I have always been a numbers guy. Long before there was anything called “analytics” to break down advanced statistics and tendencies in sports, I believed in the numbers. But occasionally we spend too much time studying the wrong ones, and that’s what gets us into trouble.
Five teams have clinched spots in the NFC playoffs which means there are 10 offensive and defensive units to be examined here. Is the Cowboys’ defense the scariest unit of all? I think a case can be made it’s at least in the top two even if the most basic of numbers suggests otherwise.
In total defense (yards allowed), the most commonly cited statistic, the Cowboys rank 19th. The rest of the NFC playoff teams look like this: Arizona, 8th; Tampa Bay, 10th; Green Bay, 11th; Los Angeles, 16th.
Funny, isn’t it, that the Rams had the defense everyone was talking about two months ago when they acquired Von Miller from Denver before the trade deadline. How could a defense with Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Miller — all great veteran players — possibly miss? And yet the Rams are down there in the middle of the pack with Dallas in yards allowed and the worst of the bunch in points allowed. Miller having only one sack is part of the problem.
Of course, when you get into more advanced statistics, ones that incorporate the Cowboys’ league-leading 33 takeaways, Dallas jumps up the ladder quickly. In fact, Football Outsiders’ popular DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value over Average) which breaks down every play of every game, now lists the Cowboys as the top defense in the NFL just ahead of Buffalo and Tampa Bay.
I know we need to keep reminding ourselves that this four-game tear the Dallas defense has been on (coinciding with the club’s four-game winning streak) has come against the likes of Taysom Hill, Taylor Heinicke, Mike Glennon and Heinicke again at quarterback. Still, the turnovers are off the charts for the entire season and the sacks are coming.
Rookie Micah Parsons is 1.5 sacks shy of Javon Kearse’s rookie record set in 1999. And Parsons wasn’t even supposed to be rushing the passer when the season began. Second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs tied Everson Walls’ club record with his 11th interception last Sunday. Three defensive linemen have scored touchdowns this season.
But I don’t think the story of the Dallas’ defense is entirely tied up in numbers. At this point, it’s just the ability to get to third down and long (or even third and medium yardage) and line up with Randy Gregory, DeMarcus Lawrence and Parsons somewhere along the front. I understand that Kansas City and Buffalo have been playing consistently good defense longer than Dallas this season. The Chiefs have won eight straight games and only surrendered 20 points once during that stretch. Five of those opponents scored 10 or fewer (including Dallas).
The Chiefs and Bills have quality pass rushers as do the Bucs who lead the NFC playoff teams in sacks. But I don’t believe anyone has a wrecking crew quite like the Cowboys’ deep front, especially since Lawrence has played just five games this season and — based on that 40-yard interception return for touchdown — looks incredibly fresh.
The remarkable thing here is that, of course, it was the Dallas offense that was supposed to lead the Cowboys into the playoffs and present itself as the more frightening unit. For one game Sunday night, this was true. But it’s going to take a lot more from that group to suggest anyone is afraid of having to face the Cowboys’ offense.
The Cowboys’ No. 1 ranking in total offense was created by some big numbers early in the season and, naturally, some whopping totals achieved in less than three quarters against downtrodden Washington. Much like Dallas in total defense, Green Bay ranks the worst (15th) among the five certain NFC playoff teams in total offense. But tell me that Aaron Rodgers’ play in big games and in big moments doesn’t create concern in the minds of opposing teams’ fans. This is particularly true here with his elimination of the Cowboys in 2014 and 2016. His 33 touchdowns and four interceptions, along with the club’s 12-3 record, all but assure him of another MVP award.
In Dallas, offense is where the money has been spent and defense is where the rookies and unsung (read: underpaid) veterans reside. Lawrence is the exception here, and there will eventually be plenty of dollars spent to keep Parsons and Diggs in silver and blue, but for now it’s just a young unit that is getting after it on a weekly basis.
They get a much better test this Sunday, even with Arizona having lost three in a row. Kyler Murray isn’t Heinicke. But I’m guessing the Cardinals are doing all they can to figure out how to keep Parsons, Lawrence and Gregory from storming the gates one more time.
Tim’s Top 5: Scary playoff units
1. Packers Offense — Rodgers’ better than 8-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio and two solid backs make this team brutal to stop, especially in Lambeau.
2. Cowboys Defense — Parsons’ versatility with Lawrence, Gregory coming off the edge makes them unpredictable and scary as hell.
3. Chiefs Offense — Does anyone really think Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill won’t get the job done better than most in January?
4. Bills Defense — Unit has pitched two shutouts and held two other opponents to six points to carry inconsistent offense.
5. Chiefs Defense — Has outplayed Mahomes’ group much of the season as it did in holding Dallas to nine points last month.