Heading into their Week 4 matchup against the San Diego Chargers, the Dallas Cowboys have to feel good about where they are. Fresh off a truly dominant performance against the St. Louis Rams, Dallas is sitting atop the NFC East.
It’s amazing how much can change in seven days. Last week, the ‘Boys were “the same old team” that couldn’t run the ball, and this week, they’re a division-leading rushing powerhouse.
Traveling to San Diego in Week 4, it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys start this contest. Historically, the Cowboys have played down to their competition, coming out flat in games that they “should" win. Regardless of how well the Chargers have played offensively this season, the Cowboys will be the favorite.
Let’s see if they continue to take fans on a roller-coaster ride by coming down after playing so well.
With every team in the NFC East except for Dallas losing in Week 3, the Cowboys own a one-game advantage over the Eagles and a two-game lead over both the Giants and Redskins.
Now is the time to really bury the division’s bottom-dwellers. Since 1978, only five teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3—3.1 percent. The last thing the Cowboys want is for the Giants and Redskins to regain hope with a win and a Dallas loss.
If the Cowboys were to go down in San Diego, the Eagles could tie them and both the Giants and Redskins could pull within a game, even at just 1-3. Although only 3.1 percent of teams to start 0-3 have made the playoffs, the number skyrockets for teams in a division with a 2-2 leader.
After historically poor injury luck in 2012, the Cowboys haven’t been bitten hard by the injury bug thus far in 2013. Wide receiver Miles Austin pulled up with yet another hamstring injury against St. Louis, although it’s reportedly not serious, according to Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News. However, as we’ve seen with Austin in the past, hamstring injuries tend to linger. It’s something that might be minor now but has the potential to become a much larger issue.
Defensive end Anthony Spencer’s absence in Week 3 was a bit of a surprise. He’s still nursing an ailing knee, although it looks like he’ll be able to go in Week 4. The Cowboys will likely scale back his reps because 1) he should be eased back into the lineup and 2) George Selvie is playing so well.
For what it’s worth, Jason Garrett said this:
Jason Garrett said it's realistic to think Anthony Spencer can return to playing 50-60 snaps per game this season.— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 23, 2013
Finally, defensive end DeMarcus Ware reportedly suffered a stinger against the Rams, but he should be good to go, via Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com.
What Must Improve
Coming off of a 31-7 win, there’s really not a whole lot that the team needs to improve over last week. You’re always looking to get better wherever you can, obviously, and there are a handful of players who need to up.
LT Tyron Smith
Tyron Smith isn’t playing poor football by any means. He’s given up six pressures on 130 pass snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—a 4.6 percent pressure rate that’s down from the 6.0 percent Smith posted in 2012. That 4.6 percent mark still isn’t an elite number, though, and we know that Smith is capable of outstanding play.
Smith’s best season was really as a rookie in 2011, although it’s worth noting that he played on the right side that year.
Still only 22 years old, Smith is in his third NFL season when most players are rookies. That’s a huge advantage, but it will soon be time for Smith to take the next step. One area where he looks good is the running game, as Cowboys running backs have averaged 5.27 yards per carry on 33 rushes with Smith at the point of attack.
CB Morris Claiborne
Everything was setting up nicely for this to be a breakout year for Morris Claiborne. The No. 6 overall pick in 2012 played pretty well as a rookie, but after injuring his shoulder early in 2013, Claiborne hasn’t been the same.
Claiborne has allowed nearly 10 yards per target in 2013, up from the 8.28 he allowed in 2012. Another way to analyze cornerbacks is to look at the number of yards they allow per route that they’re in coverage. That way, they’re actually rewarded for having great coverage and not getting targeting.
But Claiborne has allowed 1.32 yards per route in 2013, again up from the mark he posted as a rookie. There’s no doubt that Claiborne’s shoulder has affected his play, and luckily cornerback Orlando Scandrick has stepped up in a big way during his absence. But eventually, Claiborne is going to need to pick up the slack when the other cornerbacks aren’t playing so effectively.
Head coach Jason Garrett has historically been poor with fourth-down decision-making. Most NFL coaches have been the same, playing way too conservatively in many situations.
On Sunday, the Cowboys faced another fourth down on which they should have played more aggressively. On a 4th-and-goal from the Rams’ 1.5-yard line, the Cowboys kicked a field goal to go up 10-0.
In doing so, he cost the Cowboys around two “expected points.” Since 2008, NFL teams have scored a touchdown on about 45 percent of their third- and fourth-down plays from the opponent’s 2-yard line. That’s an expectation of 3.15 points (7 * 0.45) for going for it—already better than a field goal.
When you factor in that 1) Dallas was inside the 2-yard line and 2) failing on the fourth-down try would have left the Cowboys in a good spot—with the Rams forced to start a drive inside their own 2-yard line—the numbers become way more distorted.
Plus, one of the most overlooked aspects of going for it more on fourth down is that it can enhance earlier play-calling.
Had the Cowboys known that they’d go for it on fourth down, they probably wouldn’t have attempted a fade to tight end Gavin Escobar on third down. With the way the ‘Boys were running the ball on St. Louis early in the game, you’d think a third-down run followed by a fourth-down run (if needed) would have gotten the job done.
The larger point is that the Cowboys can’t afford to leave points on the board with sub-optimal decision-making. They’re continually 8-8 for a reason. The fact that they went on to win by 24 points does nothing to change the fact that this particular fourth-down decision was a poor one—the type of choice that could come back to haunt the team later in the season.
Matchup to Watch vs. San Diego
One of the critical matchups to monitor this week for Dallas will be Tyron Smith on Chargers outside linebacker Dwight Freeney. The 33-year-old typically plays on the right side of the Chargers defensive line, so he’ll see a whole lot of Smith on Sunday.
Based on his age, Freeney should be on the way down in his career, but he’s been outstanding through three weeks. Looking rejuvenated rushing the passer, Freeney has compiled 13 quarterback pressures in only 102 pass snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That pressure rate of 12.7 percent is outstanding, suggesting that Freeney’s 0.5 sacks on the season are sure to increase soon.
The ‘Boys can rely on one key when Freeney is in the game; he rarely drops into coverage. Through three games, Freeney has dropped into coverage just eight times and rushed the passer on 102 occasions. The Cowboys can effectively double Freeney, if they see fit, without worrying about him not rushing.