Let it be understood up front: It is always more enjoyable to examine the Dallas Cowboys after they have an easy win. When they jump out to an early lead, never surrender it, and build the margin of victory to a comfortable three score edge, there are many more good things to look at than bad. In that context, the expected, but surprisingly dominant, 30-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals was rather fun. And this year, fun and the Cowboys are concepts that seldom have been seen together.
It’s great to have fun, but this year has been a hot mess for Dallas. Not only does that temper our enthusiasm, it means that we need to look a little deeper at things. So here are some key stats and numbers from the game and elsewhere that we can mine for information.
Turnovers reign supreme
Although there are a few rare exceptions, almost all NFL teams that have a plus two turnover margin win those games. When they get to plus three, it is even more inevitable that a victory is in the offing.
By those measures, the Cowboys were just about guaranteed to come out on top in this game during the first quarter when the Bengals generously gave up the ball twice. Just ten seconds after the start of the second quarter, they offered up the ball a third time, and from that point on, all Dallas had to do was just not screw up. They didn’t, avoiding giving the ball up themselves and finding enough offense to make the score as lopsided as that three turnover advantage would lead you to expect.
That was by far the best job of taking the ball away that the team has put together all season. It also is something that is not easily duplicated. While some takeaways are generated, as the first one was when DeMarcus Lawrence caught Giovani Bernard from behind and just knocked it loose, the second one was just an unforced error by Trayveon Williams when the ball came out due to a collision with his own offensive lineman in a variant of the infamous butt fumble. That was one of those things that just happened and went your way, as it did when Aldon Smith scooped and scored.
Over time, fumbles tend to be a 50/50 proposition. Just two games ago, we saw Ezekiel Elliott lose the ball against the Washington Football Team with no apparent outside influence. It looked like he just dropped it before he was touched down.
Make no mistake, getting three consecutive fumbles, two of which ended likely scoring drives, and scoring after all of them, was the single biggest reason the Cowboys won this game. It also will not likely happen again anytime soon; it can easily swing the other way.
As much as we hate to admit it, luck is a big part of football. Dallas got lucky. That is not a viable strategy for the future.
A strong day for the defense - against a weak offense
Obviously the much derided Dallas defense held Cincinnati to just seven points, which will win you a lot of games. They only allowed 306 total yards, over a third of which were rendered useless by the three fumbles. The gave up almost no long plays, with the longest Bengals gain of the entire game a 21-yard Brandon Allen pass to Tyler Boyd. And they did not let themselves be gashed by the run most of the game. It was a solid day at the office all around.
Against one of the most impotent offenses in the NFL, it must be noted. The Bengals only average 319 yards per game, which is fourth worst. They score an average of 20 points, which Dallas certainly held them below. However, that is the third worst points per game average in the league.
This was just a bad offense. Like the Cowboys, they started the game with their backup quarterback, and it is no disrespect to Brandon Allen to say he is not as good as Andy Dalton, who as you might have heard used to be the starter in Cincinnati. They had to finish with Ryan Finley when Allen had to go out due to a leg injury. Frankly, Allen had the team moving well early, and had those fumbles not occurred this would have been a very different game. One way Dallas was not that great on defense was on third down. The Bengals converted nine of sixteen attempts, a 56% clip. Four of those came on their lone touchdown drive. Against a better team, that kind of conversion rate might have been a killer. Had it not been for the fumbles, it might just have cost them this one. One very solid thing was that the Bengals went for it on fourth down four times in the game, and the Cowboys only let them convert once. That is good, but it is usually too small a factor in most games to really hang your hat on.
Still, they held the opponent in check. More importantly, we did not see frequent big breakdowns. The defense seemed to know where it was supposed to be and what it was supposed to do on most plays.
Yeah, there are still a few tweaks needed.
30 points is a very solid effort. Only four teams in the league average that per game. The median is just a tad over 25. It also was a full touchdown better than the season long average for Dallas, which was of course padded by the early games when Dak Prescott was putting up huge numbers.
Yeah, don’t look at this as a really great performance. Remember that one of the three touchdowns during the game came on Smith’s long fumble return. Which puts the output by the offense at 23 - for a team that averages 22.9 (with only one previous defensive TD this year). That is somewhere on the underside of whelming.
