Many are praising the performance of the 2018 Dallas Cowboys defense. And they have a lot of ammunition to support their stance. Consider the team ranks in various categories:
- Third in points allowed per game
- Seventh in yards allowed per game
- Eighth in rushing yards allowed per game
- First in rushing yards per attempt
This is largely untrodden ground for the Cowboys who have been an offensively strong/defensively weak team throughout the Jason Garrett era. The dramatic improvement in results has many calling the Cowboys defense “elite” and ranking it among the best in the league.
We don’t want to discourage such thoughts because there’s much to like about this version of Doomsday. However, in truth this defense hasn’t been tested - at all.
Here are the Cowboys (and the rest of the NFC East) opponents ranked by points scored:
It doesn’t take a forensic investigator to recognize that Dallas (and the entire NFC East) haven’t faced many quality offenses in 2018. Facts:
- The Cowboys have faced only one team that ranks in the top 15 in points scored.
- That team (Panthers) ranked ninth - meaning the Cowboys haven’t face a single offense ranked in the top quarter of the league in terms of points scored.
- Six of the Cowboys’ nine opponents thus far rank 22nd or worse - they’ve been feasting on low quality offenses.
- The Cowboys last four opponents have all ranked 24th or lower in points scored.
In short, the Dallas defense has been facing off against sub-par competition. Not on the list of opponents:
- Patrick Mahomes
- Jared Goff
- Drew Brees (yet)
- Tom Brady
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Mitchell Trubisky
- Andrew Luck (yet)
- Matt Ryan (yet)
- Philip Rivers
- Andy Dalton
Those are the quarterbacks for nine of the top ten scoring offenses in the league (the tenth is Cam Newton of the Panthers). You’ll also note that Dallas faces three of those teams (and their quarterback) over the team’s final seven games.
What this tells us is the Dallas defense really hasn’t been tested this season but over the next seven weeks will be. How the unit performs against these higher caliber opponents will go a long way to determining the team’s 2018 fate.
First, the good news. This is a good defense; better than we’ve seen since 2009 (when the Cowboys ranked second in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed). There are numerous metrics that support this (all of the following charts show the entire NFC East and are based upon per game numbers):
The Cowboys are also good at preventing yards gained, allowing 33 yards less than the league average. Note that the Cowboys’ division foes are not as good in this metric, allowing league average numbers.
A key component of the Cowboys performance is their stout rushing defense. They allow 15 yards less than the league average. Admittedly, both Washington and Philadelphia have better rushing volume numbers.
This is due to teams being more committed to the run against the Cowboys than Washington or Philadelphia.
For whatever reason, team are trying to run against the Cowboys more often than the Redskins or Eagles by a significant margin. This is hard to understand when you look at how much those teams average per rush:
Team are running very effectively against the Eagles, and significantly, more effectively against the Redskins than the Cowboys. In fact, the Cowboys rank first in the entire NFL in terms of yards surrendered per rushing attempt (while the Redskins rank 12th and the Eagles rank 22nd).
This is even harder to understand when you consider how teams have passed more effectively against the Cowboys pass defense.
Both the Cowboys’ pass rush and the secondary have received a lot of love this year. But the reality is they haven’t been that great. Some will claim this is due to the team’s “bend but don’t break” philosophy. And there’s some truth to this. The team has been extremely stubborn in the red zone:
Dallas ranks fourth in the NFL in terms of red zone touchdowns surrendered and sixth in touchdowns allowed per red zone opportunity. I’m somewhat skeptical of this statistic because it has such a small sample size (only 27 red zone opportunities across the entire season, thus far). The Tennessee game (when Dallas surrendered 28 RZ points in five opportunities) illustrates how quickly these things can turn around. That 48% touchdown percentage seems unsustainable to me (the league average is 58%).
More impressive is the fact that Dallas is allowing only 3.0 RZ opportunities per game. That’s a sign the defense is keeping teams away from the opportunity to score touchdowns on relatively short plays.
This is driven by the fact that, on a play-by-play basis, Dallas is stubborn at surrendering yards.
This is a much more compelling statistic because we’re talking about over 500 plays at this point. The number isn’t likely to change significantly for any of these teams moving forward barring a dramatic change in behavior.
We see that both Philadelphia and Washington surrender more yards per play than the league average while Dallas is far below the league average. In fact, Dallas ranks seventh in the league in yards per play allowed.
This might make you think that the Redskins and Eagles are generating more turnovers than Dallas. And this is half true:
The Redskins are above average while both Dallas and Philadelphia lag far behind the league average in turnovers created. This is one reason Washington can surrender 500 yards against Tampa Bay and only three points. You’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical they can maintain that kind of performance.
All of which gets us to our key point: the NFC East is populated by stout defenses and bad offenses. So is the AFC South. As a result these defensive numbers enjoy a sort of self-reinforcing feedback loop:
- The two division’s defenses are good, making life difficult for opposing offenses.
- The two division’s offenses are constantly facing good defenses, making their numbers (probably) worse than they really are.
- Similarly, the defensive numbers probably aren’t as good as the raw numbers indicate, because they’re facing a slew of sub-par offenses.
This is captured in Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings. Here’s how FO define DVOA. And here’s how the NFC East teams rank:
You can see that the FO metric isn’t nearly as kind to the NFC East teams as the raw numbers. This simply reflects that all of the teams are facing a group of poor offensive opponents. A number of things stand out:
- Dallas has an elite rush defense (sixth in DVOA).
- Both Washington and Philadelphia have poor rush defenses (see Ezekiel Elliott’s performance Sunday night).
- All of the team’s have subpar passing defenses.
- The Cowboys’ #26 rank in pass defense worries me
If there’s been one constant about the Cowboys’ defense in the Garrett era it is that they get exposed against high-quality passing teams. They’re often able to stand up to poor or average passing units but surrender yards, long drives and high point totals when facing top ten passing units.
The 2014 and 2016 teams both lost playoff games because they couldn’t stop Aaron Rodgers. The 2017 team failed to make the playoffs because they lost consecutive games despite scoring 30+ points. The inability to stop high-powered passing offenses has been a constant throughout the Garrett era.
And the reality is the 2018 unit hasn’t face a single elite passing offense. But it’s about to. Let’s revisit the list of opponents as ranked by points scored:
There’s a virtual absence of elite offenses; only New Orleans (3) ranks among the top five that any team has face thus far. Philadelphia has both the Saints and the Rams (2) among their remaining games. But other than that they don’t face a team ranked higher than 18 and face four teams ranked 25th or worst.
Dallas, meanwhile, faces three teams ranked among the top eight in the next five weeks. We’re talking Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck (looking much more like his former self recently).
This will be - by far - the three best passing teams the Cowboys will face in 2018. While the Cowboys defense has been quite good this far the reality they haven’t faced their kryptonite at any point thus far. This will determine whether this 2018 defense really is any good - as well as the team’s 2018 fate.
If the defense can hold up offenses like the Falcons, Saints and Colts then this team has a real shot because those are really good offenses. If, however, they get exposed in those games, the first nine games of the season will reveal this defense as a unit that fed on poor opponents.