In a weird way the Cowboys are coming off their best week of the season. There weren't any complaints about the playcalling or Tony Romo's decision making. There was no need to gauge the heat of Wade Phillips's seat, an unenviable task any way you want to think about it, nor a need to conjure euphemistic attempts to make that week's win or loss sound better than they were. And, best of all, the Cowboys gained ground on the entire division.
Alas, the Cowboys have to return to the field this week which raises the very real likelihood that all of those those themes will return in earnest. Blue Star has already covered several of the ways that the Cowboys can build off of their strong week off, from increased red zone efficiency to deploying their three-headed running game at full health, but one thing that was touched on by Scott Crisp earlier Wednesday leads to another glaring weakness that needs to be corrected.
Scott took a look at the Cowboys pass rush, specifically related to the Falcons but also a more general look at how tepid it has been through the first five games of the season. In that post, he mentioned that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan turned the ball over five times in two 2008 losses when the Falcons pass protection broke down. That's one more turnover than the Cowboys have forced this entire season, and four more than they've produced in any game in which Jake Delhomme wasn't treating the ball like it was slathered in swine flu. Cleary, this is a place where they must improve if this season's going to end with a playoff berth.
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Right now the Cowboys have a -4 giveaway/takeaway ratio, which isn't as influenced by Romo's generosity as you might think. The four turnovers forced by the Cowboys defense is tied for worst in the NFL with the Dolphins, while the eight offensive turnovers is right in the middle of the pack. The only teams with worse ratios -- Cleveland, St. Louis, Oakland, Carolina, Tennessee -- have won five games combined thus far this season and figure to remain among the league's lesser lights as the season unfolds.
This isn't a new thing for the Cowboys. They were a horrendous -11 in 2008, a shocking number given how well they rushed the passer and how many turnovers come as a result of a strong pass rush causing mistakes from opposing quarterbacks. So, clearly the slow start by DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and company isn't solely to blame for the defense's inability to make something out of opposing offense's mistakes. Only six teams in the last three years have made the playoffs with negative turnover margins, so it behooves the Cowboys to concentrate on changing their fortunes.
It's not easy to come up with ways that the Cowboys can all of a sudden go out and get more turnovers, although keeping the heat on quarterbacks can't hurt. There would seem to be a correlation to the defense's penchant for giving up long drives and a lack of aggressiveness throughout the unit, something that would certainly result in fewer opportunities to force fumbles and interceptions. The downside of taking bigger risks is the chance at losing big, but given what's happened thus far and the schedule that remains that may result in a 6-10 or 7-9 record rather than an 8-8 one. The upside, obviously, is stealing a game or two and heading to the playoffs.
Assessing which course is more prudent is far simpler than making it happen, but it's pretty clear that, for the Cowboys, it is far better to receive than to give.