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Cardinals @ Cowboys: The Day After, By The Numbers

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A statistically-laden look at the Cowboys second straight defeat, to the NFC-best Arizona Cardinals.

The Cowboys' view of the NFC-leading Cards...
The Cowboys' view of the NFC-leading Cards...
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

5.2: The yards per play yielded by the Cowboys defense. In recent weeks, much has been made of the 2014 Cowboys defense relative to the 2013 model. Several pundits have pointed out that this year's vintage hasn't been any better on a play-by-play basis (in fact, they have been worse, by about 0.3 yards per play); rather, they have been on the field for fewer plays.

Yesterday, however, this was not the case. The 5.2 yards per play attributed to the Cowboys' defense includes 6.6 per pass and 3.5 per rush. For the first 50 minutes of game time, they had given up a grand total of 248 yards on 49 Arizona plays, for a 5.05 yards per play average. Those are numbers that are good enough to win with. So today's look at the numbers will focus largely on the offense. Be forewarned: putting objects under the microscope tends to uglify even the most beautiful things. For something that was ugly to the naked eye? Yeeccch...

4:08: The time remaining in the first quarter when the Cowboys kicked a field goal to take a 10-0 lead. Although we were all encouraged at that point that the Cowboys could win with a backup quarterback, there were evident warning signs of the 28 unanswered points that were to ensue. On defense, Tyler Patmon's pick-six was obviously a big play, but it came after Arizona had converted first downs on three consecutive plays, the kind of rapid conversion Arizona would enjoy on their scoring drives later in the game.

On offense, the Cowboys were struggling, despite the score. Their field goal drive took ten plays to move 49 yards, and here's the kicker: 40 of those came on a single play, a 3rd-and-ten screen pass to Lance Dunbar. Other than that, they ran nine plays and gained a grand total of nine yards.

8: the number of Dallas' fruitless drives after building their 10-0 lead. From the aforementioned 4:08 point in the first frame, the Cowboys saw the Cardinals score 28 unanswered points, the last coming with 4:28 remaining in the game. During the almost three full quarters when Arizona built their lead, Dallas had eight possessions, during which they ran 39 plays and gained a total of 139 yards, for a paltry 3.56 yards per play. Even less impressive was their performance on third down. Over the course of that fallow period, they faced eight third downs and converted a total of one, and that was thanks to a penalty. Here's what the other seven third downs looked like:

-Three incompletions (all three finishing three-and-out drives)
-An eight-yard run on third and 19 (Ieading to the blocked field goal)
-A completed 7-yard pass on third and eight (leading to the failed fourth-and-one)
-A one-yard scramble on third and two
-One interception

179: The Cowboys total yards after all this ineptitude, and before their final drive. After that opening field goal drive, Dallas failed to generate a first down on five of their next eight possessions. To be fair, two of the other three showed some promise. Arguably their best drive of the game took place late in the second quarter: the nine play, 63-yard march that resulted in a blocked field goal. I'd argue that this was the Cowboys best drive because it was the only one in which they could generate multiple big plays. The drive started with a nice 18-yard pass to Jason Witten up the seam, featured a 17-yard pass interference penalty and was sustained by a big 17-yard run by DeMarco Murray.

The other candidate for Dallas' "best drive" came two possessions later, when the Cowboys again drove into the red zone. But they started that one on their own 46, and had only one play of ten or more yards, a 12-yard gainer in which Cole Beasley took a short pass, made a nifty move, and scooted for a first down. The larger point here is that yards were very hard to come by on Sunday.

3: Dallas' number of "explosives" - completions of more than 20 yards or runs of more than 10 yards. I've already mentioned two of these: Dunbar's 40-yard screen pass and Murray's 17-yard run; the other was a 24-yard pass to Jason Witten. Although Murray certainly had his struggles on Sunday, the most obvious culprit to my mind was the complete and utter lack of an intermediate or deep threat to the Cowboys offense. Which brings me to this curious stat:

1: Number of Arizona sacks. The fear all week was that the Cardinals would follow Washington's blueprint and blitz the Cowboys into submission, but they seemed to call off the dogs fairly early in the contest, realizing that they didn't need to pressure Weeden to make him inaccurate. For the great majority of the game, the Cardinals rushed four - with great success. Why expose yourself if you think you play vanilla and still shut down the opposition?

5: Dez Bryant's catches the last two weeks, on a whopping 17 targets. After a second half for the ages in the win against the Giants - Bryant was 7-7 for a nifty 136 yards, including big gains (44 and 23 yards), near touchdowns (the 24-yarder that got the Cowboys down to the Giants' one) and clutch, Irvin-esque grabs on the last, clock-killing series (10 and 13 yards, the second for a first down) - the gusher has slowed to a trickle in the two recent losses.

Against the Giants, one of Bryant's big plays was a 44-yarder. His receiving total the last two games? 45 yards. If the Cowboys are going to be a good, much less great, team, their most talented player has to play better than he has. On Sunday, Weeden was certainly confused and inaccurate, but its not like his throws were sailing over a wide-open Bryant. Rather, they tended to miss a tangle of bodies: Dez with Patrick Peterson in his back pocket. After the game, this came out:

I cannot disagree with Arians' assessment.

