Thursday, January 27, 2022

NFL Week 17 stats you should know: Can surging Cowboys continue winning ways against struggling Cardinals?

The Arizona Cardinals clinched a playoff berth in the most unceremonious of ways last weekend: After losing at home to a COVID-19-depleted Colts team Saturday night, the Cardinals got the right combination of results on Sunday to ensure they’ll be in the postseason for the first time since 2015.

It’s a nice accomplishment, but it’s hard to imagine the Cardinals doing much with it currently: They’ve lost three straight and five of eight since their red-hot 7-0 start. There are a multitude of factors, including significant injuries to Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt. Simply put, the Cardinals have looked a shell of themselves over the past two months. They are currently the No. 5 seed in the NFC.

On the other hand, the Dallas Cowboys are heating up at the right time, having won four straight after a mid-season rough patch. Dallas is coming off its best win of the season: a 56-14 dismantling of Washington in which Dak Prescott threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns in less than three quarters’ worth of action. The defense, meanwhile, continues to be an absolute terror led by Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs.

Thus, Sunday’s matchup looms large for both franchises. The Cardinals are hoping to not only avoid a fourth consecutive loss, but also gain some momentum as the postseason looms. Dallas, meanwhile, is just one game back of the Packers for the coveted No. 1 seed (and a bye) and hopes Prescott can build on his impressive Week 16 performance.

Here are the numbers that could play a key role come Sunday afternoon:

When the Cardinals have the ball…

How do Murray and the rest of Arizona’s offense attack the Cowboys’ outstanding pass rush?

There are two things the Cowboys do very well this season: Create pressure and force turnovers. The two go hand-in-hand. Of the Cowboys’ league-leading 33 turnovers forced, 11 have come when they pressured the opposing quarterback. In their past three games combined, they have forced five turnovers when pressuring the opposing QB, most in the NFL over that span.

During their four-game winning streak, the Cowboys have blitzed more often than any other team, sending five or more pass rushers on 43.6% of opponent dropbacks, hoping to create havoc.

Like the rest of his game, Murray’s performance against the blitz has really fallen off ever since his ankle injury forced him to miss three games.

Kyler Murray Against the Blitz This Season

Pre-injury

Since

Yards per attempt

11.2

7.4

Completion percentage

72%

55%

TD pct

8.8%

2.5%

Passer rating

130.4

87.0

Unsurprisingly, those struggles have coincided with Hopkins’ absence. This season, when Hopkins is on the field, Murray has a 131.0 passer rating when blitzed. When he’s off the field, Murray has an 83.9 passer rating.

So, what can Murray do to combat the blitz? The obvious and traditional answer is to get the ball out quickly to beat the pressure. And while it sounds simple, it’s also been what Murray does best against the blitz.

When Murray releases the ball in 2.5 seconds or fewer against the blitz, he completes 76.4% of his passes and has a passer rating of 120, both top-five numbers in the NFL. When he takes more than 2.5 seconds, those numbers fall to 105.1 and 52%. Check out this play in which Murray recognizes a blitz and, 2.4 seconds after receiving the snap, lofts a perfect pass to Christian Kirk.

Arizona’s offensive line has been relatively average this season by most pass-blocking metrics, and Murray can help out a lot by being decisive and accurate when Dallas brings blitzes. It’s easier said than done, of course — Dan Quinn’s well-designed blitz schemes have confused offenses all year — but if Arizona is to get back on track, it will need its star quarterback at his best.

When the Cowboys have the ball…

How does Dak Prescott fare against the Cover-3 look? The Cardinals play Cover-3 (a scheme in which three defenders cover the deep thirds of the field and four defenders cover the underneath zones) on 39% of opponents’ dropbacks, the seventh-highest rate in the league this season.

Prescott has had really good moments and really bad moments against this look. For example, here’s an inexplicable pick-six from earlier this month:

And here’s a perfect throw against that same coverage earlier in the season:

For what it’s worth, Prescott has been very good against Cover-3 the last two weeks, completing 22 of 26 passes (84.6%) for 212 yards. However, he’s also taken four sacks when facing Cover-3 the last two weeks. He had only taken two sacks when facing Cover-3 prior to that stretch this season.

One thing that has helped Prescott against the Cover-3 is sending players in motion. In the above touchdown to Amari Cooper, Cooper had been in motion prior to the snap. Same with Cedrick Wilson on this 51-yard completion on Thanksgiving. Overall, Prescott has a 98.6 passer rating versus Cover-3 when there’s pre-snap motion compared to 85.3 when there’s not.

Another thing working in Prescott’s favor is that the Cardinals really struggle to create pressure out of Cover-3 looks: Their 21.3% pressure rate on those plays is the worst in the NFL. Should he have time to work the ball downfield, Prescott ought to continue his strong play against Cover-3 looks as Dallas hopes to run its winning streak to five straight.

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