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Cowboys @ Eagles: Two Days After, By The Numbers

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A long look at the Cowboys delicious victory over the Eagles. By the numbers, of course.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

This week's "By the Numbers" post is a day late. My fervent hope is that it's not a dollar short...

In perhaps the most important game since 2009, the Cowboys went into a hostile environment, took a couple of punches, spit out the blood and kept wading in, emerging with a nice double-digit win. In looking at how they did it, I'd like to start with this, the turning point in the game and, by extension, one of the most important moments in the season:

78: Yards on the touchdown drive that gave the Cowboys a 28-24 lead, one they would not relinquish. To set the scene: The Eagles had just roared back form a 21-0 deficit, a rally capped by a short TD march after a Tony Romo fumble on a sack. The Interwebs were melting down, with Tweets like this:

While Rome burned, Romo calmly sat on the sidelines, looking at his iPad to see what the Eagles were throwing at him. After several timeouts sandwiched around a kickoff, with Eagles fans going berserk, he calmly led his teammates onto the field and engineered an eight-play, 78-yard scoring march. Just like that.

We saw a very similar moment in Seattle. Bobby Wagner had just drilled Romo in his ribs just before the 'Hawks returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. Sideline shots of Romo and Garrett saw them calmly going about their business, prepping for the next series. On Sunday night, we saw the same calm under pressure, driven by a confidence that previous iterations of the Cowboys didn't appear to possess.

22: As in "22" personnel, the alignment the Cowboys came out in to start the aforementioned drive. While losing their huge lead, the Cowboys struggled mightily to run the ball; in the nine carries since the Cowboys built their lead, Murray gained ten yards, for a 1.1 average. Nonetheless, they announced "run" and lined up with two backs and two tight ends and gave the rock to Murray. What is different about this year, may be less about confidence than it is about exertion of will, a kind of positive stubbornness. Indeed, on the aforementioned drive, the Cowboys had five first downs, giving the ball to Murray on four of them, including the final play, a 2-yard TD thrust.

19: The number of runs to start the Cowboys last 22 drives. Against the Bears and Eagles, the Cowboys had a total of 22 drives, and they started 19 of them with a running play. Whether or not the runs are successful, Scott Linehan and the offensive staff want to make sure the opposing defense is respecting the run. As we saw last night, even though the run might not be effective in traditional ways, that respect opens up things for the entire offense, as the great Bob Sturm points out in his weekly "Decoding Linehan" report:

I would like to say that the Eagles did NOT shut the Cowboys down on Sunday night on the ground.  They “sold out” to stop the run, but in doing so, they over-exposed the secondary with unsound ideas in coverage and ended up getting ripped apart for 38 points at home.  So, personally, I think the only way to look at that is the Eagles over-staffing their run defense and costing themselves the price of doing business.  And for me, that only happens if the run game is a major threat.  Do I think that those Bryant touchdowns should be credited to the running game?  I do.  So, would I look at 2.7 per carry and flunk the run offense on Sunday?  Of course, not.

38.4: The Cowboys third down conversion percentage. Dallas started the game 4-4 on third down conversions as they built a 21-0 lead. After that point, however, they were a paltry 1-9, with the lone conversion coming on the 25-yard Dez Bryant TD that made the score 35-24 (yes, touchdowns count as third down conversions). What that means is that, from the 12:58 mark of the second quarter, the Cowboys never turned a third down into the first down. It might be helpful at this point to illustrate this malaise, picking it up with the Cowboys' fourth drive of the game:

Drive Four:
-After timeout, Cowboys elect to try play-action deep pass to Dez. Romo sacked

Drive Five:
-After holding penalty, Dallas faces 3rd-and-17; Romo throws incomplete (and is past the line of scrimmage)

Drive Six:
-Dallas converts 3rd-and-11 thanks to a pass interference penalty
-After Romo sacked, Cowboys face 3rd-and-19

Drive Seven:
-After penalty and Murray loss of four, Cowboys again face 3rd-and-19

Drive Eight:
-The 7-play, 78-yard scoring march with which we began

Drive Nine:
-Cowboys turn 3rd-and-seven into Bryant touchdown

Drive Ten:
-Murray stuffed on third and one

Drive Eleven:
-After Murray loses four and is called for holding, Cowboys face 3rd-and-24. However, still get field goal to make score 38-27

Drive Twelve:
After two Murray runs lose a yard, Cowboys face 3rd-and-1

Drive Thirteen:
Romo kneeldown on third down is game's final play

For a team that supposedly needed to sustain offense to keep the Eagles' high-powered offense off the field, this sequence, which lasted for the better part of the second and third quarters, would seem to be an unmitigated disaster. But it wasn't. To wit:

48: The Cowboys' conversion rate on second down. As the great O.C.C. demonstrated in his weekly "snap count" post, the Cowboys' offense succeeded in large part because they avoided third downs altogether. Dallas

...faced 29 second downs and converted 14 of them for a 2nd down conversion rate of 48%, 52% if you include the 1st down by penalty. The league average this year (excluding penalties) is 31.6%.

And this wasn't because the Cowboys were getting themselves into manageable second downs. No, quite the contrary. On the night, the Cowboys average down-and-distance on second down was 8.9 yards (the second worst of the season, behind the astonishing 9.3 yards-to-go on second downs in the first Giants game). The fact that they were able to generate so many first downs on second-and longs is frankly remarkable.

As evidence, check out their work on second-and-long on the key drive mentioned at the start:

2nd-and-9: 22-yard pass to Bryant
2nd-and-10: 21-yard Murray run over left guard
2nd-and-11: 22-yard pass to Bryant.

