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Grading the Cowboys' dominating 43 - 3 victory over the Falcons




Yeah, I'll be honest. I didn't feel great about this game. With both Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory out I worried Matt Ryan would have time and the Falcons' receivers would get open and they'd score points and put pressure on the offense to respond and that might result in some turnovers or red zone woes and that would end up in a tight, tense game and.....

No need to worry.

This Dallas Cowboys team keeps answering questions in impressive manner. Sunday it was how will the team respond after getting punched in the nose last week? Would they prove that was an aberration, a temporary loss of focus? Or were fundamental issues exposed and would those flaws be exploited by future opponents?

In the 2021 NFL the one certainty is uncertainty. So none of us could be certain how they would respond. But anyone who had "total domination on both sides of the ball and on special teams" as their expectation take a bow because you called it. This was as impressive football performance as we've seen in quite a while. Let's go to the grades:

Overall: A+

I don't know how you could come to any other grade. While it wasn't a perfect performance is was domination in every fashion. Regardless of whether you like traditional points / yards / time of possession metrics or more propeller head geeky metrics they both loved the Cowboys' performance Sunday. Dallas:

  • Scored six touchdowns while giving up zero
  • Outgained the Falcons by 210+ yards
  • Averaged 2.0 more yards gained per play
  • Ran 19 more plays
  • Averaged 4.2 more yards per pass attempt
  • Enjoyed a 110 point passer rating advantage (123 to 13.6 - really)
  • Generated 3 turnovers and 2 sacks while surrendering only a single turnover
  • Blocked a punt for a touchdown
  • Held the ball for 15 minutes more (37.7 to 22.3)
  • Generally did whatever they chose to do

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If you prefer more advanced analytics we need only look at Expected Points Added:

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These are phenomenal numbers for your Dallas Cowboys. The offensive number (11.1) is a solid day at the office. The defensive number (-25.9) is insane. We also see the Dallas passing game did all the offensive damage, with the Cowboys' running game being ineffective in terms of adding expected points. Atlanta was a mess in both the run and passing game.

We see, when looking at the season-long numbers that these results are literally "off-the-chart":

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Prior to Sunday's tilt against Atlanta our "Total EPA by Game" chart never needed to go lower than -15; we had to expand the axis twice as far to capture the -25.9 the Atlanta offense posted. Similarly, prior to Sunday the EPA Variance by Game axis never had to go above 25; Sunday we had to increase that to 40 to capture the EPA variance number of 37.

This is simply the geeky way of confirming the Cowboys curb-stomped the Falcons in merciless fashion. There were many things to like about the 43 - 3 whipping. The offense that struggled to string positive plays together last week against the Broncos made play after play in a dominating first half performance that saw the team score touchdowns on four of five drives:

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Virtually everything was working. We'll get to the superb performance of Dak Prescott and the receiving group, but everyone deserve kudos for what can only be described as an outstanding all around offensive performance.

Defensively, as noted by the EPA numbers above, was even more impressive. The Falcons came into the game having thrown for 322 yards in a 27 - 25 road victory over the New Orleans Saints. After a bit of success early Matt Ryan, Kyle Pitts and the rest of the Falcons offense struggled to simply gain positive yards. Their first half drives:

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Coaching: A

I was extremely interested to see how Mike McCarthy's team would respond after their first disappointing performance of the season. Would the struggles continue? Did the Broncos expose some fundamental issues that future opponents could exploit? Would Dallas come out for an early afternoon home game and again struggle to find their footing?

McCarthy seemed intent on delivering a message because he chose to receive the opening kick-off, rather than deferring as he usually does. He wanted his best unit on the field to start the game and they absolutely delivered. marching 73 yards for a very quick 7-0 lead.

McCarthy continues to be extremely aggressive on 4th downs. The opening drive faced a 4th-and-5 at the Falcons' 33 yard line. McCarthy could have chosen the long 50-yard field goal (a Jason Garrett certainty) but chose instead to go for it.

The resulting 21-yard completion to CeeDee Lamb led to the eventual touchdown and was the single biggest play of the game in terms of win probability:

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Note that three of the plays noted above came on fourth down; two conversions for the Cowboys and a failed conversion for the Falcons. In addition to this completion to CeeDee we also saw a conversion to the returning Michael Gallup to keep another touchdown drive alive. And finally we saw Dak score on his own for the team's final touchdown of the day. That's 21 points on drives where Jason Garrett likely takes nine points (and that's only if the kicker converts all three kicks).

This illustrates a new reality in the NFL: as more teams embrace the indisputable numbers and attempt more fourth downs these plays play an ever-bigger role in determining outcomes.

