“Big-time players make big plays in big games.”
It’s a quote former Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders made famous in the 1990s.
But it’s one that still resonates today.
One caveat should be added.
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Big-time players make big plays in big moments.
That’s certainly apropos for the Cowboys, who remain mired in the .500 malaise at 2-2, coming off back to back 8-8 seasons and now have the daunting task of facing quarterback Peyton Manning and the undefeated Denver Broncos (4-0) on Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Manning is the hottest quarterback in the league, with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions in the first four games, going against a beleaguered Cowboys defense. Dallas gave up 401 yards passing to Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers in a 30-21 loss on Sunday.
For the Cowboys to win and avoid falling under .500, not only will the defense need to find a way to rush the passer and cover in the secondary better than it did last week, and all season for that matter, they will need help from their big-time players on offense.
The latter didn’t happen Sunday when they converted only 3 of 9 third-down chances and didn’t score in the second half as the Chargers rallied from a 21-10 deficit with 20 unanswered points.
The drive-killing offensive failures included dropped passes by perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant and a goal-line fumble by rookie receiver Terrance Williams.
“You’ve got to do things to keep drives alive and take advantage of your opportunities,” Witten said.
For Bryant, who is considered by many to be the Cowboys’ best player as well as the most explosive weapon on offense, it was the second time in as many losses this season that he had a crucial second-half drop.
The Cowboys had an early lead against the Chargers because of Bryant’s heroics. He had six catches for 81 yards, including two first-half touchdowns.
It was similar to the 17-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 8 when Bryant had five catches for a 100 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter en route to a nine-catch, 141-yard game.
But there was a drop in the fourth quarter that could have broken the game open for the Cowboys. In both instances, Bryant said he took his eyes off the ball.
“You talk to all your players about being consistent throughout the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We had limited opportunities in the second half [against the Chargers]. They had three 80-yard drives in the second half. So we don’t have a lot of chances. You’ve got to make the most of those chances.”
Bryant agrees that those are catches he should make. He also believes he needs more opportunities to make big plays down the field.
Bryant leads the Cowboys with 23 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns. Owner Jerry Jones said he thinks Bryant can be counted on for even more, given the chance.
Bryant has been held back in the second half of games by double-team coverage. Jones said the Cowboys should force it to him anyway.
“The same kind of throw you throw to him in the end zone the other day that he made that catch — he can make that catch with two people on him,” Jones said. “You throw him the ball when he’s double-covered.”
Bryant catches the ball in traffic as well as any receiver in the league and has three jump-ball touchdowns this season. He has just three catches of 20 or more yards.
“I’m confident,” Bryant said. “I’m going to get it. I honestly feel like I will.”
Quarterback Tony Romo doesn’t deny that Bryant deserves chances down field. But the 11-year veteran quarterback has thrown eight touchdowns with one interception through four games, partly because he is going through his reads and making calculated decisions rather than taking risky chances downfield.
Romo has completed 72 percent of his passes, but he has only three completions of 25 yards or more this season, while averaging a career low 6.7 yards per attempt.
“I think Dez warrants that,” Romo said of more chances. “He’s a good enough player to have a chance to do different things. There’s a time and a place.
“I think everyone understands there are certain double coverages that are different than others. We’re going to try some things to continue to get him the ball.”
Sunday, against Denver, seems to be a good day for the Cowboys to let their big-time players make some big plays.
“Dez is going. He’s blowing and going,” Jones said. “That’s what we’ve got to have throughout the team.”