Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The League's Worst Blitzing Defense

One important issue we attempt to address in this blog space is the idea that not everything we hear and think we know about football is able to be seen in the numbers.

As it pertains to Cowboys defense, I would point no further back than last December when the Cowboys - known for poor Decembers - had one of the worst final months of the season in memory.

So, in something I just reviewed for our "13 Rewind" series, the Chicago game came along.  Where for another week, the Cowboys got to play an opponent without their starting QB (this was a major theme in 2013 during the final half of the season) and for another week were absolutely skewered by their inability to stop them.

This time, it was 490 yards surrendered to the Bears (celebrate: not 500!) and their backup QB Josh McCown who later signed a fantastic contract with Tampa Bay, partly thanks to this evening.

If you are a bit fuzzy on what happened next, it was a most bizarre week of panic and spin coming from on high at Valley Ranch.  The team's owner and general manager made one of his many weekly media appearances to show his grasp on the situation.  It was, as usual, incredible.  He sounded like the dude on the next bar stool over:
“We just need to take more risks,” Jones said. “In a more conservative approach like Monday, the results are going to be the same, so we might as well try to somehow get more turnovers.”
Logical football observational analysis has told us for decades that if the QB has too much time, we must blitz.  Then, when we blitz, good things happen.  So, take a bad defense and blitz more, and presto!  Improvements, right?

Unless, you follow (or run!) the Dallas Cowboys.  Then, you should know that the 2013 Dallas Cowboys were the WORST STATISTICAL BLITZING TEAM IN THE RECORDED HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.

That is right, they surrendered an unheard of and obscene QB rating when blitzing of 117.5 which makes them tied for worst all time with the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles.  But, since they were tied on rating, I figured the tie-breaker for such a dubious distinction had to be that the 2013 Cowboys decided to blitz nearly 50 more times than the 2012 Eagles.  This should tell you that in the final season of Andy Reid, at least the Eagles figured out their were awful at this and stopped doing it.  Not the Cowboys, though.  Dallas blitzed more and more as the season went along.  It is as if they did not have internet access at Valley Ranch and were not aware of how poor they were at it - even though they were over 30 points worse than the league average of 85.7 QB Rating against the blitz.

But, the GM and his coaches still decided that the best way to improve a lousy situation was to make it worse?  This is one of the most confusing discussions about Cowboys football 2013.  Here is the blitzing by week from a defensive staff that traditionally doesn't blitz (you know, because they don't believe in it).  

One of the pillars of the Tampa 2 defense is based on a pass rush that can be generated with just 4 rush men getting home.  From there, you have 7 in coverage and can do a number of exotic things in coverage, because you are defending the field with volume.  The zone/man hybrid options are endless, and more than anything, it speaks to the idea that if you don't have world class safeties cleaning up all of the messes in the secondary, you are better off try to use more men to cover than to rush.

Does this lead to a QB having all day to pick you apart?  Well, yes, that can happen.  But, what happens just as much or more is a coverage sack because there is nowhere to throw and you allow your rushers that extra second to get home because he couldn't find his man.

Now, I can definitely understand why this might be a controversial stance, because it isn't like the Cowboys were great when they weren't blitzing.  In fact, if you have read the piece from the Weekend when we reviewed their place in the rankings, you know that they were pretty bad against the league QB's regardless of what defense they were in.  This, cries out for addressing your personnel in the offseason to fix this defense, not tinkering with the scheme, by the way.  

But, overall, the defense is only 12% worse than league average.  But, when they blitz?  37% worse than league average.  I feel like we need the kids sitting around the table in the commercial to ask which is better, 12% or 37%?

Now, admittedly, we are talking about shades of grey as it pertains to how much worse are the Cowboys than league average?  We all aspire to a day when we are talking about topics in which they are much better than the league and choosing from great choices.  But, that is why on draft day, we wonder about the wisdom of throwing more resources at the offensive line when Calvin Pryor and every other safety in a deep safety draft is on the board when the Cowboys pick.  

Could the Cowboys have internal solutions to this issue?  We are led to believe that JJ Wilcox has made great strides, but we will remain unconvinced until it is proven on Sundays.  

Incidentally, if you remain unconvinced about the Cowboys and the blitz, I took the liberty to run the numbers for the last 4 years combined (the Jason Garrett era).  They weren't just dead last in 2013.  This would remove the scheme/coordinator issues and pretty much focus on the idea that the Cowboys don't pay safeties since the Roy Williams experience burned them so badly.  If there is a position on the roster that they have tried to get by with retreads, unknowns, and bargains, it would seem to be safety in the post Williams/Woodson world.  

Well, here are the 2010-2013 NFL rankings for blitzing the opponents:

Rank Team Attempts Opp Pass Rating
32. Dallas 620 107.3
31. Jacksonville 519 95.6
30. New England 590 91.9
29. Oakland 742 91.9
28. Minnesota 555 91.5
27. Detroit 421 90.1
3. Tennessee 644 73.7
2. Seattle 608 72.9
1. Chicago 556 68.4

There is a lot to look at here.  First, on the list of bad blitzing teams, somehow the Cowboys do it more than all of them (most by a large margin) but Oakland.  Ah yes, Oakland also seems like a team that might not run the numbers very often.

Meanwhile, there is Chicago as the very best team in using the blitz.  The team that the Cowboys are attempting to replicate with scheme and coach.  Should we note that they are doing way better in results while blitzing way less frequently?

As we have always said, blitzing as a luxury is a great weapon.  Blitzing as a necessity will get you destroyed.  And with a very impressive margin between the Cowboys and the next worst team, it is safe to say they have been destroyed.  

'13 Rewind: Week 13 - Annihilated On Monday Night

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

Here is the Morning after the Morning After in Chicago:

December 11, 2013

The defense betrayed the Cowboys on Monday night in Chicago at levels that on one hand seem historic for their absurdities, and on the other hand resemble exactly the level of sub-standard play that we saw in New Orleans, Detroit, and of course, against Denver.  

If we consider 360 yards to be a normal day and 400 yards to be a great day, then 475 is off the charts, right?  Well, with the Bears going for 490, this is the 6th time in 2013 that the team has allowed at least 475, or just as many times as the franchise had allowed 475+ from 2006-2012 combined.  

Now, we can go on and on about how Monte Kiffin has allowed the sport to pass him by (which is the easy narrative for those coaches with too much gray, but often times is unfair), or we can go on and on about the injuries that have made this defense implode yet again.  Instead, I choose to look at the bigger picture which has been written about year after year in this space.  

This team fails in December for one primary and simple reason: The roster doesn't contain the quality personnel that is required to sustain the assaults of a 16-game campaign in the NFL. 
Think about it: When does the team fail? December. In a 4-month season, which month would best reveal your depth and quality down the roster that can compensate for fatigue and injuries? December. The truth is that the Cowboys have enough talent on the top of their roster to compete with some of the best teams in the league. Romo, Ware, Witten, Austin, Ratliff are a very solid "Top 5". Bryant, Lee, Murray, Smith, and Jenkins are a reasonable 6-10 on a roster. But, then the drop-off begins on the roster. And if the season was just 8-10 games long, they would likely be able to hang in there. Any Cowboys historian will confirm that the team certainly gets to Thanksgiving in great shape nearly every season. So, what changes? Is it really that turning the calendar to the month of December is what makes a magical spell fall over Romo and the team where they can no longer compete? 
Good teams in the NFL have quality from 1-10, but also from 11-53, too. When fatigue strikes Jay Ratliff, they have a player behind him who can bridge the gap. If Ware is being double-teamed, someone else can rise up. When the line is under siege, a solid veteran can do a reasonable job and protect his QB. The good teams have enough quality on their roster that they can construct a solid team effort for the regular season. Sure, they count on their stars to perform, but beyond that, there are starters and reserves that never find a magazine cover that do their job admirably. 
And then I spent a paragraph 2 years ago on the defense.  Just take out Rob Ryan's name and put in Monte Kiffin's if you want to enjoy the irony of this all:

And, then there is the defense. A change of coordinators and schemes disguised the truth for a period of time. But in the end, we see the truth again: The personnel on the defense has some top-side talent (Ware, Ratliff, and Lee) but not enough to compensate for a unit that has weaknesses in many other spots. Putting tape on a shot-gun wound will cause many to blame Rob Ryan, but I would love to see what coordinator could make sense of what he was given. No offseason. No upgrades. No help from the draft. No expenditures. Just take the worst defense in franchise history and fix it with your magical formula. Good luck, Rob. 

Yes, that is right.  2010 was the worst defense in franchise history.  Then, in 2011, the defense and offensive lines were exposed late due to the players who were left because of the "injury epidemic" that hit.

