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Cowboys overcome Cardinals: Five stats that tell the story

The surprising numbers behind last night’s Cowboys victory

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Whew. It’s never easy, is it? The Cowboys’ entered the University of Phoenix Stadium yesterday hoping to get back to the team’s physical, ball-control ground attack and grind out a road victory. The game did not go according to plan, however. Here’s five stats that show how Dallas overcame the team’s difficult start to wrestle a well-earned 28 - 17 victory.

46 Offensive plays

The Cowboys won despite running only 46 offensive plays. The team has played only 25 such games in the team’s 58-year history and won only 8 of those 25 (32%). In fact, the Cowboys have lost their last six straight, 8 of last 9 and 15 of last 17 games when running 46 of fewer plays. A rundown of those games:

Including last night’s result, the Cowboys have:

  • Lost 15 of their last 18 such games
  • Scored an average of 13 points
  • Been outscored by more than 2-1

In short, it’s exceptionally hard to win when you run only 46 plays but the 2017 version managed to find a way to do so and deserve credit for making it happen.

How, though, did they make it happen? First, the Cowboys’ enjoyed a number of short fields which they successfully converted into touchdowns:

51 yards - average Cowboys’ touchdown length

In 2016, the Cowboys entire identity wass based on the ability to sustain long, time-consuming drives that often featured 10+ plays.

That is not what happened against the Cardinals. Three times Dallas took the ball over inside Cardinal territory. The Cowboys’ four touchdown drives:

Each of the Cowboys’ four touchdown drives took five or fewer plays and consumed an average of one minute and 55 seconds off the clock. Big-gaining, quick-strike offensive plays, spear-headed by Dak Prescott and Brice Butler, enabled the Cowboys to convert good field position into positive points.

21.6 - Cardinals’ average starting field position

Amazingly, these short fields were not the result of turnovers. The Dallas defense, despite constantly harassing Cardinals’ quarterback Carson Palmer, didn’t generate any turnovers for the first time in 2017. Instead, the good field position was largely due to the pinpoint punting of Chris Jones

Reading the chart: the bottom of each chart shows where Jones punted from and the top shows where the opponent took over possession following the punt.

Three times Jones pinned the Cardinals inside their own 10-yard line (and another time at their 13). Each time following those three punts the Dallas defense forced a quick punt which was then followed by a Cowboys’ touchdown drive.

This is nothing new for Jones, who pinned the Giants inside their 14-yard line six times and the Broncos four times. That’s 14 times Cowboys’ opponents have started inside their own 14-yard line in 2017. Chris Jones has been a real weapon and his impact on last night’s game directly led to 21 Dallas points.

18 - Dak Prescott pass attempts

Last week’s debacle against the Denver Broncos featured Dak Prescott throwing the ball a career-high 50 times. That is not the Cowboys’ formula for success. The Cowboys ran the ball 26 times and threw the ball 18 times against Arizona, which is a better representation of how the team wants to play.

More importantly Prescott was highly efficient on his 18 attempts:

  • 13 completions
  • 73% completion rate
  • 10.2 yards per attempt
  • 2 touchdowns
  • 0 interceptions
  • 142 quarterback rating
  • 86 QBR

A few years back I outlined how Tony Romo was a better, more efficient quarterback when his attempts were limited. Prescott is the same; he’s not at a place in his career when he can throw the ball 40+ times and be successful ala Tom Brady. Maybe he’ll get there in his career but right now he’s a better quarterback with fewer attempts.

13 - Splash plays from Dallas defense

The Cardinals’ offense ran 75 plays last night; on 13 of those plays the Dallas defense either sacked the quarterback, tackled the runner behind the line of scrimmage or deflected an attempted pass. That’s 17% of plays that ended with a Cowboys’ splash play.

I don’t have the data available, but my sense is that 13 is a lot of splash plays. It’s a good sign for the Cowboys’ defense which has seen the number of splash plays increase from 8 to 10 to 13 the last three weeks.

Much of the emphasis during the offseason was bringing in young players who coaches knew would make mistakes and might, at times, be vulnerable. The hope was these young players would offset mistakes with playmaking. Note that six of the splash plays come from players in their first or second season with the Cowboys. This is one area where the game went according to plan.

Of course DeMarcus Lawrence was the real driver. Lawrence netted three official sacks on the night, but also had another taken away due to a penalty away from the ball. Lawrence is arguably the league’s defensive player of the year thus far, racking up 6.5 official sacks, one tackle for loss and a forced fumble. He’s been a beast and makes life easier for the young secondary players.

Note: I see some people giving credit to Lawrence for multiple tackle-for losses, but I don’t see it either in the film or the stat sheet. I’ll correct my numbers if warranted.

All in all a really gutty win. The team absorbed early haymakers from the Cardinals and could have hung their head and started thinking “here we go again”. Instead they got off the mat and, led by their best players, gave 100% effort in a strong, character-building win.