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Rams edge Cowboys: Was it the offense or the defense that was at fault?

Breaking down the Cowboys loss to the Rams in charts.

Los Angeles Rams v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Cowboys’ 35-30 loss to the Rams yesterday revealed a number of issues the team will need to address. Let’s look at some overall stats.

The Dallas offense racked up a robust 440 yards and averaged 6.8 yards per play on the way to 30 points. Those are winning numbers. However, the defense yielded 412 yards and 35 points, which are losing numbers.

Drive charts

In many ways this chart tells the story of the Cowboys offense against the Rams - initial dominance followed by sustained failure. Those first four drives covered 295 and netted 24 points. The team’s next six drives covered 153 yards and netted six points. Frankly, the coaches got schooled here. The Rams made an adjustment and the Cowboys never reacted.

By contrast the Rams were able to move the ball throughout the game, but only reached the end zone twice. Six Rams’ drives traveled 50+ yards and nine of the teams 11 drives ended in scores.

Turnovers and sacks

A strong argument can be made that the turnover numbers decided yesterday’s game. The fumble by rookie Ryan Switzer on a punt and Dak Prescott’s pass that led to an interception resulted in 10 easy points for the Rams.

The Dallas pass rush that elicited so much excitement following six sacks against Arizona was nowhere to be found Sunday afternoon. Demarcus Lawrence did have one big play, stripping the ball from Jared Goff, resulting in an 11-yard sack. Outside of that play, however, the Cowboys pass rush had little impact. None of the pass rushers not named “Lawrence” or “Collins” have looked like anything more than mediocre rotational pieces. The return of David Irving might inject some life into the group. Thus far it’s largely been a one-man show.

Running game

There’s been much hand-wringing over the state of the Dallas rushing game. What was expected to be a dominant unit has instead been pedestrian. That changed yesterday as the team rushed for nearly 200 yards and averaged seven yards every time they handed off the ball. Elliott ran for 56 yards in the first half and Alfred Morris contributed a 70-yard run that featured a huge gaping hole opened by the offensive line.

And yet, the rushing game failed in the second half. Enjoying an eight point lead the expectation is the team would run the ball, control the clock, wear down the opponent and finish them off in the fourth quarter.

Instead, the rushing game was almost wholly ineffective. The Cowboys rushed only seven times for 25 yards in the second half; the final six attempts yielded only nine yards. Here’s each run in the second half:

Some might say the team needed to run more but the short gains on running plays often left the team facing 2nd and 3rd-and-long. When the offense failed to convert those 3rd-and-longs they were off the field. As a result, there just weren’t many opportunities to run in the second half. It’s also noteworthy the lone scoring drive featured four passes on five plays. It was nice for the ground game to return for a half but deeply puzzling that it got completely shut down the final 30 minutes.

On the other side of the ball the Cowboys run defense was atrocious. The Rams’ offensive line and Todd Gurley simply bullied the Dallas front seven. Los Angeles repeatedly executed play designs to perfection, with Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin running unimpeded several yards downfield.

The Dallas run defense has now been dominated in two of four games played. Whatever weaknesses the 2016 Cowboys’ defense had, stopping the run wasn’t one of them, so this is an unexpected development. The linebacking corps, missing Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens, was exploited all game long with Jaylon Smith, Justin Durant and Damien Wilson all suffering poor games.

Passing game

It’s interesting that Dak Prescott is getting a lot of heat from a number of BTB commenters and yet his numbers from yesterday are almost identical to Jared Goff’s. Both players had solid but unspectacular games. There’s no doubt Dak missed a handful of throws but he also made plays.

Dak simply isn’t making many plays from in the pocket. It seems like every big play the last couple weeks has come with Prescott on the move, either on designed rollouts or ad-lib scrambles. This makes offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s reluctance to exploit Dak out of the pocket more often a curious decision.

Dak did not have an elite game. However, when three touchdowns, 7.0 yards per attempt and a 94 passer results in “What’s going on with Dak Prescott” articles you know the standard is high.

Note that Goff beat Prescott in only one statistic, topping Prescott by 2.7 points in passer rating. Note also that Prescott had a much higher QBR due to his contributions from running the ball and executing better in the red zone. Dak wasn’t perfect but he also wasn’t bad.

The Dallas pass defense wasn’t as bad as the run defense but it also wasn’t good. The Jeff Heath experiment looks like a failure and I imagine his status will be a topic of discussion among the coaches. I’m not sure what else can be done as the unit is young and simply hasn’t had much chance to practice. The best hope is an improved pass rush and the youngsters simply getting better with experience.

Third-down conversions

Surprisingly, the Cowboys won the third down battle. The Dallas offense converted seven times on 14 attempts for a 50% conversion rate. Again, those are winning numbers. The defense, meanwhile, got eight stops on 13 Rams’ attempts, for an acceptable 38% conversion rate. Honestly, these third down stops from the defense were the only thing limiting the rams to 35 points.

Red zone opportunities

The Cowboys also won the red zone battle. The Dallas offense converted four red zone opportunities into 24 points. Los Angeles meanwhile, kicked field goals on three of their four red zone chances. Again, those defensive stops were the difference between Dallas surrendering 35 points or potentially surrendering 45+ points.

The Cowboys’ offense, after struggling in the red zone early in the season, has been hyper-efficient the last two weeks:

Dallas has been making the most of their opportunities recently. Both Dak and Ezekiel Elliot have been contributing, combining for three rushing and one passing touchdown the last two weeks. The red zone success is a good development. An 86% conversion rate is, again, a winning number.

Overall the offense did enough to win this game. Dallas lost the two other phases of the game: defense against offense and special teams. Lose two of three phases and you’ll usually lose the game.

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