43: The yard line where Cowboys set up shop with on the Arizona end of the field with 11:00 to go in Q4. Throughout the second half, Dallas had been massaging the field position battle, playing tough defense and getting solid punt returns to get in precisely this position: a short field that Weeden could manage. On their previous two drives, the Cowboys had managed three first downs before Weeden threw his red zone pick, and then two more on the next drive to flip the field.

In the process, they had evened out the a nasty first down disparity. With 4:34 left in the second quarter, Arizona enjoyed a 13-2 first down discrepancy. On three of their next four drives, the Cowboys narrowed Arizona's margin to 14-11, and were poised to get points in a closely-fought four-point game.

But it was not to be: The Cowboys went 4-and out (on the failed fourth down Murray run), and the Cardinals drove for the score that made it 21-10. As might be expected, they soon reclaimed a first down discrepancy, making it 22-11 before Weeden and Co. managed seven first downs on their final garbage time 87-yard TD drive. Although the teams finished within close proximity in terms of total first downs on the afternoon, the Cardinals dominated that category while it mattered, thanks to the Cowboys' offense's ineptitude.

10: The number of yards generate by the Cowboys on seven interior runs. Arizona's game plan was clear: stop the Cowboys running game by deploying in a "heavy" 4-3 on running downs, with the likes of Calais Campbell (6’8, 300), Dan Williams (6’2, 316), Frostee Rucker (6’3, 280), and Tommy Kelly (6’6, 300) across the front. What that meant was that the Cowboys interior linemen would all have to win one-on-one battles all afternoon against guys with similar size and strength. Since Arizona is traditionally a blitzing 3-4 team, the Cowboys appeared unprepared for this wrinkle. Strategic advantage, Cardinals.

6: Arizona's advantage in number of plays from scrimmage. Over their winning streak, the Cowboys usually ran more plays than the opposition, and often many more. Here are the play counts, from ESPN.com, withe the Cowboys' number first:

Tennessee: 76-49
St. Louis: 52-72
Houston: 75-56
New Orleans: 65-59
Seattle: 70-48

In their five consecutive victories after the opening day 49ers debacle, the Cowboys 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 Doug Free left the lineup after being injured at the end of the Seattle game, however, the Cowboys have run five fewer plays than their opponents. Check it out:

NY Giants: 60-59
Washington: 64-64
Arizona: 59-65

.272: The Cowboys third downs conversion percentage on Sunday. After sitting atop the NFL pile (and not just the 2014 pile, but the history-of-the-league pile) in this key category after seven games, the Cowboys have fallen off in this regard. Against Arizona, Dallas converted their first two third down opportunities, and then went 0-8 until they converted a third and two during their garbage time touchdown drive. By contrast, the Cardinals were 9-15 on third downs, including an impressive 7-7 on their touchdown drives. That's what we call a stark contrast.

Which leads me to this:

0: The number of Dallas' 5+ minute possessions in the last two weeks. After making a name for themselves by generating multiple long possessions per game, the Cowboys offense has stalled of late. The Cowboys winning formula is dependent upon a series of causes and residual effects that all begin with the offense possessing the ball. When they fail to do so, the entire equation breaks down, and the Cowboys lose.

And, when we consider this stat, it gets a bit nastier:

-1: The Cowboys turnover differential. One of the issues I've pointed out in recent "by the numbers" posts is that, in October, the Cowboys had been winning despite being on the unenviable side of the turnover ratio. Three times in the four October games, Dallas had a negative number on the ledger. And in the fourth of those games, against the Giants, they trailed 1-0 in the turnover score until the fourth quarter. Yesterday, they continued that trend into November, posting a -1 against Arizona.

Historically, teams that win the turnover battle win approximately 80% of their games - and the percentage goes up the greater the margin. Thus, to win against the Texans and Seahawks despite losing the turnover battle (and to build a 21-14 lead against the Giants despite being -1) meant the Cowboys were not only playing well but defying history. In the last two weeks, however, they have returned to Earth - with a thud.

.333: The Cowboys' red zone percentage. Last week, the Cowboys were 1-2 in the red zone, while Washington was 2-2. On Sunday, the Cards were a perfect 4-4, while Dallas was 0-2 until the meaningless garbage time TD scored on an Arizona defense that appeared to be in celebration mode. In their two consecutive losses, therefore, the Cowboys are 2-5 in the red zone, and have allowed their opponents to be a fat 6-6.

2: The number of consecutive home losses. The lesson gleaned from the above numbers: no team is good enough to keep pulling the fat out of the fire despite a negative TO margin. To continue to play around in the minus column was to wait for history to exact its revenge. Simply put, the Cowboys have been playing losing football for over a month, but it's been masked by extraordinary success on third downs (leading to possession advantages) and in the red zone.

More recently, of course, they have merely been playing losing football...