It feels good to have a Dallas Cowboys win to celebrate after the 20-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. Heck, we even get an extra day to bask in this one with the Cowboys playing the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday. As always there are some interesting things to draw from the stats. So let’s dive in.
The near absence of the special teams
There is an understandable level of irritation about John Fassel’s mystifying decision to go for a punt block in a fourth and twenty situation on the first play following the two minute warning in the first half. They had them stopped and were set to go into halftime with a three point lead. The penalty on Azur Kamara gave L.A. another chance to score. Dallas would dodge that bullet as the attempted field goal just before half doinked off the upright, but it was still a foolish risk. Admittedly, it looked like Kamara was held and pushed into the punter, but it was still a chance there was no logical reason to take. The Cowboys had a great game plan overall, but situational football was not their strong point.
Outside of that play and the five total field goals, including the game winner from Greg Zuerlein, there was very little for the special teams to do. It was a low scoring game that somehow only saw ONE punt from both teams combined. The low score also meant few kickoffs, with all of Dallas’ going into the end zone as they should. That one punt was nicely done by Bryan Anger with the ball downed at the Chargers nine-yard line, but the almost complete lack of punts was not just rare to begin with. It is almost unheard of in a low-scoring affair such as this. In an offensive shootout, with both teams getting close to 40 points or more, it can happen just because of all the scoring. But this was one of the more peculiar games. It saw only fifteen total possessions by both teams, with Dallas having eight to Los Angles’ seven.
Part of the reason for that is that both teams had an average starting position for their drives inside the 30, and each putting together a lot of long, time-eating possessions. There were only two three-and-outs, one for each team. Neither had a really long scoring play. The Cowboys only had one play go over 30 yards, the trick play with the lateral at the end of the second half that came up just short of scoring. The Chargers had three plays of 30+ yards, but for the most part both teams marched methodically down the field. It was hardly the high-scoring shootout many predicted between Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert. Vegas probably made a ton off people taking the over.
If you take away that one strange decision by Fassel, the special teams for Dallas were actually decent in limited action. If you look at how the game was won, they may have saved the day with one swing of Greg Zuerlein’s day. Outside of that, it is hard to find a game where the teams units anywhere saw so little action on any NFL weekend.
For the fogies who wanted balance, we got you some balance
The Cowboys netted 221 yards on 27 passing plays and 198 running it 31 times. If Jason Garrett was at this game, he would have blistered his hands clapping.
But don’t chalk this up to a sudden dedication to that foolish idea of balance. It was purely due to Kellen Moore completely flipping the script to deal with a very different defense than the run-smothering Tampa Bay defense. In both games this year, he has designed his offense around the opponent’s weaknesses. Moore also used both his backs admirably. Tony Pollard had one of the best games of his career with 13 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Some point to Ezekiel Elliott’s 71 on 16 totes as some kind of indictment, but he also scored his own TD. There is also this to mull over.
*whispers*— Matthew J. Lenix (@StarConscience) September 20, 2021
On the final drive for the Cowboys on Sunday that took 11 plays Ezekiel Elliott had five touches and converted two crucial 3rd downs.
What we saw was not a move from featuring one back over another. It was a perceptive and very effective use of their respective strengths. And it could point the way to more big running games from Dallas. They won’t face the Buccaneers again in the regular season, after all.
Just enough edge in turnovers
Neither team lost a fumble, with the only one by Prescott on a strip-sack being recovered by the incomparable Zack Martin. And Prescott only threw one pick, arguably on his worst throw of the game. Herbert was picked off twice, one an impressive move by Trevon Diggs, and the other in the end zone by Damontae Kazee who then had the intelligence to realize he was better off going down than trying to return it, improving the Cowboys’ starting position. Winning the turnover battle usually leads to a win, and that was just what happened. So far, the Cowboys have taken the ball away from the opponent six times in the first two games. That is likely an unsustainable pace for the season, but it may also be an indication that this defense is much better at going after the ball than we have seen in a long time. We will watch this closely.
Third down efficiency
This may be a number that surprises you. Though it seemed as if Herbert and the Chargers were overcoming third and long on almost every series, that was not at all what happened. The Dallas defense held them to 41.7%, or five for twelve. The Cowboys were actually far better, converting a good 60% of the ten third downs they faced. It is one more bit of evidence that Dan Quinn may have his defense doing enough to help the team rather than hurt it. With some less potent looking offenses coming up the next few weeks, that may indeed continue.
Lots of offense for so few points
Both teams were over 400 yards total, with the only thing resembling garbage time that previously mentioned trick play at the end of the first half for the Cowboys. Normally, that should equate to more points at the end of the day, but thanks to the missed field goal by the Chargers, some key penalties, and some good defensive stands on both sides, plus the relatively long fields faced by both all day, it didn’t. It is particularly remarkable for Los Angeles, with Herbert having 313 net yards passing. That is what just throwing one TD will do to your stats. It won’t be often that either of these teams are going to be held to 20 or fewer points the rest of the way.
