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Falcons @ Cowboys: The Day After, By The Numbers

A look at the Cowboys first loss of the season, to a surprisingly good, NFC-leading Falcons squad. By the numbers, of course.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Upon first perusal, yesterday's affair was a tale of two halves. In the first half, the Cowboys offense was superb, moving the ball seemingly at will and getting a few key defensive stops. In the second half, however, they looked downright Philadelphian in their ineptitude. If we look a bit closer, there might be more to the story. Let's start with what worked...

87: Joseph Randle's rushing yards on the afternoon, on fourteen carries (for a nice 6.2 yards per tote). Randle broke out of the gate on his first three carries, ripping off huge gains of 28 and 37 yards on an opening drive that took just over a minute and then, on the first play of the next drive, gaining another 20. Throughout the first two games, we have been waiting for the multiple big gains that define a dominant running game. In the contest's opening moments, these finally came, in explosive fashion.

34: Darren McFadden's rushing yards, on five carries, all of which came on the second quarter drive that made the score 21-7. Factoring in McFadden's impressive drive, on which he enjoyed sizeable holes and never gained fewer than five yards on any of his carries, the rushing game looked to be in 2014 form, and Dallas went into the locker room at the half with a nice, fat 16 carries for 131 yards (and a juicy 8.2 yards per carry).

92.8%: Brandon Weeden's first half completion percentage; he completed 13 of 14 passes for 164 yards in the opening frame (more on his lone miss below). As a result of the running game's success, the Cowboys were able to keep their backup quarterback in favorable situations - as Jason Garrett likes to say, he was very seldom "behind the sticks." And when he was facing less favorable down and distances in the first half, the Cowboys didn't appear to blink. In the second quarter, for example, a Tyron Smith holding penalty gave the Cowboys a 1st-and-20, which they deftly navigated with seven and fourteen-yard passes to Witten and Lance Dunbar, respectively.

100: Lance Dunbar's receiving yards on the day. In three games in 2015, The Human Mismatch already has 21 receptions for 215 yards (he had 217 in his career before the season began), putting him on pace for the most catches and second most receiving yards by a RB in a single season in NFL history. In the first half, he was instrumental to Weeden's success, grabbing four balls for 59 yards, including two key catches in the Cowboys' final second-quarter scoring drive.

315: The Cowboys' first half offensive yardage. Ripping off big gains on the ground and playing an explosive brand of small ball through the air, Dallas managed to generate in a half what many teams would consider a good 60 minutes' worth of work. Check out this first half drive chart; it is impressive to say the least:

drive chart - ATL

Three touchdown drives of 77 or more yards in a single half? That's some special sauce.

At the same time, you may note that they had only one drive of more than five minutes. For a team whose game is predicated on accruing sizable advantages in plays and time of possession, the alacrity with which they scored had important second-half ramifications. But more on that later, when we get to the defense...

5: The number of Cowboys rushes in the second half. We were told after the New York and Philadelphia games that the Dallas ground game had suffered largely because of situations: being behind against the Giants and getting a rash of penalties in The City of Brotherly Shove. Given that they has so much early success and spent the third quarter with the lead, why did Dallas attempt only five running plays after the break? Why did they seemingly "abandon" the run?

To answer that, let's look at the Cowboys’ four second-half drives, starting with drive number seven:

7: Two penalties and a -1 yard run put Dallas in 2nd-and-26
8: Randle runs of -2 and -4 twice put Dallas behind the sticks (roughing the passer penalty extends the drive)
9: Weeden sack on 3rd-and-3 ends drive
10: Atlanta leads 39-28.

By the time the Cowboys started their fourth drive of the second half, Atlanta had an 11-point lead, so it makes sense that they wouldn't run at that point, But before that, the Cowboys had four negative-yardage plays in their first three second-half drives. As we see above, some of the negatives that forced them to "abandon the run" came on running plays. Indeed, this reflects a larger trend in Joseph Randle's afternoon...

2: Randle's rushing yards after his hot start. After a roaring 85 yards on his first three totes, Randle managed just two yards on eleven carries, with the following totals: 1; -1; 1 (TD); 4; 1; 0; 1 (TD); -1: -4; 2; -2. Those eleven runs spanned roughly 51 minutes of game time, from the 10:36 mark in the first quarter to the 4:36 point in the fourth. In other words, other than an initial early explosion, the Falcons shut Randle down, DeMarco Murray-style.

