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The Broncos demolition of the Cowboys explained with charts

Cowboys suffer role reversal in week 2 loss.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys’ fans knew the team was facing a difficult challenge going on the road to face a quality Denver Broncos team. However, I don’t think anyone envisioned the complete beatdown Dallas endured Sunday afternoon. The Broncos employed the Cowboys’ usual gameplan against them by dominating the line-of-scrimmage, running the ball, controlling the clock and eventually imposing their will. The 42-17 final score well-captured the events on the field.

Five charts that tell the story

Since 2014 the identity of the Dallas Cowboys has been a physical, dominating run game and an unsung defense that could always be relied upon to stop the run. Those are the foundations for team success. Sunday those foundations were destroyed:

Despite having all weapons healthy and available on offense Dallas was totally inept running the ball. When the strength of your team is thoroughly dominated in every way you simply have no chance to win. There were no running holes to be found at any point in the game. The great Dallas offensive line was physically manhandled and seemed ill-equipped to deal with the aggressive Broncos’ defense. Run-play options had no effect. Elliott himself seemed to get discouraged and flat out quit on a third-quarter interception. I recall only a single effective run the entire game. Never, in any scenario I imagined, was the Cowboys’ offensive line and running game getting completely dominated a possibility; a total shock.

The Cowboys’ week one victory over the Giants included a 46-20 play advantage in the first half. Yesterday the Broncos turned the tables on Dallas running 31 more plays in the game’s first 38 minutes. By the time the Broncos had completed a 15-play, 75-yard, 8-minute touchdown drive to start the second half Denver enjoyed a 56-25 advantage in plays run. On one side of the ball Dallas simply couldn’t sustain drives while on the other the Cowboys’ simply couldn’t get off the field.

This was largely the function of terrible third-down rates on both sides of the ball. The final numbers are misleading as the Broncos converted all but two third downs until they owned a comfortable 25-point second half lead. The Cowboys were constantly playing behind the sticks and faced numerous 3rd-and-long situations. Denver meanwhile seemed to average about nine yards per first down play and faced manageable 3rd-down situations. Even when the Cowboys’ defense managed to force the Broncos into 3rd-and-long, missed tackles and blown coverages allowed Denver to convert.

The Cowboys passing game fared no better than the running game. Prescott was often under pressure, receivers rarely got open, three balls were dropped and Prescott missed several throws. Only some fourth-quarter garbage yards and a late touchdown inflated the final passer rating number from abysmal to bad.

On defense Trevor Siemian did to Dallas what Dak Prescott often does to opponents: he used advantageous down-and-distance situations to pick apart a young, ailing secondary, moved the chains as needed then added four touchdowns for good measure. Success in today’s NFL is strongly correlated to winning the passer rating battle; yesterday Denver crushed it.

Finally, because dominating every other facet of the game wasn’t enough, the Broncos also dominated in the red zone. On defense the Cowboys’ gave up four touchdowns on four red zone opportunities. The Dallas secondary seemed completely lost and overmatched in these situations. Offensively the Cowboys managed to convert when given the ball at the Broncos 3-yard line but turned the ball over on downs on two late-game red zone opportunities.

For those keeping score, the Cowboys offense now has two touchdowns and a field goal in seven red zone opportunities on the season. That’s a 35% scoring rate which is not good.

Drive charts

These are pretty ugly and capture well the team’s struggles Sunday.

Chart notes:

  • The bottom of each bar shows the starting point of each drive
  • The top of each bar shows the ending point
  • A drive that went backwards is highlighted in a different color (the Cowboys’ final drive, for instance
  • Small bars indicate the high and low-point of each drive (the Cowboys’ final drive, for instance, reached the Broncos’ 7 at one point but ended with the ball in the Dallas end zone)

Note that until late in the game no Cowboys’ drive went more than 39 yards. The Dallas offense traveled a combined 42 yards on the team’s two touchdown drives. Five drives ended in three plays or less. Also, the Broncos defensive touchdown to end the scoring was the first non-offensive touchdown scored in a Cowboys game by either team since the Carolina Panthers scored two defensive TDs on Thanksgiving of 2015. That ends a streak of 23 consecutive games without a defensive or special teams score.

Denver, meanwhile, moved at will until shutting it down late in the game.

