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Crunching stats: Looking beyond the obvious in the Cowboys’ upset of the Saints

Finding positive signs and worrisome trends in the numbers.

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NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports


It’s been almost 24 hours as I write this, and it still doesn’t seem real. The Dallas Cowboys really did beat the New Orleans Saints by the highly improbable score of 13-10. Looks like my Twitter wish was fulfilled.

But of course it wasn’t a dream after all. It was real.

The defensive numbers have been hashed out in numerous posts here and elsewhere, so this week’s foray into finding meaning from the stats will look beyond that. Here are some other numbers that have implications both good and bad for the team.

3 point margin of victory

You take a win however you can. But close games are dangerous over the long run, because they can go either way. And as exciting and gratifying as the four-game winning streak has been, all have been wins with a one possession margin of victory. Seven points over the Eagles, three over the Falcons, eight more than Washington, and three again over the Saints.

The Cowboys need to get some bigger margins in the last month of the season. The onus for that falls clearly on the offense, which continues to leave points on the field. However, the victory over New Orleans comes with a caveat. The Cowboys were in a position to push that edge to ten points at the end, but wisely elected to take three consecutive kneel downs starting at the Saint’s one-yard line. Given the way Ezekiel Elliott was grinding out tough yards on play after play, it was overwhelmingly likely that he would have punched it in, and then there was a high probability that the defense could have gotten one more stop of the battered and bewildered New Orleans offense. But a sure thing is a sure thing, and the team wisely took it.

Minus one turnover margin

This was the first game of the season where Dallas came out on the short end of the turnover battle and didn’t lose. That is another way they are living dangerously, and they could easily have had another giveaway with Dak Prescott once again not maintaining good ball security. Of course, Dallas lost a takeaway on the highly-marginal neutral zone call against Randy Gregory, and that defense looks like it is going to get some more down the stretch. But the offense has to take care of the rock better.

Seven sacks surrendered

That is another negative stat that is somewhat amazing to see in a win. Combine it with losing the turnover battle, and this game is entering into surreal territory for overcoming adversity.

The blame is not on just one thing, as Bob Sturm observed in his Morning After post at The Athletic.

I will tell you that the 45 sacks in 2018 have many different stories. Sometimes, they’re reflective of a QB who is trying to find a solution to a problem and not able to see it. Sometimes you can point at an offensive line that cannot maintain its protection for the proper amount of time. Sometimes blame falls at the feet of protectors failing to see an ambush from the opposition and letting a man run free. Sometimes a sack really is the result of nobody being open. But the Cowboys give up a ridiculous 3.75 sacks per game, which far exceeds anything they have allowed in decades. Heck, it is worse than anything the NFL has put out since the 2016 Browns.

The Dallas offensive line was a pillar of strength not long ago. As recently as 2016, they allowed 1.75 a game and 28 for the entire season — with this same quarterback who causes so many fans to blame him for every sack. By the way, Dak Prescott is to blame for several, including probably two (maybe three) of Thursday’s seven. But this offensive line is nowhere close to the line the Cowboys could put out there in 2016. This line was not made to sustain injuries to the left tackle, left guard, center, and primary blocking tight end like this. The backups have done what they can, but there is a difference between a nearly-$10 million/year center and a veteran backup. The same contrast exists between a $12 million/year left tackle and one the Patriots let walk for nothing.

Woof. 45 sacks to date, and unless things change, there will be too many more coming. But the team is hoping that Tyron Smith will finally return to action, and that is likely to be a big help (despite PFF’s claim about Cameron Fleming).

But even if Smith gets back, the rest of the line is still going to have to improve dramatically. And Prescott has to do his part as well.

85.7 completion percentage, 22 yards rushing for three first downs

Now let’s give credit where credit is due. Despite missing what would have been an easy long touchdown to Michael Gallup, Prescott was excellent when he wasn’t being taken down by the pass rush. He has his issues, but in this game his strengths came into play. While the offense only mustered 13 points, it put together multiple clock-eating long drives that played a big part in securing the win. It may have just done enough, but that was all it took thanks to that monster of a game by the D.

50% third down conversion rate

This is a key positive stat that was hidden by the lack of points. Since the arrival of Amari Cooper, the Cowboys are among the league leaders in this extremely important statistic. Keep that up, and good things are bound to happen.

76 and 75

Those are the receiving yards for Gallup and Cooper respectively. And that is exciting. The Cowboys have a legitimate one-two punch at WR1 and WR2 for the first time in years. It will stretch the field, open up the box for the run game, and should soon lead to more touchdowns. Now if they can effectively get Cole Beasley out of the slot into the mix and continue to keep Ezekiel Elliott a factor in the passing game, look out. Get to it, Scott Linehan.

136 yards from scrimmage

The defensive plan for the Saints clearly was to stop Elliott and force Prescott to win through the air. They really couldn’t, as Zeke still accounted for 44% of the team’s 308 total yards from scrimmage and their lone touchdown. He is still the engine that drives the offense, and the mini-bye gives him a well-deserved chance to rest up and stay fresh.

8 defensive snaps

That is all that Jourdan Lewis saw in this game (he also was in for 2 snaps as the jet sweep guy and in on 3 ST plays). But his impact was incredible for such limited action, almost all covering the very dangerous Alvin Kamara. He was only credited with one tackle, but had one of the biggest, and probably the most decisive play, of the night on the interception of Drew Brees - and nearly had another earlier in the game. Kris Richard needs to rethink how he uses him despite not fitting Richard’s profile for a corner. The guy makes plays no matter his size.

19 tackles and some wolf howls

Of course, this refers to the linebacking duo of uber-rookie Leighton Vander Esch and third-year player Jaylon Smith (two on the field after sitting his rookie year out recovering from his devastating college injury). They are young, obviously, but already are getting legitimate consideration as the best inside linebacking pair in the league. Both show incredible closing speed and the ability to finish plays against ball-carriers in space. And Sean Lee is hoping to return to action against the Eagles. If Rod Marinelli and Richard can figure out how to distribute the defensive snaps among them (maybe by getting all three on the field at times), the middle level of the defense is going to be a real horror story for opposing offenses. When they aren’t making plays behind the line, it must be added.

Pressure up the middle

OK, cheating a little here, because this didn’t show up so much as stats. But Troy Aikman repeatedly talked during the FOX broadcast about how the pass rush in Brees’ face kept him off balance and out of sync. Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, Daniel Ross, and Caraun Reid were almost on top of him all game. They were the unsung heroes of arguably the best defensive game in the league so far this season.

Those are some numbers and data points that show both good and bad things for the Cowboys. It was a major accomplishment to go out and take one from one of the best teams in the NFL, but it also gives the coaches and players plenty to work on.

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