1: The Cowboys' third-down conversions on the afternoon, on six attempts, for an unimpressive 16% conversion rate. A look at the Cowboys various third downs against Atlanta suggests that they didn't score via the 2014 method: converting third downs. Rather, they were most successful when avoiding third downs. Let's look at the third down situations in each of their ten drives:

Drive 1: TD; Cowboys never face a third down (in fact, they never face a second down)
Drive 2: TD; 1-1 (Beasley 20-yard pass on 3rd-and-3)
Drive 3: Punt; 0-1 (Randle stopped on 3rd-and-1)
Drive 4: TD; Cowboys don't face third down
Drive 5: Interception on first play
Drive 6: TD; Cowboys don't face third down
Drive 7: 0-1 (Dunbar 17-yard pass on 3rd-and-23)
Drive 8: 0-1 (Dunbar 6-yard pass on 3rd-and-12)
Drive 9: 0-1 (Weeden sacked on 3rd-and-3)
Drive 10: 0-1 (Weeden sacked on 3rd-and-1)

What I find most disconcerting about this history is that, other than a stretch in the third quarter, the Cowboys did a good job creating manageable third downs. But three times, they failed to convert on third and three or fewer. Its extremely rare to have three scoring drives in which a team never has to convert a third down - so rare that I don't believe we can expect to see it again. This forces us to ask: if this offense can't convert short third downs, how are they going to score?

49: Cole Beasley' receiving yards on the afternoon. The diminutive former SMU Mustang caught four Brandon Weeden passes - which made him the only wide receiver to tally a reception. Weeden never threw in either Devin Street or Brice Butler's respective directions, and both times he threw to Terrance Williams, Number 83 dropped the ball. Although Weeden was extremely efficient, a total of four completions to receivers - none of which traveled more than ten yards - isn't going to discourage opposing defensive coordinators from putting eight men in the box in upcoming games.

29: The Cowboys longest drive of the second half. After a first half in which they ground out three 77+ yard drives as well as another 56-yarder, the Cowboys offense could manage only a paltry 52 second half yards, on 19 plays. Weeden was still efficient, completing 9-12 passes. But these gained only 68 yards; after averaging a staggering 11.7 yards per attempt in the first half (a number that almost certainly correlates to victory) Weeden fell off to a 5.6 YPA in the second half (a figure that usually goes hand-in-hand with defeat).

These numbers suggest that the game turned suddenly, at the half. In fact, there were several pivotal moments, several of which occurred before halftime, and each of which contributed to the afternoon's radical narrative turn. I'll share four that I found to be impactful:

6:03: The time remaining in the second quarter when Weeden threw his one truly bad pass of the day, an overthrow of a crossing, and well-covered, Jason Witten. The subsequent 7-play drive cut the Cowboys' lead to 21-14. And that's what made this particularly painful; the Dallas "D" had just engineered a three-and-out, and the offense had scored TDs on three of their four possessions. With just over six minutes left on the clock, a grind-it-out drive promised to send the Cowboys into the locker room up by as many as three scores.

:46: seconds remaining in the first half when the Cowboys called time out as set up shop on the Atlanta one-yard line after a scintillating Dunbar catch-and-run. After giving up the aforementioned TD drive, the Cowboys got the ball back, looking to recapture a two-score lead, and moved speedily - perhaps too speedily - downfield. After Dunbar's catch, Jason Garrett called time out because he wanted to get the goal line offense on the field and allow Weeden to "reset." While these are admirable goals, and certainly merit the use of a time out in this situation, calling time out so suddenly allowed Matt Ryan to get the ball back with sufficient time to engineer a field goal drive, cutting what could well have been a 14- or 21-point lead to an 11-point margin.

12:35: time left in the third quarter when the game officially turned. Thanks to a couple of Nick Hayden pass deflections, the Cowboys' defense had managed a stop on the Falcons' first second half drive, and Cole Beasley returned the subsequent punt twelve yards, allowing Brandon Weeden and Co. to set up shop at the Atlanta 47, with a prime opportunity to extend the lead and put added pressure on the Atlanta offense.

Instead, a Jason Witten false start (these seem obligatory; Witten can't seem to get through a game without jumping once), a Joseph Randle run stuffed for a loss of one, and a Doug Free holding penalty suddenly had the Cowboys in 2nd-and-26. A couple of underneath throws and the Cowboys were forced to punt after what amounted to a four-yard drive. They never crossed midfield again.

3:44: The time remaining in the second half as the Falcons set up shop in the midst of their short touchdown drive after William Moore's interception. On a first down play, Tyrone Crawford appeared to hurt his arm, and went to the sideline to be examined by team medical personnel. He missed the remainder of the drive, during which the Falcons had success running at his replacement, Davon Coleman and, when he returned after the subsequent and final Cowboys touchdown drive, wasn't quite the same for the rest of the afternoon.

Up to that point, Crawford had been very disruptive, getting penetration in the run game and some nice inside push when the Falcons passed. From that point on, however, he looked pedestrian. For a team missing its top three defensive ends, it was imperative that they D-line generate an inside push. With Crawford, their best interior rusher, limited, this imperative wasn't nearly accomplished.

