The story of the 2018 NFL season has been the explosion of highflying offenses, and that is very apparent at the top of the NFC. Both the Los Angeles Rams (11-1) and New Orleans Saints (10-2) have proven nearly impossible to stop from scoring, and they are poised to claim the top two seeds in the conference playoffs.
But there is another NFC team that could play spoiler in the postseason: the Dallas Cowboys. And what’s most interesting is that they’re getting the job done with a very different approach — by shortening the game, and playing great defense.
Look no further than last Thursday’s win over the Saints as proof. New Orleans and Dallas had just eight possessions each (if you exclude end-of-half situations and kneel-downs), well below the NFL average of 11.3 possessions per game this season. That is three fewer drives that Drew Brees and the Saints would typically get to score, a factor that played a big role in Dallas’ 13-10 victory.
It wasn’t an anomaly, either. Cowboys games average 10.6 drives per team, the fifth-lowest rate in the league. The reason for this is that even though their offense has struggled for much of the season, they still have the third-longest average time per possession in the NFL (2:57 per possession). While taking time off the clock isn’t in and of itself all that valuable, it increases the chances of a team with a lesser offense to win the game, by reducing the total number of possessions.
Even if the Saints scored at their per-drive rate for the season, they still would have only put up 27 points. The lower-scoring the game, the more one turnover can determine the outcome, and the Cowboys have just the defense to force opposing offenses into mistakes.
If you’re looking for blue-chip talent on the defensive side of the ball, this Cowboys team arguably has the most in the NFL. It all starts with defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Few edge defenders have shown the ability to dominate high-level offensive tackles the way Lawrence has the last two seasons. After 15 sacks a season ago and 79 total quarterback pressures, Lawrence has followed it up with 11 sacks and 50 total pressures through 12 games. Against the Saints’ Ryan Ramczyk — the highest-ranked right tackle in Pro Football Focus grades through 12 weeks — Lawrence went off for a sack, a hit and three hurries while also forcing a fumble.
Game-changers from the edge rusher position force offenses to alter their game plans, but Lawrence isn’t the only Dallas defensive player opponents need to worry about.
The Cowboys moved Byron Jones from safety back to cornerback, his previous position, this offseason, and he’s gone from a quality player to perhaps the best corner in the league. He is a great example of why interceptions are a misleading stat to evaluate cornerbacks — even though he has zero picks, he has allowed just 49 percent of passes into his coverage to be completed, and allowed just 22 yards per game. He hasn’t given up a touchdown all season.
And then there are Dallas’ linebackers. The Cowboys have not one, but two linebackers with top-10 grades at the position, and neither of them is named Sean Lee. It used to be that the Dallas defense came and went with Lee’s health, but that’s not the case anymore. The emergence of first-round rookie Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, who has recovered from a horrific knee injury suffered in his final college game for Notre Dame, has been a game-changer.
Dallas has run Cover-3 at the third-highest rate of any team in the league, and it is very effective because of the ability of those two linebackers to fly around the field and limit yards after the catch on underneath passes. Vander Esch and Smith’s 32 combined coverage stops are three more than the next-closest linebacker duo in the NFL. Their speed and playmaking ability were on full display in the win over the Saints, and would be an asset in a playoff rematch against New Orleans or in a matchup with the Rams and MVP candidate running back Todd Gurley.
The Cowboys’ offense would have trouble keeping pace in either of the aforementioned matchups, but the trade addition of wide receiver Amari Cooper, who ranks among the league leaders in yards per route run this season, has provided a boost to the passing game. And perhaps more importantly, they’ve proven themselves capable of controlling the clock, which limits the amount of big plays they need to make to pull off an upset.
This, again, goes back to the Cowboys’ approach. On first down in their base offense, they hand the ball off 59 percent of the time — eight percentage points higher than the league average. And with good reason: On first downs this season, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, which is more than a half-yard better than the league average and the best figure for a back with at least 100 first-down carries. When they are successful on first down and get a second and three or less, they run even more: 73 percent of the time, in fact, compared to the league average of 62 percent. If the Cowboys think they can pound the rock, they will, and then watch as seconds tick away at the game clock.
Dallas still has work to do to come away with an NFC East title, including a critical matchup with the Eagles this Sunday, but by taking a different approach and coupling it with a ferocious defense, this team has the chance to disrupt the conference’s title race.
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