Here’s a good recipe for success in the NFL:
- Outgain your opponent by 50+ yards
- Hold the ball for 12 and a half more minutes than your opponent
- Commit no turnovers
- Run 30 more plays than your opponent
- Convert 44% of your own 3rd down attempts
- Hold your opponent to 22% of 3rd down attempts
The Arizona Cardinals did all of those things last night in the Arizona desert yet still lost 28 - 17 to the Dallas Cowboys. The game statistics show every NFL game is unique and sometimes don’t make intuitive sense.
What the Cowboys did better than the Cardinals turned out to be the difference:
- Ran the ball more often for more yards, a higher yards per attempt and added two touchdown runs to zero for Arizona
- Was much more efficient passing the ball, completing a higher percentage of passes, throwing for more yards per attempt and achieving a higher quarterback rating and QBR.
- Convert three red zone opportunities into 21 points while holding the Cardinals to only 7 total points on four opportunities.
The Dallas offense, which gained nearly 400 yards on opening night against the Giants, has failed to top 275 each of the last two games. Unlike last week, however, the team enjoyed an efficient 6.3 yards per play, which is a very solid number.
3rd down conversions
Essentially two things were going on here: Dallas hit a number of big plays which inflated the yards per play number. At the same time the team simply couldn’t stay on the field, failing on 7-of-9 3rd down attempts:
Combined, the Cowboys’ offense has gone 5-for-24 on third down the last two weeks (21% rate). That’s going to have to change for the team to be successful moving forward. Playing difficult defenses is no doubt part of the reason. However, the team was consistently playing behind the sticks, rarely facing the short 2nd-and-3rd downs the team enjoyed throughout much of 2016.
By contrast, the Dallas defense looked almost 2013-like at times. Receivers found wide open holes while Carson Palmer was able to stand in the pocket and make downfield throws. This enabled the Cardinals to pick up 22 first downs and convert nearly half of their 18 3rd-down opportunities.
The saving grace for the defense was the upfront pressure (primarily from Demarcus Lawrence) which resulted in six sacks of the Arizona quarterback. The six sacks is the team’s most since...2013! Who would have guessed that? Three weeks into the season the Cowboys are tied for second in the league with 11 sacks, behind the Jaguars with 13. Dallas is on pace for 59 sacks, which would be the most since 2008 (led by DeMarcus Ware’s 20). Demarcus Lawrence alone has more sacks than 12 teams, including the Seahawks, Cardinals, Patriots and Vikings.
A key reason the Cowboys couldn’t convert third downs was the fact they were consistently playing behind the sticks, with the team averaging 8.2 yards to go on third down. The two successful conversions went one and three yards. The offensive formula relies upon successful first and second downs to put the team in advantageous third-down situations. That hasn’t been happening the last two weeks.
Dallas did convert two rushes into touchdowns, which were their first of the 2017 season. We’ll see later that played a key role in another noteworthy statistic.
On defense the Cowboys got back to their ball-stuffing ways, limiting the Cardinals to under 50 yards rushing and only 2.5 yards per attempt. Yes, Arizona didn’t have their All Pro running back and were missing two starters on the offensive line. Still, this was a nice return to form after getting gouged repeatedly by the Broncos.
With the exception of the 72% completion rate nothing about these passing numbers stand out. Not many fans would get excited about generating 183 passing yards while yielding 325 passing yards on defense.
The efficiency numbers, however, tell a much different story:
Dak enjoyed one of his very best days in terms of efficiency. Two touchdowns, no interceptions and nearly 10 yards per attempt enabled him to compile an eye-popping 142 passer rating. The 142 passer rating is Prescott’s second best ever; his 86 QBR rating his 5th best.
Meanwhile we see the relatively gaudy volume numbers Palmer accumulated came on 48 attempts leaving him with good but not outstanding efficiency metrics.
Red zone analysis
The difference in the game, however, was red zone efficiency. Dallas had struggled in this area the first two weeks, converting seven red zone opportunities into only 20 points (41% efficiency rate). Monday night the team was perfect, scoring three touchdowns in three attempts. Dez Bryant scored on a Herculean effort in the third quarter and then the Dallas offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott wore down the Cardinals’ defense on a fourth-quarter red zone opportunity.
The Cardinals, by contrast, squandered a number of RZ chances. First, a 13-play, 65-yard drive ended with no points when Arizona kicker Phil Dawson shanked a 36-yard field goal attempt. This came after an apparent touchdown was negated due to a blatant hold by the Cardinals. Another red zone opportunity resulted in three points and finally, during a late desperation drive, the Cardinals turned the ball over on downs.
Flip the scrip on either team’s red zone outcomes and we would have had a very different game.
As it is, however, the Cowboys did just enough to overcome their negative yardage, time of possession and third down statistics to walk out of Phoenix with a well-deserved road victory.