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Cowboys vs Eagles By The Numbers: New-Look Secondary Getting It Done For Cowboys

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A look back at the Cowboys win over the Eagles on Sunday night. By the numbers, of course...

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a look back at the Cowboys vs. Eagles game. By the numbers, of course.

Toughing it out

The Eagles were probably the toughest defense the Cowboys have faced so far this year, and the Eagles caused all sorts of problems that severely impacted the Cowboys' efficiency on offense.

29%: The Cowboys' third-down conversion rate against the Eagles. They only managed to convert 4 of 14 third down situations, which may have been one of the reasons why the Cowboys went for it twice on fourth down, and converted twice (once on the fake punt, once in OT). For the season, the Cowboys still rank sixth overall with a 43.7% conversion rate, but this game may have given the Cowboys an idea of what a playoff-caliber defense will look like.

29: Points put up against a playoff caliber defense, despite all the issues on third down and in the passing game. The Cowboys now rank seventh overall in the NFL with 26.9 points scored per game. That's 9.7 points more per game than they averaged last year. It's not quite at the 2014 level of 29.2 points per game, but reaching that number may just be a matter of time.

14: The season-high number of big plays against the Eagles. The Cowboys consider any reception of 16 yards or more a "big play". Any run of 12 or more yards falls into the same category. Here's how that has changed from week to week:

Big plays made
NYG WAS CHI SF CIN GB PHI
Pass plays >16 yards 1 8 6
3
5
5
6
Run plays >12 yards 1 1 4
3
5
5
8
Total 2 9
10
6
10
10
14

The ground game in particular was key for the Cowboys to get big chunks of yards (and that even with Elliott's 63-yard run negated by penalty).

The ground game

It's getting very, very hard to find fault with the Cowboys drafting Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in the 2016 draft.

164.6: The league-leading rushing yards per game by the Cowboys over seven games. That's far ahead of the 2014 season (147.1 yards).

799: Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing yards and is on pace for 1,826 yards on the season, which would be slightly ahead of Eric Dickerson's rookie record of 1,808 from 1983.

5.0: Elliott isn't just a volume runner, he also has a very high YPA number. For comparison, DeMarco Murray averaged 4.7 YPA in 2014, Darren McFadden averaged 4.6 YPA in 2015.

57%: Elliott's success rate, the best in the league, and a sure sign that he's getting the important yards (or "dirty yards" as Jason Garrett likes to call them). Success rate measures a back's ability to get 40% of the required yards on first down, 60% of the required yards on second down, and 100% of the required yards on third down.

Airing it out

The Cowboys struggled in the passing game for most of the night against the Eagles.

7.4: The Cowboys' YPA on Sunday, their second lowest value of the season. The Cowboys are not exactly a big play offense (yet) this season, but the 7.4 is uncharacteristically low, as the table below shows.


NYG WAS CHI SF CIN GB PHI
YPA Offense
5.0 9.7 10.3 7.6 9.5 9.1 7.4
YPA Defense 7.4 7.9
6.5 8.5 6.6 7.0 4.7
YPA Differential -2.4 +1.8
+3.8
-0.9 +2.9 +2.1 +2.7

But the table also shows the terrific job the Cowboys defense did in taking away the deep pass from Philly's dink-and-dunk specialists. The difference between offensive and defensive yards per pass attempt correlates strongly to wins and losses; usually, a YPA differential of +2 is thought to be very good; a YPA of 3.0 or better is indicative of dominance on both sides of the ball. The 2.7 figure suggests that the Cowboys were pretty dominant where it mattered: in the passing game - even if the defense is to thank for this and not the offense.

-11.6: The difference in passer rating between the Cowboys (77.8) and the Eagles (89.4). We know that passer rating differential (PRD), is one of the stats most closely linked to winning in the NFL - and by rights the Cowboys should have lost this game based on the passing game. But the Cowboys pulled this one out due to some late-game heroics and their running game.

79.8: Prescott's passer rating for the night, which brought to an end his streak of five consecutive games with a 100+ passer rating. But perhaps this "slump" was only a mini-slump: after a passer rating of just 39.9 in the first half, Prescott adjusted to the Philly pressure in the second half with a 99.7 passer rating.

Underrated Defense

The offense may be getting all the headlines, but the defense has been quietly effective, and has played a much greater role in the Cowboys success this year than many people realize.

0: Eagles receivers with 100+ receiving yards. The Cowboys' season total for 100+ yard receivers? Also zero. The only other team not to allow a single 100+ yard receiver: The Vikings and their No. 1 ranked defense.

0: Eagles running backs with 100+ rushing yards. The Cowboys' season total for 100+ yard rushers? You guessed it, also zero.

3: We saw earlier that the Cowboys had 14 big plays on offense, a season high. On defense, they allowed just three big plays, a season low:

Big Plays allowed
NYG WAS CHI SF CIN GB PHI
Pass plays >16 yards 3 7 5 5 2 4 0
Run plays >12 yards 2 1 3 1 3 1 3
Total 5 8 8 6 5 5 3

Limiting big plays has been a staple of the Cowboys defense this season, but the Eagles' penchant for throwing short passes made the Cowboys' job a little easier.

9: Number of tackles for loss by the Cowboys, a total they matched only once this season, in Week 2 against the Redskins.

