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Using analytics to predict every game on the Cowboys schedule: Weeks 12-13

Two consecutive weeks that will test this young Dallas defense.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Analytics are all the rage right now, which is why we’re going through each game on the Cowboys’ schedule for the 2021 season and using analytics for each team to make a prediction on who wins. In case you missed previous entries in this series, here is where you can find them:

Weeks 1-2
Weeks 3-5
Weeks 6-9
Weeks 10-11

Now, time for weeks 12 and 13!

Week 12 vs Las Vegas Raiders

As challenging as it will be to face off against the Chiefs on the road in Week 11, what comes next won’t be much easier. As far as individual team strength goes, the Raiders are not even sniffing the tier that the Chiefs are in, but the Cowboys have to travel back home to Dallas and play the Raiders in just four days for their annual Thanksgiving Classic.

That on its own presents a challenge, but the Raiders are also an improving team under Jon Gruden. Ever since purging the team of all of its talent and going 4-12 in 2018, the Raiders have started to resemble something promising. In 2019, they started off 6-4 and had a real shot at a Wild Card berth before losing five of their last six games. It was a similar deal last year, with the Raiders reaching a 7-5 mark before a three-game losing streak derailed their playoff hopes. The high points of the season included wins over the Saints, Browns, and beating the Chiefs on the road.

Much of the Raiders’ successes last year were due to the offense, and notably quarterback Derek Carr. Las Vegas finished the year ranked 14th in overall offensive DVOA but ninth in pass DVOA, while Carr finished 11th in QBR and 10th in EPA. His productivity coincided with an increase in aggression; after finishing second from the bottom in average yards thrown past the line of scrimmage in 2019, Carr was 17th in that same category in 2020. With a vast majority of the pieces on this offense returning for 2021, Carr and the Raiders offense as a whole can expect to see similar levels of production, if not better.

Much like the Cowboys, defense is where a difference must be made. The Raiders have been pretty terrible on that side of the ball since Gruden arrived. Losing Khalil Mack, Karl Joseph, Bruce Irvin, and a host of other reliable playmakers didn’t help, but either way Gruden opted to move on from defensive coordinator Paul Guenther after the season. He replaced him with Gus Bradley, the guy who called plays for the Legion of Boom defense before Dan Quinn did. As such, we more or less know what to expect from this defense going forward, at least from a scheme standpoint.

The Raiders spent their second-round pick this year on TCU safety Trevon Moehrig, who will man the middle-of-field safety role, while thumper Johnathan Abram will take the box safety spot. But Bradley is inheriting some problems at cornerback in Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette, two young players who have struggled thus far. Las Vegas did bring in Casey Hayward, who just finished up a successful run with the Chargers under Bradley’s watch. The Raiders also added Yannick Ngakoue, but the pass rush as a whole will need to make some strides given Bradley’s strong opposition to blitzing.

Overall, though, the Raiders defense should be improved somewhat. Pairing that with an offense that’s likely to still be chugging along, and you’re looking at a team that could easily pull an upset on Thanksgiving against a team coming off a loss to the extremely talented Chiefs. However, the Cowboys are a ways ahead of the Raiders as far as talent goes. Prescott specifically should thrive against this defense; not only because he traditionally does - 10th in EPA/play against single-high safeties and eighth against zone coverage, which Bradley uses at a very high rate - but because he’ll know the in’s and out’s of how this defense works thanks to Quinn’s presence. That should move the needle enough in Dallas’ favor.

Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 7-4

Week 13 at New Orleans Saints

For the first time since 2005, the Saints will be playing without Drew Brees on their roster as the legendary quarterback retired this offseason. Prior to Brees coming to town, the Saints had just one division title to their name in the previous 13 seasons. Coincidentally, that lone division title featured Mike McCarthy calling the shots on offense.

But New Orleans lost more than just Brees. On the coaching side, they lost assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell and defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn to the Detroit Lions; Campbell had played a crucial role in building the Saints’ rushing offense around Alvin Kamara, while Glenn’s development of young players like Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, and CJ Gardner-Johnson played a huge role in the defense’s turnaround. Cap space problems also caused New Orleans to say goodbye to several key players including wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, tight end Jared Cook, defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson, Malcom Brown, and Sheldon Rankins, linebacker Alex Anzalone, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins.

That’s quite the changing of the guard. Of course, none are more pivotal than the quarterback spot, which is currently an open competition between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. The general consensus seems to be that Winston will win the job, but Hill will likely still see plenty of snaps in the utility role he had when Brees was still around. If Winston does become the new starting quarterback in New Orleans, it will offer up a fascinating case study in the argument of talent vs scheme fit, if nothing else.

Winston’s talent coming out of Florida State was undeniable, which is why the Buccaneers took him first overall back in 2015. But his biggest weakness coming out - ball security - never got better. Through five seasons as the Buccaneers starter, Winston’s lowest amount of interceptions in a year was 11 picks in 2017. Then came the 2019 season when, paired with pass-happy head coach Bruce Arians, Winston led the NFL in passing attempts and finished with an impressive 33 touchdowns, but also 30 interceptions. Just to put that into perspective, Winston threw more interceptions in 2019 than Brees threw touchdowns that same year.

And therein lies the problem in replacing Brees with Winston. Head coach Sean Payton’s offense worked so well because its West Coast roots perfectly complemented Brees’ skill set. Brees was short and didn’t have the strongest arm, so Payton found a groove of letting Brees hit short, efficient throws and then knowing exactly when to take the deep shot. It was a system the two perfected for over a decade, but it’s one that seems a poor fit for Winston.

Last year, Brees had the third-fewest intended air yards average and had a +1.2 completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) while finishing sixth in the league in QBR. In 2019, the last time Winston was a full-time starter, he was second in the league in intended air yards and had a rare zero CPOE while finishing 16th in QBR. Efficiency is not his style, and while Payton is sure to add some wrinkles to his offense to adjust to the new quarterback, it may not be enough.

The good news for New Orleans, though, is that they have the makings of a pretty good defense. Since taking over as coordinator in the middle of the 2015 season (after then-coordinator Rob Ryan was fired), Dennis Allen has turned this unit around. They finished 2015 ranking dead last in DVOA, but improved to 28th the next year. Then, in 2017, they made a huge jump to sixth in DVOA and they haven’t left the top ten since. Last year was their best year, coming in second in DVOA.

As mentioned, the Saints have a young secondary that has made great strides, and that was a big part of their success the last few years. In 2020, they ranked fourth in EPA/play in zone coverage and ninth when playing man coverage, which Allen used at the tenth-highest rate in the NFL. Allen displayed a tendency to operate out of split-safety shells a lot, but frequently disguised his coverages and actually rotated into a single-high safety more often than not. It must have been concerning, then, that New Orleans ranked 16th in EPA/play in single-high defense. Perhaps that’s why they replaced Glenn with Kris Richard, known proponent of the single-high coverage scheme.

The big question mark for this defense, though, is the pass rush. They were 12th in EPA/play when not bringing any blitz, and the team finished 22nd in pass rush win rate. Hendrickson, one of their free agent losses, accounted for 13.5 of their 45 sacks, so unless someone else can replace that production, Allen will have to continue to blitz frequently after doing so at the 14th-highest rate last year.

If that’s the case, it’ll be a big blow for this week’s matchup against Dallas, as Dak Prescott was fourth in EPA/play against the blitz last year. Even with a talented secondary, New Orleans should have a tough time stopping Prescott, and that will put pressure on Winston to respond. History tells us that bodes very poorly for the team that calls Winston their starting quarterback.

Prediction: Cowboys win, improve to 8-4