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.  

1 comment:

Dave Green said...

Another outstanding post, Bob. Thank you.