Here is a passage from what I spent time on after the 2012 season.  The theme is to fortify your defense so that you are not relying on "street free agents" late in the year ever again:

Remember that in 2012, the Dallas Cowboys signed an exceedingly troubling number of street free agents and inserted many of them directly into their lineup.  Charlie Peprah, Ernie Sims, Vince Agnew, Sterling Moore, and Brady Poppinga were all players who were completely unemployed in pro football who were all signed and put on the field by the Cowboys because of their lack of depth.  All teams have injuries, but when you are putting street free agents into your lineup, that speaks loudly that you have not fortified your roster with capable backups who are ready for an opportunity.  The object of the offseason is to find players who can be proper backups and play when called upon.  Then, you have practice squad call-ups replace injured players, not veterans who are out of work being pulled in during November.  It is both cost-effective and football smart, to only draw from your own organization for your needs that arise.  Then, you don't have to cram a playbook into their head and teach them your system.  You also don't have to pay veteran minimums and bypass your own talent. 
Feel free to insert the names of Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Everette Brown, Corvey Irvin, and Jarius Wynn if you would like up there on the list of this year's street free agents.  Everette Brown was actually opening up a yogurt store when the Cowboys called.  I admire the business plan, but this speaks to the real issues of organizational depth.

Wait a minute.  I thought this year had a historic number of injuries.  But, after 2010, 2011, and 2012, we wrote the same things about the coordinator, the injuries, and the street free agents?

Actually, if you consider the absurdity of Jerry Jones telling us all in April about how his defensive line is a position of strength, then you see how the miscalculations of the season are just more of the same.

Jones said, “In no way do I think [Jay] Ratliff has injury issues. He did last year but that was pretty unique. I think [DeMarcus] Ware’s an exception. Spencer and these guys are young 30-year-olds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m interested in long term but I’m real interested in what’s happening in the next 24-36 months. That’s really what you ought to be looking at.”
We feel like defensive line is a position of strength for us
That quote is from the April 26 edition of the Dallas Morning News and in about 15 seconds he said that Jay Ratliff has no injury issues, and that the defensive line is a position of strength.  Then, to prove it wasn't rhetoric, they used exactly 0 picks on strengthening a defensive line that we all knew was a position of considerable weakness given their poor play in 2012 and the fact that the entire new scheme was predicated on getting consistent pass rushes from your front 4.  If you do not get consistent pass rushes with your front 4, then even Kiffin will tell you that his scheme does not fit well.

This is all why I have a hard time forgetting the past when looking at the present.  It is dangerous in my business to assume that because things are always a certain way, then that must mean that things will never change.  I have said here a number of times that I do believe the Cowboys are in a much better space personnel-wise than they were a few seasons back.  I thought the combination of Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips set this franchise back a long, long ways.  The new combination of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett is better, and in some ways much better.  But, that doesn't mean that things are fixed or that things are going to get fixed.

It simply means that to turn all of our angst to Monte Kiffin is to forget about 2010, 2011, and 2012 and to fall for the shell game of Cowboys football.  Each year, they promise to serve you up a new victim to get mad at and therefore we can continue to address the symptoms but never the disease.

Kiffin this year.  Rob Ryan last year.  Rob Ryan's scheme the year before.  But never the actual issues which continue to be paying for wasteful drafts, horrible "all your eggs in 1 basket" trade ideas (I am looking at you, Roy Williams, and you, Morris Claiborne) and salary cap mismanagement that leaves this team with a 1-deep depth chart and roster when the powers in the league seem to have a 2-deep.

Then, we can get mad again at Jason Garrett and Tony Romo and Monte Kiffin and Jeff Heath for why this team is where it is - which is getting humiliated on national TV again.

I was planning on writing today about how the offense is getting off too easily in this particular chapter of Cowboys football.  For yet another year, the offense has enjoyed decent health and with the depth they received from nearly monopolizing the entire 2013 draft, they have had more than enough weapons to not have convenient excuses ready.  And that is why I must tell you that I don't share many's opinion about the offense not needing to absorb some blame for their role in this.

I promise I have talked to too many Cowboys fans who have told me "we scored 28 in Chicago, that should be good enough to win a game!"

Please.  The offense scored 28 on technicalities which include 14 meaningless points in the 4th Quarter where both teams just wanted to get out of town.  They were down 42-14 and while the defense was doing no favors, the offense had 7 drives in the first 3 Quarters (when the game was actually a game) and only 2 of them went anywhere and possessed the ball for more than 2:03.  So, if your defense can't get a stop and can't catch their breath, the worst thing the offense can possibly do is throw 3 straight incompletions and send the tired and thin defense right back on the field.  29 minutes of possession for Chicago and 16 minutes for the Cowboys demonstrates that the offense is doing the defense no favors whatsoever.

And, then, in a fantasy football world where Tony Romo threw for 3 Touchdowns and a passer rating of 109, it is easy to think he played well enough to win.  But, I would heartily disagree with those sentiments as well.  He passed for 95 yards before the Cowboys were down 42-14 and could not afford to miss on throws in a few key spots including a crucial miss to Dez Bryant on a 3rd Down where points can cut the lead to 27-21 late in the 3rd Quarter.

Remember those yardage totals up at the top of the page?  400 is a great day, 360 is about average, and anything less than 325 is a failure?  The Cowboys' offense has 1 day of 400 yards this season (Denver) and 3 games of 360 (Denver, Rams, and at Eagles).  Dallas amassed 328 yards of offense in Chicago after Kyle Orton tacked on 75 yards to what was barely 250 with 4 minutes to go, and the other sub 325 yard games?  At Kansas City, At San Diego, at New York, at Detroit, Washington and At New Orleans.  Sense a trend here?

This team is built with smoke and mirrors on large parts of their defense, and huge money at QB, WR, and TE, with many premium picks all around.  They were supposed to be led by their offense with opportunistic defensive turnover moments that puts them in a position to win.

And yet, they put 2 drives out of 6 (the 7th was a knee at halftime) on the board and barely 250 yards against a poor and battered Chicago defense and people want to say the offense is blameless?  Let's be serious.

To whom much is given, much is to be expected, and the Cowboys offense has been given everything and their production has been unacceptable and that needs to change post haste.  The good news is they are much better at home.  And they can play 3 of their next 4 in Arlington if they keep winning.  The bad news is that eventually, they are going to have to go on the road again and it will be cold and windy and the offense looks hopeless in those situations, but let us all be so lucky as to have to worry about a January trip to Seattle.

This column feels like an obituary, but the news is still good.  The Cowboys are at 7-6 and I still feel like 9-7 wins the division.  I think they will win the NFC East by just winning their final 2 home games and that would have to be considered a successful year from just about any angle.  Get in the playoffs and give yourself a home game and a chance.

But, for this franchise to move forward, they are going to have to stop kidding themselves and address a roster that still lacks for real depth and sustainability as games 11-16 reveal your true ability to survive attrition.

And that requires leadership at the top of the organization to stop playing shell games and start being honest with the man in the mirror or we can do this same nonsensical exercise in 2014.

I know which of those two scenarios seems more likely to me.


Decoding Callahan - Week 13 - Fullback, 3rd Downs, and Protection Issues

Kiffin Report - Week 13 - Jerry wants blitzes, but the Cowboys can't blitz!

Tomorrow, the historic collapse to Green Bay.

Monday, August 18, 2014

'13 Rewind: Week 12 - Thanksgiving Feast of Raiders

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

The Morning After Report after the Demolition of Oakland:

November 29, 2013

Luckily, for all involved from the Dallas perspective, these NFL games are 60 minutes long.  And therefore any catastrophes that occur on the first play or even the first half can be sustained, recovered from, and erased.

Dallas, a team that was challenged from the opening snap by an Oakland side that doesn't see the national stage very often, weathered the early storm, made their adjustments, and in last 32 minutes of the game outscored and outplayed their opponent to the tune of 24-3 and ground out their 7th win of the year.

It certainly tested the patience of the home crowd and helped perpetuate the mythical power of blue jerseys, but to deposit their 2nd win in 5 days and to appear to get through the stretch with most body parts in useable conditions is just what the doctor ordered to preserve hopes and dreams of a divisional title, a home playoff game, and even a 10-win season.

Adjustments, though, certainly needed to be made on both sides of the ball.  As we expected, the Cowboys would respond to the New York Giants running the ball at will for a huge chunk of yardage by sneaking an extra safety up to stop the run.  And, for the most part, the Cowboys answered their Sunday failings by plugging all holes in the run game and really taking away the biggest strength of a Raiders team and the biggest weakness of Dallas, simultaneously.

