The Dallas Cowboys are gearing up for what should be a great Week 3 game against the St. Louis Rams, and it’s time to unveil our new “Friday Fades” feature here on NFL Spin Zone. Each Friday, I will take a look at an NFL team and take a deep look at five points of analysis on that team. We’ll kick off the feature today with five “fades” (the piece is named after the fade route, which is essentially a corner route that is run in the end zone) on the Dallas Cowboys. I hope this series is heavy on the analysis with plenty of advanced statistics, and my goal is to get people thinking without trying to blow smoke. Each post in the serious should be very lengthy, so I hope you brought a snack.
Fade 1- Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant is an absolute monster, and it’s incredible to see the kind of impact he’s had on the Cowboys through two weeks of the season. We knew that Bryant would be in line for a great year and would once again be a huge piece in the Cowboys offense, but I didn’t see this kind of importance coming. In Week 1, the New York Giants threw the house at Dez Bryant in coverage, and it was almost hilarious to see how scared the Giants were of Bryant. The Cowboys used him as almost a decoy to draw coverage, and the Giants left almost everybody else open. In that one game, Miles Austin caught ten passes and Jason Witten caught eight, while Dez Bryant had just four catches for 22 yards (all four were on the left side of the field).
It was insane to see just how much Bryant opened things up for his teammates, and his game against the Giants shows just how valuable having an elite WR is. I liken this to what happened with Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions in Week 1, as the Minnesota Vikings sold out their coverage on Bryant. That left everyone else open, and Matthew Stafford shredded the Vikings defense by tossing it to his supremely talented pass-catching backs, as well as capable No. 2 wideout Nate Burleson.
In Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Bryant was given the opportunity to put it big numbers, and he shined as bright as anybody in that game. Brandon Flowers is not an easy matchup, as he is one of the best shutdown corners in this game. But Bryant tore up Flowers, and I have a pretty mind-blowing statistic to share with you guys from the Pro Football Focus. When matched up against Flowers, Bryant caught eight passes on nine targets for 139 yards. Yeah, that’s incredible. In total, Bryant had nine receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets, which means that Tony Romo averaged a whopping 11.75 yards per attempt when throwing it at Bryant.
Fade 2- DeMarco Murray actually does make defenders miss?
Dallas Cowboys starting running back DeMarco Murray was recently criticized for not being able to force enough missed tackles, and I was intrigued enough by these comments that I decided to look up Murray’s missed tackle numbers. According to the Pro Football Focus, DeMarco Murray forced 22 missed tackles last season, which was good to tie for 19th in the NFL. This season, Murray is in about the same league range with three missed tackles. He was criticized for being too much of a straight-line player and not allowing defenders to miss tackles, and that’s a fair point; it might also be why he is so prone to injury. But it is interesting to see that Murray has actually been above the league average in terms of missing tackles statistically, and he was one of the top 25 running backs last season (top ten this season so far) in PFF’s advanced metric “Elusive Rating”, which uses missed tackles per touch and yards after contact (this includes receptions and rushes) to calculate the elusiveness of a back.
I find these stats to be fascinating, and I think there’s more to the story than simply stating that Murray doesn’t do a good enough job of making defenders miss. Murray also doesn’t get nearly enough help from his offensive line, and the story of the Dallas Cowboys for quite some time has been the inability of the offensive line to do much.
Murray is also a gifted pass-catching back, and he’s been excellent out of the backfield this season in the passing game with 13 receptions. He’s forced ten missed tackles as a receiver, and that statistic cannot be ignored. Missed tackles are missed tackles whether or not they come as a rusher or receiver, but Murray has also forced three missed tackles this year as a rusher. A few of the criticisms of Murray are legitimate, but he’s not the problem with this offense; he’s a solid back overall.
Fade 3- Now let’s talk about the offensive line
The way I ended “Fade 2″ basically means that I should start “Fade 3″ with some discussion on the Cowboys offensive line. Both Tyron Smith and Doug Free have done an excellent job as the Cowboys bookend tackles, and I’ve been impressed with Smith ever since he came into the league. He’s a solid left tackle, and he’s done a solid job this season so far. Doug Free is an incredibly interesting case, because this is a guy who was as bad as any tackle in the league last season. His play last season was quite surprising for me, because I touted Free as a solid player just a couple of years earlier. It looks like 2013 is a bounce-back year for him, because he has looked excellent thus far.
The Cowboys pass protection has been solid this season, as Romo has been sacked on the 12th-lowest percentage of his drop-backs in the league. However, the Cowboys run blocking has been incredibly problematic, because both guards have been huge weaknesses to this point. Both Mackenzy Bernadeau (I’ll get to him being replaced by Brian Waters in a bit) and Ronald Leary looked to be the liabilities on the Dallas Cowboys offensive line going into the season, but I have been even less impressed with their blocking than I thought. The Cowboys have had 45 yards on 13 carries when running it up the middle so far this season. Some of that is on the running game, but I think it’s safe to say that the guards need to do better.
They will, too, as Brian Waters will make his first start on Sunday after getting a cameo appearance against the Chiefs. Waters looked rusty, but he should still be a good starting guard and will almost undoubtedly be a significant upgrade over Bernadeau at right guard.
Click on to the next page to read the final two fades, which are about Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys secondary.