The Cowboys have played played two wildly different games this year, which makes any type forward looking statement about the Cowboys about as accurate as the forward looking statements in Enron's legendary annual reports.
If you were to take the 28-17 loss to the 49ers as an indicator of things to come, you'd be in for a very long season. If you were to take Sunday's 26-10 win over the Titans as a predictor for the rest of the season, you'd probably be erring on the optimistic side.
And when you're stuck in between such contradictory positions, it’s always a good idea to turn towards an impartial observer for some clarity, which is exactly what we’re going to do today, as we turn to the fine folks at Football Outsiders (FO) and their special brand of statistical analysis.
Of course, two games are a very small base to draw any conclusions from, especially when you’re dealing with two such fundamentally different game outcomes as in Weeks 1 & 2, but perhaps there are some stats that are worth looking at more closely as we try to gain a more balanced perspective heading into the Rams game on Sunday.
Overall team effectiveness.
FO normally use a proprietary DVOA rating (which adjusts performance for down and distance situations, quality of opponent and more) for their rankings. This early in the season, their stats haven’t yet been adjusted for quality of opponent. So teams playing, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars are treated exactly the same as teams playing, say, the San Francisco 49ers. Something to keep in mind.
In FO’s Team Efficiency Rankings, the Cowboys rank 19th overall (18th on offense, 22nd on defense, and 5th on special teams), which is quite an improvement over last week's 30th overall rank (31st on offense, 26th on defense, and 24th on special teams). That 11-spot improvement is the third highest positive jump in the FO rankings this week. The Redskins (from 22 to 2) are the biggest movers after beating up the hapless Jaguars, the Packers (from 27 to 12) made the second biggest jump.
FO use Yards Above Replacement (YAR) as a measure to rank offensive skill position players. YAR gives the value of a player's performance compared to a replacement level player at the same position, adjusts it for the game situation and opponent, and then translates that into a yardage number. Here’s an overview:
|Yards Above Replacement, Offense, Week 2, 2014|
* not enough touches to qualify for ranking
Over two weeks, the FO stats suggest that the issues on offense have been the QB play (throwing INTs is never good for your DVOA rating) and the tight end play.
When reviewing numbers like these, some exceedingly clever person is always bound to remark something along the lines of "No way is Jason Witten only the 43rd best TE in the league. Another reason why stats suck."
Well, that’s not what these stats and rankings are suggesting. What they are showing is that over the first two games, Witten played like only the 43rd best receiving tight end in the league, and his receiving numbers bear this out: Witten was targeted 13 times, and caught just six of the passes thrown his way for a combined 46 yards, which adds up to a paltry 3.5 YPA and a catch rate of just 46%, the fifth worst rate among the 43 qualifying tight ends. And Gavin Escobar doesn't fare much better, with one 5-yard reception on two targets.
The tight ends are doing a great job in run blocking, but they are not being used effectively in the passing game, perhaps due to scheme, perhaps due to Romo's struggles as a passer, perhaps due to their own inadequacies. Good thing the running game and the wide receivers make up for that.
And there may be a fourth culprit:
The Cowboys offensive line is ranked a stellar number two overall in run blocking, but a highly disappointing 30th in pass protection. Three number one draft picks on the O-line have raised expectations in Dallas, and while those expectations have been met in the ground game, pass protection remains an issue and may be part of the reason the Cowboys' passing game is not yet where many had hoped it would be.
In terms of total yards allowed, the Cowboys defense ranks a respectable 12th with 633 yards allowed. The Cardinals rank 10th overall with 631 yards allowed, which means that the Cowboys defense is two yards (!) away from being a top ten unit. Even the pass defense is ranked a respectable 13th in the league.
However, the DVOA ranking is different: Overall, the Cowboys defense ranks 22nd, with the pass defense ranking 18th and the run defense ranking a surprising 28th, which appears a bit odd given that the Cowboys have allowed only 209 rushing yards over two games, good enough for 14th in the league. But that's where you run into problems when you focus too much on the traditional volume stats like yards allowed.
The 49ers and Titans didn't run all that often against the Cowboys, but when they did they were effective: The Cowboys allowed 4.9 yards per rush attempt, which ranks the Cowboys 23rd in the league. A closer look at some of the stats for the defensive front seven shows what is happening.
|Pass Rush||Run Blocking|
|Overall||Power Success||Stuffed||2nd level yards||Open field yards|
When you only collect three sacks in two games you shouldn't be surprised if your pass rush only ranks 20th in the league. And ranked 26th, the run defense looks even worse. Here's FO's explanation of the metric they use to measure the run defense:
Power Success: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.
Stuffed: Opposing runner is stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage
Second level yards: Percentage of rushing between 5 and 10 yards out from the line of scrimmage
Open field yards: Percentage of rushing yards more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage
What you can read from these numbers is that the defensive line is extremely stout against the run up front. The 49ers and Titans were unable to convert a single short-yardage situation on the ground. Unfortunately, the run defense doesn't look quite as stellar once the runner got past the D-line. Here, the Cowboys rank 31st and 23rd, an indication that the linebackers and the secondary are not quite as efficient at defending the run as we would like to believe.
For the pass defense, FO also offer an interesting metric by looking at the DVOA versus different types of receivers. Here's how the Cowboys fared over the first two games:
|vs. #1 WR||vs. #2 WR||vs. other WR||vs. TE||vs. RB|
At first glance, these numbers may seem odd, but they actually do reflect what happened in the first two games:
#1 WR: The Cowboys almost blanketed Tennessee's Nate Washington, holding him to one reception on six targets for one yard. A week earlier, San Francisco's Michael Crabtree was held to two receptions on four targets for 25 yards. Combined, that's 3-for-10 receiving for 26 yards. Very impressive.
#2 WR: The Titans' Kendall Wright and the 49ers' Anquan Boldin combined for 11-for-14 receiving and 130 yards. For wide receivers, that's a phenomenal reception rate of 79%.
TEs: This ranking initially seems much too positive when you think back to how the Cowboys were smoked by tight ends Delanie Walker (10/14, 142 yds) and Vernon Davis (4/6, 44 yds). And the two tight ends even combined for all three receiving TDs against the Cowboys. But their 70% reception rate is rather pedestrian. And outside of Walker's 61-yard reception and Davis' 29-yard catch, their 8.0 yards per reception is equally pedestrian for TEs.
Unfortunately, we can't just equate Brandon Carr with the #1 WR, Morris Claiborne with the #2 WR and Sterling Moore with the tight end; that's just not how football works.
We'll borrow from Pro Football Focus for the next table, which shows which Cowboys defender was targeted how often in the passing game. Hopefully this illustrates more clearly the soft underbelly of the Cowboys pass defense.
The "burn rate" in the table above denotes the number of catches a defender allows versus the number of balls thrown at the receiver he is covering. For example, a burn rate of 80% would mean that opponents have completed eight of ten passes thrown at the receiver the defender is covering. For defensive backs, anything under 55 percent is considered good, for linebackers that mark is 75 percent.
Going by the extremely small sample sizes above, the Cowboys' pass defense appears more vulnerable in the slot and on underneath throws against the linebackers. But the outside corners and safeties have solid numbers here.
Overall, the Football Outsiders stats suggest that the Cowboys have a potent offense that isn't fully clicking yet and has issues in pass protection, while the defense looks stout overall against the pass (but needs to guard the soft middle of the field better) and may be struggling with maintaining gap integrity in the run game.