Which brings me to:

153.3: Romo's passer rating on "deep" passes. The official NFL designation for a "deep" pass is fifteen yards. Coming in to the game, the Eagles were particularly vulnerable to the deep pass; on passes that travel 15 yards or more in the air they had allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 110.2 passer rating, the NFL's sixth worst figure. On Sunday night, Romo’ attempted seven passes that fulfilled the NFL's fifteen yard criterion. Of those seven, he completed five, for a total of 116 yards and two scores. And another, a deep heave intended for Terrance Williams, resulted in a long pass interference penalty.

75: As in the Cowboys' success percentage on plays more than 10 yards downfield. In the first meeting with Philadelphia, in week 13, the Cowboys were an undernourished 25% on such plays, achieving success on a mere three of 12 attempts. Flash forward to week 15, and they were 6-of-8. Given their struggles converting third downs after the game's first 20 minutes, it was critical that the Cowboys offense generate big plays. In short, if they weren't going to be able to engineer long marches, they would have to engineer quick strikes. And they did, demonstrating an impressive versatility.

This season, the Cowboys have generally won one of two ways: by converting third downs at a high rate and sustaining offense (wins 1-6, Bears) or by making big plays (Jags, Giants, part II). On Sunday, they employed both of these models. For the first twenty minutes, they engineered manageable distances on third down (5.3 yards to go) and converted at a very high rate (including penalty, they were 6-7, or 86%). They had drives of 4:42, 5:03 and 8:16 (!!). But they were also a quick-strike offense, making big plays and, more importantly, avoiding third downs.

2: The numbers of Eagles' drives wherein the Cowboys defense allowed a third down conversion. The Eagles were 5-11 on third down, which looks more impressive on paper than the Cowboys figure. A closer look shows that the Iggles were 5-5 on third down on two touchdown drives (the ones that made the score 21-7 and 21-17) and 0-6 on all others (remember that one of Philly's scoring drives covered 14 yards, with most of it via penalty). In other words, the Cowboys defense made the Philadelphia offense look like the little girl with the curl: either very good or very bad. The larger takeaway is that Dallas' defense didn't let the Chip Kellys sustain any semblance of consistent offensive output. To wit:

170: The number of the Eagles' 294 total yards of offense that came on five "big" plays (with a hat tip to my podcast partner Billy McCool): a 23-yard pass to Brett Celek; the 72-yard Maclin catch-and-run; the three-broken tackle 44-yard Josh Huff reception; a Shady McCoy 14 yard run and a 17-yard pass to Riley Cooper. Given that Philadelphia ran 53 offensive plays, their 48 others gained a total of 124 yards, for a 2.58 average. Overall, the Eagles averaged 5.5 yards per play. But this was achieved via a boom-or-bust scenario. If my defense is going to give up that kind of average per play, I'd vastly prefer a handful of big plays scattered amidst an otherwise stellar defensive performance to the alternative: the other team grinding out consistent 4-7 yard gains.

4: The number of turnovers generated by the Cowboys on the night. Going in to the Thanksgiving skirmish with the same hated rival, one area of potential advantage for Dallas was that Philadelphia has been a turnover machine all season long (at that point they led the league in turnovers; after Sunday night's tally, they have extended their lead, with 34, three more than Tampa Bay) and that, if the Cowboys offense could avoid making big blunders, they could win this key statistic that correlates so closely with winning and losing. Although they failed to make that happen a couple of Thursdays ago, Dallas followed that script to a "T" on Sunday.

From the last play of the third quarter to the final gun, the Cowboys turnover ratio went from even to +3. Check out the results of the Eagles final five drives, after they had gained their 24-21 lead:

INT
FG (thanks to the Huff 44-yarder)
FUM
PUNT
INT

Not only did Romo and company buckle down their chin straps and come out calmly fighting, J.J. Wilcox and his defensive mates also did yeoman's work, getting the three turnovers, three of their four sacks, and holding the PhilaKellys to 81 yards, 44 of which came on a single play. In the final 20:42, the Cowboys outscored the Eagles 17-3. One reason for this might be...

23: the Cowboys advantage in total plays, after running 76 plays to the Eagles' 53. And consider: this disparity comes a week after Philadelphia suffered a staggering 45-85 advantage against another bruising team, the Seahawks. In two weeks, therefore, the Philadelphia defense has been on the field for 161 plays against punishing rushing attacks. The average plays per game in 2014 is 64.1. That means the Eagles defenders had played two full games worth of plays after the Cowboys drive to open the third quarter. It shouldn't come as a big surprise that the Eagles faded down the stretch while the young Cowboys still had energy to burn.

1991: The year I kept thinking about while I was watching Sunday night's proceedings. That was the season, you may recall, when the Cowboys suffered a 24-point loss, at home, to the Eagles and then went on the road in week 16 (on December 15) and beat them 23-11 in Philadelphia. As it turned out, that victory propelled Dallas into the playoffs and ensured that the Iggles would watch the postseason tourney from the comfort of their couches.

More to the point, however, is what that Dallas team was: a young team with a nucleus of elite offensive talent and a try-hard defensive unit made up largely of spares, aging vets, and unproven youngsters. The Cowboys won in 1991 because Emmit Smith won the rushing title, Michael Irvin led the league in receiving yards and their defense played sound, fundamental football. But they had no game-changing talents; the 1991 Cowboys amassed only 23 sacks. And, in the playoffs, they were eventually exposed, by a versatile Lions offense that spread them out and made them play in space.

When I look at this team, I see much that resembles that group. The following offseason, of course, the Cowboys drafted Kevin Smith and Darren Woodson, and traded for Charles Haley, and they were off to the races. I'm not willing to say that's what will happen with this team, but the narratives up to this juncture are strikingly similar.