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Cowboys vs. Broncos: The Day After, By The Numbers

After a bit of necessary recovery time following yesterday afternoon's Shootout at the AT&T Corral, we take a look at some of the game's storylines. By the numbers, of course.

After playing well early, Brandon Carr was victimized late.
After playing well early, Brandon Carr was victimized late.
Ronald Martinez

Usually, I sketch out the parameters of my Monday "By the numbers" article on Sunday night, when the game is fresh in my mind. Yesterday's affair was so tempestuous that I needed to wait until this morning, in part to allow my old heart sufficient time to recover from the 250 beat per minute pace that it endured for the better part of the afternoon. Now relatively hale and hearty, I'll take a look back at the game, focusing, as always, on the numbers.

Before I begin, a proviso: I'm not going to discuss Romo's passing yardage, nor his interception. Both have been beaten to death by the media, both local and national, to the point where there's really not much more to say. For the best take I've seen on his final pass of the day, read Joey's superb breakdown, which appeared here on BTB earlier today. Okay, here we go:

5: The number of different receivers who caught passes on the Cowboys opening drive, an 11-play affair that resulted in a touchdown. On the drive, Tony Romo completed five passes; lets review:

-2nd play: 25-yarder to Terrance Williams on a curl pattern
-4th play: 14 yards to Jason Witten on a slant.
-6th play: completion to Dwayne Harris, who took a pass in the flat upfield for a 13-yard gain.
-8th play: a ten-yard curl to Cole Beasley
-11th play: two-yard touchdown to Dez Bryant in the right corner or the end zone

For the better part of the 2013 season, the Cowboys' passing game has struggled to involve all the weapons that had been assembled in the offseason. For vast stretches, the scheme seemed to be Dez Bryant or bust - and when Bryant was taken out of the game, the aerial attack lacked character, rhythm, tempo and momentum. That's why the first drive was so important; the Cowboys announced that they were going to distribute the ball widely (and, perhaps more importantly, place a higher level of trust in players like Beasley, Williams and Gavin Escobar). If they are to be a successful version of a "take what the defense gives" offense, Romo will have to continue to trust these youngsters when rival defensive staffs work to take away Bryant and Witten. On Sunday, they took a critical step in that direction.

14.06: Tony Romo's average yards per attempt on 36 attempts. The Cowboys quarterback has been under-appreciated for his historic level of excellence in this all-important statistical mark, where his career average of 7.95 is one of the highest the league has ever seen. But even for a player who has been excellent in this regard, yesterday's performance was off the charts. Indeed, it has been exceeded only once in his career as a starter, in the 2007 opener, a 45-35 victory over the Giants. For a quarterback who has been maligned of late for his failure to, disinterest in, or trepidation about throwing deep, he certainly sowed that, given time, he can sling it.

.979: The winning percentage for quarterbacks with a passer rating of 140.0 or more (on at least 30 attempts). In NFL history, teams are 97-2 when their QB has at least 30 attempts and compiles a 140.0 or higher passer rating. The two losses? Stunningly, both belong to Tony Romo - in yesterday's game and the home loss to the Giants in 2011.

For those of us who feel that Romo's not the problem, but needs a better team around him, this is some pretty compelling evidence; the Cowboys defense yielded 37 and 51 points in the two losses. Which leads us to...

122: Yards allowed to Denver tight end Julius Thomas on nine receptions. This came a week after yielding 10 catches for 136 yards to San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. Sure, both are dynamic players who all defenses struggle to cover. But there's more to this story. Let's take a look at the yards allowed to "underneath receivers" - tight ends and running backs - the last two weeks:

Week 4 @ San Diego:

Antonio Gates: 10-136
Danny Woodhead: 5-54
Ryan Matthews 4-41
John Phillips 1-7

Week 5 vs. Denver:

Julius Thomas 9-122
Knowshon Moreno 5-57
Ronnie Hillman 4-42

In two weeks, then, they have given up 38 receptions to backs and tight ends for a staggering 459 yards. By comparison, Chargers and Broncos receivers gathered in 30 catches for 356 yards. Why is this happening? There are likely several contributing factors: the defense, with a slew of injuries along the defensive line and a rookie safety playing deep, is playing not to give up the long pass; the players are still learning the system; the players assigned to the short underneath zones aren't very good.

This last factor is the most troubling. The others are a matter of outside factors: injured players will return (albeit not until 2013), and young players or guys adjusting to a new system are likely to improve. But what if the Cowboys defenders simply aren't very good? We've been hanging our hats on several grizzled veterans - DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Brandon Carr - and younger guys with good draft pedigrees - Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Mo Claiborne - and, with the team, have been placing the blame for 2012's sorry defensive performance on Rob Ryan.

But there's this: Joey reminded us recently of an old coaches' expression: "its not the Xs and Ox, but the Jimmys and Joes." In other words, the scheme one runs is far less important than the players one has to run it. After giving up 1,018 total yards the last two weeks (a far worse stretch than the defense endured in any two week stretch last year, even when starting the likes of Brady Poppinga and Michael Coe), it looks like we're going to have to recalibrate not only our expectations for 2013, but (in a more sobering proposition) our evaluations of the many players in whom Dallas has invested so much draft capital.

400: The passing threshold that has been passed by opposing quarterbacks on three occasions thus far in 2013 (before subtracting sack yardage). Let this settle in a bit: they are the fourth team in NFL history to allow four 400-yard games in a season. And its only week five.

In the aforementioned debacle that was the 2012 iteration of the Dallas defense, they gave up 400 yards passing only once, in a late-season game when a decimated D went up against against a potent Saints team led by Drew Brees (New Orleans had 562 yard in total). Fast forward a year and, at the five week mark, the defense has allowed opposing offenses to traduce that ignominious barrier 60% of the time, and has twice yielded 500+ total yards.

In retrospect, it appears that the Cowboys defense "padded their stats" going up against comparatively anemic passing attacks in Kansas City and St. Louis. With the likes of RGIII, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers on the docket, we may have a historic defensive performance on the horizon, and not in a good way.

Hey, at least we have a modicum of evidence that the offense is capable of staying in a game when their defensive counterparts are dressing up as sieves for a season-long Halloween.


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