Going for it on fourth down creates a higher leverage play: the difference between converting and continuing the drive or failing and handing the ball to the opponent. That's a higher leverage play than a punt or field goal attempt. With teams increasingly bypassing the "safer" punt/field goal options it means, as fans, we're seeing increasing numbers of these high-leverage 4th down plays.

That's fantastic from a fan perspective because a fourth down showdown is always more interesting than a punt or field goal. But it also means these plays have an outsized role in determining wins and losses. We need only look at 4th down performance the last two weeks and the eventual outcome of the game. Sunday against the Falcons the Cowboys converted all three of their 4th down attempts and stopped both of the Falcons' 4th down attempts. If you win five of five 4th down plays my guess is you'll win virtually every game you play.

The previous week, however, the Cowboys failed on all four of their 4th down attempts and the Broncos tried none. Again, if you lose four of four 4th down attempts you're likely going to lose the game. In short, as teams "go for it" more and more often then 4th down performance becomes an ever more important factor in a winning football performance.

Let's give McCarthy a lot of credit here. He's been hyper-aggressive in this area since his arrival. Remember his very first game when he eschewed a late game-tying field goal and instead went for it from the Los Angeles Rams' 11-yard line on 4th-and-3? That attempt failed and he got a lot of grief.

But not as much as he once would have. The thing about using probabilities is they're just that...probabilities; not certainties. And that means that McCarthy's decision in that Rams' game was the right decision even though the outcome wasn't a success. In order to make these probabilities work in your favor you have to keep going for it when the analytics say so. The more often you go for it the better your collective outcomes.

Well Sunday showed McCarthy gets that because it would have been easy to take the Jason Garrett route and kick. He'd seen his team fail four separate times on 4th down against the Broncos; instead he was aggressive and this time it paid off.

Most teams seem to have learned this lesson but you still see a handful of teams coached by (checks notes) guys like Belichick, Carrol and McVay (the best coach ever and two other highly regarded coaches) clinging to old-school ideas in this area. Trust me when I say it's a lot better to not have that problem with this staff.

The last three weeks have been a roller-coaster of late down (3rd and 4th downs) for the Cowboys. They dominated against Minnesota, were dominated by Denver and then dominated again against Atlanta.

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Remember, at one point the Falcons had a chance to take an early lead. After forcing a Cowboys' 3-and-out on the Cowboys' second possession the Falcons moved to midfield and faced a 4th-and-7. Virtually every team in this situation will punt because 7 yards is quite a lot. But I believe the Falcons and head coach Arthur Smith felt they needed to squeeze every point out of every possession to keep up with the high-powered Cowboys' offense.

Unfortunately for them the 4th down attempt failed and, as you can, see, things went very poorly after that:

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Looking at EPA per play we see 3rd and 4th downs are where the Cowboys won this game:

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The Cowboys offense wasn't great on early downs, but was notably better than the Falcons (0.06 variance). But on late downs the the Cowboys performed very well and the Falcons were a disaster (2.43 variance). Looking at season-long results we see the last two weeks have just been crazy in terms of late down performances:

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Again, "off the chart" results. Prior to the Broncos game late play EPA variance could be measured between -0.5 and +1.0. Then Dallas lost the late play EPA per play battle by nearly -1.5 points against the Broncos; then against Atlanta they won the same battle by an absurd +2.5.

Quarterback: A+

Dak Prescott is a stud. What most stood out to me about this game was Prescott seemed to take the poor performance against Denver personally and was eager to get back and prove that's not who he is.

And that Dak is the undisputed leader of this team. As he goes so goes the Cowboys. And you can see his teammates absolutely look to him and feed off his leadership. Do not discount how much that means in a league where not all quarterbacks, even the best ones, always have great relationships with their teammates. Dak is a "dawg" as Micah Parsons would say.

The numbers look like a routine Dak Prescott performance:

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Perhaps Prescott's best play of the game came, of course, on another late down play. This time the Falcons brought an all-out blitz and Prescott faced not one but two unblocked rushers. No problem, he backpedaled a bit and threw a perfectly placed ball that allowed Lamb to run under it for his 2nd TD of the day. I'm old enough to remember Dak doubters talking about he doesn't "throw his receiver open" - and while I've generally hated that phrase in this case look where Lamb was when Prescott threw the ball:

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Just a superb play from Prescott. It was typical of an outstanding performance from opening gun until he took the bench in the 4th quarter.

