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Cowboys @ Saints: The Day After, By The Numbers

A long look at the Cowboys gutting overtime loss in New Orleans. By the numbers, of course.

Tyrone Crawford surrenders to Drew Brees and the Saints.
Tyrone Crawford surrenders to Drew Brees and the Saints.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

At the end of a weird game, the final score ended up confirming what many of had suspected throughout: the Cowboys rarely seemed to be the better team. As was the case the week before, the hopeful glimmers came early. Let's start there:

54: Lance Dunbar's rushing yardage, which led the team. This came on three carries, which translates to a hefty 18.0 per-carry average. The problem, of course, is that 45 of those came on his first carry, which was followed by two more for a total of nine. And it wasn't just Dunbar whose night followed this pattern; Joseph Randle had 14 yards on his first carry, then proceeded to collect a paltry twelve yards on his next ten totes. After gaining 59 yards in their first two carries, in other words, the Cowboys went 26-56 the rest of the night, for a 2.15 average yards per carry. At halftime, Dallas had 90 yards on the ground, but only finished with 115, meaning they were held to 25 yards rushing in the second half.

And that's not for a lack or trying. On several occasions in the second half, the Cowboys sought to establish the running identity that they found so successful last year. For my purposes, "establishing the run" is best seen when Scott Linehan calls back-to-back runs on first and second down, in order to grind clock and set up manageable third downs. Dallas had only five meaningful second half drives; on three of these, they fulfilled this criterion. To wit:

Drive one: Randle gains of two and zero led to 3rd and eight.
Drive two: Cowboys run only once on three first downs, and Randle loses a yard, making a second-down run unlikely.
Drive three: McFadden gains of five and one, giving Dallas a 3rd and four.
Drive four: McFadden gains of seven and two, setting up the 3rd and one where Christine Michael was stuffed.
Drive five: The 91-yard final drive; the Cowboys didn't run on any of their eight plays.

To my mind, the drop-off from the 2014 running game is less about a commitment to running the ball than it is a comparative inability to do so. Combine that with the desire to establish the run, and the unhappy result is often unmanageable down-and-distances or too-predictable call sequences.

154: The Cowboys total yardage on their first two possessions, an eight play, 74-yard fired goal drive and a ten-play 80-yards touchdown march. After Dallas got those 10 points, however, their next six possessions amassed only 125 yards (a meager 20 yards per drive) and three points. They punted on next five of those six possessions and three of those were 3-and-outs. As was the case the previous week versus the Falcons, therefore, the offense started strong, but then fizzled.

Unlike a week ago, they were able to rebound with a 91-yard desperation drive to tie the score late in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys amassed 245 yards and scored seventeen points in the three drives at the beginning and end of the game; in between, they achieved very little: three points and 125 yards. Take away the 67-yard bomberooskie to Brice Butler and the Cowboys managed a paltry 58 yards and zero points on the six drives covering the fat middle of the game. That's fewer than ten yards per possession.

9:35: The time remaining in the third quarter when Butler injured his hamstring after hauling in the aforementioned 67-yard pass from Brandon Weeden. Losing him continued the team's run of bad injury luck; Dunbar had already shredded his knee on the second  half's opening kickoff. Thus, in an 18 minute real-time stretch in the third quarter, the Cowboys lost the two men who proved to be their leading rusher and receiver, in terms of yards gained, on the evening. That these two were the leaders - and that the bulk of their respective yardage totals came on one big play - spoke directly to Dallas' offensive malaise: Dunbar and Butler were both essentially third-stringers pressed into service and both missed the bulk of the second half, yet nobody else was capable of stepping forward to make a play or two to outstrip either of their team-leading totals.

19: The total number of receptions for the Cowboys outside receivers on the season (a figure that doesn't include Cole Beasley, who plies his trade between the numbers). This breaks down as follows: Terrance Williams, 12; Dez Bryant, 5; Devin Street and Brice Butler, one each). During the game, the NBC stats folk flashed a nasty graphic: this is a league-low number.

10: The number of targets for Terrance Williams. Of those ten, he caught a grand total of three. Given these numbers, and the fact that Weeden continued to feed Number 83 the ball despite this poor completion-per-target rate (Weeden was 13-16 to all the rest of his targets), it's apparent that the Cowboys coaches wanted to get the ball to the team's de facto number one receiver, or at least to show rival defensive coordinators on tape that they were willing to get the ball to him on the outside, as if to manufacture a threat.

That might prove to be tough sledding; in his three games since Romo was injured, Weeden has thrown fourteen incompletions thus far; nine of those fourteen have come on passes to Williams. On the season, T-WiIl has now been targeted 27 times and caught twelve passes. That's a total of fifteen missed targets. In those four games, all the other receivers - including running backs - have a total of seventeen missed targets, and nobody has more than six (Witten).

