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Crunching stats: Eight things that show us the Cowboys are on the right trajectory

The improvement from the first game was drastic - and there is room for even more.

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New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys
Mr. Manning, meet Mr. Smith.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

My, things feel so much better after the Dallas Cowboys beat the New York Giants by a 20-13 score that made things look a lot closer than they actually were. It is a lot more fun to dive into the stats from the game to pull out some things that we can learn from. Stat sheet scouting is fraught with peril, but with a little judicious interpretation, we can still gather things to inform us going forward.

6 for 6

The Cowboys had six sacks of a shell shocked Eli Manning.

(Isn’t it amazing how expressive his face is when things go awry?)

Anyhow, as great as the game was for the pass rush (now second in the league in sacks), what is even better is how the sacks came about. Six different players got home on Manning, two defensive ends (Taco Charlton, DeMarcus Lawrence), two players from the interior of the line (Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford), a linebacker (Damien Wilson), and a safety (Kavon Frazier). Having the sacks spread around is always good, much like getting the ball to a variety of receivers: The other team can’t focus on stopping your one big threat, because the threat comes from everywhere.

And five of those sacks came when Dallas brought a blitz, which seems like a real departure from the way the team went about things before Kris Richard came to town. We may have seen the future, and it looks good.

6 to 0

In the loss to the Carolina Panthers, Dak Prescott took an Eli-level of abuse. Against the Giants, he was almost untouched unless he was running the ball for good yardage. New York could only get three hits on him the entire game when he was throwing. That was influenced a bit by the fact that the Giants don’t have near the front seven that the Panthers do, but it also shows that the Cowboys offensive line got a lot cleaned up in their week of prep for the second game. That will give Prescott a lot more confidence when he’s passing, and that is extremely helpful.

64

As in how many yards the deep throw to Tavon Austin covered for the touchdown just three plays into the game. It proved that Prescott could throw the ball deep, which affected the Giants’ defense for the rest of the game and opened up things for the team to amass 138 yards rushing. Once they got that big strike, the Cowboys were pretty much in control of things, even though the offense would regress until the final scoring drive to put things pretty much out of reach.

6

As in yards per play offensively for Dallas. (You may notice a theme to start things here.) As Bob Sturm noticed in his morning after piece at The Athletic:

Dak Prescott and the offense averaged six yards per snap yesterday and had a double-digit lead for almost all of the game against a divisional rival with a stiff defense. We talked about how much trouble they cause the Cowboys running game in the last few years and last night was no real exception. They gained 298 yards on just 50 snaps last night. Yes, there certainly would be more snaps if they could convert a few more third downs, but that comes in at 5.96 yards per play. You could easily round it up to six yards per snap.

When this offense – Prescott, Linehan, Garrett – get 5.7 yards per play, they are 17-1. When they fall below that number, they are 6-10. That is a rather large indicator of success and the Cowboys were on the good side of the threshold last night.

You may want to argue that the one long score pushed that average up, but that just means that it doesn’t matter how you get the yards. It is the efficiency that matters, and the Cowboys were much more efficient than New York, who only managed 3.8 yards per play, with much of their production coming after the Cowboys went into a prevent approach after building the lead to 20-3.

2 for 2 twice

That is from Brett Maher’s stat line, two field goals on two attempts and the same for extra points. After the miss in the season opener, it is no exaggeration that the fans breathed a collective sigh of relief at some real evidence that things will be OK without Dan Bailey (he is now going to play for the Minnesota Vikings in their indoor stadium, which should be good for him.)

The new shape of the linebacking corps

Here are the key stats for the linebackers who saw action with the defense.

Jaylon Smith: 10 tackles, one TFL, 84% of the defensive plays

Leighton Vander Esch: 7 tackles, 41%

Sean Lee: 5 tackles, 60%

Damien Wilson: 3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QB hit, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble, 25%

Joe Thomas: 1 tackle, 21%

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, while Lee had a bit of a bounce back after his rather poor showing in the first game, he was not the workhorse we have become used to. Part of that was due to what he describes as a cramp in his hamstring, which may be a conditioning issue after he had so little work in preseason, but it also may be an early signal that Smith is becoming the new standard bearer for the group - and that is still such a remarkable story after so many thought Dallas had wasted that second-round pick on him. Vander Esch is starting to show he was not a wasted pick in the first, either, with good production on fairly limited snaps. It can still be argued that he was still a bit too costly in terms of draft capital, but he now has a definite “future starter” look to him. And Wilson, who also performed poorly in Carolina, had the biggest rebound of all, with a ridiculously productive day while only being on the field a quarter of the time. The defense is looking very solid from front to back.

Speaking of the defense’s other units

The secondary may be a bit shallow, but they have come through big. After keeping Cam Newton from any long completions, they largely shut down Odell Beckham Jr. and didn’t let Saquon Barkley or Evan Engram do any significant damage either. Chidobe Awuzie and Kavon Frazier were on the field for all the defensive play, Byron Jones and Jeff Heath each only missed one after each was shaken up a bit, and Anthony Brown saw the field for 74% of the plays as the nickle corner. These guys are balling.

And the defensive line is, as well. In addition to the three sacks, they amassed 11 tackles, 6 TFLs, 6 QB hits, and Charlton’s fumble recovery.

But not all is perfect

There is still room for improvement. Dallas only converted 3 of 10 third downs. They had six penalties for 47 yards, which wiped out a couple of third down conversions. And Barkley evaded the first man to get to him on almost every play, which is partly a testament to his elusiveness with his perfectly timed spin moves, but also something that needs improvement. After the first couple of series, Prescott made very few attempts to go deep with his passes. And Elliott, while effective, only had 78 yards rushing, something the team really needs him to improve.

Still, overall, the stats bear out that this was a convincing and badly-needed win. And it brings us to the most important stat of all:

1-1, and tied for the NFC East lead.

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