The NFL game comes at you fast. With the small number of regular season games compared to other pro sports and their tediously long schedules, things can change in a hurry. For the Dallas Cowboys, one facet of the game that illustrates this is the number of defensive takeaways they have had. Over the first six games, Dallas was mired near the bottom of the league, with only five on their ledger. But with consecutive games against division rivals, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, they added seven, and now are tied for twelfth most with a total of twelve on the year.
That is a great improvement. Nothing is more influential on winning games than the turnover margin. If you give up more than your opponent, your chances of being beaten increase significantly. Stay on the positive side of things, and victory becomes much more likely.
So what has happened? There appear to be two main contributing elements for the Cowboys, and they work hand in hand. They are a pass rush that is starting to flex on opponents, and a secondary that seems to be finding its way to the ball.
The addition of Robert Quinn in the offseason gave Dallas a talented and experienced bookend to go with DeMarcus Lawrence. The slow start for takeaways might partially be influenced by the two-game suspension Quinn was forced to serve to start the season. Now, he and Lawrence are starting to find regular success going after the passer, with Quinn leading the team in sacks with 6.5, or better than one a game. Lawrence is starting to catch up and now has 4.5. There has also been some real pressure coming from the interior of the line in the form of Maliek Collins, who now has three sacks on the season.
Now they have added Michael Bennett, and the payoff was immediate. He contributed a sack in his first game against the Giants, and this quartet (which can be deployed as a nickle unit) totaled 3.5 sacks of Daniel Jones (Quinn shared his with linebacker Jaylon Smith). Backup DE Dorance Armstrong added one more to cap that win. And his sack was basically from slapping the ball out of Jones’ hand, which was the third takeaway of the game. When the pass rush is getting to the quarterback, there are usually going to be some fumbles, as happened there and in the win over the Eagles. And Lawrence has two of those already, including one of those from Carson Wentz.
That kind of production from the down linemen is very important, because it means the team is not having to use blitzes to get pressure. This makes coverage easier. Now, the secondary is starting to get interceptions as well as being involved in some fumbles.
So far, there have only been four picks by the Cowboys, all by defensive backs. But just like with the forced fumbles, they have become more frequent recently, with one in each of the three latest games.
The first of that set of picks was made by Jourdan Lewis. He has moved ahead of Anthony Brown on the depth chart, and now looks to be the starting slot corner even after Brown has returned after missing time due to an injury. That interception, plus the scoop-and-score touchdown after Armstrong’s sack/fumble, are just part of the reason, as Lewis is also a very sure tackler. He also has some decent range to his game as the fumble-score illustrated.
Jourdan Lewis was 20 yards away from the ball when Daniel Jones fumbled. pic.twitter.com/vWnPIeWDXt— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) November 6, 2019
Lewis is really coming on strong. But Xavier Woods may be coming more impressively, as he had his first two picks against the Eagles and Giants, and now is the only player on the Cowboys with more than one. He had other opportunities before but now he is finishing the play. Oh, and he also forced Jones’ first fumble on Monday. Before the season, Woods was tabbed by some as a breakout candidate. It has taken a while but he is starting to make those predictions look pretty good.
So things are looking much better for the Cowboys in the turnover department. Then why, you may ask, did I say this is a good news/bad news situation?
Because defensive takeaways are likely the most random, fluky, unpredictable event in football.
While the shape of the football is designed for it to be thrown efficiently, it also has the side effect of some really odd bounces. When one hits the ground, it can rebound in highly unpredictable ways. Sometimes it goes right back to the player who lost it in the first place. Or just caroms away from the defenders so another offensive player can reclaim it. The defense may do everything right in causing a fumble and still come up empty. The offense may even gain positive yards out of the occurrence.
Likewise, some fumbles come when a member of the offense just flubs it, as happened to Carson Wentz against Dallas. He just failed to look a shotgun snap into his hands, and there was a nice gift on the ground for the defense to seize. There are also bad handoffs and the occasional hilarious collisions between offensive players, such as the notorious butt-fumble.
The defense has little to do with those, outside of a possible intimidation factor. For the most part, you can’t predict them. A few players are more prone than others, but even for them, it is hardly a regular event.
Interceptions have similar elements of pure chance involved. Balls sometimes ricochet off a receiver’s hands right to a defender. Sometimes one will just slip out of the passer’s grip and do a wounded duck imitation. Batted passes that get snagged before they land are also rather random. Other times a pick is generated by a breakdown between the receiver and his quarterback. There is no reliable formula or sure-fire interception play.
That means that a sudden hot streak of takeaways can just as quickly cool off and go away. There is no assurance that the Cowboys’ defenders will continue to find their way to the ball. All they can do is continue to play hard and get their assignments right, then be ready to capitalize on the infrequent opportunities they may be presented.
Still, getting seven of them in two games is a hopeful sign. If Dallas can corral errant footballs at a higher rate the rest of the season, it would be a huge boost to their playoff chances. We just cannot confidently project that it will happen.