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Cowboys @ Giants: The Day After, By The Numbers

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After a two week hiatus occasioned by a trip to London and a bye week, our "by the numbers" series continues, with a look at Sunday night's Cowboys narrow win at New York over the division rival Giants.

Al Bello/Getty Images

53: The Cowboys total offensive snaps, their lowest total of the season. As I've written elsewhere, in the Cowboys five consecutive victories after the opening day 49ers debacle, they averaged a 68-57 advantage in plays (and if we toss out the outlier, the Rams game, it swells to a 71.5-53 advantage). Since then, however, the total snaps have worked out thusly:

NY Giants I: 60-59
Washington: 64-64
Arizona: 59-65
Jacksonville: 59-65
NY Giants II: 53-74

6.2: The average distance to go on Dallas' ten third downs. Earlier in the season the Cowboys used the running game to generate more manageable third downs, which was a significant contributing factor in their starting the season with a historically high third-down conversion rate (hovering near 59% after the first seven games). In recent weeks, however, they have faced longer "to go" distances on third downs, and their conversion rate has dropped off, to just above 50%, good enough for second in the league behind the Saints.

On Sunday night, if we subtract two extra long down-and-distances, a third-and-17 and a third-and-19 (the first of which was created by a sack and the second by a penalty), the Cowboys faced an average of 3.2 yards to go on their remaining eight first downs. So, it would appear that they returned to navigating more manageable down and distances. And, to a degree, they did; however, Dallas was still only 4-10 on third downs, failing to convert an easy third-and-four in the first quarter. The final drive of the first half ended on a Romo fumble on third-and-three. In the final frame, again facing a third-and-three, an under-pressure Romo inexplicably chose to throw an out route to Terrance Williams; it was tipped away.

The takeaway from these stats is that the Cowboys built their 6-1 early season record by sustaining offense, converting first downs and running many more plays than their opponents. But in the last month, since that fateful Monday Night in Washington, they have either moved away from that model or been moved away from it by opponents' game plans. Along these lines: in the season's first six games, the Cowboys converted 40 more first downs than their opponents. In the five games since beating Seattle, they are at -16. To rekindle their early-season mojo, the Cowboys not only must continue to manage convertable third downs, but must actually convert them, and consistently. On Sunday, they did the former but failed to do the latter. The Giants, on the other hand...

4: Number of New York drives of ten or more plays. Two of these, of 11 and 13 plays, occurred in the first half, with both resulting in 80-yard TD drives. In the second half, the Giants enjoyed a ten-play drive before taking 14 plays to march 93 yards for the go-ahead score. On that final scoring march, the Giants picked up six first downs and tallied receptions of 12, 16, 16, and 27 yards. It was the longest scoring drive allowed by the Cowboys this season, in terms of both yards and the number of plays. Frankly during much of this, the Dallas defense looked gassed

Earlier in the season, it was the Cowboys who specialized in these long, grinding drives that left opponents' tanks' empty. In their first seven games (through the first Giants contest), the Cowboys had 20 10+ play drives. In the last four, however, they have a grand total of two, both against the Cardinals. Furthermore, the only other time in 2014 that Dallas yielded four drives of ten or more plays was in week three, against the Rams. In only one other game - the first versus the Giants - did the Cowboys give up more than one 10+ play drive.

7: The Giants conversions on their first seven third downs. In the first half, as the Giants marched to three straight touchdowns, they enjoyed a perfect 7 of 7 on third down.On the night, the Giants were a mind-numbing 11-16 on third down. In his weekly "Morning After" post, Bob Sturm notes:

Only twice in the NFL this year (San Diego vs Jets, Tampa Bay vs Atlanta) has a team converted 12 3rd Downs, and both times, it was a lower percentage of conversions that the 73.3% that the Cowboys allowed to Eli Manning and friends last night.

After this, the Cowboys defense found ways to get stops, limiting the Giants to 4-9 on third downs, with the key sequence occurring at the end of the second and beginning of the third quarter, when four of five Giants drives were halted by stops on their first third down opportunity. On the other, the Giants converted their first two third downs, but then an Eli Manning overthrow bounced into Barry Church's waiting arms.

On the night, the Giants average down and distance on third downs was an even six yards. Many of these were of the very manageable variety: they faced third and three, one, three, two, two, one and two. One would expect an opponent to convert third downs at a high rate at those distances. What is troubling, therefore, is that several others came in situations in which the advantage definitely had to be given to the defense. On their second TD drive, the Giants converted a third-and-twelve (nice 13 yard gain); on their next scoring march, they converted third downs of eight (14 yard gain) and six yards (12 yarder). In the second half, they turned a third-and-twelve (another 13-yard gainer) and a third-and-seven (16 yards) into first downs.

156: Eli Manning's quarterback rating in the first half, when he completed 14 of 16 passes for 191 yards. In that same half, Odell Beckham caught eight balls for 125 yards - and as a tandem, they appeared to be unstoppable. To the Cowboys' credit (and a back injury) Beckham was comparatively silent after halftime; the Cowboys limited him to 2 catches for 21 yards, and slowed down Manning, who was 15-24 for 147 after the midpoint break.

To my mind, these numbers beg some critical questions: was the defense's inability to stop New York in the first half an aberration? Or was it an indication of what this defense "really is"? Has the league "caught up" to the Cowboys defense? To what degree was the Giants final TD drive the result of a gassed, over-matched defense that had played a season-high number of snaps? With a Philadelphia offense that is sure to threaten the Giants' season-high snap total on the horizon, these questions become increasingly pertinent.