  • Four drives of 63 yards or more.
  • Four consecutive touchdown drives spanning the 2nd and 3rd quarters
  • Two drives that went 14 and 15 plays

Red zone results

I mentioned the team’s red zone woes above and here are the gory details:

Note: red zone rate is the number of points scored divided by total possible points. For example, with 3 red zone possessions the Cowboys had an opportunity to score 21 points (3 * 7). The team’s 33% rate = 7 (points scored) divided by 21 (possible points).

A hundred percent RZ rate on four opportunities is almost unheard of in the NFL. Denver simply out-executed the Cowboys in these situations.

Wide receiver analysis

A bad day for everyone around. The Dallas formula for success does not include the team’s quarterback slinging the ball fifty times. Dak Prescott followed up a ho-hum effort in week 1 with an ugly performance in week two. Brice Butler now has as many drops as receptions on the year (2) after a pre-season performance that drew raves. Dez Bryant had a drop that resulted in an interception and averaged less than four yards per target. Dez now has 102 receiving yards on 25 targets for the season. Beasley and Williams were rarely open and non-factors. The one time Beasley managed to gain separation for a potential big play Prescott sailed an easy throw.

Only future Hall of Famer Jason Witten ended with good numbers as he reached the end zone for the second time in two games and nearly notched 100 yards. His fourth quarter touchdown catch harkened back to the days when he was a consistent downfield threat. Of course he also dropped an easy touchdown pass as well.

Chart notes:

  • Targets include completions, incompletions and plays resulting in pass interference or defensive holding.
  • Yards per attempt and yards receiving include yards gained via penalty (after all, those yards count too).
  • Yards per attempt are charted on the horizontal axis
  • Completion percentage is charted on the vertical axis
  • Number of targets is illustrated by bubble size

When Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley are targeted more than 20 times and catch less than 50% of the balls and have a long gain 15 yards on the day...well you get charts like the above.

Splash plays

One really good storyline did emerge in yesterday’s game and that was the play of DeMarcus Lawrence. He flat out balled and was the lone Cowboy on the field to have a positive impact. He sacked Semien twice and caused a fumble that led directly to the Cowboys first touchdown.

While the defense was dominated throughout most of the game they did manage 10 splash plays which is a big number. Jourdan Lewis became the first Cowboy to snag an interception in his first NFL game since Dexter Coakley in 1998.

All splash plays are not equal, however. I’ve developed the following “splash points” grid:

Here’s the splash points from yesterday:

This is the second week in a row Lawrence has topped both the number of splash plays and the splash points. He now has six splash plays on the season and 9.5 splash points. He’s on pace for 32(!) sacks on the season. DeMarcus Lawrence becoming the dominant outside pass-rushing threat this team has missed since DeMarcus Ware left would be a huge development.

Game summary

This week’s summary is the opposite of last weeks; the Cowboys:

  • Scored more fewer points
  • Ran more fewer plays
  • Gained more fewer yards
  • Gained more fewer yards per play

Rushing summary

Wash, rinse, repeat; the Cowboys:

  • Ran more fewer rushing plays
  • Ran more for fewer rushing yards
  • Gained more fewer yards per rushing attempt
  • Scored more fewer rushing touchdowns

Passing summary

The Cowboy’s passing was woefully inefficient. The adjusted net yards per attempt of 4.6 is mind-numbingly bad. Prescott’s 35 QBR number is the second worst of his career (behind the 12 he put up in the second Giants’ game last season).

Final word

On the one hand, this was a franchise-wide failure. Dallas got physically dominated and the supposed strengths of the team were completely inept. No Cowboy on the field not named DeMarcus Lawrence or Dan Bailey had a good game. The coaching staff deserves equal blame for not having the team prepared, not making any impactful adjustments and a head-scratching decision to go short in the secondary in determining the inactives for the game. This was an eye-opening, sobering defeat that should lead to some reevaluation.

On the other hand, this was a week 2 road loss to a non-conference opponent. Dallas was playing in the hardest venue in the entire NFL against a quality opponent. I’ve said for a long time now that September is the modern NFL’s training camp for starters (training camp is used to determine team’s final 8-10 roster spots); starters aren’t in game shape yet and playing in Denver exacerbates that situation. It’s one reason Denver routinely pounds teams visiting Mile High stadium in September (21 - 1 since 2001). There’s no need to panic; Dallas simply needs to realistically review what went wrong and start working to fix those issues.

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