Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Kiffin Report: Week 9 vs Minnesota - The Remarkable Waiver Wire DL

If the 2013 Dallas Cowboys go anywhere this season - such as hosting a playoff game in Arlington because they won the NFC East - I believe we will spend a lot of time praising the fantastic job of the defensive line who is in their first year in the 4-3 scheme under Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli.  Those of us on the outside talked the entire off-season about the change with strategy and coaching staffs not being properly supplemented with the appropriate amount of investment to give that unit on the team a chance to be formidable to face.

We are through 9 games and the Cowboys are right above the league average in sacks (23), despite not having renowned pass rushers available.  They have the 2nd most takeaways in the league (21) and they are 12th in opponents' negative plays (-233 yards) which is a stat they finished 30th in last season (-295 yards) in 16 games.  They are making way more explosive, game-changing plays that are winning games.

The defense is surrendering yards in huge chunks and have surrendered more 10+ yard plays than anyone in the league besides Philadelaphia (31st).  And more 20+ yard plays against than everyone but Jacksonville, Chicago, and Denver (29th).  The Cowboys defense is now 32nd in the NFL in surrendering Yards After Catch and 31st in surrendering 1st downs.  Lots of gains against the Cowboys defense, so you can see how vital it has been that they have created sacks, tackles for loss, and of course, all of those splendid takeaways.

Which leads us back to the praise that should be heaped on the strategy or magic tricks or however the Cowboys are getting these plays from largely anonymous players.  This week brought us former Florida State defensive end Everette Brown, who we hear was opening a smoothie cafe with his fiancĂ© in Charlotte when the phone rang.  Brown was out of the sport this season altogether as he turned 26 back in August, after failing to find a home with 4 different organizations (Carolina, San Diego, Detroit, and Philadelphia).  And much like George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Jarius Wynn, and Drake Nevis, maybe being on the brink of ending a career combined with finding the right scheme or coach has brought out his best at what might be his last chance.  Regardless, during his debut on Sunday against the Vikings, he was fantastic and now has people wondering if it is sustainable.

To properly appreciate what this list of defensive linemen is accomplishing, you really need to review how this started back in July.  When the Cowboys went to camp in July, the 2-deep on the defensive line looked like this:

Anthony Spencer Jason Hatcher Jay Ratliff DeMarcus Ware
Tyrone Crawford Ben Bass Sean Lissemore Kyle Wilber

Yes, it was going to be a new scheme, but our biggest complaint back then was depth and scheme adjustment.  Many of these guys were going to be asked to play a position they have never played (or it had been a long time) and they were asking Jason Hatcher to play Warren Sapp's spot.  Something that I admit seemed like a long-shot to me given that he had never been a full-time starter in his first 7 seasons in Dallas.  But, look at those names above and ask who among them has really made plays this season and then ask yourself how this hasn't turned into a complete and utter disaster.

Then, the final cuts on September changed the DL 2-deep roster to look like this below:

Anthony Spencer Jason Hatcher Nick Hayden DeMarcus Ware
George Selvie Landon Cohen Sean Lissemore Kyle Wilber

Tyrone Crawford and Jay Ratliff's health took them off the chart, making this look even thinner as they were to be 2 of the top 5 linemen.  Then, Anthony Spencer needed surgery and missed all of camp, introducing us to the first few retreads (the ones who were in Oxnard) with George Selvie and Nick Hayden.  The inside depth looked very iffy, and within a day or two of the final cuts, Sean Lissemore was traded to San Diego for a 7th round pick in 2015, a move that was certainly difficult to understand given how light the body count already was.  There was also plenty of talk about Kyle Wilber not being an ideal scheme fit and then we started hearing how Spencer was going to have issues all season by Week 2.