One bit of good defensive news was this:

2.8: The Giants average yards per rush for the game. Rashad Jennings was 19-52 (minus a 12-yard gain, he was 18-40); Andre Williams was 10-35 (minus an 18-yarder, he was 9-17). Between these and other runners, the Giants were unable to mount a consistent running game, although they certainly tried (on the night, they ran the ball 32 times for a not-so-grand total of 89 yards). Aside from those aforementioned nice gainers, the Cowboys did a superb job against New York's running game. In his postgame presser, Jason Garrett gave the lion's share of credit for this development to Rolando McClain, who made several superb plays, scraping along the line, and meeting ballcarriers in the hole, much to the Giants' disappointment.

6.08: DeMarco Murray's average yards per carry in the second half. After a respectable first half in which Murray toted the rock eleven times for 49 yards, the Cowboys didn't increase his workload so much as he upped his effectiveness. In the final two quarters, he logged thirteen carries for 79 yards. Watching this, I was reminded of the Cowboys opening game of 1999, in which they found themselves in a 21-point hole on the road as, to get back in the game, they started by giving the ball to Emmitt Smith and the running game.

As was the case then, Dallas' bread and butter is the running game and, when the offense is off the rails a bit, they get back on track by returning to the run. As if to make this point clear, on their opening drive of the second half, the Cowboys fed the ball to Murray on their first three plays from scrimmage, for gains of 15, 0 and 5 yards, before hitting Cole Beasley for a 45-yard touchdown. Likewise, on the drive that made the score 24-21, they started off with three more Murray runs, of 3, 18 and 0 yards, before hitting Bryant on a big 31-yarder for the score. Trailing by eleven, the Cowboys turned to Murray to soften up the Giants, draw in their safeties, and help to create big plays in the passing game. The runs sets up the pass.

10.58: Romo's yards per attempt on the game, a total that stands as the twelfth highest of his career (and second highest this season, to the 12.13 notched in the first Giants game; the takeaway here is that the Giants pass defense ain't good). And, as the Cowboys rallied in the second half, Romo was 9-12 for 157 yards and three TD passes. Even more special was his work on Dallas' final drive, when he was a perfect 6-6 for 66 yards.

66: Cole Beasley's receiving yardage on the night. Earlier this season, the Cowboys offense hummed when it relied on its stars - Murray, Romo, Bryant - yet distributed the ball to its secondary players - Jason Witten and Terrance Williams - and, especially, then the satellite players - Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Beasley and Gavin Escobar - got into the mix. On Sunday, it was Dunbar and Beasley who made the critical contributions. Between them, they had only three catches, but for 92 yards. And consider the situations: Dunbar's 26-yarder set up first and goal for the Cowboys initial touchdown; Beasley's 45-yard score made it a 17-21 game, and his 21-yarder was the big play in their winning drive.

This season, we have seen that defenses can scheme to limit Murray and to take away Dez. By doing so, they open up avenues (sometime wide ones) for players like Beasley and Escobar to have big games. As the season winds down, the Cowboys "satellite" players will have to continue to step up if Dallas is gong to make a run.

1.7: The Cowboys yards per pass advantage. On the evening, after subtracting sack yardage, Dallas averaged 9.5 yards per pass; the Giants 7.8. So. although the New York Elis enjoyed an advantage in passing yardage, the Cowboys proved to be more efficient, and more deadly, with the pass. And that contributed to a similar advantage: the Cowboys averaged 7.3 per offensive play; Giants averaged only 5.6. An excellent indicator of success is yards per pass differential; if you're wondering how the Cowboys pulled out a win, look no further than that stat.

27: The length of a first-quarter pass to James Hanna, his only reception of the game. On the Cowboys' second drive of game, they faced a third and one on their own 29. Dallas lined up in 23 personnel (three tight ends and two running backs, which means that there are no receivers on the field), the exact personnel grouping in which they deployed at the end of the Seahawks game, when Murray ran for 25, 6 and 15 yards on consecutive plays.

The key here is that Dallas went against an established tendency. Against Seattle, they did the same, deploying in 23 personnel for the first time all season. On Sunday night, the Cowboys once again lined up in this run-heavy set and broke tendency by throwing to a wide open Hanna. Against New York, they passed out of the set for the first time, to great effect (Hanna probably could have scored had the pass not been quite so looping).

17: Dwayne Harris' jersey number - and also his punt return average, on four returns. After appearing as a hollow facsimile of the Harris that we know from the last two years, when Number Seventeen was regarded as one of the league's top special teamers, Harris made significant contributions to the Cowboys' victory. On Sunday night, the Giants Steve Weatherford punted four times, and Harris responded with returns of 15, 20, 15, and 18 yards. In the process, he helped the offense avoid starting deep in their own territory; their corresponding starting position for the four punt returns I just mentioned was the 30 (with no return, it would have been the 15), 29 (the 8), 35 (20) and 38 (20).

The Cowboys' Chris Jones also punted four times, in the general direction of the Giants' dangerous Odell Beckham, Jr. He only returned one, for a loss of one yard...on a play in which Harris played seek and destroy, tracking both ball and Beckham. In sum, Harris was good for a 29-yard differential in the punting game. Nice work; welcome back to the special teams pantheon, Dwayne...