There isn’t an NFL team entering the playoffs hotter than the 12-4 Dallas Cowboys. All of the December narratives have fallen by the wayside, as the team is playing their best football of the season and best ball in a long while. Over the last four games, Dallas has dominated the likes of the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Indianapolis Colts and the Washington Redskins by a combined score of 165-79.
Dallas’ 165 points shatters their previous team record of 151 points over a four-game stretch of a season. Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray stand as legitimate MVP candidates, and combined with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and an array of complimentary pieces form an offense to be feared league-wide. However, for the Cowboys to make any noise in these 2015 playoffs, it’s the guys on the opposite side of the ball that will have to come through. Fortunately for the team’s chances, it appears Rod Marinelli’s defense is catching fire at the right time as well.
Dallas’ recent defensive improvement is undeniable. Included in their four opponents are two top offenses in Philadelphia and Indianapolis. They’ve shut them down completely and that can only bode well when looking at the potential of the Lions and Packers opponents they will face if fortunate enough to be in the tournament for more than just a cup of tea.
There shouldn’t be any confusion; the 2014 Dallas Cowboys defense isn’t good. Fortunately, with an offense like what this team boasts, they only need to be good enough. Over the last four weeks, they have been exactly that.
They’ve allowed just under 20 points per game in December. Prior, they were giving up 22.8 a contest. That’s an entire scoring drive difference per matchup. Their yards allowed per game has dropped from 364 yards a game to just 328. Both of those totals extrapolated over the course of 16 games would rank Dallas’ D as Top 10 in each category.
One advanced stat that exemplified this shift is EPA. Expected Points basically assign a value to each play based on the improvement of likelihood of scoring; down, distance, score difference, time of game are all included. Here’s a look at how Dallas has done on a week-by-week basis over the course of the season, including the rise over the last three games.
Not enough? What about pressure on the quarterback?
Dallas’ Achilles heel has been their inability to bring the opposing signal caller down to the ground. Yet, over the past three games, they’ve accrued 9 of their 28 sacks on the year, over 32% of their season total. It’s not as if they are getting in the backfield more often, Dallas’ average pressures per game is actually down from their season average over the last few contests. It’s simply they have been doing a better job at actually ending the play in the backfield rather than allowing the pass to get off.
Third downs? Dallas has been toiling along all season at the bottom of the league in third down conversion percentage allowed. They were so bad, they were actually were on a far worse pace than the forgettable 2013 version of Cowboys defense. That was, until this last stretch of games. Dallas still ended up slightly worse than 2013, however their 38.89% stop rate would be good enough to be in the top half of the league if it was over the course of the year. Again, not good… just good enough.
The Cowboys have also been getting more than their fair share of turnovers. After Thanksgiving, Dallas was sitting at -3 for the season in turnover differential. They’ve been +9 in the four games since.
Unfortunately, the relative health that Dallas has been enjoying compared to previous seasons is starting to deteriorate. It appears that they may have lost rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a high ankle sprain pending confirmation from the team today. Defensive tackle Henry Melton also injured his knee in Sunday’s finale against Washington and the team has to worry about his availability for the Wild Card contest against Detroit.
However, Tyrone Crawford has been everything the Cowboys could have hoped for at the three-technique. Meanwhile, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus continues to produce miracles as Bruce Carter secured two interceptions against Washington and leads the team with 5 in limited action. Scrap-heap reclamation project Rolando McClain is expected to return from his illness to man the middle of the defense.
Dallas’ recent defensive improvement is not a mirage. The offense has risen to the level of an elite unit. The defense will have to be show up and allow them the occasional misstep. Good thing they seem more than good enough for the task.
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*Cowboys defensive lineman Henry Melton sustained a bone bruise to his left knee in Sunday's 44-17 win at Washington, an injury that will definitely sideline him for Dallas's playoff opener this Sunday at home against Detroit.
The team is still determining the severity of the injury. But agent Jordan Woy tells us the former Pro Bowler will definitely miss some time.
"We will know more (on Tuesday)," Woy says. "Henry is out a few weeks for sure."
Melton is second on the team with five sacks while playing end and tackle off the bench.
*The NFL is finally doing something about Suh's foolish behavior - and just in time for the Lions star to be suspended -- SUH-SPENDED - for Sunday.