When we put the finishing touches on analysis for the 2017 Cowboys season -- and try to sort out just how well the defense played -- I think we should consider a few of the following numbers:
-- The Cowboys were 9-0 when they held opponents under 21 points.
-- Therefore, they were 0-7 when the opponent scored 21 or more points.
-- They were eighth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed. In a league where games saw the average team gain 334 yards per game, the Cowboys allowed 318.
-- Dallas was eighth against the run (per game), 11th against the pass (per game) and 10th in yards allowed per play. Flirting with top-10 status in all of these departments is pretty solid.
-- The Cowboys also were second in negative plays! That is a huge development that we will explore a bit later. Sixth in conceding explosive plays, second in opposing field position (not really a defensive stat, but it does really matter), and second in the entire league at winning on first downs.
-- They were 13th in the NFL in points allowed. League average was 21.7 allowed per game, and the Cowboys conceded 20.8. Right about at the average. They also finished with 21 takeaways, which was slightly off the league average of 22.
-- Dallas was average in sacks per pass attempt (16th) and first downs allowed (16th). Rushing yards per play, it ranked 18th.
-- Finally, the Cowboys were at the bottom of the league in interception rate (27th); third-down defense (29th); successful plays allowed (30th); against third and short (32nd); and second-down rushes (32nd).
That all adds up to about what you would expect.
Decent defense. Promising developments at some spots. Still lacking a few premium playmakers, but there are some pieces in place that suggest there is some good stuff happening below the waterline.
The Cowboys missed starts of significance because of the following: David Irving missed eight games (four to suspension/four to injury), Orlando Scandrick missed five, Sean Lee missed five, Anthony Hitchens missed four and Chidobe Awuzie missed about 10 (if we consider him a starter, which I think we should). Add in one absence for Jeff Heath, and this cumulative total of 33 missed starts (out of a possible 176 for defensive starters) may not sound like anything extraordinary, but in a hard-capped league where depth is rare, 81 percent attendance is not considered excellent. For instance, the Minnesota Vikings have the best defense in the industry -- but also the healthiest. They had 98 percent attendance from their 11 starters this season, which certainly demonstrates some luck that their offense did not receive.
But for the Cowboys, it seems rather clear. When you don't have blue-chippers all over your defense, you need those you do have to stay on the field. A dependence on Lee was likely the difference between making and missing the playoffs this year, from a defensive standpoint. And, without question, losing a destroyer like Irving for all of September and all of December pretty much sunk their ship.
WEEKLY DATA BOX - AT PHILADELPHIA
I really don't want to spend too much time on the defensive play from Sunday. The Eagles had no quarterback play at all and did not seem too concerned about anything other than getting the game over with. The Cowboys certainly padded their stats for the year and left feeling great with a shutout.
They ended the year with seven different performances in which the opposition did not even pierce the 300-yard mark, which is some very impressive work, to be fair.
Again, this shows you how no linebacker finished in the top seven in snaps. That is a real issue because the defensive line is not trying to get high snaps, but rather a deep rotation. We are used to defensive backs dominating snap counts, but not this much. And Irving played significantly fewer snaps than Taco Charlton and Benson Mayowa.
BLITZ RATE BY WEEK
Just when you thought the Cowboys hardly blitzed, they took it down even further and further this season -- 17 percent is a new low, even for a team that already never blitzed. In a league where the average sits at about 30 percent, blitzing is just not something Rod Marinelli is interested in doing.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 17
Not sure we have ever seen this, but the drop from DeMarcus Lawrence to the rest of the team was absurd in 2017. It didn't help that the next two players -- Irving and Lee -- each missed significant time. It also may demonstrate that the Cowboys have a lot of players on defense, but not a lot of playmakers. So when you are missing your two difference-makers, the defense becomes ordinary very, very quickly.
The story of the 2017 Cowboys defense is this: It had three playmakers and two missed significant time.
Therefore, you need to find more playmakers for this defense to have a chance to improve.
By the way, your only consistent playmaker who had consistent attendance in 2017 is now out of contract.
SPLASH PLAYS - SEASON TOTALS
We have known this for weeks, but here are your annual splash play champions since 2011, when I started tracking this number. We wondered if we would see our first 40-splash season, but Lawrence fell just short, tying DeMarcus Ware's 2011 season. But, look, he did it in 209 fewer snaps! That is clearly our tiebreaker, so, in the history of the splash play index, we have a new top season ever.
I don't believe there is any chance Lawrence goes anywhere this offseason. He will either get a long extension or get franchised. We should not rule out either because the Cowboys certainly could talk themselves into a short-term solution, but I would just get that four-year, $60 million offer out there and get it over with.
Lawrence is very good and Irving is right there with him. It is up to them to put their suspensions behind them and give this team a full 16 games next year and beyond, because those two, along with some nice pieces -- Charlton for one -- should have the defensive line in a spot where it just needs a run-stopper in the middle to bring it all together.
The D-line was one of the league leaders in negative plays. Lots of sacks and tackles for loss all season long. Really great stuff up front, but it was surrounded by too many situations when the opponent was able to recover and move the chains by kicking the Cowboys' rear on third downs.
The wild card remains Randy Gregory, but I will not discuss that at this time because there is so much unknown.
At linebacker, you have Hitchens without a deal and Lee in a familiar spot for him: one of the best in the sport for 10 games a year. It is a weird proposition and his is an odd career to evaluate. But, wow, does he make a difference when he is on the field.
And then you have the wild card of the linebacking corps, Jaylon Smith. He improved as the season went on and played a lot of snaps. It is reasonable to think his 2018 will be that much better, but if ever there was a wild projection, it would be that.
Then, in the defensive backfield, you have optimism stirred by Awuzie's final month and Jourdan Lewis' season. I have always rated Awuzie higher, but both are quite capable. Byron Jones is still a piece, albeit with a lower ceiling than we hoped for, it appears. Scandrick's future is in question, as his body has been through plenty and he is getting up there in age. They can still use a playmaker back there if the draft smiles down on them. Perhaps getting an "ace" back there (your own Earl Thomas-type) could make the whole rotation make sense.
You have pieces on defense. You need more. It is a league of extraordinary talent beating ordinary talent every week. The Cowboys simply need a little more extraordinary to bring this side of the ball together.