Dallas Cowboys TD Drive Killers (Pt. 1) - Third downs

For those of you who think this post is about Roy Williams because you just read 'drive killer', relax and think happy thoughts, this post is not about Roy Williams.

With two pre-season games in the books, I was struck by a blinding flash of the obvious: The Cowboys have not had a single touchdown drive so far. Now, I'll be the first to say that we shouldn't read too much into the stats of pre-season games, particularly since the first team offense has only been on the field for all of three drives.

But it did bring back to mind an aspect of the Cowboys game that our own Rafael Vela has repeatedly written about: The fast break or big play offense that defines the Dallas Cowboys - as well as the flipside of the coin, the Cowboys' seeming inability to sustain long, controlled drives.

Nowhere is this big play offense more evident than on touchdown drives. Last year, the Cowboys scored 40 offensive touchdowns. Only five of those touchdowns (12.5%) were preceded by drives of ten plays or more. Those 12.5% were the third lowest total in the league last year, just barely above the 49ers (11.4%) and the Packers (12.0%). The league average was 25% in 2009. The kings of the long TD drives were the Bengals (50%), Dolphins (45.9%) and Falcons (43.9%). A full table of all teams is attached at the bottom of this post.

The question is, of course, is this by choice or by default? This is part one of a three part series in which we'll look at drive killers on TD drives and how the Cowboys compared with other teams last year. After the break we start with the first drive killer: Third downs.

Plays per touchdown drive

I've limited the analysis of drive killers to TD drives only. This may not necessarily be representative of a team's full offensive game plan, but it is indicative of what led to success for each team. Also, it is a question of limiting the sheer volume of data I have to work through. The league combined for 1,139 offensive TDs last year, which by my count were preceded by 8,020 plays on the preceding drives.

This may sound like a lot (and it certainly is a lot of data) but it isn't really that much. Consider that teams like the Rams and Raiders only had 16 and 17 offensive TDs respectively and the sample size becomes fairly thin. The most offensive TDs were scored by the Saints and Vikings with 55 and 53 each, which is a little more robust in terms of sample size, but not that much. Keep this in mind as we walk through the numbers.

Example: The Eagles scored 13 of their 41 offensive TDs (31.7%) on drives with three play or less. That ranks them second in the league, and you'd get little argument from anybody if you'd describe the Eagles as a quick strike offense. But leading the league in percentage at 34.8% are the Buffalo Bills. The Bills? I didn't see a single Bills game last year, but I'd be very surprised to hear them referred to as a quick strike offense (but I may be wrong). The Bills scored eight of their meager 23 offensive touchdowns on drives of three or less plays. A couple of 'lucky' plays here may disproportionately effect the percentage due to the low overall number of TDs.

Back to the Cowboys. With only five touchdowns on drives of ten or more plays, it figures that the average number of plays per TD drive would be fairly low, and it is. With an average of 6.6 plays per TD drive, the Cowboys rank 22nd in the league in terms of drive length. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because you could argue equally convincingly that the Cowboys rank 11th in the lowest average amount of plays needed to score a TD.

Third downs per touchdown drive

Last season, the Cowboys offense converted 40.6% of their third downs and ranked 14th in the league in this category. So how well did they convert third downs on their 40 TD drives?

Granted, this is somewhat of a trick question. Since they scored a TD at the end of the drive they obviously converted every single third down en route to the TD. What's more interesting is how many third down situations they faced. The numbers here are 15-16-9. On 15 TD drives the Cowboys offense did not face a single single third down, on 16 TD drives they only had to convert one third down and the offense was able to convert two third downs on nine TD drives. Every single time the Cowboys faced more than two third downs, the drive ended without a TD.

At first glance, these numbers may look a little scary, but when put into context with the rest of the league, they may actually make some sense: 38% of Dallas' TD drives last year did not have a 3rd down play (Rank: 9th).  78% of the team's TD drives had just one or no 3rd down plays (Rank: T 2nd).

As Raf is wont to say: "That's the definition of a fast break offense, ladies and gentlemen."

And the Cowboys are in good company: Leading the league in one or no 3rd down TD drives are the Cardinals (81%), followed by the Eagles, Packers and Bills (yeah, those guys again, see above), all with 78%. That is not the worst peer group imaginable. What may be a little disconcerting is that the Cowboys tied for last place with zero TD drives with three or more third downs converted. For what it's worth, they tied with the Eagles (and the Lions).

The Cowboys aren’t the type of team that can sustain multiple long drives throughout a game. An average third down conversion rate (as well as a couple of other factors we'll look at in the following two posts) is forcing Jason Garrett's hand. The trick is to gameplan around these limitations, and it appears that Garrett is doing everything he can to avoid third down situations alltogether:

"I think the biggest thing is being efficient, particularly on early downs, and continue to stay in some reasonable down-and-distance situations where you can run your offense."

Garrett likes to attack down field early and often, and despite being ranked only 14th in 3rd down conversions, the Cowboys are ranked 6th in total first downs - an indication that 2nd down conversions play a big role in Garrett's offense. Knowing your own limitations is half the battle. The Cowboys know that third downs are their personal TD drive killers - and plan for it.

So as you watch the next pre-season games, focus on the first team drives - not on whether they score or not, but on whether they are able to string together a couple of long drives despite a troubling O-line, third downs, penalties or sacks.

TD Drive Breakdown by NFL team, 2009 (click column header to sort)

Team TDs Plays per TD drive 3rd downs per TD drive
Avg. plays
per TD drive
TD drives with
10+ plays
TD drives with
0-3 plays
Zero 0-1 2+
ARI 43 6.6 14% 19% 44% 81% 2%
ATL 41 8.4 44% 20% 27% 61% 22%
BAL 43 6.6 16% 14% 35% 77% 9%
BUF 23 5.4 13% 35% 61% 78% 4%
CAR 34 6.9 21% 21% 35% 71% 9%
CHI 33 6.6 21% 15% 33% 73% 3%
CIN 30 9.0 50% 7% 27% 50% 23%
CLE 21 7.1 24% 19% 24% 57% 5%
DAL 40 6.6 13% 20% 38% 78% 0%
DEN 30 6.4 23% 27% 40% 70% 7%
DET 25 7.1 28% 16% 32% 68% 0%
GB 50 6.1 12% 20% 30% 78% 6%
HOU 42 7.5 31% 14% 33% 67% 10%
IND 50 7.8 30% 8% 26% 68% 10%
JAC 34 7.9 41% 15% 15% 56% 9%
KC 26 6.7 19% 15% 38% 65% 8%
MIA 37 8.9 46% 16% 22% 43% 27%
MIN 53 7.6 30% 8% 26% 64% 11%
NE 47 7.1 26% 17% 43% 74% 2%
NO 55 7.0 24% 20% 44% 69% 13%
NYG 42 6.8 21% 19% 29% 67% 5%
NYJ 33 6.0 24% 18% 33% 70% 6%
OAK 17 7.5 35% 18% 18% 65% 6%
PHI 41 5.5 15% 32% 41% 78% 0%
PIT 38 7.2 26% 11% 37% 71% 8%
SD 46 7.3 22% 15% 37% 67% 13%
SEA 27 6.9 22% 15% 30% 74% 7%
SF 35 5.9 11% 20% 31% 77% 3%
STL 16 8.3 31% 0% 19% 56% 6%
TB 23 6.5 30% 30% 43% 61% 17%
TEN 35 7.1 23% 17% 17% 60% 11%
WAS 29 7.6 28% 14% 24% 59% 21%
NFL Avg 35.6 7.0 25.0% 17.1% 32.7% 68.0% 9.0%
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