After a Wild Card Round that saw eliminations of the Ravens, Bears, and Texans, the Dallas Cowboys are the best defense left standing in the final eight. That’s comforting news when facing the Los Angeles Rams, the second-highest scoring offense in the NFL. Only the Chiefs score more points and even they fell 54-51 to these Rams in Week 11.
The Rams, Chiefs, and the Saints are the definition of what the league wants. High-octane, massive yardage, explosive playmaking, and college-like scoring that sends the ratings soaring.
As entertaining these three offenses have been to watch, they combine for a total of eight losses to playoff defenses. The Cowboys are the only playoff team to beat New Orleans, and at seventh in total defense, they’re leading the pack of defenses left in the playoffs:
|RK||TM||PPG||Yds||Y/P||TO||1stD||Pass YPG||OPP QB||Int||Sack||Rush YPG||YPC||TD||Pen||3DN%||RZ%|
This is the time of year where the great defenses shine their brightest. The Cowboys defense is first in points allowed, yards per game, yards per play, and first downs allowed per game of the final eight defenses. The two key areas that stick out most as potentially problematic are:
- 3rd Downs
Stats can be deceiving as the numbers above can’t show the improvement this Cowboys defense has made. Since the bye week, including this last week’s wildcard win, Dallas has improved in both areas:
|Last 9 Gms||PPG||YPG||1stD||TO||Sk||Opp QB||Opp3D%||RZ%|
When figuring out the best plan of action for the Cowboys to win this game against an explosive offense like the Rams, takeaways are the key. The Rams have turned the ball over 19 times this year (third-most among playoff teams), eight of those came in their three losses:
|LAR Losses||Tot. Yds||1st DN||TD||TO|
All three teams to defeat the Rams (Saints, Bears, and Eagles) were the better defenses in the stat sheets. Though Dallas has won shootouts this year, none were against an offense as potent as L.A. It’s encouraging to know teams that have beat the Rams do so on defense.
Let’s look at the Cowboys defense in their wins compared to what happens to the Rams offense in losses to find the common path:
|Per Game Avg.||PPG||Total Yards||1st DN/Gm||TD/Gm||TO/Gm||3DN%||RZ%|
|DAL DEF (Win)||19.6||318||17.5||2.1||1.3||37%||52%|
|LAR OFF (Loss)||21.3||368||20||2||2.6||31%||50%|
Even in defeat, L.A.’s offense still racks up yardage over the 360 mark. The Cowboys average win is 30+ yards lower but Dallas is 4-2 in games allowing over 360 yards. This Dallas defense is good enough to overcome the yards but they will need to takeaways with an opponent like this. It starts with limiting the Rams passing game and attacking their young quarterback, Jared Goff.
Since the devastating injury to Cooper Kupp, Goff has had four of his season-low passing performances in the last six games. In those four games, L.A. averaged just 192 passing yards per game against the Lions, Bears, Cardinals, and 49ers. Other than Chicago, the others combined for 13-35 record this season.
Before we get too excited, this Rams offense still averaged 376 yards over the final six games. We’re not suggesting their offense is broken without Kupp, they did win four out of six, but this latest dip could be favorable for a good defense.
Now, let’s talk about the most favorable trend for the Cowboys if they can capitalize on the opportunity. The Rams, namely Jared Goff, have been a little careless with the football lately. An astounding 12 of their 19 turnovers this season have come in these six games. The Rams offense has only one clean, turnover-free game in that time and Goff was sitting before the end of the third quarter.
L.A. is also averaging about two giveaways per game. Goff has 12 fumbles on the season, eight in the last six games, and zero recoveries. Dak Prescott also has 12 fumbles this season but has been fortunate to keep eight of them. The Cowboys offense has the second-lowest turnover rate of the final eight playoff teams. Which is a good thing too because they must protect the football against this sneaky Rams’ defense.
Say what you will about their inability to stop the run, allowing a league-high 5.1 yards-per-carry, or how they are the second-worst scoring defense in the playoffs, but despite a defense that is middle-of-the-pack at best in most categories the Rams are the best playoff team in takeaways with 30 on the year. For all the bad, taking the ball away has been an effective deodorant. In the second-half of the season, nobody accrued more takeaways than the Rams with 17, 11 of those were interceptions.
Back to the Cowboys defense for a moment. Dallas didn’t get a single interception or fumble out of a Seahawks’ offense that has the least turnovers this season. Prior to that game, the Cowboys defense had gone nine straight with at least one takeaway and averaged 1.5 per game since the bye week. This Dallas defense has had takeaways in 13 total games, that’s third behind the Colts and Rams defenses.
We all know how loaded this L.A. roster is with mega-talents on the defensive line and a few Pro-Bowlers in the secondary. The Rams also hardly ever play from behind, averaging an eight-point lead at the start of the third quarter. Which is no coincidence why 60% of the Rams takeaways are in the late stages of the game. The only three teams to have a lead to start the third quarter were coincidentally the same teams that beat them. Dallas is no stranger to leading late in games, even though most of their games end in one-score possessions.
The Cowboys defense has shown that they know how to play with a lead, it’s what every defense hopes for. If you force the opposition to chase points, it opens up more margin for error. The Bears and Eagles showed the Cowboys the exact blueprint as they forced the Rams into seven turnovers in the span of eight quarters. That’s why this Cowboys defense must match that opportunistic intensity and hunt for the ball because winning the turnover battle is line one to winning multiple playoff games.