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Cowboys overcome Cardinals: Charting the key stats to the win

What do drive charts, splash plays and WR analysis reveal?

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The following charts are designed to provide a little more insight into the Cowboys’ performance against the Cardinals than we get from standard statistical tables. I’ll add my thoughts as well.

Drive charts

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’ third drive, for instance, reached the Cardinals’ 40 yard line at one point but ended at the Cardinals’ 49)

We see the Cowboys’ drives largely fall into two different groups. The successful drives:

  • Four touchdown drives in six possessions following zero in the team’s first three possessions.
  • Three of the four Cowboys’ scoring drives started inside Cardinals’ territory or at midfield. This despite the Cardinals not committing a single turnover. This shows the effectiveness and impact of punter Chris Jones’ ability to pin opponent’s deep, the special teams not giving up return yards and the defense forcing quick punts.
  • Only one lengthy drive of >50 yards. The 2016 team relied upon long, 8+ play drives but in 2017 six of the Cowboys’ seven touchdown drives have started in enemy territory or at midfield.
  • Every Cowboys’ penetration past the Cardinals’ 40-yard line resulted in a Dallas touchdown meaning the team converted 100% of red zone opportunities.

The unsuccessful drives:

  • Seven of eight drives that started inside the Dallas 30 resulted in a punt.
  • These six drives averaged only 3.75 plays and 14 yards per drive. That’s a lot of ineffective drives.
  • The offense had four three-and-out drives.

Here we see the Cardinals’ had five lengthy drives that averaged 9.9 plays and 69 yards. The problem for Arizona is they failed in the red zone, converting only 17 points out of their five opportunities (49% conversion rate). Most noteworthy, two drives that used 29 plays and covered 121 yards netted only three points; these were critical red zone stops for the Dallas defense.

That was basically the difference in the game, the Dallas offense converted every red zone opportunity into touchdowns and the Dallas defense forced stops defending the team’s red zone.

Note also how the defense really shut down the Cardinals’ after Arizona’s initial blitzkrieg (two drives using 21 plays and covering 147 yards). Six of the team’s next seven drives netted only 36 yards and included three consecutive 3-and-outs. This came after Marinelli adjusted the defense to dropping eight men into coverage while only three rushed. This was a terrific adjustment the Cardinals’ were never really able to solve.

Wide receiver analysis

The following is a pretty normal looking wide receiver bubble chart. The horizontal axis shows yards per attempt while the vertical axis shows completion percentage. The bubble size indicates number of targets.

First, nobody received more than four targets (Elliott, Witten, Williams) and Williams and Brown were the only receivers who generated good yards per attempt numbers. I’m showing you this version, which excludes Brice Butler, because the version including him looks like this:

Butler’s 45 yards per target are the biggest number I’ve ever seen.. and are literally “off the chart”. I had to adjust the scale of the chart to account for his other-wordly numbers. Butler had arguably the two biggest plays of the game yet he participated in only 7 snaps. That’s being efficient!

Just for fun, here’s the yards per target bar chart with the # of targets in red:

Honestly, it’s LOL-worthy. I’ve been down on Butler, predicting he wouldn’t be part of the team’s 2017 plans and noting that prior to the Arizona game he had as many drops as catches. But he came up huge Monday and I hope he can provide an occasional downfield threat that thus far has been missing from the Cowboy’s offense.

Splash plays

I love splash play statistics; I think they do a tremendous job of capturing playmaking on defense. In fact, I set out this season to track splash plays myself and have been using my own numbers up to this point in the season.

Note: The method of charting splash plays here is adjusted to reflect some new knowledge about how teams track splash plays. Specifically:

  1. Sacks are counted as both a sack and a tackle for loss
  2. Interceptions are counted as both an interception and a pass defensed

The following charts reflect this update and we’ll be using this approach moving forward. This will make our numbers consistent with official NFL statistics.

The Dallas defense under Marinelli is known for bending but not breaking. And Monday had some of that...but we also saw the Cowboys attacking and making plays in ways we haven’t often seen in the past:

The numbers:

  • Six sacks - most since 2013
  • 10 tackles for loss
  • Six passes defensed

That’s 22 plays that resulted in a defensive splash out of the 75 Arizona ran. These plays often disrupted or ended Cardinal drives and forced punts. The only thing really missing were some turnovers. Note also how many young players we see:

  • Maliek Collins - he’s been overshadowed by the emergence of Demarcus Lawrence but Collins now has 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery on the year. He’s living up to the potential he flashed last year as a rookie.
  • Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods, two players who barely practiced during training camp, looked comfortable and made plays. Exactly what Cowboys’ fans are hoping to see from the youngsters in the secondary.

All splash plays are not equal, however. The following is an adjusted “splash points” grid that reflects the fact sacks also count as tackles for loss and interceptions also count as passes defended:

Here’s the splash points from Monday’s game:

Here we see Lawrence and Collins were wrecking balls. They accounted for 11 splash points between them. That’s 58% of the team’s 19 splash points against Arizona. If the Dallas defense can continue to get such production from Lawrence and Collins, and get David Irving involved in the mix there’s real potential for this defensive line to (finally) be a strength of the team in 2017. Currently the Dallas defense is tied for second in the league in sacks and is on pace for 59 sacks on the year, which would be the most since 2008.

All in all a satisfying victory for the team with the star on the helmet. They had to fight through adversity and overcome an early deficit and they did exactly that and eventually proved the better team.