The Cowboys are in trouble. That shouldn't come to a surprise to anyone. After all, the team sits with a record of 2-4 and teams that only win a third of their games aren't usually good football teams. The Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and San Francisco 49ers are the other two-win teams in the NFC so you don't have to squint real hard to see the awfulness of the teams in this group.
But the Cowboys aren't like those teams. They are better than that. And while it isn't showing up in the standings, the team has been making a lot of good plays. The offense has been playing well as they rank 9th in total yards 366.8 per game. The defense is right there with them. They rank 8th in total yards allowed with an average of 339.3 per game. So with an offense that is moving the ball well and a defense that is getting off the field, why is the team struggling so much? The answer to that question is blatantly clear when you take into account one of the most prominent categories in football that correlate to winning football games - the turnover differential.
The Cowboys are last in the league with a -9 turnover ratio. For a Jason Garrett-led team that puts so much emphasis on the ball, that is a giant fail. And it's a team effort as both sides play a big role in just how ghastly this category is. The offense gives the ball away and the defense doesn't take it back. The Cowboys offense has turned the ball over 12 times so far this season, ranking them 27th in the league. The offense wasn't that great in this category last year as they gave the ball away 24 times, ranking them 18th. The chronic sloppiness of DeMarco Murray helped inflate those numbers. Strangely, the Cowboys committee of running backs have not turned the ball over once this season.
But defense is where the turnover category has done an about-face. After finishing second in the league with 31 takeaways in 2014, the Cowboy have a measly three takeaways so far this season. To make matters even worse, they all came in the game against the Philadelphia Eagles, which means that in the remaining five games the defense has generated exactly zilch turnovers.
So it's very evident what the problem is. What isn't so clear is how to fix it. The Cowboys need to find solutions and find them quick. This team cannot continue to be on the wrong end of the turnovers if they have any plans of extending their season past the 16 games they are promised. So what needs to happen for the Cowboys to get this rectified? Here is a look at some things that they can work towards improving.
SOLUTION #1 - Make the red zone opportunities count.
As the Cool One pointed out earlier, the offense can help the defense out by establishing a lead and forcing the opposing offense to have to take more chances to get back in the game. The Cowboys have the offense to move the ball, but they need to get the points. The offense has put up an average of 20.2 points a game which ranks them 27th in the league. Even during the six quarters that Tony Romo played this season, the Cowboys weren't able to transform good drives into points. Turnovers and poor execution in the red zone plagued them with Tony, and they still are plaguing them. In both games against the Giants, the Cowboys offense drove down the field on their opening drive only to fall short and have to settle for a chip shot field goal. The offense must finish these drives better.
Help is on the way as the Cowboys will get their best red zone target back real soon.
SOLUTION #2 - Stop giving away points.
Not only is the offense not helping their defense out, but they have been more damaging at times by their own mistakes. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie found the end zone in both of the games against the Giants, with a fumble recovery in week one and a pick-six on Sunday. Giants DB Trumaine McBride also caught a tipped ball off of Devin Street that he was able to run back to the one-yard line. And other turnovers have given their opponent a short field.
After his three interception debut, Matt Cassel is going to have to do a better job taking care of the ball. He won't stop making plays down field, but expect him to be a little bit more discriminant with his passes. If the ground game starts performing at the level they did on Sunday, this would help keep Cassel in more manageable situations, but he's still going to have to do a better job with his throws.
SOLUTION #1 - Keep the pressure on the quarterback.
The Cowboys have all the pieces to their defensive line, but they are still trying to find where they all go. They continue to use an assortment of combinations as they look for the most effective group. Greg Hardy already has three sacks in just two games and Randy Gregory will continue to be worked in the mix. There will be an arrangement that works the best, but even in the meantime - the pass rush continues to look better. Quarterbacks don't get to sit in the pocket on this defense. Forcing QBs to get their throws out before they can get clean looks are going to give the back seven opportunities. They just can't waste those chances with dropped passes, and they must sell out for every tipped ball.
The Cowboys had a lot of their linebackers picking off passes last year. There were several instances where a LB would step in front of a pass intended for the tight end. This year, the Cowboys are using Byron Jones in man coverage for the tight end assignments. If the defense is unable to bait the QB into making a throw into an apparent open lane, then they are going to have to do a better job sticking the receivers so they are able to jump in front of them when the passes are made.
SOLUTION #2 - Swarm.
The team has gotten some strong contribution from several defenders, however there's still a lot of shuffling going on. Hardy and Rolando McClain just recently returned to action and they are still getting acclimated to their roles on the defense. On Sunday, both of them got ran over by a Giants running back as they were off-balance from shedding a block. McClain also was lost on a couple plays, including the big pass reception from Dwayne Harris. It's easy to forget that McClain and Sean Lee have only played together for a short time. As this group gets more time together, they should become more comfortable in their assignments.
The defense needs to man their spots, and get to the ball carrier quickly. They are still swiping at the ball and there have been instances where the balls comes out. It's just every time it happens a player is ruled down. Last Sunday was no different. Tyrone Crawford stripped the ball from Giants running back, Andre Williams, but it was ruled that his forward progress had been stopped. A split second earlier and Nick Hayden would have been doing the air guitar celebration in the end zone.
Those are just some things that can help the Cowboys improve their turnover differential. What do you think the team needs to do?