So, stopping the run by bringing up a safety works better against Oakland than it does against New York is what the conventional wisdom would tell us about Eli Manning versus Matt McGloin.  After all, one has 2 Super Bowl victories to his credit and the other is Matt McGloin.  And, the effects on Sunday are unknown, because no matter how many yards the Giants were running for, the Cowboys were going to stubbornly keep the safeties deep because the scoreboard agreed with them.

In this case, though, the respect for the QB was not going to come without proof, and to McGloin's credit, once the Cowboys brought up Barry Church and Jeff Heath to challenge the run early, the young Penn State QB was able to mount some impressive drives through the air.  The Cowboys showed all sorts of blitz looks with aggressive play to try to carry the game to the Raiders inexperienced QB, and for almost a half of football, he stood in tall and held his own.  Using receivers who were locked in tight man to man for quite a while, the Raiders were able to win enough battles to frustrate the veteran Cowboys secondary with guys who did not have very long resumes.

The best example is Raiders WR Andre Holmes, who Cowboys' fans recognize as one of the flashy names from Cowboys' camps past.  In 2011 and 2012, Dallas wanted Andre Holmes to establish himself on their roster badly.  I remember talking to scouts at those camps who saw his capabilities with his rare combination of size and speed.  But, where did he fit?  Could he play enough special teams to earn a spot, or was he going to be a guy who could only play on the offense.  And if that is the case, how would he fit with the personnel they had on hand (ultimately, they decided that Cole Beasley filled a vacancy much better because Beasley could play in the slot while Holmes was a lesser need as an outside guy who would not play as long as Dez Bryant was available)?  He always showed flashes, but Oakland is starting to realize his abilities by lining him up outside after the Cowboys cut him loose.

Holmes caught 7 balls on 11 targets for 136 yards and thoroughly frustrated the Cowboys corners - most notably Brandon Carr for the entire 1st half before the Cowboys started seizing the game on both sides of the ball and tightening up coverage all the more.  Holmes got loose because of a botched coverage in the 4th Quarter for 35 yards, but that would prove to be the only play of significance in the entire 2nd half against the Cowboys defense who was certainly the beneficiary of the offense driving the ball and keeping the defense rested and ready on the sideline after too many Sundays of playing way too long.  After that big gain to Holmes who was wide open across the field, Carr secured a massive interception in the end zone as the Raiders curiously tried a fade to the speedy, but diminutive Jacoby Ford rather than Holmes who looks likely to win any jump ball competition.  Drive extinguished, and from a defensive standpoint, game over.

It appeared that the Cowboys found a better balance with coverages and safety depth in the 2nd half to challenge the run properly while giving enough attention to throws over the top, and adjustments were also the order of the day for when the offense had the ball.

And that is where our conversation about the Cowboys offense begins.  Because their day was similar in the pattern that they took a while to figure some things out, and needed to show either some flexibility with the initial game plan or simply some persistence.  That is because the Raiders planned on doing what others have done against Tony Romo and the offense - and that is to test with the blitz on a regular basis.  The one subtle difference, however, that the Raiders presented that took time for acclimation, was that the Raiders seemed more than willing to send blitzes from literally every direction.  Linebackers would blitz, and so would safeties, and even corners.  We will study the film over the weekend, but I am reasonably sure that the Raiders brought more cornerback blitzes than any Cowboys opponent in 2013.

Blitzing liberally against the Cowboys is perhaps the biggest achilles heel over the recent past, and while it is a tightrope that can suffer a painful death, if you are an underdog who is already out of the playoff mix, why wouldn't you take a home run swing at the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and see what happens?  The Raiders blitzed on 6 of Romo's first 8 passes, and effectively chased the Cowboys out of their play-action game after a sack and 3 frustrating drives to start the game.  Not only that, but the Cowboys run game was running right into these blitzes, and after 5 carries they found just 5 yards total, and at halftime, it was 7 carries for 12 yards.  12 personnel was getting pounded and the balance of the running game was simply stopping down more drives and getting the team and yes, the fans, annoyed.

We have seen this happen so many times, that I was pretty sure the next move, which in the past has been to rip up the game-plan and throw it in the trash, run the 2-minute offense for the rest of the game and pray that Romo can beat the blitz enough times to get out of the game alive.  And yes, the 2-minute drill before halftime was vital with a seam pass to Jason Witten for 22 yards and a slant to Dez Bryant for 25 more to convert a key 3rd Down before DeMarco Murray waltzed in to make the halftime score a manageable 21-14, Oakland.

But, to the Cowboys credit, the adjustment was less noticeable to the average viewer, but large enough to the strategy of the game, where the Cowboys took the "12 personnel package" and put it on the sideline.  They decided to go almost exclusively "11 personnel" for the next several drives and ran their balance by pushing the Raiders into nickel personnel and then running "11" from under center and giving the ball to Lance Dunbar and DeMarco Murray against a lighter defense.  It may not seem like much, but when the Raiders have only 6 bigs on the field, there is more space to run, and the zone stretch plays really started humming, thanks to some dominating zone blocking from the interior of the Cowboys line, with Travis Frederick looking the most impressive, but his guards, Ron Leary and MacKenzy Bernadeau both looked strong moving forward.  The combo blocks at the point of attack pushed the guards to the 2nd level to pick off linebackers and before you know it, Dunbar and Murray were running all over the place in the 3rd and 4th Quarters.

This adjustment found the ever-elusive balance that everyone dreams of.  On the drive that ended with the game tied at 21-21 on Dez Bryant's back shoulder fade Touchdown over Mike Jenkins, the Cowboys had a 10 play drive with 4 runs/6 passes and positive yardage on every snap.

The next drive, which ended on yet another DeMarco Murray Touchdown run of 7 yards, it was a 9 play drive with 6 runs and 3 passes, both drives all with 11 personnel, and almost no personnel changes other than Dunbar and Murray spelling each other.

This may not be the recipe every week, because the play-action game of Sunday is something that was seldom used on Thursday, but using 11 personnel moving forward from shotgun and more notably, under center is an interesting option now, especially with Miles Austin back in the arsenal.  Basically, the weapons they have at wide receiver are far more potent at this juncture than Gavin Escobar or James Hanna have proven to be.  12 personnel brings out another "big" defender, which at the moment seems to accomplish little tactically, and clogs up the running game with less space to find a crease in the defense.

Regardless, the offense looked as confident and as in control as they have looked in a really long time on Thursday.  They converted 3rd Downs and nicely looked for Oakland to pick their poison and then attacked the weak spot.  It wasn't immediate on Thanksgiving, but the systematic dismantling of their opponent over the course of 4 Quarters speaks to things starting to fall into place as they head down the stretch.

Not all opponents are going to have a roster that is as unremarkable as the Raiders, but with games remaining against teams that may have packed it in by the time of the December meeting (Green Bay and Washington), the Cowboys are now properly positioned to go grab that NFC East divisional title with a 3-1 or even a 2-2 December record.

There is plenty of work to do, but to win 5 of their last 7 (that Detroit loss really smarts) they have built some pretty valuable momentum and will likely add Sean Lee back to the defense in time to go to Chicago in 10 days time.

At this time of year, you want to be in the playoff hunt and have a reasonable level of health on your side.  It appears that as of this particular moment in the ever-changing NFL universe, the Cowboys can place a check-mark next to both of those boxes.

Cross your fingers that this continues from the start of the holiday season until the end of it.


Decoding Callahan - Week 12 - Running out of 11 Personnel

Kiffin Report - Week 12 - Turnovers link to Wins

So, 7-5 after 12 games.  What could possibly go wrong in December?

Tomorrow, the trip to Chicago....

Morning After: Checking In With The Linebackers

Now that the preseason has given us 2 games to look at with some great detail, I wanted to begin to try to envision what the coaches are looking at when they piece this team together for the actual battles that lie ahead, starting with the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1.

Clearly, the #1 offense has been one of the delights of camp.  It appears that this group has a chance to do some very nice things both on the ground and through the air.  They have versatility and strength, which should allow some major accomplishments in 2014 if they have a healthy Tony Romo.  And, to the approval of all watching on Saturday against the Ravens, Tony shifted and spun and moved in the pocket as he has been expected to do when fully healthy, and looked the part that he has been playing since 2006.  He wasn't in long and certainly did not take any direct hits, but for now, you can see signs that his health issues might not be as severe as we feared.  However, even though I was asked by a reader to apologize for my pessimistic views on his chances of playing 16 games this season, I will reserve any apologies for when he demonstrates that he can take the normal beating a starting NFL QB is expected to take from September to January.  If his back holds up, the weapons are on full display - starting with a Dez Bryant who has spent the last several weeks at camp and in these preseason games looking like an unstoppable force who will be an even better player than what we have seen to this point of his amazing career.

