Dak Prescott is under fire from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Kirk Cousins is leading the Minnesota Vikings into the basement. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is helping the Kansas City Chiefs but might be hurting your fantasy team. And only a pandemic can stop the Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rush duo of Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. In our NFL Stats That Matter Week 4 edition, we have collected all the numbers you need to be better informed than the typical NFL owner. Though, that’s not saying much.
NFL Stats That Matter, Week 4: Dak Prescott and his struggles on third down
Maybe Jerry Jones ripped Dak Prescott’s ability to make big plays in crunch time on Dallas sports-talk radio. Maybe his remarks were taken wildly out-of-context. Maybe Jerry shouldn’t have a weekly radio show if he cannot control the messages he sends about his most important players (Ding! Ding! Ding!).
Either way, Prescott’s performance in high-leverage situations is worth examining: He leads the NFL with 1,188 yards through three games of the 2020 season, but the 1-2 Cowboys keep falling short, and Prescott really has been at least part of the problem.
Here are Prescott’s third/fourth down numbers for 2020: 32 attempts, 16 completions, 225 yards, zero TDs, one interception, two sacks, and 12 conversions for first downs. Prescott is tied for 29th in the NFL in third-down completion percentage with Sam Darnold and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He ranks 28th in third-down efficiency rating (60.0) behind Carson Wentz (61.3), who is having a miserable year by all accounts, and Mitch Trubisky (63.7), who was just benched.
Here’s a big concern within those third-down splits: With 4-to-9 yards to go, Prescott is 11-of-20, with just 10 conversions but two sacks. Those are manageable down-and-distance situations where a top quarterback’s conversion rate should be higher.
As for “clutch” situations, here are Prescott’s stats in the fourth quarter when the game is within eight points: 40 attempts, 24 completions, 219 yards, one TD, one INT, and two sacks. Prescott leads the league in late-and-close pass attempts, which makes sense after three down-to-the-wire shootouts. His completion rate (60%) ranks 13th in the NFL and his efficiency rating ranks 16th (72.8): respectable numbers that don’t deserve criticism from talk-radio cranks (even if they own the team), but not upper-tier results.
So Dak stinks, right? Sure, Jersey Joe, run with that straight to the Eagles and Giants message boards. In reality, the Cowboys offense isn’t executing at peak efficiency, and the problem goes beyond early-game turnovers. Mike McCarthy’s mysterious decisions (weird play calls against the Rams, giving CeeDee Lamb a fourth-quarter breather against the Seahawks) have something to do with it. Falling behind every week has a lot to do with it. But Prescott also has a little room for improvement.
Kirk Cousins Stats That Matter
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has earned a reputation as a competent game manager who is grossly overpaid and overrated by coaches and general managers who want nothing more than a quarterback who arrives early for meetings, knows the playbook, and has a tight haircut. But so far in 2020, Cousins hasn’t even been a competent game manager. In fact, he has been one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks, though he has tried to hide it by posting impressive statistics at the ends of blowouts.
Here are Cousins’ stats through the first three-quarters of games so far in 2020: 51 attempts, 25 completions, 376 yards, two TDs, five interceptions, five sacks, and two safeties. It’s unusual to include “safeties” in a quarterback’s stat line, but most quarterbacks lack Cousins’ gift for getting strip-sacked in the end zone. Cousins’ 49.0% completion rate through three quarters ranks dead last in the NFL. His efficiency rating of 47.1 through three quarters also ranks last, below Sam Darnold (61.5) and Daniel Jones (63.3).
The Vikings’ average time of possession in 2020 is just 22:56 per game, largely because their offense goes three-and-out (or two-and-turnover) so often. The Vikings offense is supposed to be built around RB Dalvin Cook and ball control. Cook has been great. Cousins is the one who cannot control the ball.
