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Three numbers show Cowboys’ defense isn’t remotely close to elite

There’s much to like, but there are still gaping vulnerabilities to this defense.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The one constant to the Jason Garrett era of the Dallas Cowboys has been a defense that has vacillated between mediocre and downright terrible. Until recently that is. In fact, the Dallas Cowboys 2018 defense currently ranks among the best in the league, ranking seventh in points allowed and fifth in yards allowed.

We can see this is the culmination of a long-term trend of the Cowboys’ defense slowly and methodically improving from historically bad (2013) to mediocre (2015) to top ten (2018).

This is a terrific development. Cowboys fans have, for years, watched the team lose important games when the defense simply couldn’t stop opponents from putting up video game-like numbers in key late-season and post-season games.

Consider how the Cowboys’ seasons ended in recent years when the team was good enough to compete or advance to the playoffs:

Those defensive numbers are simply horrific in every way:

  • 29 points allowed per game
  • 400 yards allowed per game
  • Three turnovers generated in five games or 0.6 per game

It’s virtually impossible to win games against quality opponents when the defense is surrendering 30 points, 400 yards and recording no turnovers. Yet that’s what Cowboys’ offenses have been asked to overcome for the duration of the Garrett era.

Until now it seems. The current defense has the league’s leading sack-master. There’s also a corner no one wants to throw against. These are both features we haven’t seen in years. Add an athletic, young linebacking corps and there’s lots to like about this defense.

And yet, there are three numbers that should give every Cowboys’ fan pause. Because these numbers resemble past numbers in almost every way. More importantly, if these numbers continue, this 2018 defense will disappoint just as past defenses have.

Let’s take a look at each one.

3rd Down Conversion Rate

While Dallas has consistently improved in recent years in points and yards allowed, the same cannot be said for allowing teams to convert third downs. In fact, the 2018 squad is currently allowing teams to convert 45% of third downs, which ranks 26th in the entire league.

We see this is similar to last season and is markedly worse than the 2015-2016 units. It is, however, very similar to the 2014 squad that ended up allowing the Green Bay Packers to convert nine of thirteen third down attempts in the team’s division round match-up.

In short, despite having an elite pass-rusher the team continues to allow defenses to convert third downs and move the chains. An inability to get off the field is a defensive weakness that will show up again and again against above average offenses.

Red Zone Conversion Rate

Most red zone analysis look at number of touchdowns scored versus number of attempts. Thus, if a team enters the red zone four times and scores touchdowns two times they’ll assign that team a 50% conversion rate.

I look at it differently. I consider each red zone entry an opportunity to score seven points. I then divide the number of points actually scored by the number of points available. Thus, if a team had four red zone opportunities and converted those into two touchdowns and two successful field goals they scored 20 out of a possible 28 points:

(Actual points scored)/(Available points) or (20/28) = 71.5%

This approach allows us to account for made and missed field goals as well as turnovers. And in this area the 2018 Cowboys are failing. They are currently allowing teams to convert red zone opportunities at a 65% rate.

This number is worse when you consider the team did well against the Panthers in week one (giving up 16 points in five red zone opportunities). Since then, Dallas has surrendered 34 points in six red zone opportunities (5.7 points per opportunity/81% conversion rate).

In short, the Dallas defense hasn’t been as good near the goal-line as it has been beyond the 20-yard line. And the numbers are largely affected by an event we’ve seen far too rarely: a turnover.

The Dallas defense forced a turnover on the very first drive of the season. Daniel Ross caused a fumble on the Carolina Panthers initial drive of the season opener inside the Cowboys’ five-yard line. DeMarcus Lawrence recovered the ball for a huge play that helped keep that game close early. Without that play the Cowboys’ red zone numbers would be even worse.

Which brings us to our third and most important number:

Turnovers caused: two

It’s almost mind-numbing to consider the realities of the Cowboys’ current turnover situation. Generally, having an active, dynamic, athletic defense would lead to turnovers. A pass rush that disrupts opposing quarterbacks should lead to bad decisions, deflections and poor throws that inevitably result in interceptions and quarterback fumbles. Add athletic, mobile linebackers and sticky corner backs and conventional wisdom says turnovers should be coming in droves.

Not so with this defense. The team currently sits in 32nd place out of 32 teams in turnovers caused. That’s bad; really bad. But we’ve seen this before:

The above shows us that since ranking second in the league with 31 turnovers caused in 2014 the Cowboys have never been above league average since. We also see that for the second time in four years the team is dead last. The 2015 squad set a modern NFL record by recording only eleven turnovers in sixteen games (0.69 turnovers per game).

And yet, the current defense again ranks dead last in turnovers. In fact, the team is on pace to record only eight turnovers on the season, which would best the Cowboys’ previous modern-day record.

The Cowboys’ defensive secondary is no longer surrendering huge volumes of yards as past editions have but it’s also not recording any turnovers. The team ranks dead last with zero interceptions. The defense has forced only three fumbles on the season (recovering two). It’s hard to explain or isolate why this is happening but it is.

Turnover margin is the single biggest number that correlates with winning in the NFL; much more so than yards gained. Thus, unless this defense can somehow start doing what it hasn’t done thus far the 2018 season is likely to end in disappointment for Cowboys’ fans.

Now, turnovers are somewhat mercurial. That 2014 Cowboys team that ranked second in the league in turnovers generated wasn’t particularly special. It ranked 19th in yards allowed, 15th in points allowed and recorded only 28 sacks. There was nothing about that team that made you think it would be a top-five turnover machine. Yet it somehow found a way to take the ball away from opponent’s 31 times.

Turnovers, it seems, are a mysterious and unpredictable element of NFL football.

Thus, it’s very concerning that this otherwise quality Cowboys defense seems completely incapable of taking the ball away. Unless and until that changes, it’s unlikely this team will succeed in any way.

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