The stats show some other shades of mediocrity. They only mustered 272 yards of total offense, which usually does not yield positive results. The third-down conversion rate was five for eleven for 46%, which is actually pretty good. It is notable, however, that three of those came on consecutive sets of downs on the one long touchdown drive Dallas mounted, going 82 yards after the final fumble recovery to put the game pretty much out of reach with the early 17-0 score. The Bengals simply lack the firepower to overcome a three score gap.
The biggest failing of the offense was the continuing red zone woes. They got there four times, and only made it into the end zone twice, including an inability to score in their lone goal-to-go situation. While it was great to see Greg Zuerlein bounce back with a three-for-three field goal performance, including a nice 55=yarder, field goals are considered settling, especially when you get inside the 20.
Part of the issue down close is how the running game has dropped off. It was good to see Elliott rip off a 26-yard run to get the ball out from deep in their own end of the field. That was the second longest play of the game. The problem is how it stands out this year with so few runs of ten yards or more for him. The ground game only got up to 101 yards. That is not always a big deal in the pass-happy NFL. But when you pay so much to your lead back, you expect a lot more. It is of some interest that Elliott only had twelve carries, while Tony Pollard had eleven. It certainly looks like Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy are casting around for another approach besides feeding Zeke. Given that on the other carries outside the long gain Elliott was only averaging two yards a carry, including some failed rushes at the goal line, and it makes sense. Just getting one or two yards on early downs tends to set up third and long, which always should be avoided.
Dalton was triumphant in his return to his former home, but his performance was mediocre in many ways - or worse. He did not give up an interception, but that was again partly luck, as defenders got their hands on the ball a few times. He had trouble sustaining drives outside that one series after the Alex Erickson fumble, and his only other TD came after Cincinnati turned the ball over on downs at their own 16-yard line with only 3:37 left in the game. It was a bit of a garbage score.
Overall, Dalton was 16 of 23 for just 185 yards and two TDs. That is not going to win a lot of games.
Before we move on to just why they still had a comfortable win, it is worth noting that once again the patchwork offensive line was at least serviceable, especially in pass protection. Dalton was only sacked twice, but those were pretty complete collapses of the pocket against a paltry pass rush, which is not really good. The run blocking was just not very good overall, however, which just adds to the reasons to want Tyler Biadasz to return to the lineup.
This is a stat that we’ve been watching closely for a few seasons, because prior to 2020 the Cowboys were on the short end of this in many losses. In this game, they had a marked advantage over the Bengals. Cincinnati had an average of 78 yards to go for a touchdown when they got possession. Dallas only needed 62. The first fumble recovery helped that a lot since it was recovered at the Bengal’s 32. But the Aldon Smith touchdown didn’t count, and the final fumble actually hurt the average field position, with the drive starting at the Dallas 12.
Another plus was the 60-yard kickoff return by Pollard. That is the third long return he had this season. Many still are unhappy with John Fassel, but the special teams seem to have something figured out on returns.
As a result of everything, Dallas clearly won the field position battle, and it was crucial to the outcome of this game.
The standings deficit
This can be seen as good news or bad news, depending on whether you lust for a high draft pick or want to see the team still claw their way to the playoffs. They are now two games behind the Washington Football Team with just three left to play, and tying them at the end of the season would not help, since the Football Team holds the tiebreaker. Dallas also trails the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, although they still have a game to play against each. But Washington is the big stumbling block, since the main way for Dallas to get the NFC East spot in the playoffs would be to win out while the Football team loses all of its remaining games. That seems extremely unlikely, and the Giants could also stymie them by matching the Cowboys record but winning their final game of the season against Dallas.
Of course, that means that a top five draft pick is still very possible. A top ten slot seems almost inevitable, but if you want to have some good trade back options, the closer you are to the top pick, the better.
Overall, the stats tell us that the Cowboys did better at a lot of things than they have all year, but against a team that is in worse shape. This game shows that perhaps Dallas is not as absolutely horrible as it has looked at times. It does not offer any real reason to think they are really getting their act together as a whole, though. This year still looks bound for being a true failure in McCarthy’s first season. We will just have to hope things get a lot better in 2021.