The Dallas Cowboys' receiving group has gotten a lot of ink over the offseason, with the prevailing perception being that there's still a need at the top of the depth chart for an "alpha" type of receiver. That may or may not be the case, and thankfully with training camp in full swing and preseason games right around the corner, we're about to receive the answer to the wide receiver question.
They are who they are at this point and the hope is that a group of good players with varying skill sets can help the offense be more efficient in 2018 than it was in 2017. Pro Football Focus Senior Analyst Michael Renner released his NFL Receiving Corp Rankings for 2018 on Tuesday and he had the Dallas Cowboys ranked 29th in the NFL.
Here's what Renner had to say about the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver group:
"The fact that the Cowboys brought in Tavon Austin this offseason should tell you about how bleak their receiving corps looks at this point. There’s some mild hope that either Michael Gallup or Cedrick Wilson can contribute right away as rookies, but it’s rare for third- and sixth-round picks, respectively, to be immediate impact players. Terrance Williams has been a mainstay in the Cowboys lineup the past five seasons despite averaging under 1.50 yards per route over that span."
Michael Renner - Pro Football Focus
He uses some objective data to justify his ranking, but also there's a bit of opinion thrown in there as well. Yards per route run (YRR) is a statistic tracked by Pro Football Focus that is just that, the amount of yards the player accounted for divided by the amount of routes they ran that season.
For reference, here are the top five players in YRR from 2017 with at least 50 targets:
- Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons - 3.0
- Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers - 2.8
- Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers - 2.5
- Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints - 2.4
- Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs - 2.3
Obviously a higher number is better. As you can tell, that's an elite group of playmakers at the wide receiver position.
Dez Bryant in 2016 had a 1.9 YRR, which was better than his 1.6 YRR in 2017.
The biggest difference between 2016 and 2017 was the major drop off in yards per route run from Cole Beasley. He went from two yards per route run in 2016 to 0.8 in 2017. A reason that Cole Beasley saw a drop off was that he saw more double teams in 2017. Teams realized that he, and not Dez Bryant or Jason Witten, was Prescott's go-to receiver.
As a team, Pro Football Reference had the Dallas Cowboys ranked as the fifth best group of pass catchers in 2016. In 2017, they dropped all the way down to 25th in the NFL. Now, I get that some of PFF's grading can be a bit subjective, but there is an objective difference in the Cowboys' passing game performance from 2016 to 2017. And it wasn't all on the quarterback.
In yards per routes run, the Dallas Cowboys' WRs ranked 24th in the NFL in 2017 with 1.22 yards per route run. By comparison, the WR unit had a 1.39 yards per route run in 2016. Their 1.39 YRR in 2016 would have been near the top-10 in 2017. The exact same group of receivers saw a decrease in receiving productivity.
There has been some overhaul to the wide receiver position but it remains to be seen if that is a negative or a positive for 2018 and the future.
While losing Bryant on the surface looks to be a loss, Allen Hurns' 1.5 yards per route run in 2017 is pretty much the same as Bryant's 1.6. If we regard Dak Prescott as a better quarterback than Blake Bortles (and I think we do), then we should expect Hurns' YRR to go up as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
There are several reasons why the YRR numbers dropped for the Cowboys from 2016 to 2017. One of the biggest reasons is that the offensive line protection declined from 2016 to 2017. Dak didn't have near as much time to allow plays to develop in 2017 as he did in 2016.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak's average time to throw went from 2.71 seconds in 2016 to 2.66 seconds in 2017. Just 0.05 seconds may not seem like much of a difference, but when the play speed is as fast as it is in the NFL, it makes a difference. Now that could be a sign he was getting rid of the ball quicker, but as some of the stats will bear out, he also didn't have as much time to throw in 2017, relative to 2016.
In 2016, Dak Prescott was pressured on 184 of his 513 drop backs, which was 18th in the NFL. In 2017, he was pressured on 203 of 554 drop backs, which was the ninth most in the NFL that season. That's only a 1% difference in percent of drop backs pressured, but that doesn't matter as much as the amount of plays under pressure.
The more you are under pressure as a quarterback, the more you feel the need to do something before the play has developed.
Dak also didn't have as much time in the pocket in 2017 as he did in 2016. From year to year, Prescott saw a 0.07-decrease in the amount of time he had in the pocket. That may seem insignificant, but every bit of time counts when you're an NFL quarterback.
