When you go from worst to first like the Dallas Cowboys did in 2016, you will wind up with a first-place schedule. Depending on where you look, the Cowboys strength of schedule is between 10th (traditional win/loss calculations) and 13th (FPI uses home/away, distance traveled, time between games, etc). Preferably, FPI will be our guide due to the other parameters they use to make their calculations. The Cowboys will be facing a win percentage of .531 per ESPN which coincidentally ties them with the Eagles.
Let’s look at the defenses the Cowboys will be up against in 2017. It’s important to look at the defenses as a whole and not just rank them by total yards as the NFL statisticians do. Using just last year’s defensive stats published by the NFL: total yards, run defense, pass defense, and points allowed per game.
[Disclaimer: Green represents the teams ranking in Top 10, Yellow are for the middle of the pack (11-15), Orange is for those teams that are flirting with the bottom half of the league, and Red is for teams that find themselves struggling in that area. The average rank at the end of the chart is just that, an average of their run defense, pass defense, and points per game allowed.]
|Opponent||Total Yards||Run Defense||Pass Defense||PPG Allowed||Avg. Rank|
|Giants||10th||3rd (88.6)||23rd||2nd (17.8)||9.3|
|Broncos||4th||28th (130.3)||1st||4th (18.6)||11|
|Cardinals||2nd||9th (94.9)||4th||14th (22.6)||9|
|Rams||9th||16th (103.8)||10th||23rd (24.6)||16.3|
|Packers||22nd||8th (94.7)||31st||21st (24.2)||20|
|49ers||32nd||32nd (165.9)||14th||32nd (30)||26|
|Redskins||28th||24th (119.8)||25th||19th (23.9)||22.6|
|Chiefs||24th||26th (121.1)||18th||7th (19.4)||17|
|Falcons||25th||17th (104.5)||28th||27th (25.4)||24|
|Eagles||13th||15th (103.2)||13th||12th (20.7)||13.3|
|Chargers||16th||10th (97.9)||20th||29th (26.4)||19.6|
|Raiders||26th||23rd (117.6)||25th||19th (23.9)||22.3|
|Seahawks||5th||7th (92.9)||8th||3rd (18.2)||6|
There are quite a few things to unpack here but it is important to remember that many of these teams have made offseason moves in hopes to improve problem areas. However, without seeing a single snap played for the 2017 season, we can only make observations using the chart for now.
The first thing that jumps out is that the Cowboys will be playing some of the toughest defenses to start the year. Having to face the Giants, Cardinals, and Broncos to start the year may seem brutal but each of those teams has some weaknesses that can be exposed. For example, Ezekiel Elliott may be pretty tough for the Broncos to stop if they’re giving up 130 yards on the ground.
Still, they are among one of the best defenses in the league. If the Cowboys can get through their defensive tests in the first few weeks, they should have some teams they can really take advantage of. The next four weeks against the Rams, 49ers, Packers, and Redskins all have troubles in certain areas, most notably limiting points per game.
That’s the key to everything here, if you can limit the points scored on your defense, you have a good chance of winning. Just look at the Chiefs, they struggle in most defensive areas but keeping teams under 20 points per game allowed the Chiefs to stay playoff contenders. The Cowboys’ defense in 2016 also operated under that rule as they held teams to an average 19.1 points per game.
Moving through the schedule, the Cowboys face the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons in Hot-Lanta. Defensively speaking, they’re not exactly scaring anybody. The Cowboys should be able to move the ball on Atlanta but will have to contend with their powerful offense and home crowd (more on that in the next post.)
After the Falcons, the Cowboys have to square up in a home game with the Eagles, which is a sneaky defense that can give you fits. Then they stay home to take on a struggling Redskins’ defense, followed by the Chargers who have been stout against the run but can’t stop scoring drives that well.
Dallas then travels for two straight weeks on opposites coasts which will start against the Giants, a defense they have yet to figure out. The Raiders have been an anomaly on defense, they have a good pass rush but still can’t stop the opposing passing games. What’s worse is that they give up an average of a touchdown (26.6 PPG) more at home than on the road (21.3 PPG). It may be better that the Cowboys’ face them at home.
It’ll be week 16 that the Cowboys face their toughest defense, the Seattle Seahawks. If you refer back to the chart, Seattle is by far the most consistent defense they’ll face with green throughout. The one positive is that Dallas will get them at home, on Christmas Eve, but the Seahawks only gave up 17.3 PPG on the road in 2016. The hope is that the Cowboys’ offense can keep making good run defenses look silly. For the second year in a row, Dallas finishes up the season in Philadelphia, that game was meaningless last year so fingers crossed.
After looking through this chart and schedule you can’t help but think about how the Cowboys will have some favorable matchups in 2017. As a friendly reminder, the Cowboys were fifth in points per game (26.3), fifth in total yards per game (376.7), second in rushing yards per game (149.8) with the league’s leading rusher, and were tied for sixth in touchdowns with 49. That said, this schedule features six playoff teams from a year ago and one is a division rival. Two others who didn’t make the postseason (Broncos and Cardinals) play in competitive divisions, too.
In closing, there are some solid defenses on the schedule. Some of the most elite defenses in the league to be exact. As elite as they may be, the Cowboys are just as elite on the offensive side. The most positive observation that can be said is the Dallas Cowboys have created an offense that is extremely hard to defend for four quarters of football and that goes for any defense in the NFL.
Next up, we’ll examine the offenses that the Cowboys will have to contend with in 2017.