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Crunching Cowboys stats: Looking for what works and what to improve

It was another tough loss, but there are things to build on for the Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks
The long ball specialist.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Immediately after the Dallas Cowboys lost their game to the Seattle Seahawks, there was a lot of predictably negative reactions. Yes, it was tough to lose another game that they had a chance to win, especially since they were thwarted mainly through their own miscues.

Yet there were some impressive performances by some of the Dallas players, and a bit more evidence that this is a very different coaching staff - at least in some aspects. This week’s look at the story behind the numbers identifies the positive traits to build on as the team enters what should be an easier stretch of games leading to the bye week, and the trouble areas that have to be fixed. As often happens, there are also a lot of things that you may have just missed in the agony of defeat.

Another monster day for Dak

Yes, he threw a couple of interceptions, including the one that killed the last gasp chance to tie or win at the end. Yes, he fumbled the ball and set the Seahawks up with a short touchdown. He certainly missed some throws, just like Russell Wilson did. But Dak Prescott also tore Seattle up passing.

37 of 57 for 472 yards and three touchdowns. That is impressive, especially in a game where there was no garbage time, as the Cowboys took only their second lead of the day with 3:59 left in the game. This was the anticipated shootout between Prescott and Wilson. Unfortunately, the three turnovers given up by Prescott were enough to negate that outstanding production. Remember that the first two both led to easy touchdowns for Seattle, while the final one was the last offensive play of the game for Dallas. Since the Trevon Diggs punch-out to save a TD was the only time the Cowboys took the ball away from Seattle, that put them at minus 2 in turnovers. And you almost never win a game when that happens.

Perhaps he was trying too hard on a couple of plays. He also had a near repeat of the fumble from early in the Atlanta Falcons win, but this one was ruled a legal pass attempt instead. Still, the rest of the team hardly was helpful at times, as we’ll see.

So “monster” can actually be taken in a couple of ways. It was a day when Prescott showed he can put up huge numbers and do enough to win, but it also was one where his mistakes might have been enough to secure the loss. However, for those who think this was a bit of a fluke, remember that it is the second game in a row where he exceeded 450 yards passing. He can sling it.

What happened to Zeke?

After having the most yards from scrimmage of any player the first two games, his performance was desultory. He only gained 34 yards on 14 rushes, for a paltry 2.4 yards per carry. He had the loss that resulted in a safety, when it appeared he may have slipped taking the ball. Footing certainly seemed an issue in that end zone a couple of times. They tried to get him involved in the passing game, and he wound up tied for the most targets at 12, with Amari Cooper. Yet only six were complete, including at least a pair of just bad drops, and he netted only 24 yards in the passing game. Even his rushing touchdown was mostly due to the Cowboys calling their touchdown play by putting Antwaun Woods in as a fullback.

OK, that last bit was a joke, but the rest is no laughing matter. Dallas simply needs more from him. Those drops are all on him, but the problems running may have had something to do with the patchwork offensive line - our next topic of discussion.

A new starter may have emerged

In the second quarter of the game, Joe Looney had an ankle injury and had to leave the game temporarily. That thrust rookie Tyler Biadasz into the lineup at center. It could have been a disaster, but instead, Biadasz not only handled things well, making the line calls, he demonstrated the power that led to Dallas drafting him at the end of the fourth round.

Then another problem developed.

Basically, the Cowboys were out of offensive tackles at that point, with only newly signed Eric Smith remaining. They clearly were not ready to roll with him, so they did something that a lot of fans have speculated at length about and that was move All Pro guard Zack Martin to right tackle. Looney had already re-entered the game, so he became the right guard, with Biadasz coming back at center.

And it worked. Brandon Knight continued to hold up at left tackle, and Connor Williams was suddenly the only starter from game one playing the same position in this game. Arguably, he is also the weakest link now, but since Connor McGovern has apparently not made a case to move ahead of the other Connor, the Knight-Williams-Biadasz-Looney-Martin line seems like the best five linemen they had.

By percentage of snap counts, here’s how all six of them stacked up.