But, I would imagine that you did not enter training camp scared of the offense in 2014.  We all know that they have invested most of their resources into trying to build an offense that can carry this team like the other elite offenses around the league.  If there has been a premium check written (save for Brandon Carr) or premium pick used (save for Mo Claiborne) on anything in recent years around here, chances are somebody on the offense received it and we will ask them to be right there in the elite group of the NFL if this team is to have any chance at post-season play.

Now, to the somewhat neglected defense we go.  I hope you have had a chance to review our weekend piece of statistical analysis on the 2012 and 2013 defenses.  If not, it would be very helpful to fully understand the picture that is being put in the frame by clicking here and catching up on where they are in league standings as a defensive unit.  Spoiler Alert: It isn't good by any stretch whatsoever.

One interesting aspect to that study about the Cowboys decision after 2012 to change coordinators and scheme is that the principle concern about a change like that was that they had the wrong personnel to run a 4-3.  If you draft players as 3-4 players (Kyle Wilber, Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford), making them fit in the new scheme is often a major issue that some times cannot be pulled off.  But, when they made the change, they publicly announced (on several occasions) that this change is made with Carter and Lee in mind.  They were doing it because those 2 would be such perfect fits in this new scheme.

Lee looked very strong in his role in 2013, but was again sabotaged both in 2013 and in the spring of 2014 by his brittle body.  It does appear that we may never see him at his very best, just because his body does not appear fully capable of withstanding the NFL punishment that his particular position requires.  Either way, we absolutely won't see him in 2014.

Carter, on the other hand, has been a bit of a fully healthy disaster.  He has not shifted into the "Will" LB position with ease, and in fact has been picked on by opposing offenses throughout 2013.  He has been healthy, but he has also been such that we are starting to see signs that the Cowboys are so disappointed with his fit in their defense, that despite their talent deficiencies on the unit, they may be getting near the end of their rope with #54.  His contract expires at the end of 2014, and it may be another 1st or 2nd rounder when at the end of his rookie deal where he should be ready to dominate, the Cowboys might not even make him an offer to keep him around (like Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, and Martellus Bennett before him).

So, with that in mind, I wanted to study the tape from Saturday against the Ravens from each Linebacker position and attempt to figure out where they stand.  I surely should spend more time on the defensive line, but the Cowboys themselves are still bringing in and sending out so many bodies, that we should give them another week or 2 for us to have an idea what they are doing on the DL.  At least, it seems, they are getting players that fit the scheme and Rod Marinelli is selecting.  Linebackers are still a mixed bag.  Let's check it out:


SAM - Strong Side LB

The Sam LB looks to be locked down and sealed up by Kyle Wilber.  Wilber is a bit of an interesting story because he was brought in to be an OLB in the 3-4, then shifted to DE last season after we were told he will likely be cut in the 2013 camp by many who just didn't see a scheme fit.  From there, he was a solid pass rusher, but when they needed more help at LB, they bounced Wilber around again.  But, that is the type of guy that he reportedly is.  The coaches and scouts love Wilber for his willingness to do whatever is asked and to generally know exactly what that is.  His comfort in the scheme as well as his physical traits make him a fine choice to play the SAM in 2014.  He plays the run as well as any LB, but also runs with Tight Ends without major issues.  I think the Cowboys are fine at the SAM as long as Wilber can go.

Now, who is behind Wilber?  Great question.  On Saturday night, they played a lot of Cam Lawrence back there and he may have a real chance at sticking since the special teams coaching staff seems to really campaign for him.  If Lawrence has to play a lot on the defense, there will be some exposing there as he just lacks the size and thump that Wilber brings to the table and doesn't have any sort of edge rush.  But, can he be your 6th or 7th LB?  Sure.  But, you would also hope to upgrade with someone who is a more ideal fit in the big picture.  Their best SAM not named Wilber is Justin Durant, but as you will see in a moment, he is spread rather thin right now.

MLB - Middle LB

On draft weekend, the Cowboys wanted to spend their 3rd selection (4th Rounder) on a Linebacker to have a chance to learn behind Sean Lee.  So, despite a number of flashier LB prospects being on the board (Carl Bradford, Prince Shembo, Telvin Smith), the Cowboys cited special teams ability and MLB priority for reasons to take Iowa's Anthony Hitchens.

Well, that was April.  In May, Sean Lee was lost for the season and by August, the Cowboys had decided that Hitchens is not a middle LB and that he is now moving to weak side.  So, 1st and 2nd string at the vital defensive role in the middle had gigantic vacancies.

So, where does that leave MLB?  In the capable hands of Justin Durant.  Oh, sure, Rolando McClain is here and the Cowboys desperately want him to take this position and run with it, but from all I have seen to this point, McClain has done very little to show that he can be anything better than serviceable.  He is big and full of ability, but if you are not fit and fired up, then you can quickly become a liability.  I have no idea how his body is snapping back into NFL shape, but for much of Saturday night against Baltimore, it was very ordinary stuff from the standout at Alabama.  You just don't see that destructive force that existed a few years back where he attacked the line and blew up plays.  Now, in fairness, the defensive tackles are often getting shoved back into his lap, but I just don't see him going north very often.  From all I can see from McClain, he still is a ways away from being that guy we all remembered.  And, when you read stories that indicate his heart just isn't really into it, it all seems to make more sense.

Durant is not a highlight film either, but everyone raves about his feel for the scheme and he best replicates Sean Lee's ability to traffic cop calls and make sure tactically everyone is on their assignment.  If I am going to get mid-level performances from my MLB, at least make him a player who makes sure everyone is deployed correctly.  In space, Durant can chase better, but McClain can get zone drops just fine.  I just don't know that I trust McClain to get fit, stay healthy, and most importantly to stay interested for NFL veteran minimum money - especially since he knows there is no chance for him to remain in Dallas when Lee is healthy again.  After those two, I do like what DeVonte Holloman brings to the table with his range and body (I assume his neck issue is not a big deal).  He was capable last Week 17 in a pinch and has demonstrated that he will attack.  I am not sure about his grasp on calls and reads, but he seems like a reasonable #2 in the middle if they decide to go that way.

WLB - Weak Side LB

Now, here is where it gets tricky.  The Cowboys have been hinting more and more that Durant is their preference now at Will.  This, of course, is a shock since he was the SAM in 2013, the MIKE in training camp, and now they are saying his natural spot in the WILL.  But, it is more of a shock because this seems to indicate that they are considering Bruce Carter as a movable object, just one year after basically indicating they are building the scheme around him at that Derrick Brooks/Lance Briggs weak side spot.

In watching Carter on Saturday, he still seems lost in coverage - took a hold on the first play, lost his man underneath a few times, and did break up one pass in his zone.  That is key, by the way, he is ok in zones (like McClain), but very poor in man.  Imagine having to run zones to accommodate your players and still trying to mix up coverages to confuse opponents - this all but eliminates the man coverage your corners covet and blitzing.

The bigger issues though seem to come back with his inability to shed a full back or a guard in his run fits against interior runs.  He just doesn't thump or shed very well, and that makes him another pedestrian option against the run.  He also still looks like he doesn't fully read the situation consistently.  3 great snaps, then a snap where he looks lost on his assignment.  I can't have that from a guy who has been in the mix here since 2011.

So, again, Durant and Hitchens are the guys they want running at the Will as Garrett has said this week that both guys are natural weak side guys, but Carter is there and is possibly your one LB who can make a splash play and has the highest upside.  But, he is also the guy who has seemed to not always had the best resolve or internal fight when things get going in the wrong direction on a Sunday afternoon.



They really want McClain to win the MLB, but I am not sure there is much evidence on the field that he is worthy of the spot.  I think they hope he wins it so that Durant/Carter is your WLB, McClain in the middle, and Wilber at the SAM.  Then, on nickel downs, Wilber becomes a edge rush DE, and Durant joins McClain and Carter is off the field altogether.  That trio should at least be adequate in Week 1.

But, the bigger point is that Justin Durant might be their best fit at all 3 spots.  This from a 28-year old veteran who signed for a 2-year, $2.4m deal from Detroit without even a headline a year ago.  Now, things are in such disarray that he is as valuable a piece as this front 7 has.

And all of this before the first snap and the first in-season injury.  This is a spot on the team that might require a little bit of good fortune for all involved.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Issues in Oxnard: How Bad Is The Cowboys Defense?

The elephant in the room for the new Dallas Cowboys season remains this defense and the scary showing from 2013 combined with the subtractions from that crew.  It has to have most bracing for the worst.