Cowboys TFL by game, 2016
Game NYG WAS CHI SF CIN GB PHI Total
YPPA 4
9
4
6
5
2
9
18.8

12.7: That's the number of yards allowed (291) divided by points allowed (23), which is an unusually low number for the Cowboys this season. Yards Per Point Allowed (YPPA) is a metric that can be taken as a proxy for how "bendable" a defense. The higher the number, the more "bendable" the defense is. Even if it drives you nuts sometimes, the Cowboys have been fairly efficient with their bend-but-don't-break approach on defense this season, especially because they've been playing with a lot of leads. Here's what the defensive YPPA looks like for all seven games so far:

Cowboys YPPA by game, 2016
Game NYG WAS CHI SF CIN GB PHI Total
YPPA 15.8 18.8 22.9 17.4 24.6 23.3 12.7 18.8

Against the Eagles, the Cowboys played a much more aggressive defense than their customary bend-but-don't-break approach, which resulted in the lowest YPPA of the season.

Overall, their 18.8 YPPA ranks the Cowboys as the fifth-best defense so far this season behind the Patriots (21.5), Seahawks (20.5), Vikings (20.0), and Eagles (19.7). That's some pretty good company to be in, and ColdHardFootballFacts agrees:

Teams that rank highly in Bendability are typically smart, efficient, well-coached teams.

23: Total number of points allowed against the Eagles. This is the second time this year the Cowboys have allowed 23 points (Redskins also scored 23 points), but more importantly, the Cowboys haven't allowed any team to score more than 23 points in a game. 29 NFL defenses have allowed at least one 24+ point game, the Cowboys and Vikings are the only teams that haven't.

For the season, the Cowboys have averaged 18.6 points allowed, the seventh-best value in the league. The last time the Cowboys were ranked in the top ten in points allowed was in 2009 when they closed the season with two consecutive shutouts of the Redskins and Eagles to rank second overall with 15.6 points allowed per game.

40%: The third down conversion rate allowed on Sunday, when the Eagles converted six of their 15 third downs. That's pretty much in line with the 44.2% conversion rate allowed so far this season. Part of the reason for the high rate (the Cowboys are ranked 27th) is the bend-but-don't-break nature of their defense, but this is still a number that's too high.

The new-look 2016 Secondary

In 2012, when Rod Marinelli was the defensive coordinator in Chicago, the Bears played 1,021 defensive snaps. Of those snaps, they played 487 snaps in their base defense with two CBs and two safeties, and 534 snaps with three CBs and two safeties.

That's it.

Not once in that entire season did the Bears put a dime defense on the field. Not once did they go into a heavy formation (2 CBs, 3 safeties). Not once, not even in goal-line stands, did they have less than four defensive backs on the field. Yet that defense finished third overall in points allowed and fifth overall in yards allowed. Not bad for a defense that feels a little bit anachronistic in today's pass-heavy NFL.

When Rod Marinelli came to Dallas in 2013, he brought his defensive approach with him. In 2013, the Cowboys played just 33 of 1,096 snaps (3%) in a dime formation, and 2014 saw just 43 of 978 snaps in the dime.

But something changed in 2015, and even more this year. Here's an image of how Rod Marinelli's defenses have developed over the years.

Nickel Dime

Note that the NFL hasn't released the data for the Eagles game yet, so the 2016 numbers are only through six games, but the change in the defensive approach evidenced by the chart above is stunning.

The nickel defense, with five defensive backs, and some combination of six defensive linemen and linebackers, is the de-facto standard defense in the NFL these days. But the Cowboys have taken that a bit further with their dime defense with six defensive backs.

Part of that is due to Byron Jones and his tremendous versatility that allows the team to play him all over the defense as a safety, as a slot corner, and even as a hybrid linebacker. The other reason may well have to do with the coaching changes the Cowboys have made this season.

Matt Eberflus was promoted to passing coordinator on defense, which means that now the Cowboys have one coach in charge of of the pass defense, instead of separate linebacker and secondary coaches vying for playing time for players from their units. The Cowboys let previous secondary coach Jerome Henderson walk after the season, thus hastening the transition to the new coaching setup.

Our own Joey Ickes recently explained why the Cowboys are leaning heavily on the dime personnel group, and detailed one of the dime defenses, the Big Ruby.

One of these sub-groups within the dime defense that the Cowboys have used rather often is a "Big Ruby" group that's a variation of dime which features 3 DL, 2 LB, 3 S and 3 CB. This puts their most athletic group on the field, and allows them to play their go-to coverage.

Having three players (2 LBs and a S) in the short middle of the field, the Dallas defense is able to sort out any type of release from the running back without being out leveraged, while still clogging up inside throwing lanes. If the running back were to release to the offenses right, Will linebacker Sean Lee would take him and Barry Church would take over Lee's underneath responsibility.

This is the type of coverage where Byron Jones' unique combination of size, freakish athleticism, and corner-style man-to-man cover skills becomes a huge advantage for the Cowboys. They are able to line him up on opposing tight ends and basically wipe them off the field, eliminating a major weapon in many modern NFL passing games, especially in pure passing situations.

This year's secondary is a big reason why the defense overall is playing so well. For now though, people are still having trouble getting used to the idea that the Cowboys defense is playing well at all. It'll take a little longer until the secondary gets its due.

6-1, baby!