Knight 100% LT

Williams 100% LG

Martin 100% split between RG and RT

Looney 87% split between C and RG

Biadasz 63% C

Steele 50% RT

Now, with La’el Collins and Tyron Smith both still uncertain to return to action, and Martin pretty obviously a better solution at RT than Steele, that may be the starting lineup for this week’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

And if it is, the Cowboys will have three starters from this draft class, all playing at a high level for rookies. Plus UDFA Steele, who was only knocked out of his position by illness. Kudos to Will McClay and his staff.

Deepest receiver group in the league?

There was some speculation about the Cowboys having a shot at three 1,000 yard receivers. Well, here is what the totals would be if these players maintained the same pace as their first three games:

Amari Cooper - 1,424

Michael Gallup - 1,312

CeeDee Lamb - 1,227

Dalton Schultz - 784

Cedrick Wilson - 571

Understand, that is based on one game for Wilson. His five catches for 107 yards and two TDs was a long awaited breakout for him. If this is the beginning of him being more fully incorporated in the offense, his per-game average could be much better.

That may not be too hard, given that he was only on the field for 29% of the Cowboys’ offensive plays, or 24 snaps. Fit him into a rotation with the other WRs where he can be closer to 50%, and you can throw three dynamic receivers out there every play, if you want, and still let them catch a breather on some plays.

One other note is how they used Gallup, who led all receivers with 138 yards against Seattle. Look at his routes when he was targeted (per NFL NextGen Stats):

I don’t know if there is not as much faith in him crossing the field as there is in him burning down the sidelines, or if they are setting him up to fool people down the road - but if you want the designated deep threat for Dallas, here you go.

An odd mixed bag on defense

When you look at the score, you probably think the defense was just bad across the board. Well, it wasn’t. For instance, the four sacks were obviously the most they have generated this season, with Aldon Smith becoming the main weapon. As was noted, he now has more sacks in his first three games with the Cowboys as he did in his entire last season before his suspension. They also had eight QB hits on Wilson and five tackles for a loss.

What’s most surprising is that they only allowed the Seahawks to convert 5 of 13 third down attempts, or 38%, plus one successful fourth-down attempt. By contrast, the Cowboys had a 47% conversion rate, and also converted two fourth downs to extend drives. As a result, the Seahawks had to punt it away seven times, while Dallas only sent Chris Jones out for three punts. Dallas came out on top in long plays, with four plays of over 40 yards to two for Seattle.

The problem is that Seattle was also very successful on first and second downs, so they didn’t get to third down all that often. Far too many of Wilson’s completions were to embarrassingly wide-open targets, especially in the red zone where there is less room to work. Then consider that three Cowboys drives ended in giveaways, and those seemingly favorable numbers come into context.

And now we get to the “special” teams

We are three games into the season, and there is already a growing chorus of voices calling for John Fassel to be replaced as ST coordinator. Personally, I think that’s a bit much - but something has to be fixed.

First of all, Tony Pollard stunk up the joint as a kick returner. He only had one attempt at a return, but it was a horrid one, as he seemed to stumble while trying to field the ball just inside the end zone. The ball wound up on the ground somewhere around the one-yard line, leaving him with no choice but to fall on it. If you have never seen a muffed kickoff before, you aren’t alone.

That of course set up the safety when Ezekiel Elliott also seemed to have trouble with the turf in failing to get out of the end zone. Coming right after the Seahawks’ initial touchdown of 43 yards to Tyler Lockett, it had to rattle the Cowboys just a bit.

And the special teams follies were just getting started, as Greg Zuerlein would miss one extra point outright, and have a second one blocked. Zuerlein was brought to Dallas to stop the kicking woes, but he is not exactly setting the world on fire.

That muff was a big part in the Cowboys’ dismal average starting position for their drives, their own 19. The Seahawks got to begin their drives from their own 33 on average. That 14 yard differential is huge, and a frustrating reminder of how this was a sore spot all last season. It would have been even worse if not for the one positive on teams, the 32 yards Lamb had returning three punts. It was a very small plus, swamped by the enormous negatives.

The coaches and players have some glaring issues to resolve in all three phases of the game. Let’s hope the team can get better against the Cleveland Browns.