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Maybe you noticed that the Dallas Cowboys’ offense is on fire as of late

The Cowboys offense is hot, but the defense has been toast.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One way to evaluate either an offense or defense is to grade how each unit does on each individual drive. I’ve seen a number of ways of breaking drives down into “winners” and “losers”. Peter Alexieff, of our fellow SBNation site Field Gulls, segments drives into “successful”, “unsuccessful” and “money”. I like his approach but have modified it a bit by introducing “disaster” drives as well. The basic rules:

  • A “money” drive ends in a touchdown... or a kneeldown that ends the game after at least one first down.
  • A “successful” drive ends in a high-percentage field goal attempt (inside 45 yards) or traveled 40 or more yards (it doesn’t matter if the field goal is good or not). Thus, a drive that starts at the 10-yard line, goes to the 50 and ends in a punt is deemed a “successful” drive.
  • An “unsuccessful” drive is a drive that fails to travel 40 yards and ends in a punt or ends in a turnover regardless of how far the drive traveled.
  • A “disastrous” drive is one that ends with a turnover inside the team’s 30-yard line or results in a defensive score.

Let’s check out how the Cowboys’ have done on both sides of the ball in 2017.

Offense

The team has had 51 offensive drives thus far, with 15 touchdowns and another 8 successful drives. That’s 23 out of 51 which is good but not outstanding. The four disastrous drives in five games is a problem; all of them led to scores by the opponent. Further, if we were to count Ryan Switzer’s fumbled punt against the Rams the team would have five disastrous drives in five games. That is a number that has to be cleaned up for the team to succeed.

The 15 touchdowns in five games is a good number, but again, not a great number. We’ll see below, however, that those numbers have dramatically improved over the season. Here’s the numbers from a percentage perspective:

Now, if the Cowboys’ offense can continue to be “successful” or “money” 50% of the time they will continue to put up points and be offensively successful. However, I think they can be better by reducing the disastrous drives and decreasing the “unsuccessful” just slightly.

Defense

The Dallas defense has forced exactly half (25 of 50) of opponent’s drives to end unsuccessfully or disastrously. Those results are similar to the Dallas offense. However, both the positive and negative portions differ:

  • The Dallas offense converts almost two-thirds (15 of 23) of successful drives into touchdown drives. The Dallas defense, meanwhile, limits “money” drives to about half (13 of 25) of all opponent’s successful drives. That’s a big spread and can be the difference between winning and losing.
  • Similarly, where the opposing defenses have forced four “disastrous” drives, the Dallas defense has generated only two “disastrous” drives. When you’ve only caused three turnovers in five games the opportunities to cause big, game-changing plays on defense are rare. This is something else that needs to change.
  • Random factoid of the week: it is now 28 games since the Cowboys’ defense scored a point; they last reached the end zone in week 11 against the Miami Dolphins on a Rolando McClain interception. The special teams haven’t scored a touchdown since Kyle Wilber returned a blocked punt against Philadelphia in Week 2 of 2015. That’s a lot of games to go without your special teams or defense scoring a single point.

I mentioned earlier the Cowboys offense has gotten better as the season has progressed. The following combines drive charts for each of the five games played so far. It’s a bit ugly and not intuitive so let me explain and also share why I think it’s noteworthy:

The bottom of each blue bar indicates where a possession started, the top indicates where it finished. A drive that reached the opponent’s goal line obviously indicates a touchdown. Red lines indicate drives that went backwards. For example, that final red bar against Denver was the pick-six that ended up a Denver score. Look how since the midpoint of the Cardinals’ game the drives have traveled far and often reached the end zones. Here’s the key numbers that show how the offense has improved:

  • Dallas scored three touchdowns in its first 24 drives; a 12.5% rate that won’t win many games long-term. Further, these three touchdown drives traveled an average of 38 yards. These weren’t long, ball-control drives but instead the defense and special teams giving the offense advantageous field position.
  • Since then, Dallas has scored 12 touchdowns on 26 drives; a 46% rate that will win many, many games long-term. Further, these 12 touchdown drives traveled an average of 66 yards. These were long, ball-control drives and not the result of advantageous field position.

Add it all up and the there’s no question the offense, which struggled for nearly two-and-a-half games has been more like the elite unit fans expected going into the season.

The story for the defense isn’t as pretty. We see a lot of long drives, especially the past two weeks.

Similar to the offense, through the first two-and-a-half games the defense was holding teams reasonably in check. The Cowboys got numerous quick stops against both New York and Arizona. Denver, of course, had five touchdowns and an unsuccessful field goal attempt in their first seven drives; that’s terrible. But otherwise the defense was okay.

That’s all changed since the second half of the Cardinals’ game. Three of the last five Cardinals’ drives went 54, 56 and 85 yards (but generated only 10 points). Including those five drives and those from the Rams and Packers’ games, Dallas has forced only six unsuccessful drives out of 23 attempts. That’s unbelievably bad. That’s how you lose two consecutive home games while the offense is putting up 400+ yards and 30+ points.

Another way of looking at it:

Simply, the Dallas defense has to do better; you can’t allow teams to have successful drives 70% of the time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sean Lee hasn’t been on the field for most of these drives.

The obvious objective for the Cowboys moving forward is to maintain the highly efficient offensive performance of late while correcting the vulnerable defensive performance over that same time period. We’ll start finding out Sunday in San Francisco.

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