Vertical passing game has vanished
By Tim MacMahon
IRVING, Texas — The Jason Garrett era opened with a big-play bang. Jon Kitna and the Cowboys’ receivers attacked and exploited the Giants’ secondary in the Cowboys’ stunning win at New Meadowlands Stadium.
The Cowboys’ vertical passing game has vanished since then.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Kitna completed four of five passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air in the win over the Giants. Those plays went for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Kitna hasn’t completed a throw that deep in the four games since that afternoon. He has attempted only six such throws in that span – two against the Lions, none against the Saints, three against the Colts and one against the Eagles.
The production of receivers Miles Austin has plummeted. So did Dez Bryant’s before his season-ending injury. Defenses eliminated the Cowboys’ two elite deep threats.
“We’ve called a number of shots in the last few games,” Garrett said. “It’s just how defenses play, forcing you to go to the next guy. I thought Jon’s done a really nice job working through his progressions, finding his checkdowns. … But you need to keep calling the shots and giving yourself a chance to make some plays down the field. It’s the quarterback’s job to read it out.”
Tight end Jason Witten’s receptions total has soared as a result of the checkdown spree. Witten has 26 catches for 258 yards in the last four games.
As great as Witten is, opposing defenses would rather have him catch a lot of passes for less than 10 yards per pop than to give up a couple of big plays to Austin. But the Cowboys haven’t taken advantage when they’ve had a chance to make a play downfield in the last four games, either.
“Defenses are making us drive the field,” Kitna said. “They’re playing coverages that are not allowing us to [go deep]. We just missed on a couple of opportunities in the Indianapolis game getting the ball down the field. We missed on a few of those, but even in that game, just throwing those loosens them up and gives us some stuff underneath. But the defense has really been trying to take that away from us.”