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How The Cowboys Offense Can Help The Defense Get More Turnovers

The Cowboys offense may have a bigger role in helping the defense get turnovers than you might expect.

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The turnover story is fairly simple. Last year, the Cowboys had the second most takeaways in the league with 31. This year, the Cowboys have just three takeaways in six games so far and their -9 turnover differential ranks them dead last in the league.

If you're looking for a reason why the Cowboys are where they are, you don't need to look much further than the -9 turnover ratio. You don't need an advanced degree in statistics to intuitively understand that teams that are able to gain a turnover advantage are more likely to win games. The Giants won the Super Bowl in 2007 with a -9 regular season TO ratio. The other teams to win a Super Bowl with a negative regular season TO ratio since 1980? The 1987 Redskins and the 1983 L.A. Raiders. That's it.

These two tweets by Charean Williams sum up all you need to know about the 2015 Cowboys in three sentences.

Turnover differential is a stat that is highly correlated with winning in the NFL. This is not rocket science of course. The bigger the turnover differential in your favor, the bigger the chance you'll win the game. Heck, we even have the numbers to prove it: In 2014, teams that won the turnover battle won 75 percent of the time (154 wins out of 204 games). Here's a breakdown of winning percentages by turnover differential:

NFL winning probability by Turnover Differential, 2014 regular season
+1 +2 +3 >+3
Winning %-age 66% 74% 97% 100%
Winning record 55-28-1 56-20 28-1 15-0

During practice, the Cowboys are emphasizing things like ball control, fumble recoveries, ball stripping, tipping passes and even have their defensive backs catching balls, all in the hopes of increasing their odds of getting a turnover.

But outside of these specific drills, there may be a much bigger factor in determining the number of defensive takeaways, and specifically interceptions: the Cowboys' offense.

At first glance, this may seem like an odd statement, but it will make a lot more sense when you look at when the majority of interceptions are thrown: Only a quarter of all 450 interceptions thrown last year in the regular season came when the offense was playing with a lead. Most interceptions happen when you're not playing with a lead.

Here's a detailed breakdown of the interceptions thrown last year, listed by the score differential at the time when the interceptions were thrown.

Interceptions by score differential, 2014 regular season

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Interceptions thrown 163 123 53 70 40
In % of total INTs
36% 27% 12% 16% 9%

Last year, like every year before that, teams threw a lot more interceptions when they were playing from behind than they did when playing with a lead. Almost 2/3 of all interceptions were thrown when teams were playing from behind.

And when you stop to think about it, the numbers make sense. We've seen it time and again, and not just from the Cowboys, but from every other team as well: Once you're playing from behind, your ground game goes out the window, and you start taking more risks in your passing game in an effort to catch up.

Once again, the stats bear this out. The interception rate (Interceptions divided by passing attempts) increases the further a team is behind, and the Pass/Run ratio tilts heavily towards the passing game when teams are playing from behind. Conversely, when playing with a lead, especially a big one, teams tend to run more than they pass, and they take fewer risks in the passing game, which in turn leads to fewer mistakes and turnovers.

Pass/Run ratio and INT% by score differential, 2014 regular season

Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
INT/Pass Attempts 3.0% 2.7% 1.6% 2.2% 1.6%
Pass/Run Ratio in %
71% 62% 55% 53% 45%

The Cowboys' two interceptions both came in the Eagles game, when the Eagles were trailing by 13 and 10 points respectively. Their sole fumble recovery also came against the Eagles, with the Cowboys leading 13-3.

Last year, the Cowboys accumulated 978 plays on defense, 378 of which (39%) were played with a lead of eight points or more. That percentage ranked fourth in the league behind Denver (43%), Green Bay (41%), and Indy (40%).

This year, through 360 defensive plays, the Cowboys' defense has played only 73 plays (20%) with a lead of eight points or more, and all those plays came in the Eagles game and early in the Falcons game. With that percentage, the Cowboys rank 20th in a league that is topped by the Patriots (52%), Packers (48%), Bengals (47%), Vikings (46%), and Cardinals (41%).

For the Cowboys, the key to avoiding late-game drama is to be better earlier in the game.

Scoring more and earlier will put the Cowboys' opponents in the situation described above, where they have to lean on the pass and take greater risks in order to try catch up. This in turn will allow the defense to make more plays. As the opposing offenses are forced to go to the pass, the defense can sit back in its nickel and dime formations and simply wait for the opposing offenses to make mistakes.