Coming off of a heartbreaking loss to the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys are in desperate need of a win as they welcome the Minnesota Vikings to town in Week 9. Sitting at 4-4, the Cowboys still own sole possession of first place in the NFC East, but they can’t expect their divisional foes to all continue their putrid play.
The Cowboys’ matchup with the Vikings is so important because the New Orleans Saints are on deck in Week 10. The last thing the Cowboys want is to head to New Orleans with a 4-5 record.
Before diving into the Cowboys-Vikings matchup, let’s take a look around the division.
At 4-4, the Cowboys are lucky to be in first place. That record wouldn’t even be good enough for second place in four other divisions.
Leading the division in points for and against, the Cowboys have clearly been the cream of the crop in the NFC East. Their 4-4 record isn’t reflective of how they’ve played, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re just a single game up on the Eagles.
Looking at the teams’ point differentials, we can use the Pythagorean Expectation to calculate how many wins each team “should have” based on its points scored and points allowed.
New York Giants
The NFC East is a unique division in that every team has fewer actual wins than Pythagorean wins. That means they’ve all been unlucky this year, although the Cowboys have suffered the worst fate. Based on their points scored and allowed, they should be 5-3 at this point.
As the Cowboys’ losses pile up, so have the additions to the injury report.
CB Morris Claiborne
S Barry Church
G Brian Waters
WR Miles Austin
LB DeVonte Holloman
DE DeMarcus Ware
S J.J. Wilcox
The Cowboys lost three vital players to injury against the Lions—cornerback Morris Claiborne, safety Barry Church and guard Brian Waters. The latest reports are that Claiborne could miss two games, per ESPN. Although Claiborne wasn’t playing all that well, the injury could still really hurt Dallas because it will force rookie cornerback B.W. Webb into the defense’s nickel packages.
Things are looking better for safety Barry Church. Dallas Morning News is reporting that he’s likely to play against the Vikings this week. The status of veteran guard Brian Waters, on the other hand, isn’t so clear. He apparently suffered three injuries against the Lions.
Considering their statuses against the Lions, both running back DeMarco Murray and defensive end DeMarcus Ware should be able to suit up in Week 9. Owner Jerry Jones even said that Murray could have played this week.
What Must Improve: Pass Rush
If you knew the Cowboys would be starting defensive ends Kyle Wilber and George Selvie this year, you probably would have guessed they’d have trouble reaching the passer.
Selvie has been pretty good, but the Cowboys absolutely need to find a way to stop opposing quarterbacks. The Cowboys are one of only three teams to have allowed 2,200 yards passing this year, and they’ve actually given up 2,523! That’s the worst number in the NFL.
Using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted the Cowboys’ pressure rate in every game this year.
You can see that, with 11 pressures against Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Week 8 was the Cowboys’ second-worst outing of the year.
And how about this stat: In the games in which the Cowboys have generated a pressure on at least 30 percent of their pass-rushing snaps, they’re 3-1 and have allowed an average of 259.5 yards passing. In the games in which they’ve failed to reach the 30 percent pressure threshold, however, the ‘Boys are 1-3 and have yielded an unfathomable 371.3 yards passing per game.
Key Matchup vs. Vikings: RT Doug Free vs. DE Brian Robison
Vikings defensive end Brian Robison is perhaps the unluckiest player in the NFL through Week 8. See, Robison has just one sack on the year, suggesting he hasn’t gotten to the passer all that much. In reality, the defensive end has quietly been one of the league’s most efficient pass-rushers.
Through Week 8, Pro Football Focus has tracked only one defensive end as racking up more than 26 pressures. It’s Robison, and he has 32 of them. Of the other six defensive ends with at least 22 pressures (a group that includes Cowboys defensive end George Selvie), the average sack total is 3.67.
I’ve found that a defensive end’s sacks tend to add up to around one-quarter of his pressures. With 32 pressures, Robison’s most likely sack total at this point in the season is closer to eight than it is to one.
Robison has rushed from the left side of the Vikings defense on 99.2 percent of his snaps in 2013, per PFF. That means he’ll be matched up exclusively on right tackle Doug Free.
Although it might be tempting to double-team veteran defensive end Jared Allen, the numbers suggest the Cowboys need to worry about Robison just as much.
*Update: Brian Waters has just been ruled out for the year. Mackenzy Bernadeau will start at guard in his place.