Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Marinelli Report: Week 1 vs 49ers

Every week in this space we want to attempt to examine the Cowboys defense and get a feel for what Rod Marinelli is attempting to accomplish with his group.  Some of it is clear for anyone that has followed his defenses, but the unclear part is whether or not he has the man power currently available to carry this out.

Last year, we spent some of our time examining the playbook of the 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers which has been passed around the football internet a bit and perhaps gives us a look at what the players under Marinelli and Monte Kiffin have preached at them on a daily basis.  I think starting here is a proper place to begin every season:

I enjoy reading that (even though I am sure every team challenges the pride of their players) because it seems like it often matches the profile of the players the Cowboys are using on their defense in these days where they are churning the roster, digging through waivers, and extending minimum offers to those who are in the room.

Let's face it - of the names who participated on the Cowboys defense on Sunday - there are almost no top picks making top pick money.  Morris Claiborne would be the exception (for now).  Everyone else on this defense was either drafted low and had to make their money (Carr, Melton), drafted high and has fallen off (Carter, McClain), or drafted low and still is working to prove the world wrong (Selvie, Church).  It is really a mix of guys who must have chips on their shoulders.

So, in that sense, the Cowboys have the right types of guys to fill this scheme, because the two biggest objectives of the Rod Marinelli defensive philosophy appear to be understanding your role (positioning, technique) and relentless work-rate.  Both of which, as the coach points out, do not require immense talent.

So, as the Cowboys have plugged in names that even those of us who follow this game 365 days a year need an almanac to learn, we do see that they are finding players that fill that profile.  The slow, plodding, stand-and-watch-if-the-play-is-away-from-me types are out.  And the run through the whistle, fly-to-the-ball types are populating the roster.

I thought on Sunday that Jeremy Mincey was a great example of the type of player they are looking for in that regard.  Mincey, 30, was going after the highly-touted left tackle for the 49ers Joe Staley all day long and was close to the QB on several occasions.  I will confess to not knowing Mincey very well as he spent 2006-2013 with Jacksonville and that is a defense I don't spend much time pondering.  But, his debut in white was most impressive, as he was quite noticeable.  He was brought in to rotate at that spot with DeMarcus Lawrence, but we should not assume that the undersized rookie will out-class Mincey upon his arrival.

And then there was new middle linebacker Rolando McClain.  If you are a fan of this team, you know how badly the loss of Sean Lee hurts for 2014.  You also know the "Hail Mary" pass that thinking Rolando McClain can solve this problem since he hasn't been in the NFL since 2012 and when we last saw him he seemed like a rich and talented young man who had no use for football in his life anymore and frankly, football had no use for him.

Then, he spent August giving everyone at camp the impression that he still doesn't like football too much with his spotty attendance record at daily practices.  Was he unable to get his body ready for practices?  If so, how will he deal with the punishment of NFL games?  Surely, there is no chance.

And then we saw some moments on Sunday that indicate he might just need game day to bring out the best in him.  Two are below:

Those are not the best plays in the NFL, so I don't mean to get carried away.  But, Sean Lee cannot do that better than he did there.  He diagnosed, then decisively found the ball and ended the play on interior runs with great routine on Sunday against one of the more powerful run teams in the sport.

Now, for now, he doesn't appear to be a big participant against 11 personnel, and since most teams run that a ton these days,  I am not sure McClain will have as big an impact on most Sundays.  However, if you want to line it up and run right at the Cowboys, I think 55 might be a nice card to have handy in 2014.  And if you want to get really carried away, you can start to visualize how to get McClain and Sean Lee in the same group in 2015.  But, as I said, that is really getting carried away.

Now, it wasn't all good on Sunday.  I will try to breakdown the disappointing 2014 debut of JJ Wilcox tomorrow (or whenever NFL Game Rewind decides to let the coach's tape out), but trust me, Vernon Davis is not supposed to be that open.

And while 7.65 yards per pass attempt allowed is not good by any stretch, it actually is not one of the Top 20 worst YPA surrendered in the last 4 seasons!

The 49ers didn't pass much - as the score suggested - but when they did, there were open players and big plays nevertheless.  To run this scheme (or just about any scheme), they need better corner play from their big 2012 investments - Carr and Claiborne.

Defensive Participation:  Mincey, Hayden, Coleman, Crawford started on DL and played the most.  Selvie 27, Melton 26, Bishop 21, Edwards 15 all rotated in.  Selvie and Melton are working back from injuries.  Carter, Durant, and R McClain played LB throughout, When Durant left with injury Wilber 4 and Hitchens 5 played briefly.  Carr and Claiborne at the corner with Moore as the 3rd with 39 snaps.  Wilcox had a team high 58, and Church 51, with a cameo from Heath 7.  No Scandrick, No Terrell McClain, No Anthony Spencer.


