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Opponent preview: How to score against the Dallas Cowboys

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With a Buffalo Bills offense that might finally be finding a groove, what might they try in an effort to put up some Thanksgiving points?

When the schedule came out, the Thanksgiving game against the Dallas Cowboys was predicted as a loss by many (including me in my way-early-predictions in May). But an 8-3 Buffalo Bills team shouldn’t be considered incapable of winning even if a pretty well-balanced Cowboys team should pose some challenges. With a little less worry on the defensive side of the ball, let’s see what a couple teams did to score enough to come away with a victory.


Graph 1

We’ll start this off a little differently with a screen cap from Pro Football Reference, which is the go-to for many of us stat lovers. Specifically, we’re looking at team defense sorted by yards per play. Even more specifically, look at the two teams at the bottom of the graphic.

Our last opponent and our next opponent. Take a minute to check out that stat line. They’re eerily similar. Now that doesn’t mean opponents took the exact same paths against the two teams. What I’m getting at is that strategies that worked against the Denver Broncos might not against Dallas.

On the other hand, what it absolutely does mean is that looking at the two teams on paper shouldn’t lead to dismay. Especially if you consider the fact that the Broncos are just a tick better at stopping the running game. Also, this is including our game against them when we sucker punched their rushing allowed to the tune of 0.3 Y/A. In other words, the two teams are mirror images statistically, but if you had looked last week Denver would have rated significantly higher on run defense. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Play 1

So this technically isn’t a way to get past their defense, but it might be critical to create a turnover or two. The Green Bay Packers forced three turnovers, which was a major factor in their victory. Buffalo hasn’t been creating too many of these but are still outpacing the Cowboys (narrowly).

Fun fact; the Cowboys have outpaced every opponent when it comes to total yards except for a loss to the New Orleans Saints who had nine more yards than Dallas. Against the Packers, the Cowboys tallied nearly 230 more yards in a loss. Limiting Dallas’ offensive output is challenging. Turnovers can help.

Play 2

So what should our offense do? Run to the left end. The Cowboys give up 5.49 yards per attempt in this section of the field, which is “good” for 21st in the league or the lower end of average. The Packers took advantage of this tendency on several plays including this touchdown.

Play 3

The right end can also work. Dallas allows 5.44 yards per attempt on this side, which is average (Dallas is 17th in the league with that figure). Buffalo’s above-average running game is the third best running to the right end gaining 6.82 yards on average. The direct snap on this play is a fun wrinkle, but even without trickery this could be an area of opportunity.

Play 4

The Packers relied on a lot of short passes near the line of scrimmage including some effective screen passes. The Cowboys’ defense is often aggressive and allowing them to overpursue can pay dividends. Despite being thoroughly outgained yardage wise, the Packers steamrolled their way to a 34-24 victory that was only that close thanks to two fourth-quarter touchdowns from Dallas.

Play 5

The Minnesota Vikings used a lot of similar elements as the Packers such as shorter passes and the screen game. Both teams allowed their quarterbacks to move around and buy time, allowing aggressive defenders to open up space.

Play 6

Another element both teams brought to the table was persistence in the run game. Runs right up the middle were by no means absent. And as much as there could be opportunity to the edges, Dallas is ranked 28th in the league defending runs up the middle. They currently allow 4.93 yards per attempt. In most directions the Cowboy are average or worse, being propped up by an anomalous second-best in the league rating defending runs behind the right tackle. In that lane they allow a mere 1.76 yards per attempt. This is coincidentally Buffalo’s weakest area. In other words, run anywhere but there.

Play 7

This is here to emphasize the message of “don’t get cute.” If something is working, keep trying until they stop you. The Vikings ran four plays off the left side in a row and managed to move halfway across the field for a score. If the Cowboys struggle to defend a play it wasn’t a matter of right play at the right time.


Summary

On paper, the Cowboys seem like an incredibly well-balanced team that should be winning more. For many that translates to the Buffalo Bills not having a realistic path to victory. However, digging deeper shows that there are paths for the Bills to put up points against a good defense. Some of the weak areas for the Cowboys just so happen to match up with the strengths of the Bills as well.

Looking for more reason to hope? The Cowboys have faced a good variety of defensive ability. When it comes to yards per play, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and New Orleans rank 12th through 10th respectively. It took four turnovers for Dallas to beat the Eagles. They lost to the Vikings and Saints. The New York Jets boast the fourth-best defense in terms of yards per play. The New England Patriots are first. Dallas lost to both teams. Buffalo’s third-ranked defense bodes well.

All that said, short weeks are hard to predict. The safest bet is to simply enjoy the game on a day intended to be thankful for what we have. And what we have is an 8-3 team that’s fun to watch and seems to be moving in the right direction. Happy Thanksgiving Rumblers. Go Bills!