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2022 Cowboys analytics roundup: Cracks in the armor for Dallas

Dallas Cowboys v Jacksonville Jaguars
Photo by Courtney Culbreath/Getty Images

Now is not the time to be figuring things out, but that is what the Cowboys must do.

After several weeks of close calls against very beatable teams, the Cowboys finally got burned in overtime, losing to the Jaguars. While they clinched a playoff spot later that night, the Cowboys’ odds of winning the NFC East are now extremely low, regardless of whether or not they beat the Gardner Minshew-led Eagles on Christmas Eve.

That means the Cowboys are very, very likely to play on the road in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. So, how good of a team are they? Can they win on the road in the playoffs? Analytics won’t necessarily answer that, but it can offer a good idea of what this team is right now, especially in the wake of the Jaguars loss. So let’s dig in.

All things considered, fourth in the league as a team is pretty good. In fact, it’s exactly where the Cowboys stood a week ago, suggesting the Jaguars game didn’t really change much in terms of the team’s efficiency. Dallas is also fourth in weighted DVOA, which offers a better measure of how well they’ve been playing most recently. In short, this team is still just as good as they were a week ago, though you’d be forgiven for feeling down on them.

2022 NFL Team Tiers, Weeks 1-15, courtesy of rbsdm.com

The EPA-based team tiers offer a similar assessment, placing Dallas among the six-team upper echelon of the NFL. As you can see, virtually the entire NFL is mired in mediocrity right now, and has been all season. The Cowboys may not be the best team in the NFL, but they are certainly among the best.

Offense

There’s been a strange shaping of narrative around this Cowboys offense despite putting up an impressive 34 points on Sunday (keep in mind the league average is 22 points). Dallas remains 15th in offensive DVOA, largely because of two interceptions, but this unit remains at a high level.

In Week 15 alone, the Cowboys were 10th in EPA/play and third in offensive success rate. On the year, they’re seventh in EPA/play and fourth since Dak Prescott returned from injury. There are some very legitimate qualms about Kellen Moore’s play-calling on that final possession of regulation, but the offense is performing at a fairly high rate. Just like last week, the only real way to meaningfully improve is to cut down on all the turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, Prescott now has more interceptions than he did last year despite seven fewer games. A handful of these interceptions, such as the pick-six that ended the game on Sunday, are very clearly not his fault, and even more are at least debatable on who’s to blame. In fact, Prescott leads the league in interceptions that weren’t his fault.

Still, turnovers are efficiency killers, and that’s reflected in his metrics. Those interceptions are really the only thing holding him back: when discounting turnovers for all quarterbacks, Prescott is second in EPA/play and third in CPOE. In other words, he’s playing some phenomenal football but also happens to be turning it over a lot, regardless of whether it’s his fault.

The Cowboys offensive line went through some changes this week, with Tyron Smith rotating in with Jason Peters at right tackle to replace the injured Terence Steele. Smith looked good for a player whose hamstring was torn off the bone a few months ago, but it’s clear he’s still ramping up to the guy Cowboys fans are used to.

On the other side of the line, Tyler Smith remained at left tackle but had a rough day. He accounted for five of the Cowboys’ 11 total pressures on the day and allowed two of the three sacks Prescott took on the day. Dallas seems intent on the veteran Smith playing at right tackle, but if they can figure out a way to get him back to the left side and move the rookie to guard, it would be prudent to further boosting this team’s pass protection unit.

Defense

There is some legitimate concern to be had for this Dallas defense now. When your offense scores 34 points in a game, that should be a win every time. The Cowboys struggled defensively for the second straight week, and their run defense was notably poor after losing both Johnathan Hankins and Leighton Vander Esch. Hankins won’t return until the postseason, and Vander Esch is expected to return before then, but playing any stretch of games without those two will be tough sledding against the run.

One thing that did not go poorly for the defense, despite what some may have heard, is their pass rush. Dallas is still second in pass rush win rate and Micah Parsons is tied for the lead in that category as well. In fact, the Cowboys’ 28 pressures against Jacksonville marked the most they’ve had in one game since Week 5 this year; additionally, Parsons’ 12 pressures were the most he’s had in one game his whole career. The pass rush was definitely there, but it’s hard to turn pressures to sacks against a quarterback with the third fastest time to throw in the NFL (Trevor Lawrence).

The rate at which Lawrence gets the ball out was one part of the reason the Cowboys managed just one sack despite a great performance rushing the passer. The other had to do with the issues Dallas is experiencing on the back end, namely Kelvin Joseph. Needless to say, Joseph had a miserable day against the Jaguars and was benched after giving up his second touchdown in as many drives.

Nahshon Wright replaced Joseph and played well, giving up just one catch on three targets; the lone reception also had to be reviewed by officials to ensure it was completed, which it was. Wright hasn’t seen the kind of workload Joseph has this year - most of his targets have come in garbage time of blowout wins - but Wright has performed significantly better than Joseph, who’s struggled mightily since taking over for Anthony Brown. Dan Quinn suggested there would be an open competition for the spot this week, but one thing is clear: replacing Brown is proving much harder than anyone anticipated.


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