Wide Receivers: A+

A week after having their worst game of the season this group also turned things around in a big way. Michael Gallup came back and helped contribute to an almost perfect day in terms of passer rating:

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Every number here is impressive. Sixteen targets is not a lot but when they generate 187 yards, 2 touchdowns, 11.7 YPA and 19.2 total EPA you happily take it. Everyone made plays but no one more than CeeDee Lamb. In addition to the TD pass shown above he had this 1st quarter TD and this early catch and run to get things started. Lamb has topped 84 yards in four of his last five games to go along with five TDs in that time. He is looking very much like the dominant wide-receiver draftniks predicted in 2020.

Michael Gallup didn't have a big day but his presence was felt as he not only had the 4th down conversion noted above but also contributed another 3rd down catch on the Cowboys' first drive. Amari Cooper continues his strong campaign. The season-long results for this group:

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They are on pace to record 221 catches for 3,150 yards and 26 TDs. Yowza!

Running backs: B

A relatively quiet day for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard:

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The 3.3 yards per rushing attempt is one of the few not great numbers from Dallas on this day. Yet the two still combined for 154 yards from scrimmage and made plays when called upon. We had Zeke reaching the end zone not once but twice. He also converted a 2-point play. These short-yardage plays should not be dismissed because failures in that area have been a source of trouble for this team. And we saw yet again that Zeke can be trusted to protect his QB in pass protection. The one negative was Zeke fumbling for the first time all season, ending his longest streak without a fumble.

Tight ends: B

A surprisingly quiet day from this group. I thought after the tight ends seeing their targets decline the last two weeks that this would be a game where they got a lot of action. But it wasn't to be as Prescott looked to his wide-outs early and often.

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So, not a high volume day but still relatively productive. And we got to see Sean McKeon notch his first career catch, which is always kind of fun. Looking at the season-long results we can see that after weeks of very steady and efficient production the tight ends have seen their opportunities diminish.

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My guess is teams have started paying more attention to Schultz, especially on 3rd downs and in the red zone and as a result opportunities for the wideouts have been available. That's the beauty of this offense, whatever defenses attempt to take away Dallas always has viable alternatives.

Offensive line: A

This group rebounded nicely a week after struggling mightily vs the Broncos. Prescott wasn't sacked the entire afternoon and often had time to go through his progressions. Terrance Steele was beaten multiple times last week but recorded a clean sheet. La'el Collins looked more like his former self in his second week of action. Zack Martin simply shows up every week and provides Hall of Fame caliber play.

The only real negative is the group had five major penalties called on them over two 2nd half series:

  • C. Williams - Holding
  • C. Williams - Chop Block
  • L. Collins - Face Mask
  • C. McGovern - Holding
  • C. Williams - Holding

Now, the broadcast showed only two of these and neither looked like a penalty; the other three were not shown so who knows? What we do know is Conner Williams not only leads the league in penalties (10 enforced, 12 total) but has already topped the highest number of penalties called on any offensive lineman in 2020. Honestly, a number of them have been dubious but it's clear this is a problem for Williams who otherwise has developed into an decent starting NFL guard.

Defensive Line: A-

This grade is based on the fact the unit was without their two best edge rushers (Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory) and are still without Neville Gallimore on the interior. Considering those facts this was a very good performance.

Dorrance Armstrong, in particular, stood out and finally rewarded the faith the team has shown in him over the years. This was easily his most productive game. He lined up all over the place and was disruptive throughout, including this sack where he cleanly beat his man with a textbook swim move. He would record a sack, a tackle for loss, 3 tackles total and 3 QB hits. Oh, and he also blocked a punt that resulted in a touchdown. An all around outstanding game from a player who's struggled to establish a consistent rotational presence.

Chauncey Gholston would add a nice pass defense and a QB hit. Terrell Basham would add four tackles and a QB hit. Trysten Hill would record two tackles in his first action since suffering a severe injury midway through 2020.

The Falcons were completely shut down after their first two series and that doesn't happen without a quality performance from the defensive line.

Linebackers: A

Micah Parsons continues to impress. He was again a dynamic sideline-to-sideline presence playing largely as an off-ball linebacker on early downs and as a line-up-anywhere pass rusher on late downs. He's excelled at both roles and the number of NFL players who can fulfill both those roles simultaneously is extremely short.

This was his sixth sack of the year. He uses his explosive speed and athleticism to make the defender resemble little more than a traffic cone. He also forced a fumble on the play, though the Falcons were lucky to recover it. It's hard to measure how much Parsons' presence has improved this defense but there's no doubt he's already established himself as a defensive difference-maker.

Leighton Vander Esch had another LVE game where he made a few tackles and otherwise was kept off the stat sheet. He did avoid having the opponent juke him out of his cleats, so that's a positive.

