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Patriots @ Cowboys: The Day After, By The Numbers

A quick look at Sunday's somewhat good defensive and unabashedly poor offensive performances by the Cowboys. By the numbers, natch.

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

We might as well get this over with, right? Here's a look at the Cowboys unsurprising yet nevertheless disappointing loss to the Patriots. Let's start here, with a bit of good news:

5: The number of times the Cowboys sacked Tom Brady in the first half. Before the game, I felt (and many pundits offered) that the key to beating the Patriots was to induce Brady into one of his annual melt-down games. These contests typically happen on the road, and occur after he's been hit a few times early in the game. Historically, he get angry or frustrated (or both), begins to press, and can throw a pick or two by trying to force the ball downfield.

In the first half, this plan worked to perfection. The Cowboys' defensive line, led by Greg Hardy, hounded Brady mercilessly. Hardy, Jeremy Mincey and DeMarcus Lawrence had their way with the Patriots' trio of tackles, none of who was athletic enough to match what the Cowboys DEs brought to the table. Tom Terrific had never been sacked five times in a half in his career, and the Cowboys managed not only the five first half bags, but also eight hurries and another six pressures.

14.1: The Cowboys' average starting field position for their eight first half drives. By contrast, the Patriots average starting position was their own 36. Moreover, Brady and Co. never scored in the first half when they started at their own 38 or worse. Check out their three first-half scoring drives:

  • Drive 2: After a 25-yard Danny Amendola punt return, the set up shop at he Cowboys' 45. An unimpressive 5-play, 14-yard drive, which ends in a 4th and 10, results in a field goal.
  • Drive 5: After a Cowboys' drive that starts at their own 13 loses yardage, forcing Dallas to punt from their own 6, New England get the ball at their own 45 and engineers the only real movement in the opening 30 minutes: a 7-play, 55-yard march.
  • Drive 7: Burned by good Amendola returns on early punts,the Cowboys opt to kick to the sidelines for the res of the game. Chris Jones' 43-yard boot after another drive fizzles deep in Cowboys territory (Jones kicked from the 12) give the Patriots the ball at their own 45 once again. After a Tyrone Crawford sack, Julian Edelman slithered free for a 24-yard gain, and the Pats kicked another field goal. As with the earlier drive, this one was less than impressive: 4 plays, 16 yards.

The takeaway here is that the Pats struggled to move the ball on the Cowboys defense in the first half, and scored primarily because they didn't have to drive far at all to do so. In a game where they were going to be at a decided disadvantage when their offense lined up against the Patriots defense, the Cowboys special teams needed to win the field position battle. They did not; indeed, in the first half, they lost it, decisively.

6: Number of Patriots "explosives" registered against the Cowboys defense in the game. For the uninitiated, explosives are runs of ten or more yards and passes of 20 or more yards in length. In the first half, New England managed only two such plays, a 13-yard Don Lewis run and the aforementioned 24-yard pass to Edelman (unsurprisingly, both occurred in scoring drives). In the second half, however, they added four more explosives, the most damaging of which was Edelman's 59-yard catch and run that made the score 27-6.

Although the game got away from them in the second half, the Cowboys' defense denied the big play for the most part, forcing the Patriots to drive the field against them to score. Of course, there is nobody in the league more adept at this than Brady and his crew. Nevertheless, even when sending more pass rushers than usual, Marinelli and his charges managed to do what his defensive scheme is intended: keep everything in front of them. If they play they way they did on Sunday against the league's less proficient offenses (i.e., every other team in the league except perhaps the Packers) , I believe the Cowboys defense will enjoy some success.

31: Byron Jones' number. The rookie defensive back was given the unenviable task to cover the Patriot's All-Universe tight end, Rob Gronkowski. In the first half, he was superb, holding Gronk to one reception for a mere six yards. It was clear that the Cheatin' Belichicks wanted to funnel the ball to Gronkowski in the second half, and Jones gave up a couple of catches (for 51 yards) on the Patriots first drive of the second half. After that, however, he allowed only one mare Gronk grab.

