Despite a painful Week 4 loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Dallas Cowboys somehow still sit alone atop the NFC East with a 2-2 record. That could very well change in Week 5 when the Denver Broncos come to town. Quarterback Peyton Manning and Co. are playing historically well, averaging an unbelievable 44.8 points through the first quarter of the 2013 season. If the Dallas pass defense plays like it did on Sunday, the Broncos might increase that average.
The Cowboys have typically seemed to struggle more with slot receivers, tight ends and running backs as opposed to the “X” and “Z” receivers who play outside. The problem for them is that with the acquisition of wide receiver Wes Welker and the emergence of tight end Julius Thomas, the Broncos can beat defenses pretty much any way they want.
To take down Denver this week, Dallas is going to need to play an A+ football game. Here’s what you need to know heading into Week 5...
The Cowboys can really be grateful for the ineptitude of their NFC East rivals through four weeks. Dallas is the only team to have scored more points than they’ve allowed, but their position shows why the Chargers game was such a big one. With the Broncos on deck, the Cowboys are almost assuredly going to be tied for the division at this time next week.
Using Pythagorean win expectation, we can calculate the average number of wins each team “should” have based on their points for and against...
New York Giants
Based on their points scored and allowed, the Cowboys have clearly been the top team in the division. And given their expectation of 2.47 wins, the most likely record for the Cowboys after four weeks is indeed 2-2 (barely). Note that, even though they’ve played much worse, the Washington Redskins’ most likely record after four games is also 2-2.
DE George Selvie
DE DeMarcus Ware
WR Miles Austin
One of the problems with the Cowboys’ record is that they haven’t been able to capitalize on good luck with injuries. They’ve remained relatively healthy so far in 2013, reversing the trend we saw last season. Defensive ends George Selvie and defensive end DeMarcus Ware, both of whom had minor injuries against San Diego, should be good to go this week. Wide receiver Miles Austin is a bit more questionable with his hamstring.
What Must Improve
The top priority for the Dallas offense should be getting the ball downfield. Through four games, Romo has thrown the ball 20 or more yards downfield only nine times. Nine times! Only Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has attempted a lower rate of deep passes, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
There are chances to get the ball downfield, too. Romo has just been so focused on turnover minimization that he’s failed to effectively lead the offense. Although he currently has the lowest interception rate of his career, he also has the lowest YPA. The latter stat is even more strongly correlated with winning than the former.
I used a simple formula to chart Romo’s interception rate and YPA over his career, providing a value of “0” to his career lows and “100” to his career highs.
You can see that there’s a really strong correlation between passing efficiency and interception rate; the more chances Romo takes, the greater his efficiency, but the more picks he throws. You obviously don’t want him just throwing the ball all over the field because, as we saw early in his career, that can lead to a lot of turnovers.
But the opposite end of the spectrum isn’t much good either; when Romo is too conservative, he’s not a very efficient quarterback. That’s where we’re at right now, and the results—14 offensive points against one of the league’s worst defenses—are painfully obvious.
So Romo and the ‘Boys need to strike a balance. He needs to protect the football, but not to such an extent that the offense is crippled. We need to see the Romo of 2009 and 2011—seasons in which he maintained both a high level of efficiency and a relatively low interception rate.
The first step should be getting the ball to wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Matchup to Watch: Linebackers vs. Tight End Julius Thomas
Julius Thomas has come out of nowhere with 18 receptions for 237 yards and four touchdowns through the Broncos’ first four games. He’s been Manning’s go-to guy at times, especially in the red zone, when defenses are so focused on the outside receivers that they leave the middle of the field open.
As mentioned, the Cowboys have traditionally struggled with tight ends. That was particularly true on Sunday; linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter were horrific in coverage, combining to give up 14 completions on 16 attempts, including an unreal 192 yards and three touchdowns.
In most cases, Lee will be the man on Thomas. Of Antonio Gates’ 11 targets against the Cowboys in Week 4, six of them came on Lee, three on Carter and two on safety Barry Church.
To stop Thomas over the middle, it might be helpful to understand how Denver is utilizing him and how he’s performing in certain situations. So here is Thomas by the numbers...
- 1: Dropped passes.
Thomas has dropped only one of his 19 catchable targets.
- 40.7: Percentage of routes run from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Believe it or not, this number is about average for today’s tight ends. Gates is slightly higher at 55.1 percent, and Cowboys tight end Jason Witten checks in at 39.3 percent.
- 2.10: Yards per route.
Yards per route is one of my favorite stats because it judges receivers on every snap, not just those on which they’re targeted, meaning it penalizes for a failure to get open. At 2.10 yards per route, Thomas has been the fourth-most efficient tight end in the NFL through four weeks. Witten ranks 22nd at 1.37 yards per route.