But, are we being too harsh?  Are the issues being overstated?

Let's examine how we got here and if this is a fair projection or a pessimistic view this morning.

You may recall that last summer, I examined the 2012 team by statistical ranking in the wake of their scheme change.  You may review it by clicking here.  From June of 2013:
They spent the offseason changing the coaching staff and the scheme of the defense and asking much of their 3-4 personnel to now simply switch to the 4-3.  Most NFL experts would argue that this is a very unwise endeavor as players are often identified as one or the other on draft day and yet now the Cowboys are asking their entire Front 7 on the defense - who were all drafted because they were tailor-made for the 3-4 scheme to not only learn but perform at a high level on the 4-3. 
Much of this is also mitigated by the fact that the Cowboys did run a very multiple and versatile front with Rob Ryan in the last few years and that they have very talented players who should work in any scheme, but still, it is not a sure thing this will work when they have 6 of their projected 7 starters as hold overs from the old scheme.  Only newcomer Justin Durant, the projected SAM linebacker in Monte Kiffin's scheme has ever played a snap in a 4-3.  That is a shocking reality of what the Cowboys are about to try to do. 
On the other hand, what you are about to see are the statistics that the Cowboys defense has amassed in 2012 with their old scheme.  Now remember, health had a ton to do with another disappointing effort from the defense - so much so that the firing of Rob Ryan doesn't really seem fair based on 2012 performance - but, make no mistake;  we should not be too bothered with the Cowboys trying a new defensive strategy moving forward. Trouble is, we know from experience that scheme doesn't make the team.  Players do.   
Special ones.  And, honestly, I have significant doubts that the Cowboys can be a special defense based on a scheme that requires a team to get pressure with only the front 4 (The Tampa 2 seldom blitzes) and is based on the cognitive skills of safeties to orchestrate the entire secondary.  But, I will let the coaches sort through those issues in a long camp and see where it goes.
The object of the game is not to prove that I am right and that Jerry Jones might have been guilty of a silly, predictable decision.  Although, at least from a predictable outcome standpoint, the 2013 season went about as poorly as most thought it would outside the Jones family bus.

They changed scheme, but did not upgrade talent at all.  They attempted to fit square pegs into round holes and then had the audacity to blame Monte Kiffin for not being able to take Rob Ryan's personnel and to fit it in his scheme which was very different altogether.

They wished to fix something that was poor - largely due to injuries and lack of depth - without addressing the injuries and lack of depth.  Then, when injuries and lack of depth (and lack of real quality in too many places) caused them to have a 2013 which the evidence below will actually argue was worse, they seemed to blame Monte Kiffin and the tactics.  This, of course, seemed to be what they did in 2012 with Ryan and were unable to come close to improving upon.  I felt sympathetic for Ryan in 2012 who had no Sean Lee or Jay Ratliff for 10 games each, and no Bruce Carter or Orlando Scandrick for 5 games each, no healthy DeMarcus Ware for the first time in his career, and of course the Josh Brent incident with a month to play.  To say that he felt he also had mitigating circumstances would likely be an understatement.

Of course, Ryan had a personality that may not have fallen easily in line with normal proceedings around Valley Ranch and that, if I were to wager, did not help his blame game results quite like Mr Kiffin's long-time relationship with Mr Lacewell and Mr Jones might have helped.

That said, let's view the 2013 season through the lens of "it surely cannot get worse than 2012, right?"

I have chosen 15 major stats for the 2013 defense where the unit ranked 26th or worse.  Basically, these are the categories where the Cowboys were in the bottom 20% (or lower) in the entire NFL.

The first batch will simply be the results of the pass defense:

Statistic  '13 Dallas-Rank NFL Avg PO Avg '12 Dallas
Opp QB Rate 96.0 - 26th 86.0 81.9 94.7 - 29th
Opp QB Rate - Blitz 117.4 - 32nd 85.7 85.4 106.5 - 29th
20 Yd Passes Allowed 71 - 32nd 51 51 52 - 20th
Yards After Catch 2368 - 30th 1943 1890 1926 - 25th
Net Pass Yds/Game 286.8 - 30th 235.6 231.6 203.3 - 19th

As you can see, that is a lot to take in.  I listed 4 measurements for each category: The 2013 Cowboys, the 2013 NFL Average, the 2013 NFL Average for the 12 playoff teams, and the 2012 Cowboys.

As you can see, the Cowboys regressed in all 5 passing categories which include the opposing passer rating, the opposing passer rating when blitzed, big passes (over 20 yards), Yards surrendered after the catch, and finally, net passing yards per game.  Again, in every single category, the Kiffin 4-3, was even worse than the defense they wished to replace.

Side Note: Do you remember the talk after the Chicago game last year?  Jerry went on the radio after the Bears humiliation and basically threw down the public order of more blitzing - even though Monte Kiffin had never made blitzes a large part of his defense and also having a stripped down secondary.  Well, anyone with a Statistical database knows (and the above chart proves) that nobody is worse than the Cowboys at pass defense when blitzing.  It is brutal.  I just am not sure the General Manager is aware of this, given his public demands last season.  In fact, from 2010-2013 (since Wade Phillips was out and Jason Garrett named head coach), no team has been worse against the blitz than the Cowboys and it isn't even close (Jacksonville is a very distant 2nd worst).  Dallas has conceded a QB rating of 107.3 when they blitz over 620 blitzes, including 42 TDs and only 9 INTs and a stunning 8.82 YPA.  You cannot blitz if you have poor safety play.

Next, here are 5 categories around the rushing defense.  Surely, if you are that poor through the air, at least you can stop a run, right?  Oh, boy.

Statistic  '13 Dallas-Rank NFL Avg PO Avg '12 Dallas
Rushes + Completions 52.5 - 29th 48.8 47.5 47.6 - 11th
Run Yards Per Game 128.5 - 27th 112.9 109.2 125.2 - 22nd
10 Yd Runs Allowed 65 - 31st 47 44 53 - 22nd
1st Down Run Avg 4.87 - 27th 4.31 4.25 4.82 - 28th
% of Runs 4+ Yds 47.8% - 29th 42.4% 43.5% 42% - 7th

The 5 categories here are Rushes + Completions which best measures game control from a non-time of possession standpoint (can my defense get off the field?), Rush yards allowed, big runs (10 yards or more), average runs on 1st down allowed, and what percentage of total rushes get at least 4 yards?

Again, brutal.

They went backwards in every single category.  This new scheme which featured an improved tactical plan (according to those in charge) actually fell back into the bottom 5 across the board.  Can you imagine a defense that is 32nd in big passes allowed and 31st in big runs allowed?  The 2013 Dallas Cowboys, ladies and gentlemen.

Finally, here are 5 over-view categories that sum up the defense in key plays in the red zone and 3rd down, and of course, the biggest one - points allowed by the opponent's offense (subtracting any defense or special teams points).

Statistic  '13 Dallas-Rank NFL Avg PO Avg '12 Dallas
Off Pts Allowed 425 - 30th 346 305 359  - 22nd
Yds Per Play RZ 3.38 - 29th 2.89 2.79 3.02 - 23rd
3rd/Short (less 4yds) 77.1% - 32nd 57.2% 56.7% 55.9% - 18th
3rd/Long (more 6yds) 33.9% - 31st 25.6% 22.7% 25.3% - 16th
RZ Scoring Efficiency 64.5% - 31st 55.5% 54.4% 54.5% - 18th

In these 5 categories, the Cowboys showed MAJOR regressions.  They were very, very poor on 3rd and short (32nd) and 3rd and long (31st).  Yikes.  Then, they allowed more yards in the red zone per play than ever before and more touchdowns per possession than any team but the Houston Texans.

They weren't bad in every category - they were tied for 13th in takeaways, for instance.  They were 3rd in fumble recoveries.  But, the positives are very few and far between.  And too few to balance the issues.

So, as we sit on the verge of the 2014 season and hear the similar refrain about "they can't possibly be worse than they were last season", I am reminded that after last year when Rob Ryan was blamed and the team did not replenish the talent very well, we might have been barking up the wrong tree.

Monte Kiffin has been stripped of his duties and Rod Marinelli is the next man up.  He has to figure this out without DeMarcus Ware (Salary cap), Jason Hatcher (Free Agency/Salary Cap), Sean Lee (ACL), DeMarcus Lawrence (broken foot until November), and Orlando Scandrick (suspension until October).  Add to that the questionable status of Morris Claiborne (shoulder), Anthony Spencer (knee), and Henry Melton (groin, knee) and we are looking at a defense which is being discussed as the worst in the league without too many prospects of major improvements on the depth chart.

