Sound the alarms, because heading into their Week 8 matchup with the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys sit alone atop the NFC East. That’s not saying too much since they’re just a game above .500, but the ‘Boys, and their fans, will take what they can get.
In Week 8, the Cowboys will face the challenging task of building upon this momentum as they head into Detroit to face another team sitting at 4-3. The Lions possess a high-powered offense that resembles the one in Dallas in many ways. The stats certainly support that, as the Lions have posted 6.9 net YPA through the air and 3.6 YPC on the ground (compared to 6.7 net YPA and 3.9 YPC for the Cowboys).
Although the win over Philadelphia was a huge one for Dallas, this matchup with the Lions is nearly just as big. If they win, the ‘Boys will move to 5-3 and could potentially secure a two-game lead over the rest of the division. A loss coupled with an Eagles win, however, would put the Cowboys right back where they started prior to Sunday’s big victory.
Before diving into the matchup with Detroit, let’s take a look around the NFC East.
The Cowboys are just 4-3, yet they’ve clearly been the cream of the NFC East crop. Their net point differential is plus-45. No other team in the division is even close to being in the positive.
Using those net differentials, we can calculate the “Pythagorean Expectation”, as outlined by Wikipedia, for each team—how many games they “should have” won based on their points for and points against.
New York Giants
The teams with the positive difference between wins and Pythagorean wins are those that have played better than their record indicates. One of those is Dallas, whose most likely record at this point (based solely on points scored and points allowed) is actually 5-2. That’s a positive sign for the future.
After Week 7, the ‘Boys rank seventh in the NFL in net point differential.
DE DeMarcus Ware
DE Edgar Jones
RB Lance Dunbar
The Cowboys, again, came out of a game relatively unscathed. That means they’re just waiting on the return of a handful of players, most notably defensive end DeMarcus Ware and running back DeMarco Murray.
The good news is that Ware ran on Monday and looks far more likely to play this week than he did last, per a report by Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com. After the Eagles game, Ware even said, “I knew I wasn’t going to play,” also per Archer.
While we haven’t heard directly from Murray of late, owner Jerry Jones thinks there’s a good chance that he suits up this week.
Said Jones, according to Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News, “I think there’s a good chance...you could see Murray back next week. You could have all three of these guys back at the same time. ... I mean, have [Lance] Dunbar and Murray back and then have [Joseph] Randle play good.”
What Must Improve: Pass Protection
Prior to the Cowboys’ Week 7 matchup with the Eagles, the aspect of the team that I said must improve was pass protection. Fast forward seven days, and it’s the exact same thing. Take a look at the Cowboys’ pressure rates through seven games.
In allowing 11 pressures versus Philly, the Cowboys turned in their third-worst game of pass protection this season. Given the importance of pass protection, we probably shouldn’t be surprised at these numbers from quarterback Tony Romo:
Games with >15 percent pressure rate: 6.63 YPA, five touchdowns, four interceptions
Games with 8.99 YPA, 10 touchdowns, one interception
That’s a pretty clear indication that Romo and the Cowboys are significantly more efficient when he has time to get rid of the football.
The Lions don’t rank high in sacks, but they’ve also been extremely unlucky. I’ve found that team sacks tend to add up to right around one-quarter of total pressures. The Lions have 94 pressures through seven games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which is a really high number.
Based on their pressure rate, the Lions’ most likely sack total is 23.5. Yet with 13 sacks, they rank only 27th in the NFL. The truth is, the Lions have some really talented pass-rushers, and they’ve been getting to the quarterback, so it’s just a matter of time before they bring him down.
Key Matchup to Watch: RT Doug Free vs. DE Willie Young
The Lions are loaded across the defensive line, with defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and Willie Young out wide and defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley inside. Suh is the big name and the Lions’ top pass-rusher, but Young has been pretty effective as well.
Young checks in just below Suh in pressure rate, and he leads the Lions in quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus has tracked Young as lining up on the left side of Detroit’s defense on 70.8 percent of his pass snaps, so he’ll face off primarily against right tackle Doug Free.
Free has improved significantly over last year, allowing pressure on just 3.6 percent of his snaps (compared to 6.1 percent in 2012). If Free can contain Young on his own, the Cowboys will be in a better position to help their interior linemen face off against one of the league’s premiere defensive tackle duos.
Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.