As the Cowboys’ defensive trends spiral, perhaps there is hope inside numbers

As the Cowboys’ defensive trends spiral, perhaps there is hope inside numbers


We may have real issues to take seriously just a few days after Christmas. You see, I have written all season an exciting story that suggested that Dan Quinn and the front office had a defense that was not held together with duct tape and baling wire. No, this defense had great quality because we saw it every week.

We had almost no concerns. Even the rushing yards per game were not problematic because mostly it was a path for teams to throw quantity at because they were terrified of the Cowboys’ pass rush. There have been Dallas teams in the past that were very scary, but they were propped up completely on takeaways. We are always skeptical about those types of defenses because if you are propped up on takeaways, we are measuring 70 plays on the outcomes of just three of them and discarding the rest because “Hey, we recovered that fumble!” and that eventually hits a wall in a fiery crash.

But, no. This defense had no such issues for most of this season. It had substance well beyond the style. That was a curiosity to me because aside from time and growth, there were no massive acquisitions in the offseason that would point to a level jump from the defense — like trading for Jalen Ramsey or Von Miller on the fly. This defense just seemed to show a year two-jump under Quinn that made us all wonder if Micah Parsons actually was Lawrence Taylor.

In fact, thanks to our good buddies at TruMedia, here is the defensive metric profile that I keep to note all of the league rankings for each team. They even color code everything: Green is awesome, pink is fading, and red is very bad. I offer one warning, our color coding is off on OpExpPl% because it is backward. So, here are Weeks 1 through 14 as a composite and you will note that the Cowboys are actually ninth (also green), but it is 24th because the rankings are flipped. I will work on that (for now, just trust me). The Cowboys have been great at stopping explosive plays.

Weeks 1 through 14

Look at that beautiful green bar of quality. Everything is in order and suggests real dominance. You can look at nearly any category and see good things.

This defense is not a fluke. It is battering everyone. If only the offense could join the fight, we would say …

What happened in Jacksonville? People say Houston, but I promise, the Houston defensive metrics match up well with the rest of the season. This is a two-week sample, for me.

Weeks 15 and 16

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Here are the past two weeks. Understand that it is just two weeks. But, let’s also understand that to stack up the two worst weeks with the offenses that Jacksonville and Philadelphia have, especially knowing that the Eagles did not have their MVP Jalen Hurts playing seems increasingly problematic (for a number of reasons). But, look above.

Over the past two weeks, no team in the NFL has given up more points, more yards, more passing yards and more third-down conversions. Only one team has a worse sack rate, worse points per drive and worse yards per play. Only two teams have given up more explosive plays and a worse defensive EPA.

If there is anything good to show for all of this, it is that the Cowboys have found seven takeaways.

So, yes, this is actually in line with what we have seen in the past. How takeaways can prop up a burning ship for a time. Because many of your fellow Cowboys fans are repeating their Dak Prescott/Kellen Moore/Mike McCarthy talking points and thinking that Noah Brown’s hands are the only thing keeping the Cowboys from being 2-0 during this stretch.

But, holy heck, this thing has not stopped anyone and this is not the time for the stagecoach to turn back into a pumpkin (I assume I used that Disney metaphor correctly).


Last week, I showed you all the horrible superlatives from the Jacksonville game. Since the Cowboys defense basically repeated the performance, we should review that passage and see if it was as bad or worse. Everything in italics was from last week’s piece (new material against the Eagles is in bold). Let’s count the embarrassing ways this defense got everything wrong in Jacksonville.

Dallas gave up a season-high 40 points. Before any of their attorneys contact me and remind me below that the final seven points are not on the defense, allow me to note that even if we deduct that, 33 points is also a season-high. The Cowboys had only allowed 30 points once (31 to Green Bay). Dallas allowed 34 more to Philadelphia and again there was a pick six, but the Eagles had no difficulty moving the football. 

• Dallas gave up 33 points after halftime. The previous season-high was 14 to the Bengals and Green Bay in regulation (17 in Green Bay when we add overtime). Dallas gave up 14 again after halftime. Not nearly as bad as Jacksonville, but not great.

• Dallas gave up four passing touchdowns. The season high was three in Green Bay and no other team has had more than two. Gardner Minshew had two passing touchdowns Saturday. 

• They gave up a season-high 26 first downs (previous high was 22). The Eagles had 25 first downs. That’s 26 and then 25 in consecutive games. 

• For the second week in a row, the Dallas defense set a season-high in third-down conversions allowed. Amazingly, Houston set the mark last week with seven and Jacksonville broke it with eight. Those are not two historic offenses. Eight more against the Eagles! The three-week trend is now 7-8-8. This is very bothersome and disconcerting, folks. 

• Not only is 67 percent on third downs the best (or worst) in 2022, but it is the first time that an opponent even made it to 50 percent. This is a great third-down defense, but you didn’t see it Sunday. Again, 57 percent against the Eagles, so the two-week trend is literally the worst two weeks of the season. Yeesh. 

• 75 percent in the red zone tied the season-worst performance with the Sunday Night trip to Philadelphia in Week 6. The Eagles were held to 60 percent — a slight upgrade — but not one to be very proud of as they went 3 for 5. 