Pro Football Focus also tracks the amount of time it takes to sack a player as "average time to sack." In 2016, Prescott's average time to sack was 3.83, fourth best in the NFL among players with 400 or more passing attempts. In 2017 that number dropped to 3.14, which was 25th in the NFL among players with 400 attempts. So, not only did he get sacked more in 2017, he was getting sacked faster.
That 0.69 seconds is a HUGE difference in the time of a play. Because players weren't getting open as quickly or as often, Dak Prescott was being forced to hold onto the ball longer in 2017.
When Prescott was able to get rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds in 2017, he had a quarterback rating of 100.7, good for 12th in the NFL. When he held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds, Dak had a passer rating of 73.3; 21st in the NFL.
His TD:INT ratio was 15:5 when he released the ball in under 2.5 seconds and 7:7 after. What that means to me is that the Cowboys' wide receivers weren't getting open with as much regularity in 2017 as they were in 2016. But even if we didn't look at the numbers, the games revealed that.
The talent along the offensive line was vastly different in 2017 than it was in 2016. Jonathan Cooper was good enough to win games, but he wasn't nearly as good as the combination of Ronald Leary and La'el Collins at left guard in 2016. Dallas could have brought Cooper back in 2018, but they allowed him to sign for $5 million with the San Francisco 49ers and opted to draft Connor Williams to replace him. That's an upgrade to the offensive line.
What the stats above point to is what we've been saying all along: Dak Prescott didn't have as much time to throw the ball in 2017.
The wide receiver group didn't get open as much, which created a less efficient offense. That's especially true in the second half of the season when Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott missed time. As we've discussed at length previously, the drop off from Tyron Smith to Chaz Green/Byron Bell made a huge difference in Prescott's protection and comfort level.
Prescott didn't have near as much help in 2017 from his pass catchers when he got the ball on target.
In 2016, Pro Football Focus recorded only 13 on-target passes dropped by Cowboys receivers. That was the second fewest in the NFL among quarterbacks with 400 attempts or more. In 2017, that number skyrocketed to 27, which was the 11th most in the NFL.
Yes, on paper, there isn't an obvious Julio Jones, Antonio Brown or even prime-Dez Bryant, but it's not like they are any worse off in 2018 than they were in 2017.
When Tyron Smith was healthy, they won eight games and averaged 25 points per game. When Tyron wasn't around, they went 1-2 -- that win being against the Philadelphia Eagles backups in week 17 -- and averaged a little more than seven points per game.
While Dak wasn't perfect throughout the 2017 season and certainly has some stuff to improve upon, he could have used more help from his offensive line and wide receiver group throughout the season. So perhaps with improvement in the offensive line play and depth, 16 games from Ezekiel Elliott, and some adjustments to the playbook and route combinations, the Dallas Cowboys can get back to the efficient and dominant offense that saw Prescott as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL in 2016.
While it certainly helps to have an elite wide receiver on your team, you can absolutely win with good ones. The Dallas Cowboys may not have an elite WR, but with Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin, they've got some good ones.
Do Or Die: Chidobe Awuzie Must Improve Sunday, Or Cowboys Season Could End
Coming into the season there was a lot of hype surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' cornerbacks. With Byron Jones moving from safety full time, and now second year player Chidobe Awuzie playing opposite Jones after a promising rookie season, there was a lot for Cowboys fans to be excited about.
Through the first 10 weeks of the year, though, only one of those two has maintained fans' excitement. While Byron Jones has been arguably the best cornerback in all of football, Chidobe Awuzie has been damn-near an automatic completion when thrown at.
Awuzie has a -5.8 coverage rating this season, 65th among cornerbacks in the NFL. Coverage rating is a metric which factors in how often a cornerback is targeted as well as how many passes they've defensed per target. Quarterbacks also have a 116.6 passer rating when targeting Awuzie, compared to just 64.5 when targeting Byron Jones. For comparisons sake, Jones' coverage rating is a +45! So you can see why "cornerback opposite of Jones" is becoming a need for the Cowboys.
What's perplexing about Awuzie's season, though, is that he is only giving up an average 0.95 yards of separation, 27th in the league (courtesy of playerprofiler.com). So while Awuzie is playing relatively sticky coverage, he's still being targeted often, and he's still allowing completions way too often.
This week, Chidobe Awuzie will be tested once again, this time by the dynamic passing game of the Atlanta Falcons. The match-up many fans are focusing on is that between Byron Jones and Julio Jones, but how Awuzie does against Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu may play a bigger factor in the result.
Both Ridley and Sanu are solid supporting receivers, and considering how much attention the defense typically has to pay to Julio Jones, they tend to get man coverage often. This allows for a precise route runner like Ridley to take advantage of opportunities, and come away with the types of big plays we've seen from him this year.
