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Crunching Cowboys stats: Dallas is improving but not soon enough to save their season

If the Cowboys had played like this earlier in the season, we would be having a completely different conversation.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It was nearly one of the biggest shockers of the NFL season. The Dallas Cowboys came up short against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but even though the loss was widely expected, it still was a bit amazing. We saw multiple things we had not seen all year. Here are some stats to illustrate that and more about just how different this game was for Dallas. They are both very encouraging and maddeningly disappointing.

53:01

That is the amount of time that the Cowboys led the game. Further, they held a two-score lead for 8:54. It was the first time all season that Dallas held a lead of greater than eight points at any time during a game.

The level of ineptitude prior to this game is simply stunning. The fact that they did so well, with the injury situation deteriorating even more as Tyler Biadasz had a hamstring injury in warmups and Ezekiel Elliott was nursing his own hammy, is just as incredible.

Garrett Gilbert

Many speculated that Gilbert was on a short leash, with Cooper Rush waiting in the wings. Both were just bridges to Andy Dalton returning.

Or so we thought. It became clear from his first drive behind center that Gilbert truly belonged on the field. He got points on that drive, and would lead the team to a score five of the first seven times they had the ball.

Now there is a decision to be made going forward. Does Dalton get the starting job back, or does that now rightfully belong to Gilbert as some argue? It sounds like the Cowboys are going to go with Dalton. While Gilbert got us to sit up and take notice, we should remember that the team did fall short, and his stat line was not at all impressive, outside of the fact he had thrown all of six passes in the NFL prior to this game:

21 completions on 38 attempts (55%), 243 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 72.6 passer rating

However, Dalton was basically worse in his one complete game, against the Arizona Cardinals:

34 completions on 54 attempts (61%), 266 yds, 1 TD, 2 INT, 65.8 passer rating

If the team is truly trying to win as many games as they can going forward, even quixotically trying to win the division, then the evidence points to starting Gilbert. If you want to use the rest of the season to evaluate what players can bring to the table, then again, Gilbert should consideration to be the backup when Dak Prescott returns.

It will be interesting to see how the team goes here, because frankly, there is only one answer rational answer, at least until Gilbert proves he is not what he appeared to be against Pittsburgh.

The running game

Speaking of Elliott, there are a bunch of nuggets to glean from the running game, both offensively and defensively.

The Cowboys had a strong showing on the ground with 144 yards total. It came from a group effort, as Ezekiel Elliott had 18 carries for 51 yards, Tony Pollard went for 57 on nine touches, Gilbert chipped in 28, and Amari Cooper had a single carry for eight.

The effectiveness on the ground kept Dallas in the game. It took pressure off Gilbert and, until things went a bit south late in the first half, let them control the clock to their advantage. It was a tribute to the way the offensive line is playing through adversity.

It also raises at least a minor concern, as Pollard was observably more effective than Elliott. Pollard had two 20 yard runs and a 6.3 yards per carry average, compared to a pretty dismal 2.8 for Elliott. This is not just a one game trend, either, as Pollard has established a decent resume for explosiveness.

Elliott has increasingly become the grinder, and seems more reliant on offensive line play. He does seem to get a bit better late in the game as the defense tires. Pollard just has a slipperiness, an ability to get through a tight gap and accelerate.

Elliott will be the starter as long as he can go in a game, because frankly the Cowboys always adjust their roster decisions based on paychecks, which is just wrong. Changing that would be admitting that the decision to pay Elliott was wrong. Since that was made by the Jones family, don’t expect it to change.

Defensively, the run defense may have been the biggest win of the day for Dallas. They only gave up 46 yards total, and the longest run surrendered was an eight yard scramble by Ben Roethlisberger before he tweaked his knee. It was a complete shutdown, fueled by the explosive emergence of Neville Gallimore. While the stat sheet only showed him with three total tackles, one for a loss, and a lone quarterback hit, he was influencing plays all game.

Sadly, it may have been a Pyrrhic victory for the Cowboys, because when a team can’t run, it has to pass, and Roethlisberger is one of the best at getting the ball out quickly and accurately. Eventually he was able to put the points on the board the Steelers needed. Still, for teams that don’t have the level of quarterback play he represents, the newfound ability to stonewall a running game could pay dividends for Dallas.

364 yards total offense

While it is not a truly relevant stat, it is worth noting that the Steelers are considered a top ten defense. That figure is just a good showing by the Cowboys, especially with Gilbert stepping in.

169 return yards

If there is one stat from the game that just blew me away, it is this. For the past few seasons, the special teams have been a real liability for Dallas. They just never gave the team a big play.

Well, hello, John Fassel and the teams aces. First, Fassel threw some big time trickeration at the Steelers on a punt return, as Cedrick Wilson, near the right sideline, lateralled almost the full width of the field to C.J. Goodwin, who had faked an injury and gotten everyone on the Steelers to ignore him. Despite bobbling the ball for a scary second or two, Goodwin still had enough room to get 83 yards before being tackled. The Cowboys lost ten yards to a penalty, but the 73 yards net was still far and away the best field position they have had on a punt return all season.

Then later, after Pittsburgh got to kick off from the 50 due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a touchdown, Rico Dowdle fielded the ball at the one yard line and just embarrassed the coverage team with a 64-yard return. Again, it was the longest kickoff return of the year for Dallas.

And it wasn’t just the return game that was succeeding. Tyrone Crawford has not had a great year on the defensive line, but he got through to block a PAT attempt in the game. All around, this was the kind of ST performance we have been yearning for. If it continues, it could bear real dividends. Now we just are left wondering where this was the first eight games, just like we do about the recent emergence of a real defense.

Losing the turnover battle again

Minus two. The fumble by CeeDee Lamb was just a mistake on his part. Gilbert’s interception showed that, despite being around the league since 2014, he is still a bit raw. And there was a pretty blatant defensive pass interference on Amari Cooper that the referees just flat missed on that play. Which is another sore subject.

Penalties hurt - badly

Seven flags for 70 yards, and some at crucial moments, like the roughing the passer called on Jaylon Smith as his flailing hand hit Roethlisberger’s facemask on a play where the Cowboys were about to force a punt. It was, by the rules, the correct call, but still galling. That drive turned into the game winner. It was not the only one on Smith that kept a scoring drive alive. There was an illegal contact call negating a strip sack, and compared to the previously mentioned no-call on Cooper, it was nothing.

The Cowboys had plenty of legitimate mistakes that hurt, but it still seems like they get marginal calls against them at a higher rate than just about anyone. And maybe it isn’t just our homerism.

Something isn’t right, and it may be more than just coaching and discipline.

However, on balance, this was a good game for the Cowboys. And as much as we would have enjoyed a shocking upset, in the long run, losing may have been the better outcome. If the draft were held today, Dallas would pick third overall. That may be far more valuable than the win would have been.