In recent years, the the Cowboys have been killed by tight ends. Since Dallas switched to a 4-3, the likes of Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas, Andrew Quarless, Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Jared Cook, Jordan Reed and Martellus Bennett have enjoyed very productive games against the Cowboys. This is precisely why the Cowboys went out and drafted Jones and acquired Corey White from the Saints: they are tight end neutralizers. Sure, the kid gave up a play or two to the best tight end in the league; everybody does. But the early returns versus tight ends are good, suggesting that the Cowboys have effectively dealt with one of their nagging defensive problems.

133: The total of Ron Leary and Doug Free's jersey numbers. Back in the 8-8 years (which may well have returned), when the Cowboys has a wildly imbalanced roster, one of the terms we threw around with some frequency was the "O-ring theory," which holds that a complex system can fail if one of its parts fails, even if the other parts function as designed. This theory seems particularly pertinent to the offensive line, where all five players must work in unison for a play to be successful. Indeed, when we bandied the term about with such impunity in 2012 and '13, it was usually applied to the big uglies up front, with the idea that no matter the talent level at the various skill positions, the offense was only going to function as well as its weakest unit, the O-line.

But this can be applied to the individual members of the offensive line as well. While Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin are all superb players, and seem usually to be playing solidly, if not well, in 2015. I'm not so sure about their running mates; both Free and Leary have been dinged thus far (I hold that, were Jermey Parnell still on the roster, he would have been playing right tackle in recent weeks, allowing Free's gimpy foot to heal), and both appear to be noticeably less athletically adept than the "big three."

And, as we've seen with the oodles of film study in which we've engaged in trying to diagnose what ails the Cowboys' offense in recent weeks, Leary and Free are more prone to bust than their highly-drafted brethren. I worry that they don't have the requisite athleticism for the back-side blocks that are so integral to the zone blocking system. And I worry that Free has passed the "old man rubicon," that line beyond which the mind knows what to do but the body is no longer able to do it. No matter how good the three first rounders are, if 65 and 68 aren't playing well, the offensive line won't function as it did in 2014.

3: The Cowboys first half first downs, with one of the three coming by penalty. While the Dallas defense was killing itself getting to Brady and shutting down the Patriot's biggest weapon, the offense was, well, awful. The Cowboys had eight first half drives; one was a 10 play march to a tying field goal, one was a kneel-down to end the half. The other six? All three-and-outs. The Cowboys totaled 59 yards at halftime; if we subtract the 47 yards from their field goal drive and figure in the one yard loss from the end-of-half kneel down, their six three-and outs generated a grand total of thirteen yards, a less-than-stellar 2.17 yards per drive.

For the game, the Cowboys had 12 possessions. Here's the thumbnail sketch (you may want to avert your eyes):

First Half:
Drive 1: Punt (three-and-out)
Drive 2: Punt (three-and-out)
Drive 3: FG
Drive 4: Punt (three-and-out)
Drive 5: Punt (three-and-out)
Drive 6: Punt (three-and-out)
Drive 7: Punt (three-and-out)
Drive 8: End of half

Second Half:
Drive 9: FG
Drive 10: Fumble
Drive 11: Interception
Drive 12: Downs

Yikes! Thanks to Dallas' inability to get in the end zone on their final drive, Sunday became the first time the Cowboys have not scored a touchdown since Week 3 of the 2011 season, when they eked out an 18-16 victory over the Redskins on six Dan Bailey field goals. That game, you may recall, came one week after Tony Romo had suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung yet came back to lead a comeback against the 49ers. The recurring theme: a team without or with a hobbled Romo will struggle to score.

6:55: The time remaining in third quarter when Jason Witten registered his first completion of the game. With Dez Bryant and Lance Dunbar out, the aged Witten becomes the Cowboys de facto primary threat. As such, it was clear that the Patriots wanted to delimit him in much the same way that the Cowboys wanted to limit Gronkowski. And limit him they did: not only did he not catch a ball before this point, the Cowboys didn't even try to throw a pass his way until then - at which point the score was already 20-3.