When matched up with either of these weapons, Awuzie will need to continue to stay close, but play and defense the ball better. He must continue to make it hard on these receivers and force them into contested catches, but hopefully he can improve on his play when the ball gets to the catch point.
Sunday will be another big test for the Cowboys' young defense. And as well as they have played most weeks, this game has the potential to be a season ender if certain guys do not step up. One of those guys who will certainly play a key role in influencing the result in Chidobe Awuzie.
Cowboys Defense Faces Tough Matchup vs Falcons Passing Attack
When you're a 4-5 team in the NFL with preseason expectations of making the playoffs, the last half of the season has a lot of of must-win games. This week is no different. The Dallas Cowboys face another 4-5 team in the Atlanta Falcons who is also looking to keep their playoff hopes alive. Both teams are still in the hunt, but have slightly different paths to get there. The Dallas Cowboys would probably have to win the NFC East to make the playoffs with the Falcons only real chance coming via the wild card. The New Orleans Saints look to be the kings of the NFC South this season.
In order to stay in the hunt, the Dallas Cowboys are going to need a huge defensive effort against a fierce Atlanta Falcons passing game. Through the first nine games, the Cowboys have provided reason for optimism that they can slow down Matt Ryan and company, but they've also had some porous efforts this season.
The front seven of the defense has played pretty well through the first nine games of the season and Byron Jones has been one of the best corner backs in the league. They've had problems on the left sde of the defense with Chidobe Awuzie and with the safeties.
The Cowboys will face a really difficult challenge as they travel to face the Atlanta Falcons passing game led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Matt Ryan is in the top five in most passing categories including yards, touchdowns, passer rating, completion percentage, and leads the league in passing yards per game. In yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and air yards per attempt, Matt Ryan is sixth in the NFL.
As you can see from the chart above provided by Next Gen Stats and NFL.com, Matt Ryan has been average to better than average throwing to every area of the field this season. Particularly troubling is what he's doing when he's throwing to his right, which happens to be the side of the field occupied by Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie is allowing a passer rating of 129.7 this season, which is the 15th worst number in the NFL among corners who have played a minimum of 92 coverage snaps.
What's potentially more troubling than how efficient Matt Ryan's been throwing to Awuzie's side of the field is the fact that Julio Jones will play all over the formation and can beat you in every area of the field.
The chances are high that we'll see Awuzie lined up against Julio Jones on several occasions on Sunday. Pray for Chido, y'all.
Jones has only scored two touchdowns this year, but through nine games, he's already over 1,000 yards receiving, which is leading the NFL. Julio is fourth in the NFL in receptions and is averaging more than 15 yards per catch. He's third in the NFL in yards per route run at 2.99 sitting behind only Michael Thomas and Albert Wilson among players with at least 20 targets on the season.
From Jones' chart against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week six, you can see that they lined him up all over the formation and they ran him on a large variety of routes to a large variety of depths. Julio Jones is one of the best route runners in the NFL, which is scary considering he provides huge size and athleticism to go with it.
As good as he's been this season, the secondary receivers for the Falcons -- Calvin Ridley, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper -- have also played well. Each of them has more than 400 yards receiving on the season. To put that in perspective, Cole Beasley leads the Dallas Cowboys in receiving yards at 403. Each of the Falcons' top four targets have more receiving yards than Beasley does.
Not sure if that speaks of how good the Falcons passing game has been or how bad the Cowboys passing game has been.
The Cowboys will be facing the player that fans wanted the team to select instead of Leighton Vander Esch at 19th overall; Calvin Ridley. Ridley's been excellent this season with 500 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions. He's averaging 13.2 yards per reception. Ridley's second on the Falcons in receptions for first downs and Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 138.9 when targeting Ridley.
Austin Hooper doesn't get the same publicity that Jones and Ridley do, but he's been effective this season as well. Hooper is second on the Falcons in receptions with 46, which is the fourth most among tight ends in the NFL. Hooper will test Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch in the middle of the field as well as Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath down the seem.
Mohammed Sanu will be the matchup to watch for Anthony Brown in the slot. Though Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones will run routes from there on occasion, Sanu is the primary slot receiver. He ranks 22nd in the NFL in receptions and yards from the slot. Of his 45 targets, 33 have come while in the slot and 25 of his 34 receptions. When Matt Ryan throws Sanu's way, he's got a passer rating of 125.8.
