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Cowboys analytics roundup: Dallas defense looks very good so far

That Cowboys offense ain’t too shabby, either.

Carolina Panthers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Cowboys have played four games now, and while that’s no longer a quarter of the way through the year, it’s still a good chunk of games. And of their four opponents they’ve played, three of them are 3-1 right now. Dallas is also 3-1 after beating the previously undefeated Panthers, while their win on the road against the Chargers - who themselves just handed the Raiders their first loss of the year - just looks better and better.

Not only are we starting to get a better idea of where each team truly stands, but we also have analytical adjustments for strength of opponent kicking in now. Before this week, useful metrics like DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) were hampered by their lack of schedule adjustments, but no more. It’s still just four games, though, so Football Outsiders’ schedule adjustments are just at 40% strength right now.

Before we get into the analytics after Week 4, check out last week’s report to compare the changes. Now let’s take a look at America’s Team.

Cowboys Efficiency at a Glance

 DVOA DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Previous Week DAVE Rank
 DVOA DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Previous Week DAVE Rank
Offense 22.3% 4th 3rd 6th
Defense -10.3% 6th 10th 16th
Special Teams 1.2% 12th 17th 15th
Overall 33.9% 2nd 2nd 5th

Well, how about them Cowboys? Football Outsiders currently has the Cowboys ranking as the second best team in the NFL in DVOA, just behind a Bills team whose three wins have come by a combined 118-21 margin. The offense once again rose in the DVOA rankings, sitting at the third spot after a great performance against a defense that was first in the league in DVOA and now still sits at fourth. And the special teams unit continues its climb back to respectability after a terrible Week 1 performance.

But this defense. For the second straight year, the Cowboys defense has been deserving of just as much attention as the Cowboys offense, though for dramatically different reasons. Dan Quinn’s unit is a top ten bunch right now, at least by overall DVOA. That, combined with a highly efficient offense, makes the Cowboys one of the top teams in the NFL right now.

According to Ben Baldwin’s EPA-based team tiers, the Cowboys are the fifth best team in the NFL. Only three offenses are averaging more EPA (expected points added) per play than Dallas, and their defense is above average in the same metric. Few teams can say the same, and when you take into account the opponents those few teams have played, it only comes back favorable for the Cowboys.

Offense

Cowboys Offensive Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Offensive DVOA 22.3% 4th
Pass DVOA 41.4% 5th
Run DVOA 9.3% 3rd

The Cowboys are making it very easy to gush about this offense. Not only have they been playing well, but they’ve done so against some legitimate defenses. The Panthers and Chargers both rank in the top ten in DVOA, and while Tampa Bay’s defense is 19th right now, they’re still performing at an above-average clip.

Perhaps the best thing about this offense is how multiple their attack is, something Kellen Moore has emphasized since he took over as offensive coordinator back in 2019. Dallas is one of just five teams to rank in the top ten in both pass DVOA and run DVOA, a testament to how capable they are of beating defenses in a variety of ways. And the man in command of it all, Dak Prescott, is doing so at a high rate.

Dak Prescott’s Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
QBR 56.6 13th
EPA 29.0 11th
CPOE 6.9 3rd
DVOA 26.8% 3rd
DYAR 466 4th

Much was made last week about how Prescott’s single-game QBR and EPA numbers were very low, and that’s still somewhat visible here as a statistical outlier. But his 88.2 QBR against the Panthers ranked behind only Patrick Mahomes this week and was Dak’s best single-game QBR so far this year.

Prescott may have played a great game against the Panthers’ vaunted defense, but it wasn’t free of struggles. His first half performance wasn’t great, though it was largely because Carolina’s pass rush wasn’t making things easy. Several balls were thrown too early and others were batted down, which resulted in Prescott finishing with a -6.2% completion percentage over expectation (CPOE). That’s a rare stat for the quarterback, and the fact he’s still second in the league in CPOE speaks volumes as to just how accurate Dak is throwing the ball.

In terms of value, Prescott is still one of the very best. His individual DVOA (which measures value per play) and DYAR (total value as a player) are both the third best in the league, a strong indicator of just how much Prescott means to this team. But anyone who watched last season already knew that.

