Cowboys vs. Saints Analysis and Looking Ahead
At ABC, I gave my take on the Cowboys vs. Saints game:
The Dallas Cowboys have no understanding of probability. You might think that has very little to do with being a quality football team, but a basic comprehension of the numbers has everything to do with playing efficiently.
Consider the old adage that it benefits offenses to “set up manageable third downs.” Even in today’s NFL, many teams still run the ball way too often, particularly on first down, to set up third downs that are easier to convert.
But stats have shown again and again that the best offenses are those that face third down the least—those that don’t try to set up manageable third downs, but rather call plays more efficiently on first and second down to avoid third down altogether. It might be easier to convert a 3rd-and-3 than a 3rd-and-7, but it’s easier to convert a single 3rd-and-7 than four straight 3rd-and-3s. Math. Nice.
One of the ways that you can see that the Cowboys don’t comprehend the numbers is that they don’t throw the football downfield nearly as much as they should. It’s the same idea as “setting up manageable third downs”—why throw downfield and risk an incompletion or interception when you can continually throw underneath and complete 70 percent of your passes?
Well, it’s kind of difficult to do something effectively over and over in the NFL because, you know, the other guys are professionals too. Even if each offensive play has, say, an 80 percent chance of being successful, the probability of running five straight successful plays is just 50 percent. So in many situations, it makes sense to aim for lower-percentage plays with greater rewards.
The Cowboys are a risk-averse team that seeks to maximize the happiness they get from a bunch of moderately successful plays instead of, you know, maximizing points. For them, a low-variance offensive strategy—a Stoic offense, of sorts—is superior to the ups-and-downs that come with a truly efficient unit. Meanwhile, the Saints are one of the teams that has embraced the use of analytics, and it shows in their offense. Let’s take a look.
Check out the game analysis at ABC.
At BR, I took a look ahead to the Cowboys’ bye, but I also broke down what’s wrong with the defense:
What Must Improve: The Pass Rush
One of the most important aspects of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s scheme is the ability to generate pressure with only four rushers. When the Cowboys can do that, they’re effective. When they can’t, they’re not. It’s that simple.
With the missed time from defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, the Cowboys just haven’t been able to get to the quarterback. That’s a problem.
Using the pressure totals from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted the Cowboys’ pressure rate in each game this season.
Notice a trend? That 30 percent area is really the threshold the ‘Boys need to hit in order to get over the .500 hump. If they can start to get pressure on around one-third of their defensive snaps, things will start to turn around.
But who’s going to provide that pressure? The Cowboys’ top three pass-rushers have all deteriorated as the season has progressed.
I predicted this would happen for Ware because of his age, and the same reasoning applies to Hatcher. Thus, the Cowboys might need to rely on improved play from Selvie, a seventh-round pick in 2010, to turn things around defensively.