(Editor's Note: DallasCowboys.com 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 – With two straight losses, and Philly a full four games up in the NFC East, Jerry Jones knows the Cowboys (5-5) have lost their cushion in the playoff race with six games left.
"We're into arithmetic now," Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan.
Indeed, the Cowboys need as many wins as they can find over these final six weeks. The last wild-card team in the current postseason picture, Atlanta (6-4), has a head-to-head win over Dallas.
With that in mind, we start this week's stats column with an imperative for ending this two-game slide Thursday against the L.A. Chargers: protecting Dak Prescott.
1. Prescott Under Pressure
Statistically, Prescott played the worst game of his young career last Sunday against the Eagles. He had a career-high four turnovers, including three picks and a sack/fumble returned for a touchdown.
He also has been sacked a combined 12 times in the last two games against Philly (4) and Atlanta (4). It's only the third time in his career he has been sacked at least 4 times in a game (Washington; Week 2 of 2016).
Say what you want about missed throws or missed reads in the Cowboys' 37-9 loss four days ago, but Prescott needs more time in the pocket. The Eagles game was a marked improvement over the Atlanta game with Byron Bell as the fill-in left tackle, but as head coach Jason Garrett said Monday, "We have to do a better job protecting the quarterback and giving Dak a chance."
I'm not into Prescott-Tony Romo comparisons, but these last two games without left tackle Tyron Smith (groin) -- particularly the eight sacks by Atlanta -- reminded me of how compromised the Cowboys were up front while rebuilding the offensive line around Romo a few years back. So, I did some math:
Romo was sacked at least 4 times in 20 starts during his Cowboys career. Romo's record in those 20 games: 7-13. The Cowboys' scoring average in those 20 games: 14.1 points per game. And that's including the Cowboys' 51-48 thriller against Peyton Manning's Broncos in 2013 – the best game Romo has ever played, in my opinion, even in defeat.
The point is, any quarterback will struggle when they're under siege. He can be better, sure, but he needs a consistently clean pocket. The Cowboys have the linemen to get it done, especially if Smith is back Thursday.
2. Positives On Defense
In the first half against Philly, the Cowboys' defense did something that's never happened in four seasons with Rod Marinelli as defensive coordinator: 5 consecutive three-and-outs against an opposing offense.
The defense played with desperation in that first half. In the second half, the Eagles went back to their strength – the running game with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount – and chipped away at an undermanned linebacker group without captain Sean Lee (hamstring).
By the final whistle, Dallas had allowed 215 rushing yards – only the fourth time a team has gotten at least 200 on a Marinelli-led Cowboys defense. The first half against Philly was at least encouraging: only 35 yards by the Eagles. But Lee isn't expected to play Thursday, so the production must come from somewhere else – and it must sustain for four quarters.
3. Return Policy
Jake Elliott's head injury put the Eagles in a weird spot at kicker last Sunday, forcing linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill to kick off in the second half. But Cowboys rookie Ryan Switzer was productive even before the switch was made:
Switzer's four kickoffs for a career-high 147 yards (36.8 avg.) were the most by a Cowboys returner since Miles Austin had 148 yards against New Orleans (12/10/06).
Switzer's opening 61-yard return gave Dallas early momentum, even though it only resulted in a field goal. The Cowboys drafted him in the fourth round due in part to his return skills, particularly on punts. Without Ezekiel Elliott's home-run ability these next four games, the offense could use more short fields.
4. Rivers On Thursday
The Cowboys' annual Thanksgiving home game was long considered something of an advantage against opponents not accustomed to playing on four days' rest.
Well, since the NFL launched Thursday Night Football in 2006, quarterback Philip Rivers and the Chargers have played on Thursday eight times and posted a 5-3 record.
Here's how the Chargers' longtime starter has fared on that short week:
|**Attempts/Completions**||**Passing Yards**||**Touchdowns**||**Interceptions**||**Passer Rating**|
|**2016:21-13 (Home; W)**||18 of 29||178||1||0||90.9|
|**2015: 23-20 (Road; L)**||31 of 49||277||1||0||85.2|
|**2014:35-21 (Road; L)**||30 of 41||252||3||2||92.7|
|**2013:27-20 (Road; W)**||12 of 20||166||2||0||120.0|
|**2012: 31-13 (Home; W)**||18 of 20||220||2||1||125.0|
|**2011: 24-17 (Home; L)**||23 of 47||274||2||1||72.5|
|**2010: 34-7 (Home; W)**||19 of 25||273||3||0||150.5|
|**2008: 34-7 Home; W)**||10 of 22||214||3||0||120.1|