Now, entering Week 10, the DL depth chart looks like this:

George Selvie Jason Hatcher Nick Hayden DeMarcus Ware
Everette Brown Drake Nevis Caesar Rayford Jarius Wynn

To look at those names above and to see 5 names that were signed season off the league waiver wires (and a 6th in Rayford who they traded for), is really remarkable given that we believe that this is not a position of weakness on the roster.  They are not getting out-played along the DL on a week to week basis.  We might like more sustained pass rush, but to be at the league average in sacks, despite DeMarcus Ware missing a month, is an absolute amazing accomplishment.  And we haven't even mentioned the names Jerome Long, Jason Vega, Marvin Austin, Edgar Jones, David Carter - other players that have been brought in and have already either been dismissed or injured.  Austin was cut yesterday, which makes this the 3rd team he was released from this season.  Kyle Wilber is still in this group, but it seems as of this moment, the 4 DEs above are the 4 they prefer to move ahead with as DeMarcus rejoins the group in New Orleans.

The biggest question about this unit and the players they are getting huge contributions from is whether it is possibly sustainable.  Are these players candidates to still be making plays at this time in 2014 or 2015, or will the Cowboys need to spend 1st and 2nd round picks or mega-contracts to get permanent solutions at these spots?  Obviously, odds are that you don't find too much treasure in the NFL trash.  These are not undrafted free agents from college;  these are players who have been employed by 4 or 5 different organizations and have been declared washouts in the NFL.  Despite being 26, they are already in the "old bin" and most teams would rather take a shot on a 22 year old.

Rayford is 27, Brown is 26, Nevis is 24, Wynn is 27, Selvie is 26, and Hayden will be 28 in February. These are not puppies anymore and the collection really is impressive given how they are all playing with that relentless effort we have talked about in the past.

The real test when you look at a player is to watch him each snap and try to block out all of your knowledge about who he is, where he is from, what he cost, and what other team has said he can't play.  I promise, with both George Selvie and now Everette Brown, the performances they have in Cowboys' uniforms are proper for a 1st round pick from this past April's draft.  I know that seems crazy, but if they would have taken a guy named George Selvie in the 2013 draft, and he already had 6 sacks in 9 games, you would be over the moon.

So, now Brown has to prove he can do it over and over again, but here are two plays that got me very excited about this being a possible hidden gem.  He has only played 1 game and 31 snaps in the uniform, but those produced about 5 occasions where he jumped off the screen.

Here is one, where he is going against Vikings franchise left tackle Matt Kalil at the top of the screen and while he doesn't get there, he drops his shoulder and goes around him and nearly gets to Ponder before this Touchdown pass.

And then this one (Brown on the far left and wearing #71), in the Vikings final drive, where he gets the sack and the stripped fumble, also against Kalil.  I know Kalil is not living up to his resume in 2013, but Brown was giving him more than he could handle on this day.

As a NFL personnel person told me last night, "Is it scheme, Is it Marinelli's touch?  Is it his last chance to play?  I really don't know. But, he fits the defensive style better than what they have been trying to play with.  All of the guys they've been adding are close to their 9th life and some realize it."

There is enough in this defensive line alone for a book.  What a fascinating season this has been.

Let's check the Splash plays -


First, a reminder of what a splash play is: 

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.

1-13:362/10/O33ScandrickPass Defended
1-13:001/10/O49NevisPenalty Drawn
1-11:223/9/O50CarrPass Defended
1-5:572/10/O48DurantRun Stuff
2-13:384/1/D16Lee/Hayden4D Run Stop
2-4:111/10/D39NevisRun Stuff
3-11:361/10/O5Hayden (2)Recovery for Touchdown
3-9:011/10/D32LeeRun Stuff
3-6:271/10/O18CarterRun Stuff
3-0:181/10/O10HatcherTackle For Loss
4-10:101/10/O18ChurchTackle For Loss
4-7:511/10/D20CarterRun Stuff
4-0:291/10/O42WebbPass Defended
4-0:222/10/O42Brown (2)Sack and Strip


Here are the final results for 2011 and here are the final results for 2012.

Sean Lee had a monster game in Detroit and continues to open his lead on the group.  I have been keeping this stat since 2011 and the record is DeMarcus Ware's 39 in 2011 followed by Anthony Spencer's 38 in 2012.  As you can see, Lee has a good chance to break 40 this season and if he stays healthy - always the key with him - that contract signed in August (6-year, $42million) is going to look like a real bargain.