I have said a few times on the radio that this 2014 is as poorly as I have felt in over a decade about a Cowboys season.  If you want my reasons as to why (beyond the dicey health of the franchise QB), it would be found primarily on this page.  

The defense looks absolutely like a major disaster waiting to happen.  There is always a feeling of fresh hope and Rolando McClain could supply some of that, along with upticks from youngsters like JJ Wilcox, Kyle Wilber, and Tyrone Crawford.

But, I am not sure most people realize how far they must travel to get to even mediocre.  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Issues In Oxnard: Identifying The Best Players On This Defense - Splash Plays

When you discuss the Cowboys defense in 2014 (or any other year), you start with the obvious discussion of who the potential best players could be.  As we examine this particular depth chart, you have to be rather struck with this important quandary.

Who are the best players on defense?  Where is the star power going to come from in 2014?  If every player on the defense was made available to the entire league, who would be snapped up first as the most coveted players?  And amongst them, who would be required the biggest check?

Regardless of how many feel about the results of spending $50m on Brandon Carr, I would argue that he has been a very solid player for the Cowboys and while maybe he has been slightly less than dominant, he has played every single game and has put up results on most of those occasions.  If they have been a poor defense since his arrival, it would be difficult to pin the failures on Carr - He is simply no match for Calvin Johnson or Brandon Marshall, but then again, without much safety assistance, who is?

Beyond Carr, you then get into the discussion of who is next?  Would Orlando Scandrick be that guy?  Quite possibly.  In fact, if you want to know who would be grabbed by the competition the quickest in a hypothetical reallocation draft from the Cowboys defense, the Top 3 picks might all be corner backs.  With Carr, Scandrick, and the underachieving and even disappointing Morris Claiborne.  Claiborne has plenty of ability, but if anyone needs to demonstrate their true value on the football field (and start by playing every game), it is the #6 overall selection of the 2012 draft.  Of course, Claiborne would be a "potential over performance" play, but I think he might be the 3rd guy taken.

If he isn't, then surely George Selvie is.  In his 5th year in the NFL at his 4th organization, he finally put it together last season with 7 sacks and is now a year away from perhaps being a real coveted player in free agency at the age of 28 (he will turn 28 in March).  Nothing pays in the NFL like sacks, and if he can find his way to 10 or so this year, he will get paid well.

Then, we look to a healing Henry Melton.  But, I imagine he has to prove what he can do with a healed knee and a lesser supporting cast.  Everyone hopes he will be dominant (or at least 2013 Jason Hatcher), but the football world has only seen him play dominant football when surrounded by 3 HOF caliber players on his front 7.  If Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and Julius Peppers from 2010-2012 were coming with him, it would be easier to project him.  At this point, there might be some questions that require answering.

Barry Church might be next or the ability of Bruce Carter.  After that, Tyrone Crawford, JJ Wilcox, and Kyle Wilber would likely all be next as players who have yet to prove much at this level, but bright prospects who have legitimate futures.  And, of course, DeMarcus Lawrence would be ahead of all of them if he was healthy and threaten the Top 5.

Let's put it this way, there is talent on the defense, but it is really an interesting discussion when you try to weigh one against the next.

Measuring individual value on a defense is always quite tricky.  For instance, a great corner looks much better with the help of a pass rush.  He can only defend so long.  Conversely, if a pass rush has no coverage behind them, then they don't have time to get home.  Even more so than offense, one weak link can really sabotage the overall success of a defense.

All of this has led me to attempt to measure "splash plays" in this space since the start of the 2011 season.  The idea was that if we can at least tabulate the real great moments, we will have a better idea of who is performing from week to week and who is spending more time in the background.

Splash plays are absolutely a flawed stat, but it is better than not measuring at all (at least that is what I tell myself).

What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, you can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender. An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it.  
I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well.

Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don't want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea.

A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let's see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.
OK.  So, allow me to review the season totals from 2013 - a year where the defense put this reputation of having maybe the worst defense in the industry on film:

2013 Splash Play Totals
PlayerWks 1-4Wks 5-8Wks 9-12Wks 13-16Totals
1. G Selvie97.53.5828
2. J Hatcher7.5855.526
3. S Lee9121.5022.5
4. B Carr310.54320.5
5. B Church8632.519.5
6. D Ware734519
7. O Scandrick156618
8. B Carter534416
9. N Hayden3.503814.5
10. K Wilber144.51.511
11. J Heath010.56.58
12. D Nevis024.517.5
13. J Wynn021.53.57
14. M Claiborne25007
15. J Durant1.51215.5

The players above who are in bold are those who are returning.  As you can see, health plays a major role in the rankings.  Stay on the field and you have a chance.  So, for Sean Lee, Claiborne, and DeMarcus Ware, it is tough to perform to your normal levels of excellence if you aren't out there.

By looking at the season in segments of 4 games, you can definitely see the value of good health and also you can examine how a player might have done when the league is now aware of him and taking him more seriously than a warm body.  George Selvie looked like he was fading in November but did step up a few more times in December quite nicely.

Aside from Claiborne, the biggest disappointment here has to be Bruce Carter.  One year ago, the training camp raves were all about the idea that this new defense is going to be perfect for him to set up as Derrick Brooks or Lance Briggs at the Will Linebacker.  The scheme allows him to generally run free and make the plays that the rest of the front in the scheme should make available for him.

Most point to pass defense as the big issue for Carter (and Danny Woodhead did put that out there for all the world to see), but in reality, the bigger issue at that particular spot - and one reason why he is on a very short leash according to some in the organization - is his work against the run.  For your stomach's sake, don't watch his performance in New Orleans.  There are some inside that think Justin Durant can do better at the Will spot right now.  That is certainly discouraging to all who thought Carter was worth the trouble in any scheme change.  

Below, please find the 3-year standings on the Splash Play project.  A more in depth study would measure splashes per snap, but I don't want to confuse things even more to the newbies.  So, this is the raw numbers of just big plays on the defense by player.

To the shock of nobody, DeMarcus Ware has a sizable lead on everyone and barring an insane comeback season from Anthony Spencer (who still doesn't not appear close to even practice speed) will be the leader to start 2015 and maybe 2016, too.

Ware might have been slipping a bit with his last 2 banged up years, but as you can see, a bad year of D-Ware is still better than good years by most.  

Player2011  2012  2013  Totals  
1. D Ware39301988
2. A Spencer2938067
3. S Lee251022.557.5
4. J Hatcher1316.52655.5
5. O Scandrick1651839
6. B Carr---1320.533.5
7. B Carter1151632
8. J Ratliff246---30
9. G Selvie------2828
10. B Church3119.523.5
11. M Claiborne---16723
12. V Butler108---18
13. N Hayden------14.514.5
14. M Spears86---14
15. S Lissemore85---13
So there is some information to chew on as we evaluate where they are at as a defense.  Clearly, they are banking on a lot of players emerging without reputation and honestly, in the NFL, that is the most efficient way to go.  You want to build your defense around young players who have a chance to grow together, and hopefully Lawrence, Crawford, Wilcox, and Wilber, will join Carter, Claiborne, and the veteran defensive backs to start digging out of this hole.

But, there is plenty of work to be done.  More than plenty.

'13 Rewind: Week 11 - Giant Win Over The Giants

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

The Morning After Report from a Huge Divisional Win in Week 11:

November 25, 2013

Victories like that don't come around very often.  And the rarity of this particular afternoon is why what you saw on Sunday was so sweet.

As I said on Twitter Sunday Night, "That is a meaningful, cold-weather, clutch, road, nationally-televised, divisional win."

You are quite familiar with my stance on winning in the NFL and the difficulty that goes with it, so you can likely imagine my stance when you beat a divisional foe at their place that you certainly have not handled really well in this current era of Cowboys football.

And the New York Giants have dealt with the Cowboys quite well over the last 15 years or so, but not in 2013.  This year, they suffer the fact that Dallas shoved the dagger into their chest right in front of their loyalists on a cold day at the new Giants Stadium with a gutsy 24-21 win that required all 60 minutes to sort out.

It was the kind of win that you realize can and will be picked apart from many perspectives, and that the victor had anything but perfect grades all around.  However, with the game on the line and the team needing to put together a drive, they looked once again to their franchise QB to carry them home.  And while the overall performance of the entire afternoon left plenty of room for improvement, the job that the offense and Tony Romo, in particular, put together with all of the chips down was something to behold.

To review the circumstances, we must back up to a 1st half where there was little accomplished offensively by either team.  For the Cowboys, it was 6 drives with 4 punts and an interception surrounding one particular effort where a touchdown was scored on a beautiful play action pass to Jason Witten following a successful screen pass to Lance Dunbar and a huge run from DeMarco Murray that had many wondering if the bye week and play-calling adjustments had actually stumbled upon something big.

