Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Cowboys

Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Cowboys
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

We have received some questions this season about how we pick the games we review in this column. Sometimes we analyze the only upset we can find on the docket. Sometimes it's a matter of the interest to the reader; we don't think most of you want to read about a Josh McCown-Ryan Fitzpatrick duel. And, after a highly unscientific Twitter poll, it turned out we were right:

So, wow, that was a lot of people interested in C.J. Beathard heroics. But for the record, Atlanta's win over the Cowboys was not an upset in Las Vegas, where the Falcons were favored by 3. It was an upset in the eyes of the DVOA machine, which believed Dallas should have been a slight favorite. (The FO premium picks, accounting for the Elliott suspension, picked Atlanta to win but Dallas to cover.)

Now, I know you all come into this thinking "let's watch the Chaz Green snuff tape!" And we'll get there, don't worry. But it's also worth pointing out that the Dallas defense lost Sean Lee in the middle of this game. Sean Lee is a good linebacker, but his absence is particularly a bad thing for this Cowboys defense because the main backup, former second-round pick Jaylon Smith, hasn't been the same player he was in college yet.

Through Week 10, Smith had already missed six tackles according to Sports Info Solutions' charting. He had also seen his role reduced steadily since Week 4, all the way down to playing only 17 snaps in each of the last two weeks. Smith just isn't particularly fast right now, and his presence for 77 percent of the snaps in this game was a big problem for the Cowboys.

Here's how this looks for the Cowboys with and without Lee this year, using Weeks 4, 5, and 10 as the ones where Lee has missed significant time:

2017 Dallas Defensive DVOA with and Without Sean Lee

Without Lee With Lee
Overall DVOA 14.2% 3.2%
Pass D DVOA 25.6% 7.0%
Run D DVOA 1.6% -3.3%

Those numbers should come as no surprise. Lee's health has been a factor for the Cowboys for years. Dallas finished 22nd in defensive DVOA in 2014, when Lee missed the entire season. They have never been below that mark since.

The Dallas media is talking about Lee missing multiple weeks, including next week's big Sunday Night game against the Eagles, with this hamstring injury. The Cowboys have already put themselves in a precarious situation to make the playoffs. This will not help.

Where the Game Swung

By Pro Football Reference's win percentage calculator, the last time Dallas had a higher chance to win the game than Atlanta was towards the end of the second quarter.

On third-and-9 from the Dallas 42, Dak Prescott ate a sack from Dontari Poe. This brought the punt unit out at midfield. After a first-down run by Taylor Gabriel went nowhere, the Falcons had second-and-10 on the Atlanta 32. Tevin Coleman, playing increased snaps due to a concussion to Devonta Freeman, then ran 19 yards on second-and-10. Referees tacked on an additional 15-yard penalty to last line of defense Jeff Heath, for a face mask.

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This was the play that flipped the field for real. Notice Smith (54) getting entirely caught up in the trash here. Atlanta would finish the drive with a Coleman rushing touchdown after the two-minute warning. Dallas mounted a comeback drive, but was thwarted in Atlanta territory when Prescott was strip-sacked by Adrian Clayborn.

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This would not be the only time that this happened in this game. No, the sacks would be a precursor to a second half of destruction still to come...


DAL -32.9% 2.6% -3.6% -39.1%
ATL 7.5% -33.4% 1.5% 42.4%
DAL -25.3% 11.5% -3.6% -40.4%
ATL 12.4% -22.5% 1.5% 36.4%

What to take away from this? Don't let the 28 points fool you -- Atlanta's offense is still working its way through the Steve Sarkisian era. Yes, they were missing Freeman, but we saw last year what this offense's ceiling was, and these performances have been far from it.

Atlanta needs to get back some of the pre-snap reads they integrated through Shanahan's offense last year. Ryan thrived on those.

Questionable Coaching Decision of the Week

As we have teased a few times, Cowboys lineman Chaz Green, a 2015 third-round pick, was forced to play left tackle in this game because of an injury to Tyron Smith. Let's see how much help Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett gave their backup as they gradually discovered he was giving up sacks left and right to Clayborn. You already have seen one of them above.

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Well this was more of a coverage sack, so the tide is turning...

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Well I...

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Surely they can't...

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Oh they can. Notice how many of those sacks are all about hand usage, too.

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The best coaches put their players in positions to succeed. Failing that, another good coaching trait is the ability to adjust in-game. Perhaps the head coach wasn't initially prepared for the defense to be able to exploit one tackle so much, but now the evidence is clear that the tactic of leaving him out there on his own simply won't work.

This was coaching malpractice on the part of whomever you want to blame it on. Green was schooled early and often, and it was the biggest reason that the Cowboys -- a methodical offense in ideal situations -- could never finish a drive.

Prescott finished taking eight sacks for 50 yards. He was under duress for the entirety of the game. Clayborn, who had more than six sacks in a season once in his career, finished the day with six of the eight.

Put your players in a position where they can win.


7 comments, Last at 15 Nov 2017, 6:59pm

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Cowboys

It's interesting that it's only the last one where it seems that tactically Dallas could have chipped or helped on Clayborn without difficulty.

On one of them, the RT busts too, so Prescott was picking his poison. On another, Atlanta looks to be in a wide-9 so the TE can't chip him and the RB has to block a free rusher coming from elsewhere.

Green got beat, and badly, but it also seems like Atlanta schemed to maximize that mismatch pretty well.

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Cowboys

Seeing all those in a row it's just amazing that they're almost all just a simple speed rush around Green's left shoulder. Over and over and over.

Belichick's genius as a coach can't really be boiled down to seeing that something isn't working, so doing something different, but that's obviously a big part of it. He adjusts based on opponent and situation, and this here game was basically a clear example that lots of other coaches just don't bother to do that. Ugh.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Falcons Over Cowboys

This game was hard to watch as a Cowboys fan and a Dak Prescott fan. It didn't help that this happened in the first game without Zeke as it is just fueling the "Dak isn't actually good, he is just surrounded by a great offense" narrative.