That low total score may also be a hint that both these teams have pretty good defenses. Let’s hope so in Dallas’ case.
Inferring the effectiveness of the offensive line
Statistically, information about the way the offensive line performed comes from what other players do or don’t do. With all the concern about the often maligned Terence Steele in the lineup, they came through with flying colors.
Those impressive rushing numbers are directly related to how the blocking is done up front, and speak for themselves. Prescott only was sacked twice, hit four times, and did not see excessive pressure on the rest of his drop backs. It appears that the return of Martin was more important than the loss of La’el Collins.
Borrowing from another source, here are a couple of additional notable accomplishments by the line.
(He meant one pressure.)
Martin is the best player on the team, and Williams may be the most underrated. It’s all good.
The defensive snaps have more in them, but let’s start with something on offense
Ezekiel Elliott - 44 snaps (77%) 18 total touches
Tony Pollard - 21 snaps (34%) 16 total touches
Corey Clement - 1 snap (2%)
That certainly adds fuel to the fire about Pollard being much more effective and explosive. But it also speaks to the different roles they play. Part of Elliott’s larger number of times one the field is due to his being so outstanding in pass protection. And he is more the grinder who can get you a couple of yards when you need just one. Once again, Moore seems to have a great grasp of how to use these two.
Clement is another oddity. It’s unclear why he was run out there for one play. But if you look at the percentages, you can see that there were several snaps with both Elliott and Pollard on the field. And that’s a good thing.
Trevon Diggs - 71 snaps (100%)
Anthony Brown - 71 snaps (100%)
Jourdan Lewis - 51 snaps (72%)
Having Diggs out there every play is only logical, given how well he has done the first two games. But with Brown looking like the weak link here, it is still a bit puzzling why Maurice Canady and Nahshon Wright did not get at least a look in his place. But on further reflection, this was a tight, down to the wire game, and it really wasn’t a good spot for experimentation. Still, we should hope that changes soon.
As for Lewis, if you don’t remember him much, that is a good thing. He quietly had a good day.
Jayron Kearse - 69 snaps (97%) - 6 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QB hit, 1 PD
Damontae Kazee - 67 snaps (94%) - 2 tackles, 1 INT
Malik Hooker - 25 snaps (35%) - 3 tackles, 1 TFL
I included their individual stats, because that is a nice amount of production from your safeties without being too much due to them being the last line of defense on long gains. And it is a good number of what Bob Sturm of The Athletic has deemed “splash plays” for the defense. What is notable is that all were acquired as free agents this year. For the first time the bargain shopping habits of Stephen Jones may actually have paid off. It has been a long time since there has been this much reason to feel good about the safeties for Dallas.
Now for the bad news: All three are on one-year, vet-minimum deals. All look to be working their way toward a nice payday in 2022. It would be great if Jones could work out how to keep all of them, and he needs to get at least one back in the fold. But I’m sure we are soon going to start hearing about salary cap constraints and such. The Cowboys are already over $18 million in the hole for next year based on Over the Cap’s projections. Just be ready.
Jaylon Smith - 54 snaps (76%)
Keanu Neal - 51 snaps (72%)
Leighton Vander Esch - 37 snaps (52%)
With a certain player who will be discussed next doing a lot of his work as a pass rusher, we knew this trio was going to have to step up. What is surprising is just how well they did. There were few bad plays from any of them, and Smith led the team in tackles with nine. Vander Esch was right behind him with seven, plus he had a sack, an additional TFL, and a QB hit. Neal contributed three tackles as well.
You want to see your linebackers bearing the brunt of the tackles, because it means the action is not getting into the secondary for the most part. If things continue like this, Smith and Vander Esch could go a long way in redeeming themselves after 2020.
Surprise count of the game
Micah Parsons - 39 snaps (55%)
The first time I saw this on social media, my jaw actually dropped. It seemed like Parsons was all over the field, harassing Herbert and making tackles. Yet he only had two tackles, one of them a sack. The four QB hits he notched were perhaps more important, and he seemed to be in the quarterback’s face a lot. Yet he is getting praised as the best defender Dallas had on the field.
Which may be absolutely true, given the relatively small number of times he was actually out there. And it speaks to how raw numbers often under or overstate individual players’ impact. Parsons was around the ball on almost every play he was in, and that can benefit others, such as the three linebackers above.
If Quinn can figure out the best use for him without getting him beat up, he is going to be a star for this team. Forgive me for my doubts when his name was called.