• It was the first time all year that the Cowboys faced three goal-to-go situations and they allowed touchdowns all three times. Just 1 for 1 on Christmas Eve, so here is one bounce-back, unless you see that the Eagles just scored from farther away. 

• The Cowboys had allowed 350 yards in a game (NFL average is 342) once this season (415 at Green Bay). The Cowboys allowed 503 yards — 496 in regulation — against the Jaguars. We can say, “Not as bad as Jacksonville”, but otherwise, the worst of the season — and to a backup QB — as the Eagles racked up 442. Just awful. 

• The 7.2 yards per play Jacksonville racked up was easily the season-worst, topping the 6.8 in Green Bay. 6.4 vs Philly! Not as bad as Jacksonville or Green Bay, but worst of the year otherwise. 

• The 7.1 yards per rushing play also was easily the season’s worst. Much improved at just 3 yards a carry. This stat was a major improvement (no sarcasm). The Cowboys stopped the Eagles’ running game quite well, and it probably helped that Hurts was hurt. 

• The 311 yards passing allowed was a season-worst, too. No other opponent passed for more than 213 yards this season besides the Rams, who got to 285. Dallas has been exceptional at stopping the pass, but you would not know it based on Sunday’s effort. The Eagles’ 355 was the season’s worst! Trevor Lawrence did not get to enjoy his achievement long before Minshew destroyed it.

• Dallas had one sack for seven yards Sunday. Both would be season lows if they had not had zero sacks against Houston. Needless to say, these are the worst two weeks for the pass rush. Dallas had zero sacks again against the Eagles. Also, the 8.9 yards per pass were second worst this season to Aaron Rodgers’ day. 

I mean, things are going in the wrong direction fast.

Weekly data box: Week 16 vs. Philadelphia

DefDataBox 1

So, obviously, it wouldn’t make much sense to just tell you that everything is burning and not offer reasons why. I am struggling to find reasons that make great sense. I also would turn your attention to the number of explosive plays that were allowed in this past game to demonstrate that this is a habit the Cowboys better stop quickly.

Everyone has their own definition of explosive plays — I have always gone with 20-plus yards on a snap (pass or run doesn’t matter because we believe that a yard is a yard).

This season, Dallas has been great at limiting explosive plays as it averaged allowing 2.3 per game through the Houston game. That is spectacular and the Bengals and Vikings combined for zero in their games.

In the last two weeks, the Cowboys have allowed 5.5 per game and they allowed seven Sunday. The previous high was Green Bay with five.

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It is even worse when you consider the Eagles had two more at 19 yards. Nine plays (all passes) went for 19-plus.

What the heck is going on right now?

Let’s break this down because I promised it would be short.

There are three possible explanations for what is going on with the defense:

1. The Cowboys have lost very important pieces and that has changed everything. True enough, because Anthony Brown, in particular, was a key corner for this team and the replacement of his work in the last month by Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright has been very rough at times. Joseph has been benched and Wright has been better. That said, Wright does not look comfortable in man coverage, so the Cowboys will have to decide how to best skin this cat. Leighton Vander Esch left the Jacksonville game early with a neck stinger and his return is probably going to be in the playoffs. Surely the way the Jaguars ran the ball points directly there. Of course, the Cowboys did much better against the Eagles’ run game and maybe Anthony Barr can handle things there. Sam Williams missed the Eagles game after a car accident, but is returning quickly, but he is Sam Williams. Jourdan Lewis was lost against Detroit, but DaRon Bland was sort of an instant upgrade. I don’t give this entire discussion much credence, personally.

2. The Cowboys’ coverage is finally being exposed. This one probably relates more to the first one, because when you lose Brown, you probably lose a better corner and when you start facing teams with multiple downfield weapons as the Jaguars and Eagles both have, then you can quickly find promising matchups in Cover 1 (Dallas’ second favorite coverage behind Cover 3). But, you can’t sit in Cover 3 all day because the NFL has definitely learned how to filet that, so you need to look for spots to mix up your looks. Dallas has run more Cover 1 in the past two weeks than any other coverage, but the RPO game and bunch sets of their opponents are as much a reason for that as anything and you can bet that those issues will carry into January. This leads us to the good news and bad news of the situation …

3. The pass rush has died. The last thing you want for what was the best pass rush in the NFL is to hit a dry spell near the finish line. That is rough. Where have all the sacks gone? One sack in three games? What is happening? Is Parsons too banged up to finish his race for defensive player of the year? Is DeMarcus Lawrence slowing down? What happened to Dorance Armstrong? And Williams and Dante Fowler? Oh, dear. This is where we find optimism, though. If you believe that pressures are consistent and sacks fluctuate, then we better use this visual aid below.

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Not sure if you were aware of this, but the pressures are high. That’s 20 against the Jaguars and 20 more against the Eagles. That number is very good and higher than many of the games where the Cowboys found sacks. You have to trust the pressure numbers and see that it is still doing its job. Parsons alone has 18 hurries and 1 sack in these last two games, so rumors of his demise seem greatly exaggerated. The pressure numbers make me feel a little better about the current situation.

Again, this is not great news and the game Thursday against Tennessee will continue to tell a story, but the defense has to dig a little deeper here and begin to prepare for January. It will likely be all road games and it can end quickly if the defense does not rise up.

(Top photo of Zay Jones and Kelvin Joseph: David Rosenblum / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)





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