Beyond that, the Cowboys were ahead because the defense scored again.  Say what you want about this defense - and you can say some seriously negative things that will be founded in truth - but that is their 5th defensive touchdown of the season when Jeff Heath scooped up a Orlando Scandrick strip of Victor Cruz and ran it back to the end zone for the Touchdown to give the Cowboys a lead they would only lose for a few minutes when the Giants tied late in the 4th Quarter.  5 defensive Touchdowns so far in 2013 (Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Sean Lee, Nick Hayden, and Heath) is more by any Cowboys defense going back to at least 2000.  They are scoring points and that doesn't even include the times their takeaways set up a short field.  This is just actual TDs scored by the defense, and they have 5 now.  It is remarkable, to say the least, and consistent with their +11 turnover margin, one which puts them tied for 2nd in the NFL with Seattle, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs at +15.

So, after the 14-6 halftime margin, Dallas comes out of the locker-room to find that the temperature had dropped again and the wind was picking up.  In fact, there were times in this game where both Quarterbacks looked like completing passes was going to be a major chore and any afternoon-long throwing exhibitions were not going to be realistic.  This was a game that appeared to be destined for the more physical of the two teams.

And, between the running of Andre Brown and Brandon Jacobs and the pass rush that was able to snuff out a fair number of Cowboys drives, the physicality of the Giants was beginning to take the game over as the afternoon went along.

Dallas stopped the Giants on a 4th Down to start the 3rd Quarter, and then the physical play of the Giants got them in trouble when they basically assisted Dallas in taking a 21-6 lead on a drive where a roughing the passer penalty on a 3rd Down from Mathias Kiwanuka gave the Cowboys a fresh set of downs and then Antrel Rolle took a head shot at Murray as the runner was heading out of bounds for 2 costly personal fouls in Giants territory that set the Cowboys up for a composed pitch and catch between Romo and Witten again and Dallas appeared to have a big enough margin to start considering a masterful victory.

But, we all knew it was never going to be easy, right?  And when the Giants had to attempt yet another 4th Down in Cowboys territory, they crawled back into the game on a bizarre turn of events as Eli Manning hit his 2013 tight end, Brandon Myers on a wheel route designed to expose Bruce Carter in coverage (this week's version of that concept that is becoming common place) which it certainly did for what appeared to be a 1st and goal inside the 10.  Instead, Carter, who at times seems to give up in situations where adversity is hitting him between the eyes, walked like a zombie past Myers without touching him to end the play.  Myers, as shocked as anyone that Carter and Jeff Heath didn't seem to know the most basic of NFL rules, just stood up and ran into the end zone for a free touchdown.  Carter was challenged by the coaches in San Diego for losing his spirit against Danny Woodhead and certainly did not seem full of resolve in New Orleans late in the game, so, unfortunately, this is not an isolated case of defeat causing him to stop his maximum effort.

Now, 21-13, this is where the stadium starts coming alive, the opponent starts believing, and the Cowboys normally begin to panic.  They have a 2nd half lead in a key game, but closing the deal has never been listed under the expertise of this current Dallas group, it seems.  In fact, the cold weather - which was 25 degrees at kickoff and fell throughout the afternoon - only heightens the difficulty level, as Tony Romo has only won just a single game before yesterday (now 2-4) in cold weather situations (kickoff temperature below 40 degrees) and that was against a 4-12 Washington team in 2009.

The next 3 Dallas drives were just as we have seen normally in these spots.  Chances to regain control of the game on a deep shot that could have been pass interference to Terrance Williams, a crossing pattern to Dez that ended up a 20-yard loss on a fumble, and a few throws that were caught up in the wind.  Then, pass protection was beginning to cave in and even shotgun snaps looked like a chore.  The offensive line was starting to break down in the interior and Romo was starting to get hit more and more.  They were losing the physical edge to the game and in 3 drives after the Witten TD midway through the 3rd Quarter until midway through the 4th, they had run 14 plays for 13 yards.  It was a rather familiar script.

And then there were 3rd Downs.  3rd Downs have been an amazing achilles heel for the Cowboys offense all season long, ranking them 30th in the league overall and 32nd in the league on the road.  They simply have not been money on the money down.  They have had miscues and frustration and their inability to not extend drives have clearly been an issue that has not been fixed.  14 for 58 in road games this season before Sunday and then working on another brutal 1 for 8 with the only conversion being the 3rd Quarter Witten Touchdown, things looked the same.  And now, with 4:45 to go in the game after Eli and the Giants and scored and converted a 2-point conversion to level the game at 21-21,  the Cowboys had to go get points or suffer another destructive defeat.

On Friday, I wrote about Tony Romo's worst decisions in a piece that certainly was difficult for many people to enjoy.  The overall premise is that in these particular situations with high stakes, the Cowboys often have the game in their control - the ball and a chance to win - and fail too often.  In 3 of those 5 examples, they were tied - just like they were tied on Sunday.  This means that they have a chance to win, but also, if they do something too risky (interception) or too conservative (punt), they are going to give the opponent a chance to finish the game with their own dramatic win.

So, they need to put a drive together.  And on this day, they did a fantastic job, with Romo doing his best work of the day.  They converted 3 different 3rd Downs that were all mandatory to the victory, with a beautiful read on a 3rd and 7 which turned into finding Dez down the sideline on a fade when the safety took away Austin on the slant.  Then, on another 3rd Down and 5, it was Dez again on a tricky slant himself.  A beautiful pass inside to Austin on a 2nd and 10 put the Cowboys into long field goal range, but the final 3rd Down conversion was the best of the bunch.

It was only 3rd and 10 from the Giants 28 because of the very difficult official ruling on a beautiful post route from Bryant that Romo hit down to the Giants 5.  By just about any perspective aside from the officials, this looked like a catch and then the impact of the ground jarred the ball loose, but only after Dez had completed the catch.  However, in this age of the hazy definition of how rules are interpreted, there is no cut and dried way to understand what is a catch and what isn't.  In this case, it seemed clear that the Cowboys deserved a review, but even after calling a timeout, had no such luck.

But, the fact that they even threw the pass into a tight space like that speaks to the idea that Jason Garrett and Romo both realize their risk aversion in these situations is no way to realize their fullest potential given the circumstances.  Other situations like these (at Baltimore in 2012 comes to mind) involve going very conservative the second they believe they are in Dan Bailey's range.  Get to the 30 yard line and then hand the ball off a few times is usually the order of the day.  In fact, we can only wonder what might have happened if the Giants did not convert their 2-point conversion and they kicked to the Cowboys with a 21-19 lead.  Would the Cowboys have reeled in their adventure and handed the ball off 3 times and punted back, only to lose 22-21?  In a odd way, were the Cowboys aided by being tied?

Maybe not, but either way, it seemed out of character for the Cowboys to put the game to the sword by throwing downfield even after the ball might have been in Field Goal range.  And after losing out on the long completion to Dez down to the 5, on 3rd and 10, they resisted the urge to run the draw and instead had Romo look to convert it.  If they did run it, the Giants use their final timeout and get the ball back with over a minute to go - down 3.  But, instead, Romo finds Cole Beasley on a fantastic route and they convert the 3rd Down and get Bailey even closer down to the 15-yard line.  From there, because of their aggressive posture, the game was over if their kicker could put it through.  And of course, with Dan Bailey, that is as automatic as almost any kicker in the business.

What a drive and what a time to start converting 3rd Downs in succession.  They went 4-11 on the money down which will not set any records, but those 4 were the 4 most vital of the game.  Beautiful job demonstrating the clutch characteristic that these late-game drives require to defeat your opponent.

The win gives the Cowboys a 4-0 start in the NFC East and with the other 2 games in the division reserved for the final 2 weekends of the season, they have set themselves up to have every opportunity to win the division title.  They also have a chance to get to 7-5 in a few days if they can take down Oakland and then put a 10-win season back in play.

Great resolve against an opponent that talked all week long and has humiliated the Cowboys on many occasions.  But, this day, all that talking wasn't worth much.  Only the ability to make the plays when it mattered most was going to get the win.

That is a fantastic response to the humiliating day in New Orleans.

That is a meaningful, cold-weather, clutch, road, nationally-televised, divisional win.

Now, let's see how they deal with success.


Decoding Callahan - Week 11 - Rediscovering Play Action Passes

Kiffin Report - Week 11 - Gashed on the Ground Again

Tomorrow, we move on to Thanksgiving versus the Raiders.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

'13 Rewind: Week 10 - The Humiliation In New Orleans

Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. 