6: The number of rookies playing a substantial role on the Saints' defense. Thanks to a variety of factors - injuries, cap casualties, embarrassing offseason behavior - the Saints have been forced to undergo not just a defensive makeover but a full-scale overhaul. As a result, Hau'oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, Bobby Richardson, Tyeler Davison, Damian Swann, and Delvin Breaux all saw significant snaps on Sunday night, and each acquitted himself well. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one good play made by each man. In the Big Easy, the kids were alright...

108.8: Brandon Weeden's quarterback rating on the year. In the two and a half games he's played thus far, Weeden is 38-52 for 478 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. At present, he's ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating. He's also first in the league in completion percentage, with a 76.3% rate, and sits at third in the league in yards per pass attempt, with a nice 9.34 average. To put this into perspective, Romo's career high YPA is 8.6, in 2006 (his 2014 YPA was 8.5).

Compare these numbers to the other backup quarterbacks who have been pressed into service in 2015: Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Clausen, and Matt Hasselback; Weeden has the highest completion %, highest yards per attempt, and most yards. Of those, only Hasselbeck has eked out a victory in 2014, and that was a three-pointer needing two missed field goals. Heck, Weeden compares favorably to the other NFC East signal callers; he leads the division in completion percentage, yards per attempt, QB rating and longest pass (tied with Eli Manning with a 67-yarder). Yes, he's last in yards per game, but his overall efficiency is good enough to win with in my book, if the rest of the team is contributing strong play.

And that's the problem, isn't it? The Cowboys are giving up 32.5 points per game when Brandon Weeden starts.

-13.8: The Cowboys' PRD, or passer rating differential. None other than the great O.C.C. has deemed this the "Robitussin of stats," due to its strong correlation to winning and losing (indeed, it appears that PRD correlates better than any other available metric). On Sunday, Brandon Weeden had an admirable 105.6 passer rating, but was outdone by Drew Brees' hefty 119.4 rating (which enjoyed a significant upward spike on the game's final 80-yard pass play). As a result, the Cowboys ended up on the losing end of the PRD battle.

This continues a disturbing two-week trend in which Dallas' early PRD bulge has fallen off dramatically. After positive PRDs against the Giants (+32.6) and Eagles (+40.4), they have suffered negative differentials against the Falcons (-21.3) and Saints (-13.8). And remember that PRD correlates to wins. Running the average differential after each game through most recent regression formula (PRD*0.16+8), we can see that the Cowboys' expected win total has taken a nosedive in the last fortnight:

Game Cowboys PR Opponent PR PRD Expected Wins
NY Giants 103.3 70.7 32.6 13.2
Philadelphia 106 65.6 40.4 13.8
Atlanta 87.8 109.1 -21.3 10.8
New Orleans 105.6 119.4 -13.8 9.5

As this shows clearly, the Cowboys offensive passer rating has remained remarkably consistent, save for the decline against the Falcons. The Cowboys PR-against, however, has skyrocketed of late. The regression formula suggests that to reach 10 wins, the Cowboys would need a PRD of roughly 13 on the season. Clearly, with them currently playing at a 9.5-win rate, their season PRD average (+9.48) is within striking distance of the necessary correlative.

On the other hand, the -13.8 PRD in the Saints game translates to a 5.8-win season, so continuing at this pace without having some of the significant positive PRDs they enjoyed early in the year is going to lead to some Campo-esque final results. Since its unreasonable to expect the offensive passer rating is going to bump up much, even with Romo in the lineup, its on the defense to get the needle back into the +13 neighborhood.

96.7: Drew Brees' completion percentage against "standard pressure." Translation: Drew Brees was 30-of-31 for 323 yards and 2 touchdowns against four or fewer pass rushers on the night. That's rare; in fact, its the highest in the last 10 seasons. The irony? The only incompletion was on the play immediately before the game-winning 80-yarder to C.J. Spiller.

In addition, Brees was only 3-10 on the eleven occasions when Rod Marinelli dialed up blitzes. The one play that didn't result in a pass attempt was, of course, the sack shared by Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson. This is a pretty clear signal: despite the fact that they managed three sacks and five quarterback hits, the Cowboys simply cannot generate pressure with four rushers. For a defense predicated entirely upon the ability to do just that, that's not a tasty recipe.

8:13: The time remaining in the fourth quarter when Tyrone Crawford went to the sideline with an injury. As was the case against Atlanta, Number 98 was injured during the game, had to take a breather, and proved to be far less effective after that point. But a glance at Crawford's stat line suggests that we need to define "effective" more carefully. On the night, he registered exactly zero tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, or passes defensed. And here's the kicker: Crawford has played 139 snaps in the last three games and hasn't managed to register a single defensive stat. In the last three games, with the team's defensive end corps decimated, one would imagine that Crawford would be the likely lad to pick up the slack. With goose eggs across the board in three consecutive games, that ain't been happening...

6: The number of projected starters or major contributors out of the lineup when Crawford was sidelined in the fourth quarter last night. Until he went back in, the Cowboys were missing the following lads:

Greg Hardy
Sean Lee
Orlando Scandrick
Rolando McClain
Tyrone Crawford
Randy Gregory
Terrell McClain
Andrew Gachkar

That's six of their top, what, seven? eight? players. As the inimitable O.C.C. wrote earlier today, this year's games missed by key starters has already reached the entire 2014 total, with a healthy share of that coming on the defensive side of the ball. Indeed, this is how bad the situation is: so many starters are missing that Nick Hayden is starting to show his quality.

