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Breaking down the Cowboys 20-13 over the Giants, by the numbers

Defense shines for first place Cowboys

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

(H/T rabblerousr - Dave)

Seven days ago #CowboysNation was in a state of panic over the team’s uninspiring performance in the team’s opener against the Carolina Panthers. Things have changed since then. Let’s take a look at the numbers following the Cowboys’ workman-like 20-13 victory over division foe New York.

1st Place

Enjoy it Cowboys’ fans. The 2018 Dallas Cowboys sit in first place in the NFL’s NFC Eastern division. Yes, nitpickers can point out that three teams in the NFC East each have 1-1 records similar to Dallas. But the league’s byzantine tie-breaker rules currently list the Cowboys first due to the team’s 1-0 division record. I’m not gonna quarrel; after all the negativity and angst surrounding this team following last week’s loss to the Carolina Panthers I’m eagerly embracing everything positive associated with this team. Right now, according to the official NFL standings, your Dallas Cowboys are in first place in the NFC Eastern division.

77.9 QBR rating

Dak Prescott had a miserable game against Carolina in the team’s 2018 opener. No one would argue that. Well, after being challenged by New Giants’ cornerback Landon Collins Prescott responded with an effective, efficient performance that provides the blueprint for how this team can succeed with him at quarterback.

Prescott’s final passing numbers are not particularly impressive. He finished with 160 passing yards and one touchdown. But he also threw no interceptions and wasn’t sacked. More importantly he added 45 yards on the ground, consistently making plays with his legs.

His QBR number of 77.9 was his second best since the Atlanta game of last year and immensely better than his 23.7 number last week.

This is the formula for Prescott to be successful as an NFL quarterback. It’s similar to how Carolina has been a winning franchise under Cam Newton. Dak has to do enough as a quarterback to either prevent opposing defenses from stacking eight men in the box or pay for doing so.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact Prescott’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Tavon Austin had on last night’s game. It immediately sent a message to the Giants saying “if you’re going to stack the box and guard one-on-one on the outside you’ll pay”.

That one play no doubt influenced how the Giants played throughout the rest of the game. This is how Prescott will be effective moving forward. He’ll never be a Drew Breeds, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady picking defenses apart with pinpoint accuracy. Instead, he’ll combine timely passing with a half dozen or so plays with his legs that, overall, make him an effective quarterback.

Sunday against the Giants was the perfect example of this.

14.5 points per game allowed

After surrendering 16 points to the Panthers in week one, the Cowboys’ defense gave up only 13 points against the Giants. Thus, through two games the team is averaging 14.5 points allowed through two games. Truthfully, that number should be lower. Ten of the points allowed to the Giants came in, essentially, garbage time. Still, the 14.5 number is extremely impressive.

The last time a Cowboys team came close to that number over an entire season was 2009 when the team surrendered 15.6 points per game and finished second in points allowed in the NFL.

This Cowboys defense was much-hyped going into the season, with many thinking it could be a top-10 unit. Those ambitions seem to have been well-founded as the team is simply not allowing opponents to move the ball.

273 yards allowed per game

Impressively, the Cowboys defensive numbers are not driven by causing turnovers. Generating turnovers is a mercurial endeavor; they tend to come and go. Yards allowed, however, is a much more consistent and reliable factor that team’s can depend upon game after game. The Dallas defense simply isn’t allowing opponent’s to move the ball.

The Cowboys allowed only 292 yards to Carolina in the team’s opener and held the Giant’s (supposedly) high-powered offense to only 255 yards. These are outstanding numbers in the modern NFL. The top defense of 2017 (Minnesota) held teams to 275 yards per game, so the current Cowboys defense is off to an outstanding start in limiting opponent’s yardage totals.

6 sacks

Pressure on the quarterback is a key component of limiting opponent’s yardage totals and the Cowboys have been doing that very well. The team recorded six sacks against the Giants Sunday night.

Now Eli Manning is a statue, but he’s also one of the best at getting rid of the ball quickly to avoid sacks. But the Dallas pass rush was simply irresistible, recording six take-downs and putting constant pressure on the New York signal-caller.

Cowboys defenses have sacked opposing quarterbacks six times in a game only three times since 2009, the last coming the previous September against Arizona. Before that you have to go back to 2013 against the St. Louis Cardinals and then to 2011 against the San Francisco 49ers (the famous Jesse Holley game).

The bottom line is this Dallas front seven, which was much-hyped throughout the pre-season, has delivered in spades through two games. Most impressively was the fact the six sacks came from six different players and included lineman, linebackers and secondary players.

It’s clear this Dallas defense is very different from previous iterations. The defensive coaches dialed up numerous blitzes that confused the Giants throughout the game. Thus we saw sacks from players like Kavon Frazier and Damien Wilson. There’s no question the team has become more aggressive and most of us think Kris Richard’s presence has a lot to do with that.

Regardless, the Cowboys’ defense is now, undoubtedly, the strength of this team and will be moving forward. An aggressive pass rush will largely determine if that’s a successful formula or not.

3.8 yards per play

Dallas held the Giants to only 3.8 yards per play Sunday night. That is an outstanding number and if the Cowboys’ defense can keep that up they will win a lot of games.

One of the most impressive aspects of this effort is many of the Giants’ numbers essentially came in garbage time. The Giants had only 150 yards of offense, and had scored only 3 points with under five minutes remaining. So the Giants’ numbers aren’t artificially deflated in any way.

The key to stopping the Giants is stopping Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham, Jr. New York tried to allow their best play-makers to make plays, giving them a combined 36 targets either through the air or on the ground.

They enjoyed some success but not enough. The following chart shows the Giants’ average yards per play based upon the following:

  • Saquon Barkley runs
  • Saquon Barkley targets
  • Odell Beckham, Jr. targets
  • Combined Barkley / Beckham targets
  • Non-Barkley/ Beckham targets
  • Total Giants plays

There’s a lot of good there for Cowboys’ fans. First, Barkley averaged only 2.5 yards per run. This is really impressive considering no defender seems to get Barkley down with first contact. The team clearly had an emphasis on stopping the impressive rookie and successfully put that plan into action.

Second, Barkley had 14 catches on 18 targets and was effective but not once did he break any of those catches for a big, game-changing play. That’s easy to overlook but I imagine if Barkley makes 14 catches in the future against another team they won’t fare so well.

Third, plays to players not named Barkley or Beckham yielded only 3.1 yards per play and no team is going to succeed at that rate. In short, the Cowboys limited the Giants’ best offensive players and totally neutralized their secondary players. This is exactly the recipe for success that winning defensive teams employ.

So enjoy Cowboys’ fans. Both Philadelphia and Washington lost, allowing the Cowboys an opportunity to get back into the division race. Dak Prescott rebounded from a terrible week one performance with exactly the kind of play the team will need to succeed. The defense doubled down on a solid opening week performance and looks like it could be a dominant, top-ten (top five?) unit. Pretty much everything went right Sunday so let’s just enjoy this, if only for one day.

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