The Dallas Cowboys reached double-digit wins Sunday with their victory over the New York Giants, and barring some wildly unlikely scenarios, they’ve got the NFC East locked up. Seriously, FiveThirtyEight lists them with a “>99%” probability of winning the division. Things are looking great!
Well, mostly great. Dallas has somehow mutated away from the team with the high-powered, three-headed offense carrying a bad defense into the team that keeps winning on the back of a genuinely fun defense carrying a middling offense. This weekend continued that trend, and there’s one number (which you can probably guess) that sticks out as the story of this game: 4.
For the third consecutive week (and fourth time overall), the Cowboys’ defense netted four turnovers. The Patriots’ defense has generated at least four turnovers on three occasions this year, and no other team has done it more than twice. It’s not an easy thing to do, but when a team can take the ball away like that, it makes the task of winning a football game quite a bit simpler. When measured by Expected Points Added (EPA), the four turnovers (and the two fourth-down stops, to boot) all had a larger impact on the game than any play made by the Cowboys’ offense.
The second column here (WPA) is the Win Probability Added by Dallas, measured in percentage points. The first-quarter touchdown did have a bit more impact in that sense than the fourth-quarter turnovers when the game was already out of hand, but in general, it’s the turnovers that change the game.
Nearly half of the Cowboys’ points in this game came on drives immediately following turnovers. Heck, you could argue both touchdowns actually came off of turnovers as well—one after the Jourdan Lewis interception and one after a turnover on downs, both of which gave the Cowboys’ offense the ball inside the Giants’ 30-yard line. And, unfortunately, giving the offense the ball inside the 30 appears to be the only way to get this offense going these days.
The formula to win for Dallas has fundamentally changed in these past few weeks. Before the Week 7 bye, Dallas was scoring 34 points per game. From Week 8 on, that’s dropped all the way down to 24.5 points per game. This week, the Cowboys’ offense actually produced fewer yards per play than the Mike Glennon-led Giants (4.7 for Dallas vs 5.0 for New York). It’s a serious problem that doesn’t have a simple solution.
But the good news is that the defense has stepped up while the offense has floundered. There are two sides to a football game, and being great at either one can win a team some football games. And make no mistake about it, the Cowboys’ defense has been great. Since Week 8, Dallas has sported the second-best defense by EPA/play allowed, trailing only the Patriots. Their 18.4 points per game allowed ranks eighth in the NFL over that time frame. While it feels more noticeable of late, given the defense has had to make up for the offense more often than we might like, the truth is it’s produced phenomenal results all year long.
Bolstered by a league-leading 31 turnovers, the Cowboys’ defense has produced the best results on an EPA/play basis in the entire NFL. Their run defense hasn’t been much to fawn over, but the pass defense has made more than enough big plays to keep them on top. We’re 15 weeks into the season now, so it’s probably safe to say this isn’t just a fluke. The defense is good.
They’re also ranked quite highly by another common team performance measure: Football Outsiders’ DVOA. This metric is similar to EPA in that it tries to account for context beyond the yardage gained on a given play. Dallas has the second-best weighted DVOA in the NFL as of this writing. (The weighted part refers to the fact that they weigh more recent games slightly more than games that happened earlier in the year.)
The neat thing about DVOA is that it’s adjusted for the strength of the opposing offenses each defense has faced. That means if anyone tells you, “Oh, well, Dallas only looks good there because they got to play Mike Glennon and Taysom Hill,” you can calmly respond that, well, DVOA knows that and adjusts for it. Also, according to Football Outsiders, Dallas has actually faced the seventh-toughest schedule of opposing offenses in the NFL.
The best part about the success of the Cowboys’ defense is that it has really become a whole group effort. What began as Trevon Diggs picking off passes at a historic rate has turned into the entire secondary (plus Carlos Watkins???) taking turns going up and taking the ball away. Diggs accounts for only three of their 12 picks since the bye.
And, more than that, the defensive line has only gotten better as the year has gone on. Micah Parsons has been out there making his case for Defensive Player of the Year. (Apparently he’s not only one of the most efficient pass rushers in the NFL, he’s also got the potential to be a shutdown corner.) Then there’s Randy Gregory, who has now tied his career high in sacks and QB hits with three games left to play. Now DeMarcus Lawrence, even if he’s not completely healthy, is back in uniform and making some huge splash plays. He’ll only be officially credited with the one forced fumble from Sunday, but in reality he was responsible for two Dallas takeaways this week.
This defense has transformed from one of the league’s worst in 2020 to one of the best—if not the best defense in 2021. The offense has work to do, but if they can’t get their groove back on that side of the ball, well, you know what they always say: defense wins championships. The Cowboys just might have to put that to the test.