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Rob's Figure 4: Clock Management, 3rd Quarter Woes, Run Defense; More

(Editor's Note: senior writer and pro wrestling aficionado Rob Phillips' new column, "Figure 4," identifies four key statistics each week that impact the Cowboys' on-field performance.)

FRISCO, Texas – First, a quick reminder that every season is its own entity:

In 2016, the Cowboys were 6-0 in the regular season when scoring at least 30 points. In 2017, they've lost two straight home games despite topping the 30-point mark.

Go figure.

As the Cowboys begin their bye week with a 2-3 record, here's a closer look at what's going well and what needs improvement when they return to the field Oct. 22 at San Francisco.

1. Drive Time

Jason Garrett spent a good chunk of Monday's 12-minute press conference explaining time management decisions on the Cowboys' final scoring drive against the Packers. Yes, they left a minute and 13 seconds on the clock. Yes, Rodgers worked his magic again, throwing the winning touchdown pass to Davante Adams with 11 seconds left. It's a scientific fact by now: Time moves slower for No. 12.

But it must be noted that the possession in question – 17 plays, burning 8:43 off the clock – was the longest Cowboys drive since Week 1 of the 2015 season. Way back then, Tony Romo was the starting quarterback and Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were still playing football in Starkville and Columbus, respectively.

The Cowboys have been a run-first offense since drafting Elliott in the 2016 first round. Yet, as good as they've been controlling the pace, they've produced only one other drive of 8-plus minutes since last season: the first drive of the 2016 season opener against the Giants.

So, while plenty have second-guessed the time left for Rodgers on Sunday – particularly the second-down throw to the end zone that stopped the clock before Prescott ran 11 yards for a touchdown to make the score 31-28 – the scope of that entire drive proved that the Cowboys had every intention of keeping No. 12 on the sidelines for as long as humanly possible.

They actually did a nice job of playing keep-away for stretches throughout the game, too. Their first three scoring drives all comprised 10-plus plays and lasted at least 5 minutes. In the first four games, they'd only produced four drives that were at least 5 minutes long.

2. Shaky Ground

Last season, the defense's calling card was stopping the run, limiting big plays and getting off the field.

This season, the defense has allowed at least 160 rushing yards in all three losses to the Broncos, Rams and Packers. Rodgers was going to make his share of plays, but the surprise was 125 yards from rookie rusher Aaron Jones.

Since Rod Marinelli became defensive coordinator in 2014, the Cowboys have allowed 160 rushing yards in eight games: twice in 2014, three times in 2015, and three out of five games this season. The team's record: 1-7.

This season, the defense has allowed an average of 42 rushing yards in the Cowboys' two wins. If they can get back to their identity, they'll be in much better shape.

3. Third-Quarter Woes

Final score aside, the Packers game was easily the Cowboys' most efficient performance on offense this season.

They scored a season-high 31 points. They scored a touchdown on their first three drives for the first time since Week 5 of last season. They converted 7 of 12 on third down. They were 4 of 4 in the red zone. They dominated time possession, 35:06 to 24:54.

If there's one area to quibble with, it's this: The Cowboys have gone scoreless in the third quarter in three of their five games.

In Week 4, they took a 24-16 lead into halftime against the Rams and trailed 26-24 at the start of the fourth quarter. In Week 5, they led the Packers 21-12 at halftime and trailed 22-21 after the opening play of the fourth quarter.

Here's the Cowboys' scoring breakdown by quarter this season:

1st: 13
2nd: 65
3rd: 7 (touchdown in Week 3 at Arizona)
4th: 30

Weird, right? Was there a particular trend in those three scoreless third quarters against the Giants, Denver, L.A. and Green Bay?

You can point to a number of factors: minus runs, time of possession, penalties -- the normal stuff that prevents an offense from getting into a rhythm.

  • In two drives against the Giants, one was stalled by a holding penalty, and the other ended in a field goal in the red zone after a minus-4 run on first down.
  • The Cowboys trailed Denver 28-10 by the time they got the ball to start the second half, clearly at a disadvantage by having to abandon their running game. Prescott threw passes on 11 of 17 plays. One was intercepted. But they did finish off their third and final drive with a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter.
  • Short-to-minus runs cropped up again on three straight stalled drives against the Rams: Elliott and Ryan Switzer ran four times for four yards on first down.
  • And, they simply didn't have the ball enough against Green Bay: only a 3-minute, 32-second possession. A minus-2 run on second down helped lead to a punt.

4. Bye-Week Takeaway

Sunday's loss did yield some positive signs on defense. Rookie Jourdan Lewis looks like a big-time contributor at cornerback. David Irving's return from suspension helped the pass rush. Anthony Hitchens is back, and Sean Lee's impending return should help the above-mentioned run defense.

But the Cowboys must end their takeaway drought. They haven't forced a turnover in three games. They're currently tied for 25th in turnover margin (minus-3), and their four takeaways are tied for the third-fewest total in the league.

This is a defense that drills takeaways over and over and over again. It's a major emphasis for Marinelli. The effort is certainly there, and they improved last season, but they know they must hand some extra possessions to their offense.

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