At the midway point of the 2014 season, the Cowboys are tied atop the NFC East behind a strong running game and an improved defense.
The defense actually hasn’t really improved, though. A closer look reveals that they're playing about as well as they played last year. They're just not on the field as much.
As it turns out, running the ball more to protect the defense had an interesting side effect: It gave the Cowboys an identity.
“Fixing” the Defense
The Cowboys defense was near the top of the list of fans' concerns before the season. While the unit has shown improvement, it’s still not particularly good and definitely not the dominant force some proclaim it to be. So why does it seem better?
The 2013 defense forced 1 fumble per game and intercepted 15 passes. The 2014 defense has forced 1 fumble and intercepted one pass per game. That’s not it.
Opponents converted 43 percent of their third-down attempts against Dallas in 2013. In 2014, that number dropped to 42 percent. That’s not it either.
The difference is simple: Volume.
Coaches like Mike Leach and Chip Kelly increased offensive output by simply running more plays. More plays lead to more yards and more points. Conversely, the Cowboys have found a formula that promotes their greatest strength and hides their greatest weakness simultaneously.
Compare the two seasons:
The per-play results are are remarkably similar between years. The Cowboys have simply limited the amount of damage done against the defense by eating up the clock while on offense.
The Cowboys dropped back to pass on 63 percent of snaps in a Week 1 loss to San Francisco. Since then, though, they have committed to establishing the run early and dominating time of possession on offense.
Last year, the Cowboys' offense ranked 26th in the NFL in time of possession, holding the ball for 29:02 per game. This year, the offense is up to 2nd in the NFL at 33:50 per game.
Dallas' offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is pounding defenses with stretch zone runs behind what is arguably the best young offensive line in the NFL. The results:
- Running back DeMarco Murray leads the league in rushing, has eight straight games over 100 yards and is the league's player of the month.
- Quarterback Tony Romo is having his most efficient season yet.
- Cowboys go from 26th in scoring defense in 2013 to 9th in 2014.
- 6-2 record after three straight 8-8 seasons.
Being forced to protect the defense has helped the Cowboys create a physical identity they've lacked for years. And the cohesion between the offense and defense has the team in good shape going forward.