Cowboys Offensive Line Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Adjusted Line Yards 5.47 1st
RB Yards 5.59 1st
Adjusted Sack Rate 5.7% 13th
Pass Block Win Rate 48% 29th
Run Block Win Rate 74% 3rd

This offensive line for the Dallas Cowboys is playing at a very high level right now. They lead the league in adjusted line yards, which effectively grades how much an offensive line contributes to run blocking, and are fourth in run block win rate. Center Tyler Biadasz is seventh among all centers in run block win rate, while Zack Martin is eighth among guards.

Pass protection is a different story. They took a step back in terms of pass block win rate, and are now second from the bottom in that category. However, some good scheming from Moore and great play from Prescott has prevented it from translating into sacks, as Dallas ranks ninth in adjusted sack rate. Also of note: none of the Cowboys’ three interior linemen were charged with allowing a pressure against the Panthers. That includes Martin, who is tied with Quenton Nelson for the highest pass block win rate among all guards.

Defense

Cowboys Defensive Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Defensive DVOA -10.3% 6th
Pass Defense DVOA -4.4% 7th
Run Defense DVOA -24.2% 8th
Pass Rush Win Rate 42% 17th
Run Stop Win Rate 31% 15th

Even those who were the most optimistic about Quinn’s ability to improve this defense with a bunch of rookies and bargain-bin free agent signings didn’t expect this. Through four games - which includes facing last year’s Super Bowl MVP and Offensive Rookie of the Year in addition to an early contender for Comeback Player of the Year - the Cowboys rank tenth in DVOA and ninth in pass defense DVOA. That’s incredible.

The pass defense numbers are boosted significantly by all of the interceptions, which is to say Trevon Diggs is carrying this unit. The easy money is that the takeaways will eventually stop happening, or at least at this high of a frequency, given the general randomness of takeaways and the fact that quarterbacks will eventually just stop throwing at Diggs. How this defense fares once that happens will be very revealing.

The splits between run defense DVOA and run stop win rate are a bit confounding. Dallas has consistently ranked near the top ten in run defense DVOA this year, and they weren’t exactly gashed in that department on Sunday (note: quarterback scrambles are not treated as run plays for DVOA purposes, so Sam Darnold’s 35 rushing yards aren’t a factor here). Perhaps this is a reflection of the schedule adjustment reacting to an underwhelming slate of opposing rushing attacks thus far. Either way, Dallas’ strong run stop win rate is encouraging.

Cowboys Pass Coverage

 Targets Completions Completion Rate Passer Rating Allowed ADOT When Targeted Air Yards Allowed Yards After Catch
 Targets Completions Completion Rate Passer Rating Allowed ADOT When Targeted Air Yards Allowed Yards After Catch
Trevon Diggs 26 12 46.2% 28.4 9.3 81 90
Anthony Brown 37 25 67.6% 92.4 11.5 202 140
Jourdan Lewis 22 15 68.2% 107.2 8.9 73 122
Jayron Kearse 18 12 66.7% 113.9 6.3 42 41
Damontae Kazee 7 3 42.9% 87.8 24.1 73 11
Malik Hooker 7 5 71.4% 121.4 6.9 4 30
Keanu Neal 6 6 100.0% 118.1 8.3 50 24
Leighton Vander Esch 12 11 91.7% 108.3 2.3 30 90
Micah Parsons 12 9 75.0% 99.7 4.6 27 74

Finally, we look at the Cowboys’ coverage stats. As mentioned, Diggs is playing incredibly. It’s hard to think of another defensive back who’s played better so far this season, and Diggs is an obvious frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year right now. Aside from Diggs, the safety play has continued to be a strong point. Jayron Kearse especially has thrived in a bit of a hybrid role, while Malik Hooker’s stats are still muddied by a small sample size.

To his credit, Anthony Brown actually had his best game of the year on Sunday, and he’s no longer giving up the highest completion rate in this secondary. That now belongs to Jourdan Lewis, who had his hands full against the Panthers’ deceptively deep receiving corps. These linebackers continue to be a liability in coverage, although Micah Parsons’ return to more off-ball duties meant less snaps for the duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. With Keanu Neal likely returning next week, that could mean even less of the two who are seemingly giving up everything when thrown at.

In short, this pass defense owes its strong start to two things: Diggs’ ballhawk ability and competent safety play. But when quarterbacks stop throwing Diggs’ way and do more to isolate Brown and Lewis in coverage, or these linebackers, things could get ugly. This is something to monitor, but for now it’s worth it to enjoy some great defensive play.