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How the Cowboys offense can help the defense get more turnovers

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The Cowboys offense may have a bigger role in helping the defense get turnovers than you might expect.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This year the turnover story is a fairly simple one for the Cowboys. Through four games, the Cowboys are the only team in the league without an interception, and their two takeaways (both fumble recoveries) in four games rank them dead last in the league.

You don’t need an advanced degree in statistics to intuitively understand that teams that are able to gain a turnover advantage are more likely to win games.

Turnover differential is (obviously) the key

Turnover differential is a stat that is highly correlated with winning in the NFL. The bigger the turnover differential in your favor, the bigger the chance you’ll win the game. Heck, we even have the numbers to prove it: In 2017, teams that won the turnover battle won 79 percent of the time (154 wins out of 195 games). Here’s a breakdown of winning percentages by turnover differential:

NFL winning probability by Turnover Differential, 2017 regular season
+1 +2 +3 >+3
Winning %-age 65% 88% 93% 100%
Winning record 59-32 51-7 26-2 18-0

Unfortunately, knowing about the importance of turnovers and actually getting turnovers are two very different things, in part also because of the inherent randomness of turnovers. In practice, the Cowboys are doing their due diligence by practicing and emphasizing things like ball control, fumble recoveries, and ball stripping, all in the hopes of increasing their odds of getting a turnover.

But outside of those specific drills, there may be a much bigger factor in determining the number of defensive takeaways, and specifically interceptions: the Cowboys’ offense.

The Cowboys offense can significantly help the defense’s turnover chances

At first glance, this may seem like an odd statement, but it will make a lot more sense when you look at when the majority of interceptions are thrown: Only 21% of the 430 interceptions thrown last year in the regular season happened when the offense was playing with a lead. 62% of all interceptions occurred when the offense was playing from behind. Most interceptions happen when you’re not playing with a lead.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the interceptions thrown last year, listed by the score differential at the time when the interceptions were thrown.

Interceptions by score differential, 2017 regular season
Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Interceptions thrown 146 119 74 48 43
In % of total INTs 34% 28% 17% 11% 10%

Last year, like every year before that, teams threw a lot more interceptions when they were playing from behind than they did when playing with a lead. And when you stop to think about it, the numbers make sense. Once you’re playing from behind you start taking more risks in your passing game in an effort to catch up.

It’s all about being on the right side of the lead

Not only do teams playing from behind throw the ball a lot more often than the teams playing with a lead, they also have those passes intercepted more often. Similarly, a team playing with a lead will generally find it easier to record interceptions on defense.

The stats bear this out. The interception rate (Interceptions divided by passing attempts) increases the further a team is behind; conversely, when playing with a lead teams tend to take fewer risks in the passing game, which in turn leads to fewer mistakes and turnovers.

Interceptions by score differential, 2017 regular season
Behind by 8
or more pts
Behind by 1-7
pts
Game
tied
Ahead by 1-7
pts
Ahead by 8
or more pts
Pass attempts 4818 4843 3672 3294 2043
Interceptions 146 119 74 48 43
INT/Pass Attempts 3.0% 2.5% 2.0% 1.5% 2.1%

For the Cowboys, scoring more and earlier will put their opponents in the situation described above, where they have to lean on the pass and take greater risks in order to try catch up. This in turn will allow the defense to make more plays. As the opposing offenses are forced to go to the pass, the defense can sit back in its nickel and dime formations and simply wait for the opposing offenses to make mistakes.

And as long as the Cowboys don’t play some form of weird prevent defense, the interceptions will eventually come.