Grading Cowboys @ Panthers: Performances Of Note


We review the steadily improving performance of the O-line, figure out how penalties impact overall player grades, look at who's manning the slot and marvel at the Cowboys' two-NT defense.

The win over the Panthers put the Cowboys at .500 with the halfpoint of the season approaching, and all options, both up and down, are still on the table. As such, it was an important and much-needed win for the Cowboys

That of course makes it especially hard today to look back at Sunday's game with enough critical distance. Yet that's exactly what we'll try to do as we review the Pro Football Focus player grades to see how the individual efforts of the players graded out.

Follow the link for PFF's detailed FAQ, which should answer the vast majority of questions about their grading system. PFF also have their own review of the game up, and that is always worth checking out. They ruminate on the Pristine Pocket and the continuing issues in the receiving game.

Offensive Line

The Cowboys' O-line may not be world beaters, but they delivered their third solid outing on Sunday. Over the last three games, the Cowboys have allowed only two sacks. With nine total sacks allowed so far on 231 pass attempts, the Cowboys have a sack rate of 3.8% for the season, the fourth best value in the league behind the Giants (2.2%), Texans (3.4%) and Bills (3.5%).

It is no surprise then that the Cowboys O-line gets a combined +4.2 grade for its performance on Sunday:

WK 1 WK 2 WK 3 WK 4 WK 6 WK 7

Overall Grade
-5.5 -5.3 -9.8 +1.4 +9.9 +4.2

With the injuries and missed time in training camp by key starters (Costa, Livings and Bernadeau), it predictably took a while for the O-line to come together. It's unfortunate that Phil Costa is injured again, but Cook stepped in ably as his replacement if the individual grades versus the Panthers are anything to go by:

Smith Livings Costa Cook Bernadeau Free

-0.9 +3.9 -1.8 +1.5 +1.4 +0.1
Run Blocking
+0.1 +2.1 -1.8 +0.8 +0.6 +0.1
Pass Protect
-1.5 +1.5 -0.1 +0.6 +0.5 +0.5

Tyron Smith struggled a little in pass protection, giving up five hurries. But overall the line looked solid against the Panthers pass rush. In runblocking, the graders at PFF saw Costa having some issues. I didn't see that, but then again, I wasn't watching Costa until his second-quarter injury.

Defensive Line
  • Josh Brent (22 of 65 snaps, +1.8 grade) was a disruptive force in the middle. That is just about the highest praise you can give a nose tackle, as their effort doesn't often show up in the stat sheets. Brent had one tackle and one QB hit but kept clogging up lanes in the middle and helped limit the Panthers' ground game. Excluding Newton's scrambles, the Cowboys held the Panthers to a 3.2 rushing average (15 ATT, 48 yds). At one point Brent and Ratliff were both lined up at defensive tackle, which had those fans salivating who continue to dream the futile dream of a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
  • Jay Ratliff (49/65, -0.2) had the Cowboys' best grade as a pass rusher (+1.8) with two QB hits and two hurries, but was less effective against the run (-1.2) than we've come to expect. His personal foul penalty in the fourth quarter (-0.8) further impacted his overall grade. I don't know whether there is such a thing as two-NT 3-4 defense (of course there isn't) but I liked what I saw from both players. And wouldn't a name like a TNT defense or TNT package be oh so sweet?
  • Anthony Spencer (54/65, +1.0) was seemingly everywhere, getting a critical sack late in the game, and recording three QB hurries and six tackles, one of which was for a loss.
  • Jason Hatcher (41, +0.9), Tyrone Crawford (13, +0.7), DeMarcus Ware (62, +0.5) and Marcus Spears (15, +0.1) all had a positive overall contribution.

One stat that you won't find on a lot of stat sheets are penalties, and they often tend to get overlooked in performance reviews. Even I don't include them in these reviews, as I feel that PFF often give them too much weight. Yet some penalties can be just as much of a drive killer as a sack can be.

Take the false start penalties that have plagued the Cowboys this season. The Cowboys lead the league with 16 false start penalties. The culprits are Doug Free (6), Tyron Smith (5), Jason Witten (3), Kevin Ogletree (1) and Jeremy Parnell (1). You would think that a false start penalty is not such a big deal, as you don’t lose a down and only get penalized for five yards. Yet the Cowboys saw seven of their 16 drives stall after a false start penalty, meaning they weren't able to score or achieve a first down after the penalty was incurred.

