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Crunching Cowboys snap counts: Pointing the way forward for the Seahawks game

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We’re focusing mainly on one stat this week, because it tells us a lot.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

So what can you learn from the stats from a meaningless game? The Dallas Cowboys put up some gaudy passing numbers in beating the New York Giants in an amazingly exciting and interesting performance. Dak Prescott, Blake Jarwin, Cole Beasley, and Michael Gallup were the stars there. Defensively, things were more troubling. The Giants were the first team all season to score more than 30 points against Dallas, and after a couple of traditional “Eli Manning going all Eli” moments early, the veteran QB threw some very impressive passes until the futile final possession, while Saquon Barkley burnished his offensive rookie of the year résumé.

Ideally, we can look at the stats and find some indicators of what we might expect going forward. Forward, in this case, is obviously the wild card playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. There is one particular thing that merits a close look. That is the snap count, because the win over New York was very atypical in the personnel that saw the field. And when you look at that, there are some real reasons for optimism in Dallas.

Let’s start on offense. Here are six key positions, with the players that were primarily on the field in the fourth quarter when the winning touchdown and two-point conversion were scored, and who we expect to see the vast majority of the snaps on Saturday when the Cowboys try and get Jason Garrett his second-ever playoff win.

Offensive personnel

Position Running back Left Tackle Left guard Center Right guard Right tackle
Position Running back Left Tackle Left guard Center Right guard Right tackle
vs Giants (fourth quarter) Rod Smith Cameron Fleming Adam Redmond Joe Looney Connor Williams La'el Collins
vs Seahawks (expected) Ezekiel Elliott Tyron Smith Xavier Su'a-Filo Joe Looney Zack Martin La'el Collins
Offensive personnel

The return of Ezekiel Elliott is huge, of course. He is the focal point of the Cowboys’ offensive scheme. The staff wisely gave him a week to rest and recuperate. Zeke has been limping noticeably after plays for a few games. Now he should be in better shape. Given the high number of touches he has had (381 in 15 games), he needed the break.

The offensive line is just as significant, since 60% of the players who are expected to start against Seattle were not even on the field for the game-winning drive. Zeke should have better running lanes while Dak ought to have better protection, and that is clearly significant.

It also says a lot about the performance of the quarterback in that game. He was the definition of clutch down the stretch, with that fourth-and-15 touchdown one of the best plays of his still-young career. Give him more time, and if one Scott Linehan utilizes him properly (hardly a given), he could be a real force in the postseason.

If the health of the offensive line holds up in the playoffs, particularly for the two All Pros who sat out the entire game, then yards and points should be there for the Cowboys. Even the red zone performance was significantly better, at 75% success, and third downs were outstanding as Dallas converted 11 of 17, or 65%. Those are a couple of numbers that will win you a lot of games.

The participation of the offensive players were driven by health concerns. To a certain extent, particularly for Leighton Vander Esch, so were the snaps on defense. Here, the comparison is between the division-clinching win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the regular-season finale. The secondary was basically the same, so this will focus on the front seven. Tyrone Crawford was held out after only playing two snaps against the Bucs, so he is not included here, but his return is certainly not insignificant.

Defensive front seven snaps

Player vs Tampa Bay vs New York
Player vs Tampa Bay vs New York
Jaylon Smith 100% 86%
Leighton Vander Esch 100% 51%
Demarcus Lawrence 78% 17%
Maliek Collins 70% 65%
Randy Gregory 66% 69%
Antwaun Woods 62% 69%
Taco Charlton 58% 76%
Caraun Reid 35% 31%
Daneil Ross 29% 35%
Damien Wilson 19% 32%
Dorance Armstrong 0% 41%
Sean Lee 0% 31%
Joe Thomas 0% 27%

The snaps that jump out are at defensive end and linebacker, with the defensive tackles not seeing differences that were really marked. Demarcus Lawrence is the most obvious, as he got just enough work to keep his edge. Once he got the sack to move him to double-digits, he was pulled and protected. That put a lot more work on the table for the depth players, particularly Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong (the latter was not even active against Tampa).

The linebacking corps has simply been outstanding for Dallas this season, and for most of the year, that has meant LVE and Jaylon Smith. In the Giants win, Vander Esch was held out for many plays after his injury scare, but he is planning on being back for the Seahawks. And Smith got some rest, with Damien Wilson and Joe Thomas taking up that slack. The latter two are simply not in the same league with the starters.

That simply means that the Cowboys are coming into the playoffs in remarkably good health for this time of year. If they can avoid any major injury issues with their starters and key backups, they could be a very dangerous team. Add in the emergence the past few games of tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz as a downfield target and blocking specialist respectively, and the team Seattle is facing is a very different animal from the one they beat back in week three of the season.

They have a quarterback who showed his clutch gene. A running back who is ready to eat. A vastly improved receiving corps. And a defense that is ready to wreak some havoc with their Tank, Wolf Hunter, and company.

The Cowboys look ready for the playoffs. Let’s go.