How Early Leads Can Help The Cowboys Defense Get More Turnovers

Turnover differential is a stat that is highly correlated with winning in the NFL. This is not rocket science of course. The bigger the turnover differential in your favor, the bigger the chance you'll win the game. Heck, we even have the numbers to prove it: Last season, teams that won the turnover battle won 78 percent of the time (156 wins out of 199 games). Here's a breakdown of winning percentages by turnover differential:

NFL winning probability by Turnover Differential, 2011 regular season
+1 +2 +3 >+3
Winning %-age 66% 86% 95% 100%
Winning record 63-33 56-9 18-1 19-0

When we look at turnovers, the discussion almost invariably turns to the inherent randomness of turnovers. In camp, the Cowboys are practicing and emphasizing things like ball control, fumble recoveries, ball stripping, tipping passes and even have their defensive backs catching balls, all in the hopes of increasing their odds of getting a turnover.

But outside of these specific drills, there may be a much bigger factor in determining the number of defensive takeaways, and specifically interceptions: the Cowboys offense.

At first glance, this may seem like an odd statement, but it will make a lot more sense when you look at when the majority of interceptions are thrown: Less than a quarter of all 506 interceptions thrown last year in the regular season came when the offense was playing with a lead. Most interception happen when you're not playing with a lead.

Here's a detailed breakdown of the interceptions thrown last year, listed by the score differential at the time when those interceptions were thrown.

Interceptions by score differential, 2011 regular season

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Interceptions thrown 163 136 85 72 50
In % of total INTs
32.2% 26.9% 16.8% 14.2% 9.9%

Last year, like every year before that, teams threw a lot more interceptions when they were playing from behind than they did when playing with a lead. Almost two thirds or all interceptions were thrown when teams were playing from behind.

And when you stop to think about it, the numbers above actually make sense. We've seen it time and again, and not just from the Cowboys, but from every other team as well: Once you're playing from behind, your ground game goes out the window, and you start taking more risks in your passing game in an effort to catch up.

Once again, the stats bear this out. The interception rate (Interceptions divided by passing attempts) increases the further a team is behind, and the Pass/Run ratio tilts heavily towards the passing game when teams are playing from behind. Conversely, when playing with a lead, especially a big one, teams tend to run more than they pass, and they take fewer risks in the passing game, which in turn leads to fewer mistakes and turnovers.

Pass/Run ratio and INT% by score differential, 2011 regular season

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
INT/Pass Attempts 3.4% 3.1% 2.7% 2.3% 2.4%
Pass/Run Ratio in %
69% 59% 53% 50% 42%

After the first practice in Oxnard a little over a week ago, quarterback Tony Romo said that the key to avoiding late-game drama is to be better earlier in the game. This is undeniably true.

Scoring more and earlier will put the Cowboys' opponents in the situation described above, where they have to lean on the pass and take greater risks in order to try catch up. This in turn will allow the defense to make more plays. As the opposing offenses are forced to go to the pass, the defense can sit back in its nickel and dime formations and simply wait for the opposing offenses to make mistakes.

Over the last three seasons, the Cowboys have had a turnover differential of +2 in 2009, zero in 2010 and +4 in 2011. If they find a way to jump out to an early lead in games more often, we should see a significant improvement in the Cowboys' turnover differential. And you know what that means?

Playoffs, baby.

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