The horrid details of that night to forget in New Orleans:

November 11, 2013

Well, then.

There are certain games that become landmark moments because of the events that they contained and the way that the game shaped the season.  When people mention a year, those of us obsessed with following a certain team have a few games from each season that come quickly to mind.

They take that spot on the main stage because either the highs were phenomenally high or the lows were incredibly low.

I don't think we have to tell you which was which last night in New Orleans as the Saints went a long way embarrassing the Cowboys and then Dallas took it from there.  Games like this, that are as one-sided as Alabama against a 1-AA school in early September, require the accommodation of both teams - with precise and powerful execution from the victor aided by ineptitude and, at times, the seeming give-up of the defeated.

New Orleans was so great offensively, coming off a discouraging defeat at the hands of the mighty Jets the week before, that the thorough domination is impossible to properly describe.  On one hand, the Saints were so explosive that they had an absurd 9 plays of 20 yards or more, which is a number that you will almost never see above 5 or 6.  Heck, the Broncos only had 5 when they put on the 51-point clinic back in Week 5.  But, on the other hand, the Saints had enough small gains to sustain long drives and move the chains at will to the tune of accumulating an equally absurd 40 first downs.

Now, generally, first down stats are not very indicative of a team that had a big day.  They are not always a fair metric to spend too much time worrying about, because a 50-yard play is more desirable than 5 10-yard plays for a number of reasons.  But the Saints were so good on Sunday night, that they set the season high for explosive plays against the Cowboys with 9, and the all-time NFL record for first downs in a game with 40.


What if I told you that day back in Week 5 when Peyton Manning did whatever he wanted with his high-flying Broncos offense that by November 11th, pretty much all statistical totals would be surpassed twice by upcoming Cowboys opponents in Detroit AND New Orleans?

This time, the all-time Cowboys defensive yardage record was broken by Drew Brees and an offense that was not fully in sync when the game started, but as the night went along, they were so good that they stopped trying in the 4th Quarter.  That's right, despite throwing for 392 yards, Brees did not attempt a pass after the 12:51 mark of the final quarter.  And yes, that's also right, they broke the all-time Dallas Cowboys yardage record for an opponent - a record that has been standing 14 days!

The Saints had just 10 possessions to do all of their damage that were not aided with a single Cowboys turnover (the one thing you can say about the Cowboys' offense that is not negative) and after the 1st drive stalled with a punt, the Saints next 9 drives looked like this on the drive chart:

Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown - Halftime - Missed FG, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Kneel Down - Game Over.

I am pretty sure Aledo High School has had the authorities called on them for drive charts that look like that.

Injuries have hit the Cowboys hard again, making the depth chart that left Oxnard just a faded memory.  For those of us who believe that the personnel department has made some strides in 2011-2013, this is a stark reminder of how far they must go to fortify the roster to withstand the annual outbreak of hamstrings and knee issues that attrition claims.  No, the Cowboys are not alone as the NFL seems like it has more injuries every single year to a point where roster expansion might be the only way to operate a team in this league anymore, but they have been hit hard again and like 2012, by the time they get to November, the defense looks like someone's practice squad all-star team.

Sean Lee joined Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff (gone, but not fully forgotten), Jason Hatcher, Morris Claiborne, and JJ Wilcox as starters who were unavailable as Brees was marching up and down the field.  This will mark the 4th year out of 4 (and many more in college) in which the fantastically skilled Lee has been unable to withstand the rigors of a season without an injury that has forced him to miss a chunk of time.

Down 6 starters and watching DeMarcus Ware and Barry Church play hurt demonstrates how perhaps the injuries have finally taken an insurmountable toll, and that the defense is obviously at a spot now where they are throwing guys on the field who are not at a level that is required to perform well in the NFL.  But, they are the "next man up" and you have no other choice.  This makes you recall silly statements from the owner/general manager on whether the defensive line was the strength of this roster and whether anyone ever learns from the annual lessons about how attrition demands depth and also recommends that you avoid building your team around players who are old and have an extensive injury history.

This also brings up the question of how Rob Ryan was fired for a similar predicament last season and even the greater question of whether a Monte Kiffin defense can still handle the modern NFL offenses as just about every opponent that has a QB is passing for 400, gaining 550-600, or both.  How do you evaluate whether the scheme is able to work when for 2 straight years you have bodies that are likely incapable of running any scheme?

Which brings us - albeit a little deeper in the column than they should be positioned - to that disappointing offense.

You know, the one that again, knew what sort of mess the defense was in and who the defense was going to be trying to stop.  The offense that, for the most part, has its full compliment of weapons at its disposal and was going to be asked again to carry the lion's share of the responsibility if this team was going to achieve anything.

The one that punted 8 times and after hearing how badly they have been on 3rd Down conversions in road games this season (30th in the NFL, 14-49 entering last night) and everyone agreed that this simply must improve if they were going to compete in games like this one.  Instead, the team put on one of the worst 3rd Down nights possible as they stalled out at 0-9 and now sit at the very bottom of the NFL in this category - 32nd, 14-58 for 24% conversions.  In fact, now it is so bad that in all games they are ranked 30th on the "money down" above only Arizona and Jacksonville for overall 3rd Down conversions.

They put another bizarre game plan together that seems incapable of mixing passes and runs, and you almost wonder if they are trying to find comedy in the extremes that they put out there.  First, last week, it was the highest pass/run ratio in NFL history with a 6:1 ratio, then this week they ran on 9 of their first 12 plays and 11 of their first 15.  This served as an example of running the ball, yes, but it also did not allow Tony Romo and the passing game to attempt passes on consecutive plays until the game was over 25 minutes old with 4:19 left to go in the 1st half.  Did this not allow them to find a rhythm until the game was already turning into to a track meet where you either keep up or get blown out?

To further add to the confusion, they seemed to be doing just the opposite of what has worked in freeing up Dez Bryant from the clutches of double teams.  For instance, it seems that when the Cowboys roll out 4 WRs, that the defense has to either loosen up Dez or get gashed underneath by Beasley and Williams.  So, why then, did the Cowboys have 1 or 2 WRs on the field on 15 of the first 17 snaps in those first 4 possessions?  Did they want Dez completely locked down?  Because James Hanna is not going to change the convictions of a defense, that is for sure.

But, despite these strategic questions, at some point in these battles - especially on the road - Tony Romo is going to have to match wits with the guy across the field, this week, Drew Brees.  And his 2013 season has been a mixed bag of results, especially on the road.  One particularly interesting trend that is headed in the wrong direction is his ability to complete passes (which one might argue is his primary job).  In the first 5 weeks of the season, he had completed 72% of his attempts and the offense seemed capable of competing in a game like this.

But, in the 5 games since, Romo's completion ability has fallen substantially into the 57% range and 2 of his last 3 games his completion percentage has dropped into the 40s.  That is very troubling with this many weapons at his disposal.  Also, the yards per attempt are down substantially to 6.36 after being at 8.10 in the first 5 games.  Yes, this isn't merely a Romo issue, but it does fall to him to deliver the ball where it needs to be and his protection to give him time.  And honestly, after a 10 completion game in which the opposing team almost matched your completions with touchdowns, there are not many other places to look.

Yesterday was a complete mess made worst by what appeared to be a complete give-up by the defense in the 4th Quarter that reminded many of Wade Phillips last stand on a Sunday Night in Green Bay back in 2010.  I don't recommend you watch it again, but let's just say there sure appeared to be players in the middle of that defense that had decided to start their bye week about an hour before they were allowed to do so.  When a team loses the stomach to even stand up and fight, that sends very disconcerting messages to any who care about the organization, so let's hope that is not tolerated when the film is examined.

But, who is examining it?  Is Jason Garrett and his staff on thin ice as we hit the bye week?  They sit at 5-5 and surely a division crown is required for them to feel safe and even that appears far more tenuous than it did a few weeks back after leaving Philadelphia with a win.

Here is a much needed week off to try to get some bodies back, but it looks like life without Sean Lee is a reality for the rest of November and possibly a bit longer, so they are going to have to plan on scoring 35 because the defense doesn't look capable of stopping teams.  But, can this offense figure out its own issues?

They showed no signs of that last night.

6 games to go.  But all signs point to the ultimate destination being a very familiar one around here.


Decoding Callahan - Week 10 - Lowest Lows for Offense, Give Up from Free/Smith

Kiffin Report - Week 10 - 600 yard games - Jeff Heath on Marques Colston will not work

Xs and Os - Week 10 - Rob Ryan's Moment of Brilliance

After this game, we believe the Cowboys spent their bye week changing the play calling duties over to Jason Garrett.  Their next game was at New York and we cover that tomorrow.