Game Review: Cowboys vs. Cardinals (Week 3 '23)
I take a look at the Cowboys run defense against the Cardinals and put context into their performance as we near the end of the first Quarter of NFL play.
Last year, the Dallas Cowboys’ defense finished 4th in total DVOA, according to FTN, an ‘advanced’ stat that tracks overall efficiency. One of the main concerns for Dallas heading into the 2023 season was the ability to stop the run. Though they finished 7th in Run DVOA last season, most pundits (and fans) who follow the team closely understood that there were glaring issues inside the defensive front.
Until this year, the Cowboys had not selected an interior defensive lineman (iDL) in the 1st Round since 1991, when they took Russell Maryland and Kelvin Pritchett with the 1st and 20th overall picks. The selection of Michigan’s Mazi Smith with the 26th pick was a coup for many around DFW who have been opining for a premium iDL pick for years.
It isn’t like the Cowboys’ front office has been neglecting the position; they just haven’t been putting a lot of capital investments into the group. Since 2020, Dallas has drafted an iDL, just not in the 1st Round. Neville Gallimore (3rd/’20), Osa Odighizuwa (3rd/’21), and Chauncey Golston (3rd/’21) have all been picked in the past three years. Dallas even traded with the Las Vegas Raiders a year ago for Jonathan Hankins. But the issues are more extensive than who is playing iDL.
Heading into their matchup with the Cardinals, the Cowboys sat atop the league’s DVOA ranking. The caveat here is that through two weeks, they have also played the worst schedule in the NFL. After three weeks, the Jets hold the worst Offensive DVOA, while the Giants hold the 29th. What looked like a monster unit was shown to have flaws against Arizona. In fact, the Cardinals rose from 20th in ODVOA to 8th after playing the Cowboys.
Looking at ‘raw’ EPA numbers (above), Dallas currently sits 3rd in EPA/play and matches that against Dropback passes (take out RPOs and Play-Action). The Cowboys have problems in their run defense, where they sit 17th in EPA. Digging deeper, the Cowboys are dead last in the NFL in rushing success rate at 50.8% (RBSDM). What does that mean? Half of the offensive runs Dallas faces end in a net positive EPA for the offense.
The biggest issue for Dallas last Sunday was getting off the field on defense. People will talk about the offense’s success rate in the Red Zone, but the Cardinals scored on all five of their first-half drives (above), and only one was less than 50 yards (i.e., not due to turnovers). 3rd Down was an issue, too, with the Cardinals going 5/10 on the day.
Even with Trevon Diggs out for the year, the Cowboys were gaining a starter back in the secondary, as Donovan Wilson played his first game of the season. There was concern around DFW that the secondary might struggle, but the Cowboys played the Cardinals relatively well. There was only one major coverage bust (above).
Arizona QB Josh Dobbs played well, completing 17/21 throws for a QBR of 83.9 (ESPN), but that wasn’t the main issue on the night. The main culprit for the Cardinals’ success was their ground game, which Cowobys' fans hoped was fixed after their blowout wins against the Giants and Jets.
In both games, the rushing attacks were relatively held in check. The Giants did cross the century mark on the ground but were held to 3.9 yards a carry. As for the Jets, they could never get anything started going 64 and 4 yards a carry.
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