To add insult to injury, he was later stopped short of a first down, forcing the Cowboys to kick a field goal after a long 15-play drive. Then, making a reception on a weirdly thrown ball, he had it knocked away, fumbled and the Patriots recovered. Since he came into the league in 2003, Witten has played the Cheatin' Belichicks four times and lost all four by a cumulative score of 110-49. The Senator deserves better than this.

8:31: The time of possession for aforementioned 15-play drive, the Cowboys' first of the second half. Mixing solid runs (8-37; Joseph Randle was 6-30) with short passes, the Cowboys moved the ball well, generating six first downs and converting three third downs, driving 75 yards in total. Sadly, the drive fizzled, when Weeden threw to Witten short of the sticks on third down. For all that fine work, the Cowboys earned only three points, and cut New England's lead only to 20-6.

Jason Garrett's decision to kick the field goal instead of going for it was emblematic of a larger issue facing teams with backup quarterbacks (and, frankly, many teams with entrenched starting QBs). In fact, this was the conundrum in which the Cowboys found themselves in the 8-8 years, when they had only the poorest protection to offer Romo. The question is this: is is better to open up the offense, thus risking your quarterback (and increasing the chances of turnovers by a QB under duress) or lay it close to the vest, trying to keep it close by making ball protection priority one?

While it can be maddening watching Weeden opt for his underneath receivers time and again, the alternative is Potentially much worse. Notice that the Cowboys' turnovers came in the second half, when they fell behind far enough that they had to open up the offense to have any prayer of staying in the game. Suddenly a one dimensional passing team, the Cowboys and their quarterback were under pressure more often and we saw more errant throws, the worst of which was a Logan Ryan pick where Weeden didn't seem to see him floating underneath the receiver. The same scenario applied to an incomplete that should have been a Jamie Collins pick: pressured, Weeden rushed the decision and missed a defender in the zone to which he was throwing.

If you want the Cowboys to pen up the playbook, go for it more often, or try to throw it downfield with greater regularity, be aware that this requires a degree of risk that usually offers diminished rewards: scores that get quickly out of hand, ensuring that the injured or talent-depleted team has no chance of coming back.

100.0: percentage of plays in the Patriots playbook that involve picks or rubs. This is a terrific strategy to employ with diminutive wide receivers who win with quickness. When a receiver can accelerate quickly, a pick has the potential to create necessary separation. With big wideouts who get up to speed slowly, these are less effective, as defenders can close the gap that the pick has just created.

Under Jason Garrett (as well as under Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese, under who he learned his system), Dallas has preferred the latter kind of receiver, and has collected a cadre of wideouts who have the height and physicality to win on the outside. The poster child, of course, is Dez Bryant.. who can body up defenders to make catches even when he;'s not open. The exception, of course, is Cole Beasley, who is a clone of the Pats' Edelman and Amendola.There are certainly times when the Cowboys use stacks to help him to get open underneath but, after watching how effective New England's jitterbugs are when a pick gives them a bit of space, I'd like to see a couple of the chapters on pick plays from the Patriots' playbook (and there must be many of them; the pick play IS their passing offense) added to Scott Linehan's arsenal.

63.7: The Patriots sizeable QBR differential. Despite being under a great deal of duress in the first half, Brady finished with a 130.9 QBR, thanks in large part to his 74% completion percentage and 10.2 yards per pass attempt. On the other sideline stood Weeden, who completed exactly two-thirds of his passes, but averaged a measley 4.8 yards per attempt. So, not only did the Pats have the better quarterback by rating, they also enjoyed more than twice the yards per pass attempt, for a +5.4 YPA differential.

-2: The Cowboys turnover differential on the afternoon, the third time this season they have been on the negative side of the ledger. As the lack of takeaways by the defense has been a dominant narrative the past couple of weeks, only the briefest recap is necessary: in 2013, Monte Kiffin's crew registered 28 takeaways; in 2014, Rod Marinelli's guys added another 31. That's 59 times in 32 games - an average of 1.84 per game - that they stopped an opponent's drive, managed an easy score, or gifted the offense with a short field. Those takeaways were a huge boost to a defense limited by injuries and/ or spotty talent.

