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.  





2 comments:

Dave Green said...

It is a miracle this team won eight games and actually had a legit chance to go to the playoffs.

Obviously, they prioritized turnovers the first half of the year and gave up lots of big plays. Then, as they were decimated by injuries, again, they got more conservative, it seemed.

They funny thing is, Romo wasn't that great after Denver. So the 8 and 8 record is all the more mystifying.

There only chance of that kind of success, if you want to call .500 "success," is to run the football and keep this D off the field.

I guess the is always a chance that some of the young defensive guys become all pros, but I wouldn't lay money on it in Vegas.

Dave Green said...

It is a miracle this team won eight games and actually had a legit chance to go to the playoffs.

Obviously, they prioritized turnovers the first half of the year and gave up lots of big plays. Then, as they were decimated by injuries, again, they got more conservative, it seemed.

They funny thing is, Romo wasn't that great after Denver. So the 8 and 8 record is all the more mystifying.

There only chance of that kind of success, if you want to call .500 "success," is to run the football and keep this D off the field.

I guess the is always a chance that some of the young defensive guys become all pros, but I wouldn't lay money on it in Vegas.