Of Tony Romo's 187 pass attempts in 2012, only 10.2 percent have traveled at least 20 yards in the air. On Sunday, the Cowboys absolutely dominated the Ravens on the ground, but their lack of deep passing attempts—just one all game—limited their big-play potential.
Until Dallas acquires some quick scores on offense, they're going to struggle putting opponents away, even when they're playing superior football.
One of the reasons Jason Garrett doesn't call more downfield passes is that he doesn't trust his offensive line. Without ample time to throw the ball, deep passes can often result in deep sacks, making them a high risk/high reward proposition. If you know anything about Garrett’s mentality as a play-caller, you know that's the last thing he wants.
Putting aside the issue of whether or not a high-variance strategy would benefit the Cowboys, I think there are ways to get the ball down the field even if your offensive line isn't playing particularly well. The most obvious of these is to utilize max protection, sending only two receivers into routes and allowing the backs and tight ends to stay in to block. Max protection is used effectively by teams around the league, but for whatever reason, we rarely see it from the Cowboys.
Garrett might employ more max protection if tight end Jason Witten weren't one of his top receivers. I track Witten's placement on each offensive snap, and the tight end has stayed in to block on just 15.5 percent of his pass snaps in 2012. That number was over 25 percent as recently as two years ago, and the 'Boys have historically garnered a greater percentage of big plays when Witten isn't in a route.
In 2012, Romo has thrown for 8.0 YPA when Witten has stayed in to block, compared to 7.5 YPA when Witten has been in a route. Plus, as expected, the Cowboys have generated more big plays with Witten blocking. One-third of Romo's passes without Witten as a receiving option have gone for at least 15 yards, compared to only 16.3 percent when Witten is out in a route.
Moving forward, Garrett might want to think about placing Witten in the backfield to help in pass protection. That might sound odd, but it isn't unprecedented. Actually, Witten lined up in the backfield quite frequently in past years in a formation known as "Shotgun 3 Wide Pro." With Witten in the backfield with a running back, the duo could pick up blitzers or other rushers the offensive line let leak through to Romo. At one point, the 'Boys used the formation over five times per game. In 2012, we've seen "Shotgun 3 wide Pro" only four times all season. One of the plays was a 26-yard completion to Kevin Ogletree.
Regardless of how Romo and the Cowboys get the ball downfield, it needs to happen. If Garrett is worried that his pass protection won't hold up while waiting for his receivers to run deep, he simply needs to look to his versatile tight end for help.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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