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Crunching stats from the Cowboys’ loss to the Rams

A look at what the raw numbers can tell us about the Cowboys loss.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
McCarthy takes his first loss in Dallas.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It wasn’t the start to the Mike McCarthy era we hoped for. Instead, the Dallas Cowboys dropped the season opener to the Los Angeles Rams. It was a nice way for the home team to open its sparkly new SoFi Stadium. It was a rough way for the visitors to come out of the gate, as some of the things that led to the 20-17 defeat were far too familiar from years past. As we try to sort out what went wrong and how to fix it, as well as what the good things were, here are some of the important numbers and statistics from the game.

Injuries

This is not what is typically thought of as a stat, but the first game of the season was a bit brutal for the Cowboys. Injuries always have a big impact on teams anyway, so it is worth watching. Three players left the game, two of them starters.

  • LB Leighton Vander Esch - Fractured collarbone, expected to go on IR and it is believed he should return before the end of the season. (Ian Rapoport reported a 6-8 week expected window.)
  • TE Blake Jarwin - Tore his ACL on a non-contact play, expected to miss the rest of the season.
  • OT Cameron Erving - Sprained his MCL, will likely be out for a few weeks.

Add these names to that of Gerald McCoy, lost in camp, and La’el Collins on IR, and the Cowboys have lost four starters and one backup at a short-handed position already. This is not a good trend. And by not good, I mean horrible.

What happened to the pass rush?

The loaded pass rush group for the Cowboys was supposed to carry the day for the defense. The results from the Rams game: One sack and three quarterback hits. That is pitiful. It also is a testament to Sean McVay’s coaching, as these charts and numbers from NFL’s NextGen Stats show. (They really did a lot of my work for me just in their tweets, as the final charts for the game were not up at the time this was written.)

The slowed reaction on play-action is not the only thing that shows here. Notice where Jared Goff was throwing the ball. Only six of his 31 attempts were past ten yards from the line of scrimmage. That happens when you are getting the ball out fast, because you don’t have time to let long routes develop. And the Rams just killed the Cowboys with those short passes and big YAC. In the matchup between McVay and Dallas DC Mike Nolan, McVay came out on top, and it was probably worse than the final score indicated. McVay found a way to largely negate that pass rushing talent.

Meanwhile, when the Rams were rushing . . .

We knew coming into the game that Aaron Donald was going to be a problem. He is probably the best defensive player in the league, after all. He certainly lived up to that expectation.

Dak Prescott was taking more shots downfield than Goff. Turns out, that was not necessarily a good thing, as he was sacked three times and hit on seven more plays. But his passing chart shows that he was making more throws downfield, although not a lot of deep shots.

McVay is often given credit as one of the true offensive masterminds in the NFL. Maybe this was just evidence that it is not all hype. We can question the play-calling of Kellen Moore and the overall strategy of McCarthy, but getting outdone by McVay is not really something that should be any great surprise.

Cowboys’ failure on third downs

Facing twelve third downs in the game, they only converted three. 25% is not going to cut it on third downs. By comparison, LA was at 53% - and they had 17 third downs. So this is not just a bad stat for the Dallas offense, it also condemns the defense that failed to get off the field so many times. And if you might think this is because the Rams had so many more plays, think again. By the end of the game, they had run 72 plays, and the Cowboys were just three behind at 69.

That lack of success is usually a result of unfavorable down and distance situations, and that tracks with the numbers. The Cowboys averaged 8.3 yards to go on third down, while the Rams only had to make an average of 4.9. The determinant of how long your third downs are is simple: How successful were you on first and second down? We don’t really want to see the team playing for “manageable” third downs, but when you have to get one, you’d rather the distance to go was shorter than longer.

The causes are a mix of play-calling and execution, so it isn’t entirely Moore’s fault. But he is not without culpability, either.

First down runs

One of the big hopes we have had is that the Cowboys would start passing more on first downs. Jason Garrett had a reputation for running too much on early downs, although the team actually passed more often in 2019, perhaps due to the games they were behind in and trying to catch up. But we still were eager to see a more pass-oriented approach from Moore.

What we got on first down against the Rams: 17 runs, 12 passes.

