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Cowboys analytics roundup: Dallas still standing tall despite recent struggles

There are some obvious areas of concern for the Cowboys, though

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The Cowboys have lost three of their last four games and, for the first time all year, are on a losing streak. Still, at 7-4, they hold a commanding lead over their division rivals and are just two games out of the top spot in the NFC. Nobody is denying that this team isn’t playing their best football right now, but a look around the league shows they’re still among the NFL’s best.

That may not be comforting to the fan who consumes plenty of non-Cowboys football in a given week, as there hasn’t really been any team that’s looked like a runaway Super Bowl contender in either conference. But the Cowboys can only beat the teams they play, so seeing them at the top of several important analytical categories - especially with schedule adjustments for DVOA now at 100% strength - should still be promising.

Cowboys Efficiency at a Glance

 DVOA DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Previous Week Weighted DVOA Weighted DVOA Rank
 DVOA DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Previous Week Weighted DVOA Weighted DVOA Rank
Offense 13.4% 6th 9th 11.3% 7th
Defense -15.2% 2nd 1st -19.1% 1st
Special Teams 2.2% 6th 5th 4.4% 5th
Overall 30.9% 1st 1st 34.8% 1st

For the first time in what feels like forever, the D in Dallas stands for defense! After a few weeks in which the Cowboys’ offense has struggled without some key players on the field, the defense is now their strongest part of the team, a testament to the work Dan Quinn has done in less than a year on the job. Also, check out the special teams jumping into the top ten after Tony Pollard’s kickoff return touchdown generated a significant boost in overall efficiency.

NFL Team Tiers, Weeks 1-12 courtesy of rbsdm.com

The Cowboys’ EPA-based ranking matches their DVOA ranking, with Dallas as the fifth-best team in the league right now. The Cardinals, Bills, and Buccaneers are all in a tier of their own, and the Patriots - who have won six straight since losing to the Cowboys in overtime - are just ahead of them now. Seeing so many teams clustered around the middle should put into context the Cowboys’ struggles; they haven’t been playing well lately, but few teams have been.

Offense

Cowboys Offensive Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Offensive DVOA 13.4% 6th
Pass DVOA 31.7% 6th
Run DVOA -4.0% 13th

The Cowboys offense has simply not been the same since their bye week. Of course, playing without Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Tyron Smith, and Blake Jarwin for various stretches since then has hurt. They’re not just playing without some guys, they’re playing without some of their best. That impact has been felt recently.

The biggest issue for Dallas is a precipitous decline of their running game. They’re all the way down to 20th in rushing DVOA. Dallas is already 24th in rush EPA/play; just since the bye week, they’re 29th in that same category. We’ll see in a bit that the offensive line has remained steady, so the Cowboys’ rushing issues go deeper than the curious rotations at left guard and right tackle they tried on Thanksgiving.

Dak Prescott’s Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
QBR 54.9 9th
EPA 85.8 7th
CPOE 2.2 T-5th
DVOA 21.2% 3rd
DYAR 1379 3rd

It’s been a weird four-game stretch for Prescott. Like everyone else on the team, he played terribly against Denver but played lights out against the Falcons. Then Prescott had an uneven performance against the Chiefs, although playing without Cooper, losing Lamb at halftime, and doing so in a hostile, windy environment are big factors there. Then he started slow against the Raiders, again playing without Cooper or Lamb, before having a big second half to drag Dallas to overtime.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on his missed throw to Noah Brown in overtime that ultimately cost the team, and that one play was indeed bad. But consider that it was the first time he’s thrown an overtime incompletion ever. Not just this season, but in his whole career. That Prescott is fifth in CPOE and top five in both DVOA and DYAR back up the idea that he’s a very accurate passer and extremely valuable to this team. His middle of the pack QBR and EPA numbers also reflect that Prescott is playing inconsistently right now.

Cowboys Offensive Line Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Adjusted Line Yards 4.80 2nd
RB Yards 4.68 5th
Adjusted Sack Rate 5.6% 9th
Pass Block Win Rate 58% 23rd
Run Block Win Rate 73% 6th

The Cowboys’ running game is dying a slow, very painful death right now but it’s not the fault of the offensive line. They’re second in adjusted line yards and fifth in run block win rate. As far as individual run block win rates go, Tyron Smith is sixth among all tackles, Zack Martin is sixth among all guards, and Tyler Biadasz is eighth among all centers.

As for the apparently ongoing debate between the two Connor’s - Williams and McGovern - the breakdown between the two has been interesting to say the least. McGovern leads all left guards in run block win rate, but is also last among all left guards in pass block win rate. Meanwhile, Williams is ninth in pass block win rate and sitting at about 16th in run block win rate.

Of course, as Seth Walder points out, McGovern has a very small sample size playing at left guard compared to the rest of the players on this chart. But McGovern has started the past two games, and performed extremely well in run blocking while playing very poorly in pass protection. Williams - who was allowing the third-lowest pressure rate among all guards when he got benched - provided more consistency between run and pass blocking.

Defense

Cowboys Defensive Efficiency

 Grade Rank
 Grade Rank
Defensive DVOA -15.2% 2nd
Pass Defense DVOA -20.5% 2nd
Run Defense DVOA -7.1% 16th
Pass Rush Win Rate 42% 12th
Run Stop Win Rate 31% 14th

Behold, the Dallas Cowboys are a defensive-minded team. And at least for one game, they’ll feature a defensive-minded head coach too, as Dan Quinn is lined up to be the interim head coach this week with Mike McCarthy sidelined by COVID-19.

The Cowboys have been playing great defense lately, and much of it is spurred by Micah Parsons smashing through the rookie wall and dominating wherever Quinn puts him. Now, Dallas is getting DeMarcus Lawrence back this week and could see the return of both Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore as early as next week in Washington DC. That would boost the team’s middle-of-the-pack pass rush win rate, which currently lives off of Parsons’ work as a pass rusher. And yet, the Cowboys’ pass defense has remained at a high level.

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 103 54 52.4% 55.8 10.4 496 411
Anthony Brown 122 65 53.3% 78.4 12.2 518 318
Jourdan Lewis 76 52 68.4% 93.4 8.5 381 305
Kelvin Joseph 17 8 47.1% 82.7 6.8 14 75
Jayron Kearse 65 40 61.5% 77.5 6.8 179 237
Damontae Kazee 25 13 52.0% 85.8 14.2 135 70
Malik Hooker 28 16 57.1% 80.8 9.6 59 90
Donovan Wilson 14 6 42.9% 57.1 8.1 39 26
Keanu Neal 38 30 78.9% 97.1 3.8 109 169
Leighton Vander Esch 38 27 71.1% 87.9 1.8 37 226
Micah Parsons 36 22 61.1% 71.5 3.1 37 123

The reality is that the Cowboys secondary had a solid game against the Raiders, but penalties burned them badly. Derek Carr posted the fifth-highest discrepancy between his completed air yards and intended air yards, which suggests he was launching a ton of prayers but not connecting much on them. Most of his completions came in shorter-yardage situations against the likes of Jourdan Lewis, Jayron Kearse, and Keanu Neal.

On a larger scale, though, the Cowboys are enjoying good performances from Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown and have found surprising safety depth. Despite a rough night on Thanksgiving, Lewis has been playing better lately while Neal finally yielded his first few incompletions when targeted. Things are looking up for this group, which is a positive development as that Week 17 bout with Kyler Murray gets closer and closer.