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Crunching stats: Decoding the Cowboys’ objectives against the 49ers

The score made it look like a failure. But let’s see what some numbers from the game indicate.

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
What did the team do to meet the head coach’s objectives?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Well, the score was a disappointment. The Dallas Cowboys dropped their preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers 17-9. And there were certainly some familiar trends we didn’t like. Drives stalling in the red zone, none of the motion and creativity that has been prevalent in practices, very poor third-down performance, and a backup quarterback that frankly did not look good. But some players had good individual performances, including just about all the projected starters.

One unknown is just what the objectives for the Cowboys were. We know from past years that winning preseason games means just about nothing to head coach Jason Garrett. Instead, they are about evaluating the roster, especially at the bottom, to see who could help in the regular season. Protecting the starters was also important. On offense, they only got one series totaling nine plays, and defensively the starters saw just 11 snaps before taking a seat on the bench.

Letting Kellen Moore show what he can really do was certainly not a priority. Vanilla was obviously the flavor du jour for the Cowboys (and less so for their opponents). We may see Moore get more rein as the preseason advances, although Garrett really doesn’t like to show much for other teams to study.

As I plan to do during the regular season for each game, I dove into the stats from the game, including those snap counts, to see what we may be able to glean.

The backup quarterback battle was truly one-sided

Cooper Rush led the team on both of the scoring drives after the starters left, and should have gotten another if not for Brett Maher’s miss in the second quarter. He was more accurate than Mike White, by far, and suffered from some rather bad drops. Most importantly, he did not turn the ball over, while White lost one fumble and should have lost another if not for a penalty.

While Rush is hardly a starting caliber quarterback at this point, he showed some marked improvement over last year’s preseason. That is important for a third-year QB. Unless he really regresses during the remaining three preseason contests, he should be QB2 to start the season.

White is now not only behind Rush, but making an argument that he should not be carried on the 53 despite his draft status. Having been a fifth-round pick, waiving him would not be unthinkable. He could be brought back on the practice squad - but the team might look for a better option there. That does not mean that things are over for him, since there is ample room for him to improve. But he has to show much more than he did on Saturday.

One thing that should be considered is the line that each worked behind. In particular, it appears that White had Mitch Hyatt working as his left tackle for every snap, and Hyatt did not have a good game. A lot of the damaging pressure on White came from that side. Maybe White would do more if his blind side wasn’t getting assaulted so often, but that is hard to judge.

The passing game was much more a focus than running

Maybe it is because the team still has confidence that Ezekiel Elliott will be back in the fold for the regular season, but it is noteworthy that there were only 18 rushing attempts in the entire game, with 50 pass plays. To put it bluntly, that ain’t the way the Cowboys do things.

This may be the clearest indication that the plan coming into the game was to work on the passing game, even if it was a very simplified version. They certainly didn’t take much opportunity to evaluate Darius Jackson, Mike Weber or Jordan Chunn as ballcarriers. (They apparently don’t need to see much from Tony Pollard, who had a pretty good night and left with the starters.) And of the 18 rushes, 11 of them were on first down, which is just another sign that Moore was really dialing back things.

One thing that tilted the ratio on play-calling even more was the two-minute drill. Dallas had one at the end of both halves, and did not run the ball even once, while throwing the ball 20 times. That looks very much like a deliberate plan to work on that aspect of the scheme.

Xavier Su’a-Filo

Snap counts are always interesting in preseason, because they can tip where some players stand. And one number jumped out: Su’a-Filo was the only player to see 100% of the snaps when his unit was on the field. That was no doubt driven by the absence of Zack Martin and to a lesser extend Brandon Knight, who was off to a good start working at guard before getting nicked up. But it shows that Su’a-Filo is, for now, the backup guard for the team.

Special teams

For down-roster players, being contributors on teams is an important route to making the 53. And certain players were heavily involved. Justin March-Lillard was in on 65% of all ST snaps, which indicates that he has an excellent chance of not losing his job. George Iloka saw 58% (while only getting 26% of the defensive snaps), and Donovan Olumba and Darian Thompson both notched 54%. Ryan Yurachek and LB Chris Covington both were at 50%, and Nate Hall and Donovan Wilson each saw 46%. While there may not be room for all of them in the regular season (it’s hard to imagine the team carrying two fullbacks), you can be sure some of this group will make the roster for their special teams prowess.

Some bad numbers

Third-down efficiency was a dismal 27% (4 of 15), and the Cowboys did not convert either of the fourth downs they attempted. They only totaled 294 yards of offense, which is mediocre. And the short miss by Maher did nothing to ease the worries about his accuracy.

Worst of all, however, is the goose egg for touchdowns. Yes, it is preseason, but it is hard to not feel a bit let down by another bout of futility in crossing the end line.

And some good

The 49ers were not much better on third down, only converting 33%, a good sign for the Cowboys’ defense. Dallas won the turnover battle two to one. And penalties were clearly a plus for the Cowboys, as they only had five flags accepted (plus at least one offsetting). The Niners were very bad, with 18 for a staggering 218 yards, and several times the Cowboys had their choice of flags to accept. That is a very good result for Dallas, as it shows a lot more discipline than often shows up at this stage.

If there is one factor to point to for the meaningless loss, it is that San Francisco has much better backup quarterbacks than Dallas. But a caveat to that is the blase nature of the play-calling for the game. We may not see the full impact of Moore until the regular season, but hopefully the next three weeks will at least give us some hints.

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