Dallas Cowboys Losing Third Downs On Both Sides Of The Ball


Gutsy. Gritty. The Dallas Cowboys don’t win that game last year.

Such is the day-after analysis of the Cowboys’ 31-28 victory over the New York Giants Sunday night. That’s what people say when a team is outplayed for 57 minutes, then converts late for the win. They gutted out a win on the road in tough conditions against a division rival.

And there is some truth in that. The Cowboys offense deserves credit for putting together an 80-yard touchdown drive, down by four with three minutes to play. Quarterback Tony Romo was 6-for-6 on the seven-play drive, including the winning score to wide receiver Dez Bryant. Romo earned his 27th game-winning drive – the most by any quarterback in the league since Romo became a starter in 2006.

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The Cowboys defense deserves credit for stopping Eli Manning, who took over with 61 seconds to play and the Giants needing a field goal to force overtime. Instead it was four-and-out for the G Men, capped in dramatic fashion when replay confirmed linebacker Rolando McClain had stuffed running back Rashad Jennings just a gnat’s eyelash short of a first down.

But a defense that has been largely celebrated this year as “surprisingly better than awful” was outclassed again for most of the night. Its biggest play, a red zone interception late in the third quarter, was the result of an inexplicably horrid Manning pass to a wide-open receiver who, if hit in stride, would almost surely have scored to push the Giants’ lead to double digits. Without Bad Eli, we’re not talking about any gutsy wins today.

The truth is this defense has been getting worse in some key statistical categories as the season progresses. In two of the last three games, opponents have converted 60 percent or better on third down; that happened just once in the first eight weeks (at St. Louis).

Over the last five games, opponents have converted 12 of 14 red zone opportunities into touchdowns. Over the first six weeks opponents converted a more manageable nine of 17 red zone tries.

Forcing punts by getting off the field on third down and holding opponents to field goals inside the 20 are key to winning in the NFL, and this defense is regressing in both.

Gutting out wins is what teams must do when they aren’t executing consistently.

Oddly enough, it may be the fault of the offense. Over the first seven weeks of the season, the Dallas offense was converting on third down at a ridiculous 57.5 percent. The NFL mean is about 40 percent. As a result, the Cowboys offense dominated time of possession and the defense saw fewer snaps.

During that stretch, the Cowboys ran an average of 65.9 plays per game to their opponents’ 56.7. The Cowboys won time of possession six of seven games and were 6-1.

Over the last four games, the Cowboys offense has converted 16 of 48 third- and fourth-down attempts for 33.3 percent. The offense has run an average of 58.8 plays per game to their opponents’ 67.0. The Cowboys have lost time of possession in three of those games and are 2-2. It should be noted these numbers look a whole lot worse if we remove the Jacksonville game.

Here is a graph showing the trends on third down and time of possession. They suggest the Cowboys are not playing their best football as we enter the crucial stretch of the season:

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Gutting out wins is what teams must do when they aren’t executing consistently. This Cowboys defense has certainly out-played its preseason expectations, but that was a lifetime ago. Expectations change, and with the Cowboys in a fight for the division crown, no one cares that this defense surprised everyone by being not awful.

Now the whole world expects this defense to produce. It needs to play a whole lot better if the Cowboys are going to get to 11 wins and a playoff berth. If the offense can get back to converting on third down, perhaps it will.