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Outside Perspective: What The Football Outsider Stats Say About The 2-0 Cowboys

The Cowboys are off to a better start than they were last year, but they aren't yet playing at last year's level, or are they? We look to Football Outsiders to see what their stats say about that.

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After a mere two weeks, it's hard to figure out exactly where the Cowboys stand in 2015. A strong offensive showing in the Week 1 game against the Giants was marred by three turnovers that kept the Giants in the game quite literally until the last seconds. In Week 2, the defense suffocated the Eagles but the offense never really found its rhythm. Add Tony Romo's injury to the mix and it's almost impossible to arrive at an accurate assessment of the 2015 team.

In cases like this, it’s often a good idea to turn to 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 games and an injured QB, 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 Falcons 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 New England Patriots. Something to keep in mind.

In FO’s Team Efficiency Rankings, the Cowboys rank 11th overall (21st on offense, 5th on defense). Both rankings dovetail nicely with the Aikman Efficiency Ratings (19th on offense, 4th on defense), which we looked at yesterday, which gives me even more confidence that the numbers are an accurate reflection of where the team is at - after two weeks.

On FO's list, the Cowboys are ranked just one spot behind the Falcons. The Falcons in turn have the 6th-ranked offense and the 13th-ranked defense, so that is going to be an interesting matchup of two 2-0 teams, who'll matchup strength on strength and "weakness" on "weakness".

Offense

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, 2015
Player POS DYAR Rank
Romo QB 109 8
Dunbar RB 33
19
McFadden RB 21
23
Randle RB 18
27
Williams WR 56 10
Beasley WR -26 67
Street*
WR -4 - -
Bryant*
WR -5 - -
Witten TE 21 14
Escobar TE -13 31
* not enough touches to qualify for ranking

At first glance, the numbers here look good enough to make you wonder why the Cowboys are only the 21st ranked offense. One of the issues with these numbers is that I've combined the receiving and rushing DYAR for the three Cowboys backs. Isolated, the numbers would look like this: Randle: -17 rushing, +35 receiving; McFadden: +1 rushing, +20 receiving; Dunbar: 0 rushing, +33 receiving.

So at second glance, we have a below-average ground game, only two receivers with a positive contribution in Williams and Witten, and a trio of running backs that are covering the deficiencies of the remaining receivers in the receiving game. Tony Romo has done well spreading the ball around as much as possible, but after two weeks, the FO stats suggest that the issues on offense are an ineffective ground game and a struggling receiving corps.

But it's not just that.

The Cowboys offensive line is ranked 11th overall in run blocking, and 12th overall in pass protection. Effectively, that's slightly above average, and nowhere close to being the best O-line in the league. Injuries, a coaching change, early season jitters; whatever it is, they had better fix it quickly, because with Romo and Bryant out, the offensive line will have to carry the offense for quite a while. And average won't do it.

Think of DYAR as a zero sum exercise. Let's assume that Brandon Weeden is an average quarterback and will play at an average level this season, contributing exactly zero DYAR. To make up for Romo's DYAR contribution of 109 yards, the running backs would have to deliver +50 yards rushing instead of the -16 they are delivering now.  The receivers not named Williams or Witten would have improve from a combined -48 DYAR to about +10.

Not impossible. But a tall task nevertheless.

Defense

In terms of total yards allowed, the Cowboys defense ranks a spectacular 3rd overall with just 257.5 yards allowed per game. Whether that's due to the ineptitude of the Giants and Eagles offenses, or a result of an intrinsic strength of the defense remains to be seen, but FO doesn't disagree with the overall ranking.

Overall, the Cowboys defense ranks 5th, with the pass defense ranking 6th and the run defense ranking 4th in the league, both highly impressive numbers. A closer look at some of the stats for the defensive front seven shows what is happening.

Pass Rush Run Blocking
Adj. Line Yards
Power Success Stuffed 2nd level yards Open field yards
Cowboys Rank
24
1 14 2 2 15

When you only collect two sacks in two games you shouldn't be surprised if your pass rush only ranks 20th in the league. But the run blocking of the defensive line has been outstanding. Here's FO's explanation of the metrics they use to measure the run defense:

Adjusted Line Yards: Effectively measures how much push an offensive line gets against the defensive line in the ground game.

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, but hasn't been as effective as hoped rushing the passer.

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:

Pass Defense
vs. #1 WR vs. #2 WR vs. other WR vs. TE vs. RB
Cowboys Rank
21 10 13 2 29

These numbers are not as easy to interpret as it's not clear who the number one and two receivers were in the first two games, and even FO admit to a certain degree of subjectivity here ("Our decision of which receiver is 'number one' and which receiver is 'number two' is somewhat subjective."). The defense held Odell Beckham to 44 receiving yards, so that's pretty good, and they held the Eagles to 224 receiving yards, which isn't bad either. The work against the tight ends was particularly impressive, but running backs remain an issue.

122 of the 417 receiving yards allowed (30%) have come from running backs. By contrast, the Atlanta Falcons only have 91 of the 661 receiving yards (14%) from running backs, though that could change on Sunday if they identify this as a weakness of the Cowboys defense.

At the same time, it's not like the Falcons know how to defend running backs in the flats either, and with the way the Cowboys have played their running backs in the first two games, this could be a huge opportunity for the Cowboys:

We'll borrow from Pro Football Focus for the next table, which shows which Cowboys defender was targeted how often in the passing game.

Pass Defense
POS Name Snaps Targets Receptions Burn Rate Yards Yds/TA
CB Brandon Carr 123 10 5 50% 37 3.7
CB Morris Claiborne 123 11 8 73% 61 5.5
CB Tyler Patmon 93 17 9 53% 113 6.6
CB/S Byron Jones 44 6 3 50% 45 7.5
LB Sean Lee
124 13 10 77% 100 10.0
LB Anthony Hitchens 86 3 2 67% 13 4.3
LB Kyle Wilber 28 2 2 100% 24 12.0
S J.J. Wilcox 124 3 1 33% 4 1.3
S Barry Church 118 3 3 100% 17 5.6

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 (and is targeted more often) in the slot and on underneath throws against the linebackers. But the outside corners and safeties have solid numbers here.

Just as a comparison:

Overall, the Football Outsiders stats suggest that the Cowboys have an offense that isn't fully clicking yet, while the defense looks very strong overall, especially against the run, but needs to step up its pass rush and needs to guard the soft middle of the field better, especially against running backs.

But that's complaining on a very high level.

After two weeks last year (and with the loss to the 49ers on opening weekend), the Cowboys ranked 19th overall (18th on offense, 22nd on defense) according to Football Outsiders. By the FO metrics, the Cowboys are a better team this year, even if you may find that hard to believe. The offensive performance is about the same as last year, but the defense moved up a staggering 17 spots (from 22nd to 5th overall), and that's a key reason why the Cowboys are 2-0 and not 1-1 as they were last year.

The question now is whether the team can maintain its high performance level on defense, and perhaps find its groove on offense, even without Tony Romo.