Continuing my "Top 5" series, here are the top five ways the Cowboys can score more points this season.
1. Get the ball to Dez Bryant ... deep.
By all accounts, Bryant had a tremendous offseason. He appears focused and ready to cash in on his world-class skill set. The Cowboys figure to make Bryant their true No. 1 receiver, as they should.
We all know Bryant excels at attacking the football, particularly on jump balls. He uses his big frame, outstanding body control, and incredible hands to win one-on-one battles. In 2012, I think you can count on seeing more deep passes from the Cowboys, especially to Bryant.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article on why the Cowboys succeed with deep passes. Last year, Tony Romo completed 55.2 percent of his passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, racking up a passer rating of 125.4 in the process.
Nonetheless, only 18.7 percent of Bryant's career targets have been that deep, ranking him below the top 50 receivers in the league. With more deep looks, particularly to one of the league's premiere deep-ball playmakers, you'll see superior offensive efficiency from Dallas in 2012.
2. Use more playaction.
One of the best ways to get the ball to Bryant downfield is to utilize playaction passes. Garrett has just recently made a shift in his playaction pass repertoire, calling for more deep looks. In 2010, only 12.8 percent of the team's playaction passes traveled 20-plus yards, and in 2009 it was only 4.8 percent.
Still, the Cowboys have called less than 20 combined playaction passes with between one and four yards to go for a first down since 2009, i.e. about five per season. Actually, less than one-quarter of the team's playaction passes have come with less than 10 yards to go for a first down. In short-yardage situations (primarily on second down), playaction passes can be invaluable to an offense. I have a hunch you'll see more deep playaction passes in situations like 2nd and 1 this season.
Plus, the presence of DeMarco Murray and a formidable rushing attack means playaction passes should be effective for Dallas in 2012. With Murray drawing in the defense and Bryant and Miles Austin outside, there's no reason playaction passes shouldn't be a significant source of yardage for the offense this season.
3. Run the ball more on third down.
Defying conventional wisdom, third down runs are often more successful than third down passes. It isn't that rushing the ball on third down is inherently advantageous, but rather that the defense anticipates a pass and plays accordingly; they implement nickel or dime personnel and often drop into coverage at the snap of the ball.
Over the last half-decade, rushing the ball on 3rd and short has been far more effective than passing the ball (around a 15 percent difference in conversion rates on 3rd and 1 and 3rd and 2). The advantage of rushing the ball on third down extends up until 3rd and 5.
Actually, offenses have converted around the same percentage of third down runs with between six and eight yards to go as third down passes. You read that correctly; rushing the ball is at least just as effective as passing up until around 3rd and 9. Again, defenses would adjust if the Cowboys simply began running on all 3rd and short to medium distances, but the point is that there is an opportunity to exploit defenses for the time being.
Garrett has been relatively solid with his third down play-calls, almost always (correctly) drawing up a run on 3rd and 1. On 3rd and 3-plus, however, the coach almost always passes. On 3rd and 3 to 3rd and 5, Garrett has called a run right around 15 percent of the time over the past three seasons. Since rushing the ball is more effective than passing in this range, the Cowboys could potentially benefit from more third down runs.
On top of that, the 'Boys have a pair of great third down backs in DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones. Both players are quick and excel on typical third down runs, such as draws. Add in quick, agile tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free, and you have the recipe for some effective "surprise" runs on third down.
4. Let the best man win the No. 3 receiver job.
A lot of fans are looking for a small, quick receiver to play the slot for Dallas in 2012. In reality, the team already has their slot receiver in Miles Austin. Austin played in the slot in almost all three-receiver sets last season, and he's actually quite effective there.
This means the Cowboys don't need to limit their search for a No. 3 receiver to a particular type of player; they can simply let the best man win, regardless of his skill set. That's good news for a guy like Andre Holmes.
5. Run a lot of right-handed formations.
By "right-handed formation," I mean any formation where the strength (usually tight end Jason Witten) is lined up on the right side. The reason the Cowboys should utilize a lot of right-handed formations is two-fold.
First, it will allow Witten to help out Doug Free in pass protection. Free should be more comfortable at right tackle than he was on the left side, but he's still weaker than Tyron Smith. Free was 48th among NFL tackles in terms of pass-protection efficiency in 2011, allowing a sack, hit, or pressure on 6.3 percent of snaps. Meanwhile, Smith was 14th in the NFL at 4.0 percent.
Secondly, the Cowboys have thrived on weakside runs over the past few years, averaging over 5.0 yards-per-carry. Garrett has increased the number of weakside runs accordingly, jumping from 19.5 percent in 2009 to nearly one-third of all runs in 2011.
By lining up in a right-handed formation, the Cowboys can run behind Smith when they go to the weak side, allowing the second-year tackle to get to the second level of the defense and pave the way for big-time runs from Murray and Jones.