Selvie       17.5
Claiborne 7
Wilber     5
Allen 3.5
E. Jones3
Heath 1          
Austin       1            
Webb 1
Team Totals 156.5

Pass Rush/Blitzing REPORT

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.  We have spent a good part of the offseason talking about Monte Kiffin's philosophy that, like so many of the great 4-3 schemes, is based on using blitz as a weapon, not a necessity.  If you use the blitz as an ambush weapon that is always threatened but only used at the perfect times, you can often get free runs at the QB.  If, on the other hand, you must use the blitz because your normal pressure is not getting it done, then the offense usually is waiting for you and prepared - so even 6 rushers don't accomplish much.

Once again, the blitz did not lead to too much, although the Cowboys were very close to sacks with a couple blitzes and as you can see below, Ponder caught them one time to Jennings.

3-10:193/4/O29Ponder to Jennings, +276
4-8:411/10/O28Peterson Run, +524


3-11:361/10/O5Selvie Sack 4
4-13:23  3/4/O30Scandrick Interception4
4-0:222/10/O42    Brown Sack     4


Red (Incomplete), Black (Interception), Blue (Complete), and Yellow (Touchdown)

An absolute change of pace from Detroit as Ponder was getting the ball out quickly and seldom taking a shot.  In fact, their most aggressive pass might have been on their drive right after the Romo interception where they went for the kill shot and missed to Greg Jennings.

Pass Rushers Against Minnesota Vikings - 41 pass rush/blitz situations:

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0000
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)01140
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0100

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0210
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0520
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0300

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)1201
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0303
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0100

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go)0100
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go)0000
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go)0000

And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 Rush7
1st Down6 - 3%144 - 82%22 - 12%3 - 1%0
2nd Down2 - 1%114 - 89%12 - 9%00
3rd Down5 - 4%67 - 64%15 - 14%15 - 14%2 - 1%
4th Down1 - 11% 7 - 77%1 -
Totals14 - 3%332 - 79%50 - 12%18 - 4%
2 - 1%

The game by game pressure numbers sent by the Cowboys:

Wk 1 - NYG: 7/49 - 14%
Wk 2 - KC:   10/43 - 23%
Wk 3 - STL: 11/57 - 19%
Wk 4 - SD:  4/43 - 9%
Wk 5 - DEN: 6/42 - 14%
Wk 6 - WAS: 8/45 - 18%
Wk 7 - PHI:  10/51 - 19%
Wk 8 - DET: 8/49 - 16%
Wk 9 - MIN: 11/41 - 27%

2013 Totals:  75/420 - 17.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%

SUMMARY:  I admit that I am grading this defense on a real curve this season, which is what I did last year as well because of all of the health issues.  If you would have told anyone that after 9 games, Kyle Wilber will have more snaps than DeMarcus Ware, some guy named Jason Vega will have more snaps than Anthony Spencer, and Jay Ratliff will have the same number of snaps as you, there was no chance that they would be 5-4 and proud of their defensive accomplishments.  But, they are.  And the DL is constantly adding and subtracting pieces to a point where they are finding a deep mix of useful parts somehow and appear to be capable of keeping this pace going as Ware rejoins them for the first time since before halftime of the Washington game.  

Clearly, having a relatively intact secondary is key against a different animal altogether in New Orleans.  The Saints have a way of finding and exposing your weaknesses, but then again, just like you don't get to play Christian Ponder every week, you also don't have to face Drew Brees more than once.

We also have failed to point out that Bruce Carter appears to be on an uptick again, as the team might have learned in Detroit that Ernie Sims is not the answer and that Carter does have a weakness or two, but to focus on that forgets what his strengths all are.  If his effort is there, he is a key player and while effort was challenged after the San Diego game, maybe he got the wake up call.

To win in New Orleans, they will need plenty of pressure on the QB, and for that, we look to see if Everette Brown can do what he can do and supplement Ware and Selvie and the Cowboys can continue to rotate defensive linemen and get a push to the QB.  It has really been a remarkable story to this point.  

1 comment:

cactusflinthead said...

More hockey. No tags since 09?