He was remarkable. | Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
Let’s look for meaning in the numbers.
We barely had time to try and digest what happened in the Dallas Cowboys’ close fought loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when we were dealt the double blow of La’el Collins’ suspension and Michael Gallup’s injury report. After a few deep breaths and calming meditations, it is time to get back to business with the weekly look at the stats and numbers from the game, with an eye to what they say about the Cowboys going forward. There are successes to build on and some things that obviously need to be corrected.
The awesomeness of Dak
It has been all over media of all forms, but let’s just take Dak Prescott’s stat line in again.
42 completions on 58 attempts, 403 yards, three touchdowns, one interception
Those are the raw numbers. Now let’s add some context.
Several observers insist that Prescott did not look like he was 100%, or he did not have his deep ball. If that was him at less than his best, the league better be very afraid of him ever getting to full speed. However, those “concerns” about his health may misinterpret what was going on with the game plan. Kellen Moore had to figure out how to move the ball effectively against a truly formidable defense, and one thing he did was dial up a lot of quick throws. He knew Zack Martin was out. Connor McGovern acquitted himself well, but Moore also had to have some justifiable concerns about the inexperience of Tyler Biadasz as he faced Vita Vae, who is simply frightening at nose tackle.
The dangerous pass rush was more the reason for Prescott not attacking deep than lingering problems with his shoulder or ankle. He did not have the time to sit in the pocket and let his receivers get down the field. Instead, he made some really great throws to keep the chains moving and score. I
For a better look at his performance, check out our new YouTube feature from Mark Schofield.
Who needs balance?
Speaking of social media, this particular set of numbers has been getting a lot of play. Like this.
An impressive number of self-styled football geniuses seem to think it’s sustainable for Dak Prescott to throw the ball 58 times per game.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) September 11, 2021
That of course is a reference to the 58 throws versus only 18 runs for Dallas. It is a bit disorienting, because it is thinking from right out of 1993, when balance was a major consideration for NFL offenses. It also totally ignores how nigh on impossible it is to run the ball against that Tampa Bay front seven. Anyone watching the game with their brain even half engaged recognized that those 58 throws were just about the only way the Cowboys were even going to be close.
Oh, and what about the Tampa Bay “balance?” Tom Brady threw the ball 50 times, and only handed off 14. Where is the handwringing about the sustainability of that? I mean, Brady is 72 years old or something, and surely that kind of workload has to be taxing on his aging arm.
This was a unique game for the Cowboys, and rather than taking criticism for not establishing the run, Moore deserves nothing but praise for a creative and even daring approach that came oh so close to winning a game no one thought would even be close.
Dallas run defense
The Cowboys only had 60 yards running the football, which is certainly going to go up. But overlooked is that they only surrendered 52 yards to Tampa, who features Leonard Fournette. That is one of the most hopeful stats to come out of the game. Bruce Arians was just as quick to abandon the run as Moore, and it is arguable that it was because it wasn’t working for them, either.
If you are looking forward, this is almost as encouraging as the potency of the passing attack. Last year, Dallas was repeatedly gouged in the running game. They fired the defensive coordinator and brought in Dan Quinn, added a ton of new defenders in both the draft and free agency, and basically demoted both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. While the defense was not able to stop Tom Brady at the end, they absolutely stifled the running game. And they don’t have to see Brady again this regular season.
The Buccaneers are not exactly a run-heavy team because of Brady, but if this is a sign that Quinn has made some major strides in fixing this problem, we may not see the defense losing games the way they did last year. That is what you call a good thing.
The battle of field position
This one was a decisive defeat for the Cowboys. For several years I have been watching this particular stat closely. Since we are starting a new season, let me take a moment to define what I am talking about.
This deals with the average starting position for the two teams. It is also referred to as “hidden yardage”, because starting a drive from your own 40 offers a much better chance of scoring than if it is from your own 20. While turnovers will help this a lot, those are always unpredictable. Where the team can somewhat control things is in the return game, both covering punts and kickoffs and in bringing the ball back up the field.
To put it in concise terms, Dallas sucked at this Thursday night. Their average starting position on drives was their own 27, while the Buccaneers averaged their 33-yard line. That may not seem like a big difference, but it is the average of 13 possessions. That equates to Tampa Bay having a cumulative advantage of 78 yards on the game, or roughly a touchdown’s worth of offense. Further, Dallas recovered a fumble at the Tampa 27, and intercepted Brady at his own 21. Take those two out, and the field position for the Cowboys was even worse.
The biggest failure by John Fassel’s special teams (outside of Greg Zuerlein) was in kickoff coverage. First off, Zuerlein did not put the ball out of the end zone consistently on his kickoffs. The Bucs had three chances to return the kick. They capitalized on them to the tune of 92 yards. Meanwhile, the Cowboys never got to return a kickoff, and punt returns were pretty much a wash in a game where each side only had two punt returns.
This is simply unacceptable. It has to change.
This is something that is informative for the defense, since the offensive starters stay in for most of the game. But the snap count percentages on defense warrant discussion.
Trevon Diggs – 100%
Anthony Brown – 100%
Donovan Wilson – 85%
Damontae Kazee – 80%
Micah Parsons- 78%
Keanu Neal – 77%
Jourdan Lewis – 75%
DeMarcus Lawrence – 66%
Jayron Kearse – 62%
Randy Gregory – 57%
Osa Odighizuwa – 55%
Carlos Watkins – 46%
Brent Urban – 43%
Dorance Armstrong – 42%
Tarell Basham – 37%
Quinton Bohanna – 31%
Jaylon Smith – 25%
Leighton Vander Esch – 22%
Bradlee Anae – 15%
Maurice Canady – 3%
Darian Thompson – 2%
That’s a long list, but there are a lot of things to take from it.
Clearly, Smith and Vander Esch have been demoted and Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal are the starters in the nickel. Parsons was not perfect, but the future is bright with him. Jabril Cox did not play a single snap on defense, but was involved in special teams.
It is common to see your starting cornerbacks on the field for every play. Diggs had a very good game, almost totally shutting down Mike Evans, giving up only three catches on six targets for 24 yards. But in the Brown vs. Brown battle, Antonio went off against Anthony, amassing 121 yards and a touchdown. That leads to the question of why Canady only saw two plays on the field. This looked like a situation where the coaches might have tried something different as the Cowboys’ Brown was clearly in Brady’s crosshairs. Canady had an excellent camp in making the roster. He might not have done much better, but it seems like it was at least worth a try.
The safety depth chart looks clear, with Wilson and Kazee the starters and Kearse coming in to relieve them at times. Based on the percentages, there were also times all three were on the field. Malik Hooker was inactive, presumably because he was late to join the team during camp and still is getting into game shape. If he is active in the future, it will be interesting to see how the snaps are allocated if he is on the field.
While the secondary and linebacking corps lean on the starters, the defensive line under Aden Durde clearly is using a heavy rotation, apparently to have fresher bodies late in the game. That makes some sense – but it might have been overdone in this game. There was very little effective pressure on Brady and they might have wanted to give Lawrence and Gregory a few more reps. Part of the inability to get to Brady his phenomenal understanding of the game and how to defeat the pass rush, but the Cowboys are going to have to do better.
Those are some of the numbers from the game, and more importantly what they might tell us. It was probably a bit of a unique game, and likely the best opponent Dallas will face all year. Hopefully, there will be a better story next week after the game against the Los Angeles Chargers.