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Once the Vikings are getting blown out and the defense is backing off, Cousins becomes a whole new quarterback. Here are his stats when the Vikings are trailing by 16-plus points in 2020: 21 attempts, 18 completions, 174 yards, two TDs, zero INTs, one sack, and a rating of 147.4 (efficiency rating, a weak metric to begin with, is almost useless for samples this small, but we’re listing it for consistency). Cousins can pick apart a prevent defense with the best of them. Of course, that’s something every veteran quarterback should be able to do.
We know how this story ends: Cousins has a lukewarm midseason hot streak, puts up better numbers against some weak opponents, finishes the year with middle-of-the-pack statistics, and signs a $130-trillion extension. But so far this season, he has been as bad as a young prospect on the skids like Darnold or Jones. And at least those guys don’t make much money and still have a chance to get better.
Clyde Edwards Helaire off to a hot start for the Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is off to a fine start in 2020: He ranks fifth in the NFL with 240 rushing yards, plus 11 catches for 102 yards. But, Edwards-Helaire has scored just one touchdown, and he got stuffed at the goal line several times in the Chiefs season opener. Edwards is destined to be a heckuva running back. But will he turn out to be fantasy poison?
Edwards-Helaire is tied with Cam Newton for sixth in the NFL with 12 red zone carries for 29 yards. But zoom in closer to the goal line and Edwards-Helaire has rushed six times for negative two yards. He rushed five times from the one or two-yard line this season for “gains” of 0, 0, -1, -1, and -2 yards.
Now, the best minds in analytics and fantasy football have been studying goal-line carries for over a decade, and the results are clear: There is no such thing as a good or bad “short-yardage back.” Small running backs are as effective as big ones near the goal line, and rookies often out-perform veterans. Goal-line legends like LaDainian Tomlinson succeeded because they were given hundreds of opportunities throughout their careers. Those opportunities are what matters: If the coach trusts a back to punch it in from the one-yard line, he will keep getting chances, and that will lead to touchdowns.
Edwards-Helaire earned 10 red zone carries in Week 1 against the Texans, but just one carry against the Chargers and two against the Ravens. But that doesn’t mean he has lost his role: Patrick Mahomes is the only other Chiefs player with red-zone rushes so far. The Chiefs weren’t in the red zone much against the Chargers (off day) or Ravens (long touchdowns), and they leaned on Mahomes’ arm when they were in scoring position. And that makes sense because he’s Mahomes.
The only factor which might keep Edwards-Helaire from being an elite fantasy producer is the fact that there are only so many footballs to go around in Kansas City. But he’s a big reason why it looks like Mahomes and Chiefs are on the inside track for a return to the Super Bowl. And he’ll eventually punch in a few short touchdowns as well.
Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt Stats That Matter
Due to a postponement, we won’t be watching the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. And we will definitely see them again someday. When we do see them again, watch out for Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, by far the NFL’s best pass-rushing duo in 2020.
Dupree and Watt are tied for the NFL lead with 18 pass pressures each. They are also tied for the league lead with 12 quarterback hits each. Think about it: two guys, four wallops on the quarterback each through three games.
Dupree leads the NFL with 13 hurries. Watt is tied with Cameron Heyward (more Steelers!) and Shaq Barrett for third with 10 hurries (Aaron Donald has 11). Add all those pressures and hurries together and the Steelers pressure opposing quarterbacks on an amazing 65.1% of passing plays, the league’s highest rate by a wide margin.
The Titans are better at protecting their quarterback than the New York Giants, Denver Broncos or Houston Texans are, though left tackle Taylor Lewan’s likely absence (shoulder) will be a problem if these teams do play soon. The Steelers will face the Philadelphia Eagles (entire offense in shambles) and Cleveland Browns (great running game, wobbly passing game) in Weeks 5 and 6. Dupree and Watt will get plenty more chances to hunt in the early season.
Oh, and all of the disruption caused by Dupree, Watt, Heyward, and others has an impact on the Steelers’ run defense as well. Vince Williams leads the NFL with eight tackles for losses on running plays. Williams is a fine player, but it helps that there is sometimes no one left to block him.