Dallas Cowboys defensive turnovers: Real deal or unsustainable stat?

: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

If you’re anything like me you find yourself pleasantly surprised with the Dallas Cowboys apparent improvement on defense this year. While no one is saying they are the second-coming of Doomsday, they certainly look like they could be a unit resembling “average”.

Average would constitute a significant improvement over last season where we saw the Dallas Cowboys defense perform historically bad in multiple areas. By holding the potent Charger offense to under 20 points, it’s understandable Cowboys Nation is getting excited about the leaps and bounds this defense appears to have taken.

Sadly, the thing that gets us the most excited about this defense is the same thing that possibly makes this perceived success unsustainable.

The Dallas Cowboys defense is largely surviving on turnovers, sadly turnovers tend to be an  unstable stat.

There’s a reason so many people use yards as the measuring stick to rank defenses. It’s not that it’s the most important (points are clearly the most important) or that it’s the most indicative of success (turnover differential is the magic stat there), it’s that it’s often the most consistent.

Yards given up may not be the most accurate stat of a good defense but it’s easy to understand and pretty darn stable. Stingy defenses often stay stingy defenses. On the opposite side of the spectrum, turnovers tend to be extremely unstable and offer large fluctuations week to week.

A defense that hitches it’s wagon to winning the turnover battle is going to get some inconsistent results. A team like the Dallas Cowboys.

As we know, defense, in general, is fairly unstable. The most important element of a defense (coverage) is a single point failure system, meaning all it takes is one weak link and the dam can break. Offense, on the other hand, can scheme and dictate success.

With six defensive turnovers, the Dallas Cowboys currently lead the NFL in takeaways (man, that sounds weird just saying). Most Dallas Cowboys fans will agree, without these turnovers the Cowboys first two games would have gone dramatically differently. The fact Dallas leads the NFL in turnover differential and still stands an even 1-1 tells you things aren’t going great elsewhere.

Watching the games we see teams basically moved the ball at will on the Dallas defense. Based on the first two weeks, Dallas needs to be concerned with their special teams and defense. Both units have given up yards and penalties in chunks and if not for those turnovers we’d be singing a sad tune about this team today.

One of the best indictors of defensive success is DVOA by Football Outsiders (Defense adjusted value over average). It blends multiple aspects of the defense, adjusting for the opponent and offers up a much more stable metric than say turnovers, points, or even yards.

The Dallas Cowboys finished last year ranked 23rd in the NFL in DVOA (they weren’t quite as bad as we felt them to be) and this year they are sitting at 22nd. Defensively, the Cowboys haven’t improved as much as these turnovers have us believing.

The Dallas Cowboys are a turnover savvy team and that won’t change but we can’t bank on these turnovers every week because they are historically unstable.

That’s not to say things are about to suddenly regress to the mean and those turnovers will dry up, though. The defense seems to have players with legitimate ball skills. In the past, a ball could hit a Dallas defender right in the hands and he’d still drop the interception. The team today hunts the ball. While we shouldn’t be expecting to average +2 in turnover differential each week, we should have reason for optimism that these takeaways aren’t complete flukes.

Turnovers are not a stable stat and as such, shouldn’t be the goal but rather the byproduct of meeting goals.

Things like QB hits and pressure rate are far more stable and they often lead to turnovers and other defensive successes. Currently Dallas is just 24th in pressures this season but they’ve done so without their starting pass-rushers last week and they’ve done it against two strong offensive lines. It stands to reason that number will increase when Dallas regains their starting personnel and starts facing more pedestrian offensive lines.

The Dallas Cowboys should feel optimistic about their defensive strides made this year, but the numbers are largely buoyed by turnovers and turnovers have a way of changing week to week. The Dallas defense is a work in progress and the focus should remain on developing the secondary and increasing the pressure rate.

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The Dallas Cowboys are a turnover savvy team and that won’t change but we can’t bank on these turnovers every week because they are historically unstable.

  • Published on 09/22/2021 at 13:01 PM
  • Last updated at 09/22/2021 at 13:08 PM