That doesn’t seem very aggressive. Absolutely timid might be more accurate. It doesn’t even like a real attempt to have a “balanced attack,” which really is of no proven use anyway. It certainly wasn’t catching the Rams off balance. They came out of halftime, and on all three first downs of the initial possession, handed the ball off. And the first down passes jumped in the fourth quarter as Dallas tried to catch up or go ahead as time was winding down. Take out the three consecutive first down throws on the last possession, and, well, it just gets worse.

Is Moore really different than Garrett was? This game turns that into a very hard argument to make. The Cowboys were not attacking successfully down the field, and Ezekiel Elliott had 96 yards rushing, averaging 4.4 yards a carry. Factoring in a handful of longer totes, and, yep, there were some one and two yard gains in there.

One game is too small a sample size for conclusions to be drawn. But this is a red flag for further scrutiny.

The reports out of camp were real

If you had to pick the four biggest stories out of training camp, they were probably, in no particular order:

CeeDee Lamb looked ready to start day 1.

Trevon Diggs came on strong enough to become a starter.

Aldon Smith was in amazing shape and playing as well as anyone in camp.

Trysten Hill took major steps to quell the doubters with a really impressive camp.

It looks like they were all right on the money.

You can call Lamb WR3 or WR1c. Either one fits well. He had the third most WR snaps behind Micheal Gallup and Amari Cooper, was second in targets, receptions, and yards to Cooper, and came in behind only Gallup in yards per catch. He also fielded two punts, one of them a nice 20 yard return, something we are not used to around these parts. It was not all perfect, of course, as he made a stereotypical rookie error in just getting two yards down the field on the infamous 4th-and-3 play, but he still proved he was more than ready for the big show.

Diggs was indeed a starting cornerback, and was on the field for every single defensive down for the Cowboys, as well as almost a quarter of the special teams plays. He was the unfortunate subject of a couple of highlight completions by the Rams, but those may be more due to really good throws by Goff than anything Diggs could have done. With a little growth and coaching, he should be a keeper.

Smith was simply the best Dallas defender we saw in this game, getting the only sack of Goff all night. He also led the team in tackles and contributed two of the three QB hits Dallas managed. It’s no wonder the announcers were talking about how he stood out.

Hill was the starter, and had the most plays of any defensive tackle. Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula did throw some different combinations with ends moving inside, but maybe they should have given Hill more than 53% of the defensive snaps. He had two tackles and two more assists, and seemed to get as much penetration as anyone. That second-round pick he cost suddenly looks a lot more reasonable.

Interesting small detail

Brandon Carr was the only player besides backup QB Andy Dalton to suit up and not take a snap. I suspect that changes this week against the Atlanta Falcons.

Turnovers

There’s not much to talk about here, since there was only the Chidobe Awuzie interception that makes this category. It was unfortunate that the Cowboys didn’t do more with it, settling for a Greg Zuerlein field goal instead of the touchdown they should have gotten from getting the ball on the LA 39. That could have completely changed the course of things, since it would have put the Cowboys up by a point with about half the fourth quarter to be played.

Still, there are two good things about this. First, a takeaway! Yay! Second, the Cowboys obviously did not give the ball up once, despite Prescott being under a lot of pressure, especially from Donald. Keep that up, and good things should ensue.

Special teams

Special teams was a real burr under the Cowboys’ saddle last year. They continually put the Cowboys in a hole through terrible field position to start drives. We’re keeping a close eye on how it goes this year, because we need some real improvement from John Fassel’s unit.

And so far, pretty good. While they lost the field position game against the Rams, it was just by two yards, with Dallas starting on their own 27 on average while LA had 29 for their average drive. That was likely due to where the ball was given up than ST performance, because the Cowboys actually out-gained the Rams on returns 68 yards to 20. That was thanks to the Lamb punt return mentioned above and a pair of nice kickoff returns by Tony Pollard, with a long of 27. That is already way better than we saw in almost any game of 2019. The performance was obviously marred by Greg Zuerlein missing that 53-yard attempt. He also seemed to be too close to the uprights on his made field goal and PATs. However, the focus is going to be on those hidden yards, and so far, it’s reasonably pleasing.

Now if I can just stop trying to type Jim Fassel, John’s father and a former New York Giants head coach, all the time.