The Cowboys and Lions played one of those games in which a tight defensive struggle suddenly turned into a scorefest. The Lions, in particular, appeared unstoppable in the second half, and especially so in the fourth quarter, when they roared back from not one but two 10-point deficits to eke out a thrilling (and for Cowboys fans, heartbreaking) 31-30 victory.
Much ink is likely to be spilled in the next week decrying the decision to run the ball (on, as KD wisely intoned, "give up" plays), and bemoaning Tyron Smith's most unfortunate holding penalty. But the truth is that the Cowboys were outclassed in every possible statistical category save for turnovers - admittedly, the most important NFL statistic. Take those away, and we see our Beloved 'Boys were dominated, across the board.
Watching, I was reminded of the season opener against New York, when the Cowboys defenders were increasingly outclassed as the wore on but, thanks to a bevy of turnovers, managed to put some lipstick and no small amount of rouge on a pig of a game. Yesterday's contest again was suffused with a porcine scent. Let's take a look at some numbers, focusing on the (shudder) defensive stats. These are quite appropriate for Halloween.
7: The number of 20+ yard receptions registered by Calvin Johnson. The week after surrendering a mere two "explosives" all game - both of those in garbage time, on the Eagles' final drive - the Dallas defense surrendered (and yes, I think the verb is apt) seven to a single player (and two others, the long, 40-yard sideline pass to Kris Durham on the Lions' winning drive, and a 22-yard catch and run to Joique Bell). On the afternoon, the Lions targeted Megatron 16 times, with fourteen of those resulting in catches.
For some reason, the Cowboys defensive staff felt it a higher priority to contain running back Reggie Bush than to concentrate on delimiting Johnson. I remain deeply skeptical about the efficacy of this strategy.
22.7: Detroit's average starting field position. The Lions had 14 drives in the contest, and started ten of them between their goal line and own twenty. In other words, the Cowboys offense and special teams were doing what they were supposed to: not give Detroit's explosive offense short fields. For much of the game, this strategy worked, as the Lions mounted drives of 90, 53. 56 and 61 yards but had a mere ten points to show for all that fine work.
And then, in the final frame, the field position didn't change; the Lions scored on three disturbingly identical 80-yard drives (of 7, 7 and 6 yards). In short, after a heroic bend-but-don't-break performance over three quarters by the Cowboys injury-riddled and overmatched defense, the floodgates opened.
265: The Lions' fourth quarter yardage. The above observations are supported by a look at Detroit's yards per quarter. A review is in order, with plays and yardage per frame:
Clearly, the Cowboys were giving up a goodly amount of yards throughout the game. But in the final quarter, in the midst of a defining moment for the 2013 season, they surrendered roughly as many yards as the Cowboys offense managed all afternoon.
3-11: Detroit's third down conversion rate, which looks to be a respectable showing by the Dallas D: 27 percent. But if we look a bit closer, we can see the slow erosion of the defensive effort. The Lions were 1-7 on third down at halftime, after 30 minutes in which the Lions only real offense was generated on a single play, Johnson's 87-yard catch and run - and Detroit needed a fourth down to get the ball across the goal line.
But in the second half, things changed. Sure, the Lions were only 2-4 on third down in the second frame; the key was that the Cowboys rarely got them to third down. Indeed, on the Lions three fourth-quarter touchdown drives, they faced only one third down, which they converted on a Matthew Stafford scramble to the Cowboys one yard line on a third and four. Other than that, Dallas failed to stop them from converting first downs in two or fewer plays.
10.0: Matthew Stafford's passing yards per attempt, a figure that, stunningly, fails to register as the worst mark on the season. Now that we're poised at the halfway mark, it might be suitable time to review the yards per pass of the eight (well, nine) quarterbacks the Cowboys have faced thus far:
Eli Manning: 10.2
Alex Smith: 5.5
Sam Bradford: 4.0
Phillip Rivers: 9.4
Peyton Manning: 9.9
Nick Foles/ Matt Barkley: 4.0
Matt Stafford: 10.0
Generally speaking, a figure of eight or more yards per pass is very good (for an offense) and one under six yards is very good for a defense. Other than the first two games, both of which featured imbalanced turnover margins, the pattern is very clear: when the Cowboys hold opponents to fewer than the aforementioned 6.0 yards per attempt, they win. The problem is that they not only struggle to do so, but run either really hot or really cold, surrendering a staggering 9.4 or more yards per pass on four separate occasions.
To put this in perspective: in 2012, which was a record-setting season for Cowboys defensive futility versus the pass, opposing QBs averaged nine or more yards per pass on three occasions. Thus far in 2013, rival signal callers have eclipsed that ignominious mark four times. Yikes!
If you can stand it, allow me to share a couple more statistical nuggets:
- Thus far in 2013, six different receivers have tallied one hundred or more yards in a game against the Cowboys. The gallery includes three Giants - Victor Cruz (5-118), Hakeem Nicks (5-114) and Rueben Randle (5-101), two tight ends - Antonio Gates (10-136) and Demaryius Thomas (9-122) - and now Calvin Johnson (14-a heckuva lot)
- The Cowboys are the first team in NFL history to allow four opposing quarterbacks to throw for at least 400 yards in a single season. And we're only eight games in! Granted, it's a different era, but the worst pass defense in the history of the game, the 1981 Colts, allowed exactly one 400-yard passer trivia buffs: it was Brian Sipe)
In short, we are on course for the worst Cowboys defensive season in most of our lifetimes. And, with QB-receiver combos like Drew Brees-Jimmy Graham, Eli Manning-Victor Cruz, Aaron Rodgers-Jordy Nelson and (perhaps) David Cutler-Brandon Marshall on the horizon, it's hard to imagine there won't be more suchlike statistical pileups.
At the midway pole, the season narrative is coming into focus. This group plays very hard and, largely because of this, have had a legit late-game opportunity to win every one of their eight contests, with the possible exception of the San Diego tilt. Their relentless nature, especially on defense, allows them to overcome teams with weak offensive lines or mediocre quarterbacks.
But with good offenses, it's another story; this defense simply isn't talented enough to compete. In the games in which rival quarterbacks have amassed 9 or more yards per attempt, the Dallas D-linemen have struggled to generate much pressure. On the season, the Cowboys have 21 sacks. In the four games in which they have held the opposition to 6 or fewer yards per pass, they have 16 QB bags; in the other four, they have only five - and three of those came in the bizarre season opener.
Given the fact that, of the Cowboys many, many injured (or released) defensive linemen, only DeMarcus Ware is expected to return before season's end, this situation is not likely to change drastically. We'll see sixteen weeks of heroic efforts by a group of guys who hustle and play hard, and that resolve will wear down lesser teams. But the better offenses will have their way.
And it's a damned shame. I remain convinced of my early assessment: this is the best Cowboys team since 2007, and may be better than that bunch. But they simply cannot overcome such a devastating series of injuries of other "events" along the defensive line.
Sometimes a season is lost almost before it begins. That happens when a franchise quarterback goes down in game one (see Randall Cunningham in 1991 and Tom Brady in 2008). In this case, it happened sometime after week two, when it became apparent that Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer and Ben Bass had all suffered season-ending injuries. The team might well have overcome any one of those, but all three, plus Ratliff's meltdown and Ware's diminished presence? It's just too much.
Don't get me wrong. I'll still watch, and root hard for the fellows in the star. But I've adjusted my expectations. Anything else seems unfair.