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Crunching stats: Looking back at Cowboys’ win over Lions, and projecting forward

The numbers from this game are a lot more fun to work with.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys
His stats were nearly insane.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The stats from the Dallas Cowboys much-needed win over the Detroit Lions fall right in line with what we saw: The best offensive game of the year for the Cowboys, combined with another game where the defense had some problems with the challenge of an excellent quarterback on the other side. But the positives outweigh the negatives. That is always a good thing. So let’s jump in to what we can glean from the overall picture.

The receiving corps looks like it has firmed up.

Particularly in the sense of who are the primary targets. Most of the time, the Cowboys go with a single running back on the field, which leaves four spots to be filled by some combination of wide receivers and tight ends. That group of receivers will vary a bit depending on the play called. But combining the snap counts with the targets and balls caught shows us who will be doing most of the work going forward.

Here are the top receivers, with their targets, catches, yards, and the number and percentage of snaps they were on the field.

Ezekiel Elliott: 4 targets, 4 receptions, 88 yards (1 TD), 53 snaps, 77%

Cole Beasley: 5 targets, 4 receptions, 53 yards, 38 snaps, 55%

Geoff Swaim: 5 targets, 3 receptions, 39 yards (1 TD), 64 snaps, 93%

Allen Hurns: 5 targets, 3 receptions, 30 yards, 47 snaps, 68%

Michael Gallup: 5 targets, 2 receptions, 45 yards, 40 snaps, 58%

Rod Smith was the only other player who caught a pass, in relief of Elliott. Tavon Austin and Rico Gathers each had one target without a catch. And that’s it.

It is pretty clear. Your starters, regardless of who is actually on the field for the first play of the game, are those five names that had all but one of the receptions in the game. And the roles are beginning to shake out. Swaim is obvious as the TE1, with Zeke even more so as RB1. Beasley and Hurns are the possession receivers, while Gallup looks like the primary deep threat, which is going to mean less catches but more impact for each. There still is work to do, as Hurns, Gallup, and Austin all had drops while Gathers seemed to mistime his jump in the end zone. But there is now a workable plan going forward for the receivers.

The return of the 214 connection.

21 and 4, AKA Zeke and Dak, were back in the winning form of their rookie year. Elliott clearly looked like the best running back in the league with a career best output in yardage from scrimmage, and is back at the top of the rushing list, where he belongs.

Prescott is not the stat-generating monster Elliott is, but he never has been, and doesn’t need to be as long as Elliott is playing at such a high level. What he did against Detroit is put up the kind of numbers he had during his first season and a half, going 17 for 27 with two TDs and no INTs, and more importantly, completing two passes that traveled over 30 yards in the air.

Dak is not the most potent threat as a quarterback, but he once again was a valid one that reestablished the synergy with the big-time running attack. If he continues to produce at about the same level as he did against a Lions defense that has a good secondary, then the Cowboys can be at or around that 400 yards per game level of production that is something of a threshold for a very good day on offense.

And special note must be made of the play on the last drive that didn’t show up as a stat. It was when the ball was stripped from Prescott, and he had the presence of mind to scoop it up, run toward the sideline, and dump the ball off to get to a third and three rather than third and a whole bunch. It likely saved the day for the Cowboys. It is one sign that Prescott is maturing as a QB.

3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits.

As in how many times the Lions got to Dak, and one of those sacks was when he was scrambling and went out of bounds just short of the line of scrimmage. He did get taken down one other time, but there were two defensive penalties on the play that nullified that one. Still, he got hit a lost less than last week, due to much better protection from the offensive line. That has to boost his confidence, although he is still moving back when he should be climbing the pocket. He obviously needs to work on that. Maybe the reduction in hits will help him gain the faith to do so.

As for run blocking, 183 yards rushing speaks for itself.

4 for 4.

That was the line for Brett Maher’s field goals. He kept Dallas close by getting some points even when too many drives fizzled in the Detroit end of the field, and of course nailed the game winner. Re-live it, why don’t you?

It is too soon to say that the decision to release Dan Bailey was the correct one, but the early returns are certainly good.

1:39 left in the second quarter, 2:59 left in the third quarter.

That is when the Cowboys scored their two touchdowns. What’s important about it?

Coming into this game, Dallas had scored no touchdowns in the second and third quarters. They had only managed nine points altogether in those quarters. In one game, they exceeded that total and broke the TD drought. This is something that can get overlooked, but is a major step that needs to be replicated going forward.

5 for 12 (42%) and 1 for 3 (33%)

Time for some concerning numbers, namely the Cowboys’ third down and red zone efficiency stats. Those are not good, although the third down rate was nearly twice as good as it was for the first three games. There is clearly room and need for improvement.

What has changed is that the job Scott Linehan did with the game plan and calling plays on Sunday now gives us some hope he can continue to improve things. There is still some debate about just whether and how many times he actually put in some of those new wrinkles, but he clearly dug much deeper into his playbook and with considerably more success than in the first three weeks. He just needs to keep that up.

8 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, 3 QB hits.

Time to look at the defense. That is the stat line for one DeMarcus Lawrence, at the time of this writing the league leader in sacks. That is a remarkable performance. The rest of the Hot Boyz were not nearly as effective, but sacks are often a result of team effort on stunts, blitzes, and just occupying other blockers. Still, DLaw is making a case as the most valuable defender in the league right now. And soon, someone is going to back a truck up to his house and unload a ton of contract money. Hopefully, it will be the Cowboys.

13 total tackles.

The combined stats for Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. That’s not spectacular, but for the first time in what seems forever, the Cowboys took the field without Sean Lee, and did not look like they were falling apart on defense. Two highly questioned draft picks are panning out very well.


As in the number of times Matthew Stafford tried to throw a pass in the direction of Byron Jones.

Pretty much says it all.

307 yards passing.

That is what Stafford did throwing the ball. It was almost too much, but turned out to not quite be. Plus with the many pinpoint throws that Stafford was making, often against Chidobe Awuzie, who couldn’t have done much else without drawing a flag, it felt like that number should have been higher. It was a case of what the defense did being just enough given the performance of the offense.

Close games are something you want to avoid in the NFL, because over time, they are a 50/50 proposition. But getting a win in one is always a great outcome. Dallas just doesn’t want to get in many more of them.

Those are some stats that stuck out for me. The sum of them all is that the team is headed in the right direction - for now. The task facing Dallas going forward is to keep moving that way. The next few games will let us know the truth of the matter, and there are some real challenges coming down the road.

But for now, things are good. The Cowboys are still very much alive in the NFC East as the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants both had losses. At this point in the season, that is a good place to be.

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