And if all that wasn't bad enough, you have the Dallas Cowboys defense as one of the worst in the NFL at getting off the field on third down. The Atlanta Falcons are second in the NFL at getting off the field on third down.
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The Dallas Cowboys are likely going to give up some long drives to the Falcons, and that's ok. What they don't want to do is give up big plays to the Falcons passing attack. The Cowboys rank sixth in the NFL in red zone defense allowing teams to score on only 48.1% of their trips inside the 20 yard line. The Falcons are seventh in the league at scoring in the red zone, but have had their issues scoring touchdowns when getting inside the 20. If the Cowboys can hold them to three instead of seven, I'll count it as a successful drive for the defense.
The Dallas Cowboys defense is playing really well this season and it ranks in the top 10 in most team defensive categories. However, if they have a weakness it's been in their pass defense, primarily Awuzie and the safeties. If they want to win this game and continue to get themselves back into the playoff picture, they're going to need better performances from their defensive backs not named Byron Jones, Anthony Brown, and to a lesser extent Xavier Woods.
Facing the Atlanta Falcons prolific passing attack is a huge test for this defense and one that could define the rest of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 season.
Cowboys’ Revenge Against Atlanta Hinges on These 3 Key Matchups
With their seasons hanging in the balance, the Dallas Cowboys (4-5) and the Atlanta Falcons (4-5) know all too well the importance of this matchup. The Cowboys however might have a little extra incentive to win this game, revenge. The Falcons absolutely throttled them in 2017, but Dallas is looking to turn the tables on them this year.
Playing in hostile territory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn't the ideal place to secure a victory, but I believe the Dallas Cowboys have a excellent shot at coming out of this contest with a "W". This time around the Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith at their disposal and they should pay huge dividends. Having these two players in the lineup will certainly factor into the outcome of the game, but there are other matchups worth keeping an eye on as well.
Here are the three matchups I believe will decide the outcome of this game:
Amari Cooper vs. Falcons' Secondary
If the Atlanta Falcons secondary continues to play the way they've played for the majority of the 2018 season, the Dallas Cowboys should be able to find quite a bit of success in the passing game. That's why I'm expecting Quarterback Dak Prescott and his receivers to have a big game, especially Amari Cooper.
The Falcons are surprisingly giving up 294.4 passing yards a game, which happens to be third worst in the NFL. But what's more surprising is they are also the worst at defending their opponents best receiver, ranking 30th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). That's why I think Amari Cooper could end up having his best game to date in a Cowboys uniform.
Cooper's ability to threaten an opponent's defense all over the field has already made the Cowboys offense better and that should continue to improve as his bond with Prescott develops. He has already become one of the most highly targeted WRs in the NFL since coming to Dallas and that is not only helping improve their passing game, but the running game as well.
Ezekiel Elliott vs. Falcons' Run Defense
As much as I'm excited about the damage Amari Cooper could do to the Falcons secondary, I'm even more excited about how dominate Ezekiel Elliott can be against Atlanta's defensive front. A lot of that has to do with the way both of these teams played in these areas a week ago, and it's a matchup that heavily favors the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are coming off their best rushing attack of the 2018 season. The offensive line completely manhandled the Philadelphia Eagles top ranked run defense last week, allowing Zeke to rush for 150+ yards. We could see a repeat performance, especially with the way the Falcons failed to stop the run last week against the Cleveland Browns.
Rookie Running Back Nick Chubb had a career day against the Falcons a week ago, amassing 176 yards and a touchdown on the ground and another 33 yards and a touchdown through the air. If that's an indication of what we can expect from Atlanta's run defense, Zeke should have a huge game. Controlling the clock with the running game would more than likely secure a much-needed victory.
Cowboys' Defense vs. Falcons' 3rd-down Offense
As good as a Dallas Cowboys defense has been this season, they have really struggled to get opposing offenses off the field on third down. In fact, they're currently the fourth worst third-down defense in the league, allowing offenses to convert a first down 44.07% of the time. That's not good, especially if you factor in that the Falcons convert 51.26% of their third downs, ranking second in the NFL.
The matchup between the Cowboys defense and the Falcons third-down offense could end up being the most important. Dallas absolutely have to find a way to get Matt Ryan and his offense off the field and the ball back in the hands of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. They can't allow Atlanta to get out to an early lead, because they're not a team who's built to come from behind.
Hopefully the Cowboys can capitalize on the Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott match ups (previously mentioned), that way they're play on third-down becomes less of a factor. But if it ends up being a close game, they will without a doubt have to improve their third-down defensive efficiency.
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