For fans of the Dallas Cowboys, there was an early Christmas present delivered on Sunday as the team wrapped up the NFC East crown and locked down a wild card playoff game in the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium (where Dallas is 7-1 this year). The win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was very good to see, but in a lot of ways, it can be described as an ugly win. That usually means there are some interesting stats, and there were indeed.
Dak’s stat line
This was a real mix of good and bad for Dak Prescott. The good: 20 of 25 passing (80%), a touchdown, no interceptions, a QB rating of 86.6 and a passing rating of 106.8. Those are all good to very good numbers.
Now for the bad: 161 total yards, and only six receivers caught balls. That is a very paltry output. There were a lot of short completions, and too many failed completions and incompletions on third down.
However, there was a very interesting Jekyll and Hyde aspect to his performance.
Dak Prescott vs. Bucs while playing with big lead (8+ points)— Cowboys Stats & Holiday Cheer (@CowboysStats) December 24, 2018
• Completed 7 of 9 passes for 2 first downs and 0 touchdowns
• 1 rush attempt for a 3-yard loss
• 30% success rate on QB plays
• -0.26 EPA per QB play
I’m not sure exactly what this means, but it does infer that Prescott is better player when there is more on the line. We can all cross our fingers and hope that the playoffs bring out the best in him.
As with some of Prescott’s numbers, the overall figures are misleading. Tampa Bay out-gained Dallas 383 yards to a really paltry 232, tied for the Cowboys’ lowest yardage of the season (against the Carolina Panthers). The Bucs also had the advantage in first downs, 27-16, and completely dominated time of possession 35:19 to 24:41.
But that lopsided output was effectively wiped out by three big defensive plays, the spectacular strip sack by Randy Gregory followed by Jaylon Smith’s 69-yard return for a touchdown (with a convoy by Demarcus Lawrence who flashed incredible speed going stride for stride with Smith), the Gregory recovery of a second fumble to set up Dallas’ final touchdown of the game, and the red zone stop on fourth down by Antwaun Woods, who brought Jameis Winston down a yard short of a first at the Dallas two-yard line. That last play came midway through the fourth quarter and was instrumental in preserving the win. The Buccaneers moved the ball between the twenties all game, but were only able to get to the red zone twice, with that one big failure.
It just emphasizes the importance of hanging on to the ball on offense and getting it away from the other guys on defense. That is what this game really turned on.
Three red zone trips, 17 points
This comes with a big caveat: Tampa Bay is dead last in the league in preventing opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone. It is not surprising that the Cowboys would have one of their best performances of the year against them, and they still had to settle for a field goal on one trip.
Still, this is a place where the Cowboys have been pretty woeful, ranking 30th overall. It is at least a little encouraging to see them get that many points, even if one of the touchdowns was set up by Gregory’s second recovery at the Tampa four-yard line. We have seen far too many of those opportunities wasted. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend for the better.
Gallup has a good day
It is hard to call this a real breakout game for Michael Gallup, but given the very limited production of the passing game, it may be a harbinger of good things to come. He led all receivers with 53 yards on three catches out of four targets, had the longest reception of the game with the perfectly executed 31-yard reception (on third and twelve to keep the first touchdown drive of the game alive), and caught that final touchdown pass. Amari Cooper was not much of a factor at all, only getting 20 yards on four catches. The Buccaneers seemed determined to keep the new big gun at receiver out of the picture, and it didn’t look like the Cowboys were trying to change that. But with Gallup’s performance, it didn’t matter in the end.
Zeke continues to be the workhorse
He only had 85 yards rushing, but with 24 receiving, he accounted for 46% of the offense on the day. Now, the Cowboys would be wise to limit him in the now meaningless season finale against the New York Giants, despite the pronouncements of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett. Ezekiel Elliott continues to be the engine that drives this offense. There still is a valid debate about how much focusing things on him really helps the team.
Final EPA chart: Cowboys offense vs. Buccaneers defense— Cowboys Stats & Holiday Cheer (@CowboysStats) December 23, 2018
Michael Gallup plays the hero again. Amari Cooper and Cole Beasley ride the first-down-rate seesaw. #FeedZeke continues to be a problematic rallying cry. pic.twitter.com/t3I0jO49Ma
However, there is another facet of Zeke’s game, and that is how opposing defenses have to account for him. His presence in the backfield makes first- and second-down passes easier as he draws defenders into the box, and he has shown he can be deadly if he gets some space on a reception. For good or for bad, the offense is going to run through him, and Dallas needs him fresh and ready for the playoffs.
The second-round defensive studs
Jaylon Smith: 10 total tackles, two passes defended, and of course that touchdown.
Randy Gregory: Two tackles, a sack/forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and three QB hits.
Demarcus Lawrence: Three tackles, a sack, and two quarterback hits, plus he is far more disruptive than just the raw numbers show.
All were seen as risky moves when the Cowboys used a second-round pick on them. Now, they are stalwarts on the defense that carried them in the division-clinching game.
Meanwhile, a highly-criticized first-rounder finally got back on the field and showed up with a vengeance. Taco Charlton had five tackles, including one for a loss, and was a key contributor in this game. It looks like he may have gotten healthy and maybe gotten out of the doghouse just in time for the playoffs.
Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch just continues to make the front office look brilliant as he led the team with 15 tackles and smothered the onside kick to snuff out Tampa Bay’s last chance. He has effectively turned Sean Lee into a reserve player. There just aren’t enough superlatives.
The Cowboys were penalized ten times (by the most flag-happy crew in the NFL) for 67 yards. But the timing of those infractions were particularly bad, as seven of them gave the Bucs a new set of downs. Tampa Bay had nine penalties, with only one giving the Cowboys a first down (the facemask committed by Vita Vea on Prescott that negated a sack).
But there were some really shaky calls in those Dallas flags. The roughing the passer on Gregory, a neutral zone infraction on him where replay showed him moving a split second after the center, Xavier Woods’ textbook hit that was seen as a foul because Adam Humphries’ head snapped back, and that bizarre fourth down delay of game on Lawrence. The Cowboys did get one back on the illegal block in the back called on Jameis Winston, but they clearly had more really shaky calls go against them.
It is part of the bigger issues with officiating in the league. We feel that the refs have it in for Dallas, but no matter the truth of that, the NFL needs to come up with some answers for how the officials are making the game so hard to watch.
NFC East champs
OK, that isn’t exactly a stat, but it is the most significant thing to come out of the game. It was a badly needed win with the Philadelphia Eagles still clinging to life. It is also the third time in five years Jason Garrett has led his team to the playoffs, and that is with two different quarterbacks, two different featured running backs, two different WR1s, and no Hall of Fame tight end this year. Don’t sleep on the role the head coach has had in doing that, especially with the way the offensive line has been reduced to a shadow of what it was two years ago.
The Cowboys are playing in January. Happy New Year to all of us.