strike season was 48 in 1985. And the franchise single-season record came in 1981 with 53, the year of Wallls' 11 picks, the team finishing with 37 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries.

So, the pace they are on now is pretty rare. And at some point got to start getting teams off the field on downs and cut down on teams averaging 6.4 yards a play, bolstered by their 31st ranking in pass defense, giving up 315.3 yards a game. And granted the Cowboys have played against some of the NFL's best offenses in the league so far.

But still.

"We talk about the big play production we've given up . . . we're definitely in tune with the big play production we've had, particularly in the first three weeks," McCarthy said Friday morning on 105.3 The Fan.

But now it's high time to tune down the BPs.

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