Although its debatable whether Crawford's injury was the most significant of these turning points, a peek at the Falcon's drive chart certainly lends credence to the claim. Check it:

falcons drive chart

Crawford hurt his arm on the fifth Atlanta possession, their second touchdown drive of the game. Before he was dinged, the Cowboys forced three three-and-outs in four drives and the Falcons were averaging 4.5 yards per play. After he was limited, they were only stopped once, on the drive when Hayden logged his consecutive PBUs. And after that short TD drive, the Falcons scored 25 straight points on drives of 66, 87, 89 and 62 yards. On those four scoring drives, they ran a total of 34 plays, gaining a fat 9.2 yards per play.

137: Julio Jones' second half receiving yardage, on nine catches. Without his best rushers, Marinelli had to blitz far more in an attempt to pressure Matt Ryan. What that meant was that the double-teaming and other clever strategies designed to delimit the explosive Jones (three catches for a mere 27 yards at the half) had to be thrown out the window, and the All-World wideout made the Cowboys pay dearly.

Joining Jones in the second half yard-fest were Devonta Freeman, who tallied 79 of his 141 rushing yards after halftime, and Matt Ryan, who completed 13 of 17 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns, both to Jones (note that 84% of Ryan's second half passing yards were to Jones). Although Ryan's YPA was full yard lower than Weeden's (when your QB goes 22-26, that can happen), his second half helped him to a healthy 21.3 quarterback rating differential, which our resident statmaster, O.C.C., had deemed the "Robitussin of stats" due to its strong correlation to winning. The correlation continues...

20:07: The Falcons second half time of possession, which more than doubled the 9:53 the Cowboys held the ball. In total, Atlanta enjoyed a 34:13-25:47 time of possession advantage for the game. This was the first time this season that they Cowboys had lost the time of possession battle; the defense was on the field for 22:50 in the season opener and a paltry 19:30 against the Eagles. These are important numbers; the Cowboys lost the TOP battle only five times last season, losing three of those games and needing overtime (and a ridiculous catch by Dez Bryant) to win another. In 2014, when the other team held the ball, the Cowboys defense was exposed.

It would seem that trend continues. The knockout blows were delivered by a pair of 11-play drives, each taking more than six minutes. Together, they ate up about nine minutes in the fourth quarter, and gave Atlanta, which had a slight margin in total plays in the first half (33-30) to swell their advantage to a 69-49 bulge. In 2014, when they were at their best, the Cowboys enjoyed such advantages, sustaining long multi-play drives and wearing down opposing defenses. On Sunday, the Falcons did their best 2014 Cowboys impersonation, wearing down a thin, undersized and, late in the game, inexperienced unit.

313: the combined jersey numbers of Ryan Russell, Davon Coleman, Nick Hayden and Jack Crawford, the Cowboys' starting defensive line at game's end. When the Cowboys took the field trailing 32-28 and desperate to stop a Falcons’ attack that had bullied them throughout the second half, it was these four men working from left to right. When my podcast partner and I ranked the Cowboys roster back in August, we had the front seven slotted thusly:

6. Greg Hardy (suspended)
9. Tyrone Crawford (in and out with arm injury sustained late in first half)
10. Sean Lee (in and out with split lip requiring stitches)
12. Rolando McClain (suspended)
14. DeMarcus Lawrence
21. Jeremy Mincey (out with concussion sustained last week)
25. Randy Gregory (out with high ankle sprain)
28. Anthony Hitchens
32. Terrell McClain (out for season with toe injury)
35. Damien Wilson (probably ranked to high; relegated to special teams)
36. Nick Hayden (too many snaps due to injuries elsewhere)
38. Kyle WIlber
41. Jack Crawford (a solid backup DT forced to play DE, which is not his optimal position)
48. Andrew Gatchkar
51. Davon Coleman
54. Ryan Russell
67. Keith Smith

The names in bold are the front four that poor Rod Marinelli deployed when he needed to slow down Atlanta in crunch time. Of the ten defensive linemen on the list, they are numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10. Crunch, indeed.

As many have written since the final gun went off, the next man up philosophy is fine and dandy, and this team is deep enough to sustain a lot of injuries. But when they are missing three of their top four defensive ends and then the fourth, DeMarcus Lawrence, is in and out of the line-up late in the game because he's worn out after receiving the Falcons' full attention, the nasty result is meaningful snaps for rotational types whose primary purpose is to keep the top players fresh late in the game and developmental guys the coaches had hoped would never see the field in 2015.

Before the season starter, and all the injuries to A-list players began to pile up, my mantra was that the team needed to go 3-1 while they waited for Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain to return from their suspensions. With Romo down, this meant that a depleted Dallas team needed to steal a win against either Atlanta or New Orleans. They had this one in their grasp; with that chance lost, next week's game, against a similarly depleted Saints squad, suddenly becomes ever more important.

Follow me @rabblerousr


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