50: Sean Lee's number. To their credit, the Cowboys didn't fold once Lee went out after suffering a concussion at the tail end of the Saints second drive, which made the score 7-3. In 2013, you may recall, Lee went out during a similarly close Sunday Night game in New Orleans, and the Saints promptly scored touchdowns on six of their next seven drives. Indeed, 2013 was characterized by woeful defensive drop-offs when experienced linebackers were forced to leave the game. On Sunday, Matt Eberfluss' troops held steady; both Andrew Gachkar and Damien Wilson came into the game and, with one notable exception, played reasonably well.

And now the exception: It was when Gachkar left the game that the wheels came off. On the first play of overtime, Number 52 seemed to plant weirdly and to tweak a knee or ankle as a result. As he limped off, Damien Wilson hustled on to take his place, and the wily veteran Brees immediately connected with the vastly faster Spiller on the game-winner. The takeaway? Even the deepest teams can accommodate only so many injuries, and the Cowboys are way past their limit.

5: The number of "explosives" by the Saints offense on their final five drives. In their first six drives, from the opening kickoff to their first possession of the second half, New Orleans generated a total of three explosive plays (runs of 10+ yards; passes of 20+ yards): two of them - a 21-yard pass to Ben Watson and a 14-yard Mark Ingram run - happened on their lone first-half scoring drive. The other was a 10-yard Ingram scamper on the subsequent possession.

In the second half, however, Brees and Co. managed one play of this variety on each of their final five possessions - and they got progressively more explosive. The 30-yard pass to Brandon Coleman on their final drive in regulation was the Saints longest of the night...until the 80-yard game winner. Once again, we witnessed an undersized, undermanned defense that demands high effort at all times get worn down over the course of the game, to the point where a gassed bunch increasingly stopped playing with proper technique, struggled to get off of blocks, and began to miss tackles as the game wore on.

At the final gun, the time of possession was almost dead even, and New Orleans enjoyed a modest 69-57 advantage in plays run. Yet both teams ran the same number of plays in the first half (30 each). So, the Saints advantage all came after the break, when they ran 39 pays to the Cowboys' 27. With so many men missing, the Cowboys defense is vulnerable to problems of duration. Curiously, I wonder if the offense's desire to help the defense stay off the field, by "establishing the run," is accomplishing the inverse, as it leads to shorter drives, fewer plays, and a cadre of undersized defenders who are simply getting ground down late in games.

0: Cowboys turnovers on the night. One of the few ways the Cowboys can hope to compensate for the absence of top offensive playmakers is to generate takeaways and finish games with positive turnover differentials. On Sunday night, they certainly had an opportunity to do just that. Early in the game, a tipped Drew Brees pass fell right into Tyler Patmon's breadbasket. Later, a holding call on Brandon Carr negated a Barry Church interception (to make matters worse, the penalty also gave the Saints a first down on a 3rd and 11). And finally, an Ingram fumble call was reversed when replays showed that his knee touched down just before the ball came loose.

As long as Brandon Weeden remains the starter, its crucial that the Cowboys hold onto the ball, even at the expence of testing rival defenses down the field; indeed, in the last two game, they have only one giveaway, which is excellent. The problem is that the defense hasn't generated a single takeaway in support of a crippled offense. After four games, the Cowboys have three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble, all of which came versus the Eagles), which ties them for 24th in the league. Their cumulative -3 TO differential places them at 22nd.

This is a far cry from 2014, when Marinelli's troops weren't particularly talented, but more than made up for their deficiencies by generating takeaways; they were second in the league with 31, which helped them to a +6 TO differential on the year. In 2014, they totaled just shy of two turnovers per game; this season, that figure has fallen to .75 per contest.

This offseason, several analytics types proposed that Dallas' 2014 numbers weren't sustainable, and wondered aloud what might happen to the Cowboys' defense were they to return to league average in terms of takeaways: more drives ending up in scores, fewer cheap touchdowns, fewer short drives for the offense. In short, every aspect of the game would be more difficult. In the season's first quarter, we are seeing that proposition come to life; for this team, everything appears to come, when it comes at all, with great difficulty.

6: Chris Jones' number. On Sunday night, he punted five times, averaging 41.8 yards per boot, a figure that might have been affected by the fact that he was often angling for the corner rather than kicking for distance. And he did so effectively, with three of his kicks downed inside the 20. On the year, nine of his seventeen punts have been of the inside-the-20 variety. Only four of his punts have been returned, for a mere 23 yards (with one Darren Sproles return going 20 yards). The long and the short of it is that Jones has been one of the Cowboys' few bright spots thus far. Given that we are probably going to see our fair share of close games in the next month or two, one comforting thought is that Jones will contribute positively to the field position battle.

Follow me @rabblerousr


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