With the Dallas Cowboys season over, Jason Garrett has told us that the staff will get together, evaluate the tape, and look for ways to improve the team. He also assures us that this is what they have done in each season since he was awarded the head coaching job. While I have a day job and lack the time to go through and study the entire year play-by-play, a season of statistics is usually a big enough sample size to determine some trends. Let's take a look at the 2015 Dallas Cowboys and see if the statistics offer any hints on where the team needs to improve.
Total defense finds Dallas right in the middle of the pack, 17th in yards per game, 16th in points per game, 15th in 3rd down percentage and 14th in 1st downs allowed per game. They were also a very average 50% on 4th down stops, putting them right in the middle again at 16th in the NFL. The overall defensive stats are very ordinary.
Turnovers, however, are another story. Much has been made of their futility in generating turnovers. Believe it or not, however, they were not the worst team at generating interceptions, as the Baltimore Ravens hold that distinction. Tying for 30th in the league at interceptions (with the Chicago Bears), however, combines very poorly with being worst in the league at recovering fumbles. While they tied with two other teams (the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins), what's really shocking is how low that number was: three. The next worst team (the Green Bay packers) had twice as many and the NFL median was three times as much. Given that fumbles tend to be random (and the fact that Dallas seemed spectacularly good at getting fumbles reversed by instant replay) and we might legitimately expect that number to improve next year of it's own. But how does Dallas get more interceptions?
Or does it actually need to? Dallas was 5th in the NFL in passing defense. Many, myself included, have harped on that fact. But this might merely be the result of having the second fewest attempts against in the NFL. The Cowboys were 23rd in yards per attempt against and 20th in passer rating against, so maybe that #5 ranking is overblown. Nonetheless, Dallas comes back to the middle of the pack in first downs given up passing (15th), 40-yard plays (T-11th with 5 other teams), 20-yard plays (T-18th with two teams, one play away from being tied for 16th), and was tied for third for the fewest passing touchdowns given up. Taken as a whole, I think it's safe to say that the Dallas defense is clearly not the top five passing defense their yards per game make them out to be, but rather seem to truly be a middle of the pack defense that some interceptions (t-30th) and sacks (t-25th) could make a top notch one. How much of that is a part of the team's inability to play with a lead and the fact that keystone 3-tech Tyrone Crawford was playing on one arm? Hard to say.
Finally, there's the run defense. The Cowboys ended up tied for 22nd in the league in run defense and 28th in the league in first downs by run. But they were up to 19th if you go by yards per attempt and all the way up to slightly above average in not allowing big runs (14th in 20+ runs, t-3rd in 40+ runs with only one allowed). The red zone, on the other hand, would appear to have been a serious problem in 2015 as Dallas was 28th in the league in allowing rushing touchdowns.
When you look at those stats as a whole, and in particular the different successes and failures against the pass and run, I think a picture comes clear. Rolando McClain was not the enforcer Dallas had hoped he would be. Tyrone Crawford was probably very hampered by his arm (his Pro Football Focus grade against the run was atrocious, and that makes sense, where being able to get off a block, or reach out and grab a shifty running back, really requires both arms). And Dallas's safeties aren't as bad as we remember them (borne out by the relatively high marks against explosive plays and touchdown passes).
All that having been said, there's a clear need for turnover generation and finishing the job. Perhaps a healthy Crawford, a healthy Orlando Scandrick, and development from Byron Jones and Randy Gregory are enough, but if I'm Dallas, I might place an emphasis on finding a defensive playmaker in free agency or the draft.