Many observers proclaimed this offseason, that the Cowboys would suffer from the dreaded "regression tot he mean" - that such a high level of turnovers wasn't sustainable. The common response was that the Kifinelli defense, by practicing turnovers every day in practice, had discovered what the inimitable O.C.C. recently called the "magic elixir," and would be likely to finish roughly in the same high 20s-low 30s takeaway neighborhood in which they found themselves in 2013-14. With an improved pass rush, some argued, the total was likely to go up.

Instead, the Cowboys have regressed down to and far past the mean. They haven't forced a takeaway in 190 plays, since J.J. Wilcox's interception of a pass tipped by Byron Jones. Here's how bad it is: the Dallas defense failed to collect a turnover only once each of the last two seasons; in the other fifteen games each year, they managed at least one. In 2015's five games, the Cowboys' defense has come away with zero turnovers four times, and go into the bye with a three-game takeaway-free stretch. The last time the Cowboys went three consecutive games without registering a takeaway? The last two regular season tilts and the playoff loss to the Panthers at the end of 2003.

2010: The last season in which Romo missed extensive time with a broken collarbone.With Jon Kitna (and then Stephen McGee) as the backup quarterback(s), the Cowboys went 5-6 the rest of the way (including the game in which Romo was hurt; Kitna threw 33 passes to Romo's seven, so I'm making Kitna the quarterback of record). How did that team, which had started so poorly, win five games with backups under center. The answer is that they played a lot of bad teams, got a lot of big plays, and caught a lot of lucky breaks. Let's look at each of their five wins:

Week 10: @ NY Giants (6-2): Bryan McCann 101 interception return; 71-yard TD on screen pass to Felix Jone; +2 TO differential

Week 11: Detroit (2-7): McCann 97-yard punt return; 19-yard TD drive after Jason Hatcher fumble recovery; Kitna 32-yard naked bootleg TD run on 4th and 1; 134 yards rushing; +1 TO differential.

Week 13: @ Indianapolis (6-5): Orlando Scandrick 40-yard interception return for TD; Sean Lee 31-yard interception return for TD; game-winning FG drive began on Colts' 36 following Lee's second interception of the game; 217 yards rushing; +4 TO differential

Week 15: Washington (5-8): Set up at Redskins 27 after Gerald Sensabaugh interception; Set up at Washington 30 after 31-yard McCann punt return; set up at Redskins' 15 after Jay Ratliff fumble recovery; 134 yards rushing; +3 TO differential

Week 17: Philadelphia (10-5): The Eagles had clinched the division and were resting all their starters; 17-yard DeMarcus Ware fumble return; 159 yards rushing; +3 TO differential

Over the extended span that he played, Jon Kitna didn't play horribly; he had a 65.7% completion percentage and an 88.9 QB rating (both below Weeden's 2015 marks). Unlike Weeden, Kitna enjoyed good to great receiving talent: a first-year Dez Bryant (through the Indianapolis game), a Miles Austin at the top of his game, and a a 94-catch, 1,002-yard Jason Witten. Even with all these weapons, Kitna didn't always throw for a lot of yards; he had 131 passing yards in the win over Detroit and 151 in the victory at Indianapolis.

So, the 2010 Cowboys didn't win because of Kitna. What they DID do was run the ball, make big, game-changing plays, and generate turnovers (they were +13 in their five post-Romo wins and -8 in their six losses). So, before we take Brandon Weeden out behind the woodshed, we must ask: is this team doing everything to assist Weeden that the far less talented 2010 squad did to help out Jon Kitna? At this juncture, the answer is a resounding "no."

So, as the Cowboys coaching staff contemplates a quarterback change during the bye week, its important to remember that whoever they put in there, be it Weeden, Cassel, or Kellen Moore, he will struggle to lead the team to victory unless other aspects of the team cooperate in the ways the 2010 squad did for Kitna and Stephen McGee.

Follow me @rabblerousr


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