Football is fun when you embarrass a division rival on national television with your backup quarterback. The Cowboys were the superior team on Sunday, and it would have taken Carson Wentz another thirty drives to hang more than 25 points on Dallas.
But as convincing as the win was, it was not perfect. Certain aspects of the game seemed ugly at times, and the victory was closer than the final score suggests. So, with that in mind, what did Cowboys fans learn on Sunday?
3 statistical takeaways from the Cowboys' third straight win
Mike McCarthy might have fixed the penalty problem
As a quick reminder, the 2021 Dallas Cowboys were not just frequently penalized, it was a staple of their identity. They finished with nine more penalties than the second-most penalized team, and their 66.2 penalty yards per game was 2.3 yards higher than the second-place team.
They were undisciplined. No team was even remotely close to the Cowboys in the penalty department.
But, through four weeks, McCarthy has reversed this trend. Granted, the Cowboys are still being penalized more than average. But when you consider that they led the NFL in nearly every penalty metric last year, their current rankings show that they have improved:
- 12th by penalty yards per game (18th over their last three games)
- 7th by penalties per game (19th over their last three games)
- 23rd in penalty first downs per game (9th over their last three games)
This is from the perspective of highest to lowest totals, so in an ideal world, they rank 32nd by each of metric. But if you exclude the Tampa Bay week one matchup, they have done exceptionally well at limiting the mistakes. At least, they have done well if you compare it to the disaster of 2021.
It is only week four, so maybe it starts looking worse again. But from the early portion of the season, McCarthy has done well at limiting the number of times they shoot themselves in the foot. And if fans blame McCarthy for the penalties last year, then he should be the one receiving credit for reversing the trend in 2022.
The Cowboys are deeper than they have been in the last 20 years
What do Tony Pollard, Dante Fowler, Israel Mukuamu, Trysten Hill, Neville Gallimore, Anthony Barr, DaRon Bland, Sam Williams, Cooper Rush, Peyton Hendershot, Matt Farniok, Jake Ferguson, and Jason Peters all have in common? They have meaningfully contributed to the Cowboys' three-game winning streak despite not being listed as starters on the week one depth chart.
At literally every position group on the team, outside of maybe wide receiver, there has been a player to come off the bench and help them win games. Even at wide receiver, few expected Noah Brown to look as good as he has, which has further solidified the position.
In fact, heading into week four, no team had suffered more loss due to injury than the Cowboys.
Current WAR missing from each team because of injury designation. Note Tua is questionable, Dak is doubtful and Herbert isn't even on the injury report ♂️ pic.twitter.com/fPbIeYPG9G— Benjamin Brown (@PFF_BenBrown) September 27, 2022
But look at the top five teams by wins-above-replacement lost to injury and their wins this season:
So, despite being hit with the injury bug more than any other team in the league, the Cowboys are still at 3-1. Only the Dolphins have rivaled the Cowboys resilience this season. This is partially because Cooper Rush has looked solid in Dak’s stead. But it is also because as other injuries pop up, the backups that are filling in have played exceptionally. Having starter-quality depth across the board is becoming a defining quality of the 2022 Cowboys.
To win in the NFL, teams must have a dominant starting 22-man roster. But equally important is the ability to weather injuries, because losing players is inevitable in the NFL. This is a winning recipe, and in the quietest voice possible, maybe Jerry deserves a little credit for the roster he was ostracized for creating this offseason.
The defense has its flaws
It is difficult to be upset about a defensive performance in which the Cowboys allowed less than 300 total yards, limited them to 5/15 on third down, and held them to ten points. But if there is one criticism about their showing on Sunday, and what is proving to be their Achilles heel, it is the rushing defense. Dallas’ struggles against the run are nearly identical to what it was in 2021. However, since the entire defense has improved, it is reasonable to assume they would have similarly improved against the ground game.
To preface, it not as if the Cowboys have allowed opposing running backs to completely exploit them. Following week four, they currently rank:
- 16th by rush defense DVOA
- 24th by rushing yards per attempt allowed
- 19th by rushing EPA per play allowed
- 26th by PFF run defense grading
They are a below-average run defense. Both Leonard Fournette and Antonio Gibson/J.D. McKissic proved that the Cowboys can be beat on the ground. On an otherwise perfect defense, it has looked bad at times.
However, there are two reasons why fans shouldn't be too concerned with this. The first is because the NFL is a passing league now, and few, if any, teams are able to win by committing to the run all game. The second is because of what occurred in 2021. If the Cowboys offense is able to get off to a hot start in games, they force the other team into a pass-heavy script. This was not the case against the Buccaneers and they lost, but this did happen in week four and Washington clearly was not going to win by sticking to the run.
Regardless, it is worrisome as the Cowboys face good teams who can run the ball. If Cooper Rush or Dak Prescott get off to a slow start, the inadequacies of the run defense might become even more apparent.
While Sunday was a somewhat expected outcome, there will be plenty more takeaways after next Dallas’ matchup against the Rams. Fans will find out what Rush is made of, the defense will be tested by an offense with weapons, and the true nature of this team should come to light. Hope for another batch of positive takeaways one week from now.