The PFF grading system takes a dim view of these penalties and grades them as the game-changers that they can be. As we saw in Jay Ratliff's case, a positive overall grade for the day (+1.0) is brought down to +0.2 because his penalty was graded with -0.8.

Here's how the penalized players graded out:

Penalty Penalty Yards Penalty Grade Overall Grade
Bryant Unnec. Roughness
10 -1.0 *
10 ** **
Holding 10 -0.7 -0.1
False Start 5 -0.5 -0.1
Personal Foul
5 -0.8 -0.2
Holding 3 -0.7 -0.8

*Bryant received his penalty on special teams, and the special teams grades don't factor into a players' overall grade. **Lemon was penalized on a punt block, but the PFF graders either didn't grade him on the penalty or missed the penalty entirely.

Skill Position Players

One of the interesting things that game tape analysis offers is to see which wide receivers are lining up where over the course of a game. If you've been closely watching the games, you'll have noticed that Miles Austin usually lines up as the Cowboys' slot receiver. The table below shows how often each receiver lined up in the slot. The numbers show the total snaps and the number of routes run, which excludes snaps during which a receiver was pass- or run-blocking.

Snaps Routes run Slot Routes Slot in %
Bryant 368
235 10 4%
359 213 153 72%
Ogletree 230 159 16 10%
24 19 9 47%
16 16 100%
8 8 0 0%

The numbers here make it more obvious than it may have been from watching the games that Miles Austin is the Cowboys' slot receiver, running three quarters of his routes from the slot.

Here are some of the high- and lowlights from the skill position players:

  • Tony Romo (69 of 69 snaps, +2.8). Romo had a very good 98.5 passer rating, kept the Cowboys in the game throughout and finally had an interception-free game. That may not be enough for his critics, but only three of 26 quarterbacks (Schaub, Rodgers, Freeman) had a better passer rating while throwing zero interceptions in Week 7. From PFF: "And though 227 yards and one touchdown don’t exactly blow you away, he was betrayed by four drops from his receiving corps."
  • Felix Jones (33/69, -1.8) 15 attempts and 44 yards only got him a -0.7 grade. What really hurt was his -1.2 grade as a receiver, though I'm not sure what PFF saw here. Jones had five receptions an six targets. His receptions came on three first downs and two second downs. None of them got enough yards for a first down, perhaps that is what PFF didn't like, but that is often the nature of those dump-off passes. Phillip Tanner got a positive grade (+0.6), noteworthy in particular for his high pass blocking grade (+0.4), a fact that may bode well for his future as a running back with the Cowboys.
  • Kevin Ogletree (26/69, -1.5). Garrett said in his press conference yesterday that Ogletree was suffering from some kind of finger injury that may have caused his drop. The PFF graders don't give a hoot for excuses like that and come down hard on the Tree. Dez Bryant didn't fare much better, getting a -1 for his total effort, into which the dropped TD pass figures strongly. Miles Austin had a slightly positive grade as a receiver (+0.3) but gets killed for his blocking (-1.1) which leads to an overall grade of -0.6.
Secondary and ILBs

  • Brandon Carr (64/65, -0.8) had the lowest grade of all defenders, and that was largely due to a penalty grade of -0.7. Carr did not have his best day, and clearly lost his battle with Steve Smith, who had four of his seven receptions against Carr for 48 yards. Morris Claiborne looks a little better (+2.2) thanks in large part to his endzone interception, but also to the fact that he only allowed four receptions on eight targets. Scandrick (+1.0) had a quiet day in the passing game where he allowed two receptions on three targets, but showed up against the run: Three tackles, all constituting an offensive failure, bolstered his grade
  • Gerald Sensabaugh (65/65, -0.8) and Danny McCray (54/65, +0.3) had a largely inconspicuous day, with Sensabaugh getting a slight downgrade for his run defense.
  • Sean Lee (35/65, +0.8) started off strong with a nice pass defense and notched six tackles (2nd most overall behind DeMarcus Ware) before leaving with an injury. Dan Connor came in and replaced him well overall (+0.9), uncharacteristically doing well in pass defense. Bruce Carter again stayed in on all defensive snaps and acquitted himself well (+0.8)
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