As a long-time believer in Rob Ryan and the entire Ryan family's approach to defense in the NFL, I have been pleased with the progress of the defense and the overall look that the ship has been steadied after a season where the Dallas Cowboys had set historical lows for points allowed.
But, Sunday night in Philadelphia represents a wonderful test for this defense to see if they have really put their "big play" issues behind them. And if you are looking for specifics or just a refresher on how bad things were in the months before Big Rob was hired here, let's review.
Last season the Cowboys were scored on more times than any edition of Dallas Cowboys football EVER. 436 points against was an all-time low for this franchise, and at 27.3 points a game, they rated 3rd worst, behind only 1960 (the expansion year) and 1962. In the entire NFL last year, only Denver was scored upon more than the once mighty Dallas defense.
2010 was also a year in which the Cowboys conceded the 2nd most yards in franchise history both on a total yards (5,885) and a per game (367.8) basis. Only 1985 was worse in each category.
With those historic lows in mind, you can certainly understand why many considered wholesale changes to be necessary. But, for reasons that can only be speculated upon, the Cowboys made only very subtle moves to their defensive personnel: Olshansky out/Kenyon Coleman in; Alan Ball back to 4th corner/Abe Elam signed to 1 year deal; and an expanded role for Sean Lee at the expense of Bradie James.
Otherwise, it was the deployment of those very same troops that would be the selling point for any improvement. How Wade Phillips and then Paul Pasqualoni used those same players were only going to be footnotes, because the complex packages and alignments of Ryan's scheme were ready to take the field.
One giant issue with installing such a defense was the NFL lockout. The early part of 2011 was thought to be a giant advantage to the teams who were not making large changes to their coaching staffs. But, the teams in this league that have to implement major overhauls to their squads were not going to have time to teach and install. The lockout said that would not be possible. In fact, the acquisition of new players was also going to be done on the fly and late in the summer. Coleman was signed on July 30th and Elam inked on August 4th. Both joining from Cleveland, they could be used to teach the scheme to the Cowboys, but it was all going to have to happen quickly.
So, going in, the thought process would be that the complexities of Ryan's defense were going to have to be learned as they go into the season. The phrase used was that "this defense would improve as the season went along".
After 6 games, the Cowboys defense has had the game in a fine position nearly every week. They played well enough to beat all of their opponents, but due to some generosity from the offense and in particular the QB Tony Romo, the results don't quite validate the major improvements that have been seen. The points against have dropped to 21.3 a game, but even that number is misleading with all of the non-defensive points conceded (interception returns for TDs, punt blocked for TD).
But, from breaking down the defense and simply trying to grade them on their own merits, the point could be made that the product is way better and poised to make a move in the middle of the 2011 campaign. The biggest and most notable improvements can be found in "big plays" conceded. In the NFL, an "explosive" is defined as a 20-yard play or more. Surely, this is an arbitrary number and 19-yard plays hurt, too, but the industry has settled on 20+. And, in 2010, the Cowboys gave up 69 explosives in 16 games (12 big runs, 57 big passes). That means 4.3 times per game, their defense was coughing up 20 yards a clip. The 27th ranking in the NFL had them surrounded by other non-playoff teams (St Louis, Arizona, Oakland, Washington, Jacksonville, and Denver) and the most unlikely playoff team in NFL History, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks.
Meanwhile, playoff teams averaged just 54 "explosives" a season (3.3 a game). Pittsburgh gave up just 36 all year on their way to the Super Bowl. So, if the standard is 54, and you have given up 69, then the math is rather simple. You must figure out a way to cut out 1 20-yard play from the opposition every single Sunday to get into the playoff mix. It is just one number in a complex equation, but if they could do that, one would have to consider Rob Ryan a success - especially considering their were no significant expenditures made to make the defense better.
Remember, the feeling by many of a high-risk defense being brought here was that while a risky blitz was being shown, wouldn't a team concede even more big plays in the back if it is not installed right and performed by the right players? In short, could Rob Ryan take Wade's players and run his own scheme to produce better results?
In 2010, the Cowboys blitzed QBs with defensive backs on 50 occasions for the entire season. In 2011, the Cowboys are at 49 through 6 games. The risks are higher, but the results are better, too.
At least the early returns say so. Through 6 games, the Cowboys have allowed just 19 explosives. 1 20-yard run and 18 20-yard passes. Over 6 games, that averages out to 3.1 per game. Over the season that would be about 51. If the magic number is 54, then the Cowboys are actually ahead of schedule. And with Tom Brady and Megatron already in the rearview mirror, this number could improve looking at Seattle, Buffalo, Washington, Miami, and Arizona in the next 6 games.
But first, maybe the team that is most "explosive" must be dealt with. We saw first hand what Philadelphia was capable of doing last December in Arlington as Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson played so well that Tashard Choice wanted Vick's autograph. Jackson tallied 210 yards on just 4 catches in that game and the question certainly was raised about whether Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and LeSean McCoy were simply too quick for the Cowboys defense as they racked up 429 yards of offense and 30 points in a road win.
Will Rob Ryan have a plan to back up his talk for Philadelphia on Sunday night? I expect he has something special planned for Vick and company. He'd better. Andy Reid is 12-0 off of the bye week, and the Eagles have had this game circled for sometime.
Consider it a mid-term exam to see how far the 2011 defense has truly come. As October games go, this should be excellent stuff.