Secondary: A+

This was an impressive, all-around exhibition from a unit that looks unlike anything we've seen here since the Wade Philipps days. Jason Garrett believed in doing anything to reduce big plays so Cowboys corners and safeties were taught to face the receiver, rather than the quarterback. Thus we saw folks like Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis often in position to make plays but because they couldn't see the ball rarely did make plays.

Now we're seeing Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis and Trevon Diggs making plays every game. Jourdan Lewis was the star Sunday. He had a ridiculous sequence in the first half where he recorded three passes defensed and a tackle for no gain in five Falcons' plays. Later he would add this group's third takeaway of the game, an outstanding athletic grab of a deflected pass.

Anthony Brown also continued his solid play with this juggling, contested interception. Honestly, it's so good it deserves a second look. And after a lengthy drought of two full games without recording an interception Trevon Diggs made this spectacular display of ball skills. This is the Trevon Diggs experience in a single clip as he's cleanly beaten but continues to fight and is in position to make the pick on the errant Ryan throw. A good throw easily beats Diggs but if you make a mistake around him you're probably going to pay.

On the season Diggs, Brown and Lewis have all demonstrated playmaking abilities. On the season they've recorded 13 interceptions and 29 passes defensed, giving up six touchdowns while scoring three of their own:

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Opposing quarterbacks have a 59% completion percentage and a 65 passer rating when targeting the trio. Note also that 28% of balls thrown their way have resulted in either an INT or deflected ball. That number increases to 39% for Diggs, which pretty much renders the Pro Football Focus judgement that he's one of the worst corners in the league dubious.

This is easily the best corner play the Dallas Cowboys have received in years.

The safety play has also been improved and Sunday was a good example. We saw Jayron Kearse dislodge the ball from the Falcons' receiver to force the Falcons to kick a field goal on their first possession. He, Malik Hooker and Damontae Kazee have been solid all season. Donovan Wilson had a non-descript game as he works his way back into the safety rotation.

Special Teams: A+

Special teams is often a wash each week, with field goal conversions being the primary area where a team gains (or loses) an advantage. Not so Sunday, when the Cowboys special teams blocked a punt for the third time in four weeks.

Unlike the previous Sunday, however, the blocked punt didn't freakishly benefit the opponent. Instead, it was the icing on a first half cake which resulted in a 36 - 3 halftime lead. We also saw first time kicker (checks spelling) Lirim Hajrullahu convert all extra points. Finally CeeDee Lamb again looked dangerous on a couple punt returns and it feels like just a matter of time before he takes one to the house.

This unit was an abject disaster during Jason Garrett's final season and is now a unit that seems capable of being a positive difference-maker.

Summary:

Let's take note of the various challenges the 2021 Dallas Cowboys have overcome for victories:

  • Beat the Chargers on the road despite missing La'el Collins, Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and a plethora of other players.
  • Beat the New England Patriots on the road despite numerous penalties and self-inflicted wounds.
  • Beat the Vikings on the road despite missing their MVP-caliber QB and Cooper Rush playing his first notable plays in the NFL.
  • Beat the Falcons decisively after getting punched in the mouth and having their credentials challenged the previous week.

They're doing this despite injuries that have forced numerous 2nd and 3rd stringers to step up and play significant roles. They now lead the NFL in points scored despite many teams having played more games. They have a 3.5 game lead over their nearest divisional rival. They will have several notable players returning from injury over the next few weeks, most notably their two best pass rushing edge defenders.

Pro Football Reference uses a metric called Simple Rating System where they look at point differentials and then opponent's point differential to rank teams. The resulting number can best be described as the number of points a team would be favored against an average NFL team.

A team with a +7 SRS is a very solid playoff team. A team with a +10 SRS is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. A team with a +14 SRS is an historically great team. Your 2021 Cowboys currently sport a 10.9 SRS number. The only team with a better SRS number is the Buffalo Bills at 11.4.

For reference here are the SRS numbers of the Cowboys Triplet's era Super Bowl winners and the best Cowboys teams of the 21st century:

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Based on this metric this is the best Cowboys team since the early 90's with only the 2007 version coming close. You can dismiss this measure but virtually any measure you use will show the Cowboys to be one of the five best teams in the league. Traditional measures like points scored, points differential, yards gained, yards allowed or the advanced metrics like Expected Points Added or DVOA or whatever.

This is fun. This is why we endure the bitter heartaches and gutpunch losses and lost seasons like 2020.

No, nothing is guaranteed and this year is more likely to end in disappointment than elation. But watching a high quality team play exciting, fun, winning football week after week has made this a terrific season thus far. And more importantly gives fans hope that just perhaps this team can do something special.

Let's let the team leader have the final word.

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