The object of the game for the defense is 2-fold. 1) don't allow points (this is rather obvious) and 2) to cause game-changing plays (takeaways, sacks, and the occasional big hit). Both are important and just about all championship caliber defenses can excel in both categories.
As we look at the first year under Rob Ryan (and maybe the only year), we see the Cowboys are allowing 20.2 points per game rather than the 27.3 they allowed in 2010. We also see that after years of not generating takeaways, the Cowboys already have 19 which rank them only 2 takeaways short of the league lead. In 2008 and 2009, the Cowboys had but 22 and 21 takeaways for the entire season.
Is the Cowboys defense elite? That would be a stretch given the clinic they were taught in Philadelphia a few weeks back. But the defense has more takeaways, more sacks, fewer explosives against, and are allowing fewer points than last year's edition. Of course, last year's defense was so bad that improvement was imperative. But, given much of the same personnel, Rob Ryan has put his stamp on how things are done around here. And as each week grows into the next, the confidence of the unit seems to grow and they pull more tricks out of their sleeves.
There may be a misperception about how Rob's blitzes work. In the 1970's and 1980's, blitzes were simply an effort to throw more numbers at an offense than they could block. If they are using 6 to protect, you send 7. They move to 7, you send 8. This became impractical when QBs started feasting on an exposed secondary. When both safeties would blitz, then the QB and WR knew that they had to beat just one man - the corner in front of them - and they were off to the races. It became more and more routine to find the hot route and chase the blitz away. And that is when coaches had to go back to the drawing board.
The evolution has brought us to the aggressive 3-4's of today's game. What Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh, Dom Capers in Green Bay, and Rex Ryan in New York all employ are variations of 3-4's based in deception utilizing fire zone blitz concepts and techniques.
What this generally means is that they will seldom ever bring more than 5 pass rushers on a given play (On Sunday, Rob Ryan sent 6 rushers twice in 37 pass situations), but you will never fully grasp which 4 or 5 defenders are coming until the play is under way.
Bringing 5 on a blitz looks chaotic, and yet, it allows 6 players behind it to retreat into a relatively sound 3-3 zone defense.
Pass Rushers Against Buffalo - 37 pass rush situations:
Clearly, these principles present the best of both worlds when it is run properly - pass rush effectiveness without giving up coverage behind it.
Wade Phillips is no slouch himself when it comes to designing defenses. However, Wade had no interest in the last couple years engaging in the fire zones like those other 3-4s. Also, Wade Phillips would almost never blitz a defensive back. We see every Sunday that some of the most successful blitz situations in the NFL culminate in a QB being blindsided by a untouched safety or cornerback. But, Wade - for reasons that can only be speculated upon - would almost never send a DB as coach of the Cowboys.
In 2008, the Cowboys blitzed a DB (according to our friends at www.profootballfocus.com) just 37 of 602 pass situations (6%). In 2009, it was 29 occasions on 707 pass plays (4%). And in 2010, the Cowboys defense actually did more when Phillips was fired, but for the year, 50 DB blitzes in 584 pass plays (8%).
But, we know that those other pressure defenses believe in making the QB believe that with 11 defenders, you better believe that at some point, they are going to send every single one of them at you. Not often, but often enough that they think when the time is right they will spring the ambush and change the game.
In 2011, the Cowboys have blitzed defensive backs 81 times in 335 pass plays. 24%! In other words, Ryan has blitzed more DBs in 9 games than the Cowboys had in the previous 2 seasons combined. That is enough to confuse and confound when applied properly. Now, let's look at how they are doing it.
Here is the 3rd snap for Buffalo in Sunday's game. Bills bring out shotgun with 4 WRs and force the Cowboys into a dime package with 6 DBs. It is 3rd and 14, and the numbers we tabulate indicate Ryan doesn't like to blitz much on 3rd and long. Rather, he enjoys playing coverage and blitzing when you least suspect it.
But here, the Cowboys are bringing a fire-zone from Ryan Fitzpatrick's blindside. Look at the picture at presnap and try to decide which 5 Cowboys are about to rush. I don't think that is an easy task.
If you guessed 2 corners, the LDE, NT, and Ware, you win. Ware - playing inside LB, Walker and Scandrick - the two corners, and Hatcher and Ratliff from the DL. Meanwhile Spencer, who sure looks like he is lined up over RT - ready to rush - drops out of the play into the hook/curl area on the right. Sean Lee must go all the way across the field to get the hook/curl on the left in that zone. Abe Elam takes shallow middle and now you see the 3-3 alignment behind the blitz. Check the diagram below.
Now for the blitz. When considering pass protection, offenses try to cut the pass rush in half. In fact, the center and running back are always in communication to make sure they understand each other about which is going to help which side. If the center is going right to help the RG, then the RB must pick up from the left. But, in presnap, the RT and RB are looking at Elam and Spencer as possible blitz targets. This deception is what makes it work. They are occupied until the snap, and then when their men don't rush, they are too late to redeploy elsewhere in time.
And thus is the concept of the fire zone blitz. The defense is not trying to outnumber you. They are trying to get you to pick up the wrong men. 5 can beat 6 if the 6 don't know which 5 are coming until it is too late. Then, in the blink of an eye, your QB is getting blindsided. Check the video of play #1 here.
You can really see the problems that are caused for Bills' LT 67-Andy Levitre as he is trying to block 3 guys at the same time. Finally, Walker goes by him and almost caused another takeaway. Meanwhile, the RT 79-Erik Pears has nobody to block so he joins the C and RG in blocking the same guy, Ratliff.
Let's look at another snap with a similar concept. 3rd Quarter, 2nd Down and 8 to go.
This time, you can tell that Fitzpatrick is nervous about what Ryan is doing in presnap. Trying to sort through so many possible blitzers to find the right combination is not fun - especially when you go to 4 WR and "scat" protection. Scat protection means simply 5-man protection, no help from RB or TE. But, the way the Cowboys align is causing great distress to the presnap reads for the Bills.
To understand why, look at 94-Ware and 90-Ratliff. Ratliff is over the center again and the RG was likely assigned to help. With Ware out wide the RT is locked on one of the most ferocious pass rushers in the sport. So, where does that leave 25-Frank Walker who is standing between them? What an odd place for a corner. The Bills are trying to sort this out. Then the snap happens and Walker and Ware are not rushing at all. Instead, another 4 man blitz against 3 men on the left side. Hatcher, Ratliff, Spencer, all occupy the OL, so around the corner again comes an untouched DB, Orlando Scandrick.
Watch video of play #2 by clicking here.
Again, neither play changed this game. But, it shows what can happen and it shows the opponent what they better be thinking about before they line up against the Cowboys. Corners, safeties, and linebackers. Anyone on the field might be blitzing.
They had better be ready.