Run Plays30
Pass Plays24
Avg Starting PositionO18
3rd Down Conversions7-12, 58%
4th Down Conversions0-0, 0%
Yards Per Play5.9
Yards Per Pass Attempt7.6
Red Zone TDs - Drives2-3, 67%


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.
SPLASHES vs San Francisco - Week 1

2-11:362/8/O42Mincey/MeltonHeavy QB Pressure
2-9:323/1/D37WilcoxHolding Drawn
2-8:221/10/D32R McClain/CarrTackle For Loss
2-7:502/11/D33CarterQB Sack on blitz
2-7:003/20/D42MinceyHolding Drawn
2-2:481/10/O47R McClainRun Stuff
3-15:001/10/O20CarterPass Batted Down
3-14:542/10/O20DurantRun Stuff
3-14:163/10/O20ChurchPass Broken Up
3-7:442/10/O47CrawfordQB Hit 
4-13:201/10/O36HaydenTackle For Loss
4-7:122/6/D22R McClainRun Stuff

This is likely the spot where we repeat the number from Monday's Morning After piece: 
 The tempered enthusiasm on the defense would be based on not taking the ball away at all, and the Cowboys have now lost 17 games (Kansas City - 2009) in a row when they generate 0 takeaways.
Not all splash plays are created equal.  This team will need about 32 takeaways to win the division (I assume), so clearly that is the emphasis every week and how this defense will be judged.


1. MLB Rolando McClain 2.5
2. LB Bruce Carter2
3. DE Jeremy Mincey1.5
4. S JJ Wilcox1
5. LB Justin Durant1
6. DE Tyrone Crawford1
7. S Barry Church1
8. DT Nick Hayden1
9. CB Brandon Carr0.5
10. DT Henry Melton0.5
Team Totals                 12

Career Totals
2013 Totals
2011 Totals


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.

I think the Bruce Carter sack was a perfect example of proper technique as he delayed his run for a split second, the 49ers looked elsewhere, and then he snuck in and popped Kaepernick on the delay.  Well done on a 6-man blitz.


Yesterday, we unveiled the new drive progression + passing charts for Decoding Linehan. Today, we display the new opposing passing charts, featuring performance against the pass rush. The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came on that particular throw. Each line entails the spot where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught. Which down these rushers came during can be found in the Pass Rusher Totals near the bottom.


1-6:441/10/O34Kaepernick to Boldin, +375
1-6:031/10/D29Kaepernick to Davis, +294
2-12:591/10/O20Gore run, +204
2-2:003/8/O49Kaepernick to Johnson, +215


2-7:502/11/D33Carter Sack6

Just one.  Durant almost had an interception, but that was not allowed after review.


Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 1/2, 37 Yds, 1 SACK


Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys will send pressure on passing plays.  Week 1 showed an aggressive defense trying to get the ball back to attempt to generate a rally.

Pass Rushers Against San Francisco - 21 pass rush/blitz situations:

Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - 33.3%

2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%

And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 RushTotals
1st Down04 -
4 -
08 -
2nd Down1 -
4 -
1 -
1 - 14%7 -
3rd Down3 -
5 -
1 -
1 -
10 -
4th Down00000
Totals4 -
13 -
6 -
2 -

SUMMARY:  In general, the defense was not too bad on Sunday.  I warn us all to slow our roll about how good it was because I think we all have to assume that the 49ers decided to get a bit more vanilla as the game went on and not show off too many new wrinkles and ideas to future opponents as long as they were ahead 28-3.  

The 49ers are a very strong team and they play a physical brand of football.  It looks like Tennessee, St Louis, and New Orleans all believe more in 11 personnel and stretching your defense horizontally and vertically.  This means more need for the nickel back (Scandrick?) and less need for the MLB.  It will put a larger premium in getting a pass rush going and being able to tackle in space.  Personally, with Durant's health in doubt, I would love to see more Ro McClain on nickel downs until he proves he can't do it, but I am sure they want to ration his snaps to keep him available.  

I also think we need to continue to watch Tyrone Crawford who looked promising at times and ways to use him with Selvie on that left side.  If they can get Melton playing more and Selvie back to 2013 form, you can see how they are optimistic that they may not have as much "top end" talent on the front, but they seem to have 6-8 defensive line options that are good enough to consider as a workable DL rotation.  

In other words, they are anonymous, but Marinelli might be building something right under our noses that he is not upset with.  I am sure he wishes they would have thrown several new bodies at him back at the draft, but if this line can hold its own, they might surprise some people.

Of course, we can reach no conclusions after Week 1, besides the idea that they weren't bad at all as a group.  They need sacks and takeaways to supplement flashes of reasonable play.  

Now, let's see more.  

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