The NFC East leading Dallas Cowboys seek to extend their winning streak against the New England Patriots this Sunday. This game is likely to be a big ratings draw for CBS, but not as big it would be if both teams were good. Dallas is rising in the standings and the power rankings, but New England not so much. With Tom Brady no longer working his evil magic, the fortunes of the Patriots seem to be taking a marked turn for the worse. But that doesn’t seem to be registering for some members of the New England media. They are looking for Mac Jones and the Patriots offense to show the world that the Cowboys’ defense is not all that.
Through five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys defense is proving to be the Imagine Dragons of NFL defenses: they have some hits, but the product as a whole is vastly overrated.
Now, I have been informed by BTB staffers Tony Catalina and Mark Schofield that the particular outlet this comes from is not the most highly regarded one. But that is not going to stop me from shredding their suppositions.
Let’s start with a common misunderstanding about defensive effectiveness in the NFL. The most important thing in posting great defensive numbers is not the players or scheme of a team’s own defense. It is the quality of the offenses they face. We have a great example of that in the NFC East in the Washington Football Team. They had really great defensive stats in 2020, which led to many preseason predictions that they would, at worst, be one of the strong contenders to win the division. But last year’s schedule for them was not exactly filled with offensive powerhouses, including their in-division games. They weren’t so much stopping offenses as benefitting from poor performances against them. We see how that has gone for them this year as their defense regressed right past the mean to some of the worst stats in the league. They are next to last in points allowed and the sixth most porous in giving up yards.
You have to take care in relying on volume statistics like these. The Cowboys, after all, fare little better than the fighting Team in yards allowed, coming in just two spots higher than they do. That is reflective of both teams having faced a couple of the league’s best offenses. They each have squared off against the Los Angeles Chargers, while Dallas faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington had to go up against the Buffalo Bills. All three of those opponents are top ten offenses in stats and leading their respective divisions. However, there is a big difference between the Cowboys and the Football Team in points allowed. Dallas is fourteenth in that column. It isn’t great, but with the way they have been putting their own points on the board this year, it is a big part of the 4-1 start.
Then there is the way the last three wins have gone for the Cowboys. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, they had a 20-point lead early in the third quarter. It not only never fell below 13 points, but was built to 27 before a last, and totally meaningless, Eagles touchdown in the waning minutes of the game. In the win over the Carolina Panthers they held a 22-point lead just seconds into the fourth quarter that was more than enough to withstand a couple of late touchdowns on the way to an eight point victory. Finally in the beatdown of the overmatched Giants, Dallas built a 21-point lead midway through the fourth quarter before the final New York score of the day.
We discussed this idea among a handful of others on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Are you familiar with the term “garbage time?” You should be, because it was often applied to the big numbers Dak Prescott put up last year before his season-ending injury. That was really a misapplication of the term, as his heroics kept his team in the games. Those three most recent opponents for Dallas never had a chance in the fourth quarter. The Panthers came closest, but all it took to secure that win was for Kellen Moore to find one last first down, which he did.
In all three of those games, Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn went into a softer defense late in the game, content to let the opponent accumulate yards underneath and get some meaningless touchdowns down the stretch while the clock bled away. It makes those volume stats less indicative of what his defense is actually doing. The authors of that amusing little article don’t take that into consideration at all. Ignoring that kind of context is the danger of stat sheet scouting.
To get a better picture, let’s look at what a more advanced metric says about the Cowboys’ defense. Football Outsiders has a well-know measurement called DVOA. (You can find the explanation of their method here.) It is one system that takes the situation into account for each play, which is pertinent to those “garbage time” numbers. According to them, the Cowboys have the sixth most effective defense in the league. And their ranking has been climbing in the very games that offenses were amassing those big numbers after things were pretty much decided. “Overrated” seems an increasingly inappropriate description.
So the performance of the Dallas defense against New England is going to be highly dependent on the offense and particularly the quarterback they face. So how is the mighty Mac Jones doing this year?
Yeah, not so great. Jones is twentieth in passing yards per game. He is, after all, a rookie on a team that has several other significant flaws. He is behind all five of the starting quarterbacks the Cowboys have already faced, even Daniel Jones, who left the game with an unfortunate concussion. He has only thrown for five touchdowns. Our Dan Rogers points out that as a team, the Patriots have fewer TDs than any team in the league except the woeful New York Jets. The offensive DVOA rankings match up, putting the Pats at 24th in the NFL. (Just as a side note, the combined DVOA has Dallas second among all teams, trailing only the AFC powerhouse Bills.) Here is a graphic showing another measure of how the New England offense stacks up against the league, courtesy of BTB’s Aiden Davis.
As you can see, the Patriots are hanging around with the dregs of the league. You might also note where the Dallas offense sits, which is somewhat pertinent to the game coming up. It must be mentioned that the article slighting the Cowboys defense does acknowledge that Dak Prescott and his receiving weapons, plus the two-headed running attack with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, are going to be a handful, to put it mildly.
Another point made by the article that spurred this is how Trevon Diggs’ phenomenal interception rate is hard to sustain. But is there anything that makes that more likely than facing a mediocre, at best, quarterback and offense? Even the author describes the Pats’ attack as “safe.” Some might call that damning with faint praise.
Mark Schofield has a better vantage point of the Patriots than many, and his summary of the situation for the offense further illustrates the fallacy of the whole argument put forth about the matchup.
The Patriots went all in on Mac Jones in a classic, Belichickian “burn the boats” maneuver. Cut ties with Cam Newton, put everything in their offense in the rookie’s lap, and he’s learning to swim in the deep end. One of the things that Jones is struggling with right now is how to deal with windows and the idea of “NFL Open.” If you look back at his game against Miami in Week 1, he had Jakobi Meyers on a crossing route wide open against a Cover Zero look, with Jason McCourty in trail technique two steps behind him. Jones put air on the throw, McCourty closed the separation and what could have been a big play went down as an incompletion.
Jones has to learn that this isn’t Saturday against Missouri, it’s Sunday in the NFL.
The problem, for this week, is that Trevon Diggs is so good with the football in the air, and at closing windows, that Jones might think he has some opportunities to make plays, but if he fails to dial up the velocity that is needed on the given design, he is going to get burned.
That is really the big picture here. Despite things like yards or points per game allowed down the stretch, the Cowboys’ defense is feasting on lesser offenses. And that is exactly what they go to New England to face. If things go at all according to form on Sunday, that article about the “overrated” Dallas defense is going to look very silly. They tried to live by the stats, and stats turned around and bit them you-know-where.