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Cowboys analytics roundup: Loss to Cardinals hasn’t changed Dallas’ standing

The Cowboys are still performing at a very high level.

Arizona Cardinals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

One prevailing sentiment from the Cowboys’ loss to the Cardinals was the notion that they’re not actually good and were just beating up on bad teams. It’s a stark contrast to how many fans felt following the 56-14 victory that capped off a perfect December. But a glance at how Dallas stacks up in the analytical categories we’ve been tracking all year suggest that Dak Prescott’s post-game sentiment was correct:

It’s true that the Cowboys haven’t had a terribly difficult schedule this year, as Football Outsiders’ DVOA-based strength of schedule gives them the sixth-easiest schedule of games played thus far. But this also serves as an important reminder that DVOA itself adjusts for the quality of opponent, so Dallas ranking highly in DVOA is already accounting for their easier schedule.

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

In the overall rankings, Dallas remains in the top spot as the most efficient team in the NFL. They’re second in weighted DVOA, reflecting their loss this week to the Cardinals, but on a season-long scale no team has been more efficient. As was the case last week, the Cowboys and Rams are the only two teams in the top ten in DVOA on offense, defense, and special teams.

Let’s recognize the improvements this special teams unit has made as well. Things started off rough in Week 1, and Greg Zuerlein sure hasn’t been a model of consistency, but Dallas has one of the top special teams units as they prepare for the playoffs.

NFL team tiers, Weeks 1-17 courtesy of rbsdm.com

Offense

Cowboys Offensive Efficiency

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

The offense took a step back this week after taking a massive step forward against Washington the previous week. Given the various efficiency ratings between Dallas’ offense and the defenses they’ve been facing, this probably just speaks volumes about the Cardinals’ scrappy defense.

While the Cowboys dropped a spot in the rankings this week, they saw just a 0.2% drop in actual efficiency. In other words, they got leap-frogged by one offense who performed marginally better than them Sunday, but this offense didn’t play significantly worse than they have been playing of late. How that changes with Michael Gallup done for the year remains to be seen.

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

In a lot of ways, Dak Prescott’s performance Sunday felt reminiscent of his game against the Raiders. Things were tough sledding for most of the game, but Prescott started looking himself late. The fumble in the fourth quarter was bad, and ultimately made the difference, but Prescott otherwise had a very strong fourth quarter after struggling with the Cardinals’ variety of simulated pressures earlier.

On the season, Prescott has remained strong in most of the quarterback metrics we track. He’s also crept back into the top ten in EPA, which is a welcome surprise, although Dak made a considerable dip in completion percentage over expectation. He’s still among the league’s best there, which is a testament to how accurate he’s been most of the year.

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 offensive line struggled in a big way this week. Four of the five starters got called for penalties, they struggled to create holes in the running game, and had inopportune break downs in pass protection. Zack Martin showed some uncharacteristic struggles in run blocking, too.

The story all year has been the Cowboys’ struggles in pass protection being offset by Prescott’s ability to operate quickly in Kellen Moore’s offense, leading to the disparity between their pass block win rates and adjusted sack rates. That wasn’t the case Sunday. Arizona’s pre-snap tricks caused Prescott to hold the ball a little longer than he usually does, and that led to trouble for this offensive line.

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

This was the defense’s worst performance in a while, which speaks to the high level of play they’ve been exhibiting. The Cowboys didn’t record a single takeaway and surrendered their highest yardage total since the Saints game. More telling is that the defense recorded a negative EPA for the first time since the Raiders loss. They’ve been playing great football, but Sunday was an exception.

Dallas continues to be pedestrian against the run, a consistent issue since losing Brent Urban for the year. They’ll face Philadelphia next, and the Eagles are one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL right now, currently sitting at third in EPA per carry. Philly may not play all their starters, though, but the run support issues for Dallas have persisted.

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

Let’s talk about Trevon Diggs. Once again, the narrative that Diggs is an all-or-nothing corner reared its head after Sunday’s game, with some even going so far as to say he’s having one of the worst seasons of any cornerback and the interceptions are disguising that reality.

Many of these arguments are based on the fact that Diggs has allowed the most yards in the NFL. The issue with that is the very nature of yards, which is a volume stat. It’s not completely useless, but it doesn’t really say much. Consider that Diggs is the fifth-most targeted defender in the NFL while having the 18th-highest average depth of target (ADOT) among defenders with at least 50 targets. In other words, he’s been thrown at a lot with many of those throws going pretty far down the field. Of course that’s going to result in a lot of yards.

That’s why it’s more meaningful to focus on things like completion rate allowed and passer rating allowed. Diggs’ 52.4% completion rate is exceptionally good, ranking 16th among all defenders regardless of number of targets. Only Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson, a fellow Pro Bowler, is allowing a lower completion rate with 100+ targets. It’s very hard to do what Diggs does.

As has been explained before, Diggs’ play style naturally leads to this kind of thing. He often gives his receivers plenty of cushion because Diggs has the length, closing speed, and ball skills to make up for it. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and that results in big plays. But as we’ve seen, it works very well for Diggs more often than not.

He’s also had games where he’s completely locked down the offense’s top receiver (see: Mike Evans, Terry McLaurin), and those performances had nothing to do with interceptions. Diggs may not be the new Darrelle Revis or even Jalen Ramsey, but it’s time (for some) to admit he’s having a great year.