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Helman: How Good Is This Defense, Really?

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FRISCO, Texas – I’ve been mulling over this for a while, and this week seems like the perfect time to pull it out.

After all, if you’re going to write about the merits of this Dallas defense, what better time to take a look than now, as they prepare to take on one of the best offenses in football?

I can throw the stats at you, if that’s what you want. The Saints roll into this game with the No. 5 overall offense and the No. 1 scoring offense in the league. The Cowboys are primed to meet them with the No. 7 overall defense and the No. 3 scoring defense.

The Cowboys are literally allowing half as many points as the Saints are scoring. More so than any other aspect of this game, I think the winner of that matchup will determine the outcome.

Which prompts me to wonder: just how good are the Cowboys at limiting opposing points, and can that hold up?

To do that, I went back and looked at how well opponents have driven the ball against the Cowboys. Specifically, I wanted to chart the number of times the opposition has started with the ball in its own territory and driven across midfield into Dallas territory.

By my count, it’s happened 58 times this season. On 58 occasions, the Cowboys’ opponent has started with the ball in its own territory – whether that’s their own goal line or their own 47-yard line – and driven the ball across midfield.

What happens after that is where it gets impressive.

Of those 58 occasions, the Cowboys have only let their opponent into the end zone 33 percent of the time. Only 19 times out of 58 opportunities has the opposition driven the field on this team for six points.

On 17 of 58 opportunities, the Cowboys have buckled down and forced a field goal. On 10 occasions, they have forced their opponent to punt from their own side of the 50-yard line. On 12 occasions, they have forced a turnover – whether that’s a takeaway or a turnover on downs.

I’m not good at math, but it seems pretty good that the Cowboys have held their opponents to three points or less 67 percent of the time they’ve crossed midfield. It’s the perfect example of the oft-cited mantra, “bend but don’t break.”

Now, the next part is where it gets concerning. I also charted how far opponents have had to drive when they have scored touchdowns against the Cowboys. For example, of the 19 touchdowns mentioned above, 12 have come from inside the 20-yard line. Seven have come from inside the 10-yard line.

That’s a pretty good indicator that, more often than not, this Dallas defenses forces opponents to drive the entire field for points. This isn’t a group that allows many long, chunk touchdowns, given that 63 percent of these touchdowns allowed have come in the red zone.

For the season, the Cowboys have allowed just six touchdowns from 34 yards away or further. If you’ll remember, they were fairly sloppy in back-to-back games against Seattle and Detroit, allowing passing touchdowns of 52, 45 and 38.

It improved significantly after that Lions game, though. From Week 5 through Week 10, they allowed just one such touchdown – a 34-yard touchdown pass to Dede Westbrook in the 40-7 win against Jacksonville.

Having said all of that, the last two weeks give some cause for concern. The Cowboys gave up a 34-yard touchdown to Julio Jones in crunch time of their Week 11 win in Atlanta. Even more alarming than that was Thanksgiving Day, when Vernon Davis hit them for a 53-yard score – which is statistically the longest touchdown they’ve allowed all year.

It’s not the end of the world. The other guys get paid, too. But that’s not the type of slip the Cowboys can afford against Drew Brees and this New Orleans offense.

Like DeMarcus Lawrence said on Tuesday, this group looks like a game of Madden. On 106 possessions so far this season, the Saints have scored 45 touchdowns. Literally half the time they take the field with the intention to move the ball (i.e., not kneeling the clock out), they are finding the end zone.

You can’t ask for a better test than this.

Even in their losses, this is a Dallas defense that has proven pretty adept at keeping their opponents out of the end zone. If they can manage that against the Saints, it’ll prove their chops on an entirely different level.

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