Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Marinelli Report - Week 4 - New Orleans

How is the Cowboys defense doing what it is doing?  And can they keep doing it for 16 games?

These are 2 legitimate questions as we head into Week 5 against the Houston Texans.  Because on Sunday night, the Cowboys defense hung in there and stopped the Saints when it mattered on several occasions.

New Orleans and their elite offense had 4 full possessions in the 1st half.  They totaled 22 snaps for 106 total yards in those 4 drives that resulted in 0 points, 2 punts, a missed field goal, and an interception.  The interception gave the Cowboys the ball with a short field and allowed them to add to their intermission advantage, which would stand at 24-0.

How was this accomplished?

Great question.  Heavy blitzing early in the evening and then dropping 7 and 8 as the lead was in hand.  Also, to be honest, Drew Brees was just erratic.  Was that because the Cowboys were getting to him and moving him off his spot?  Maybe.  He was hurried a lot, but only hit 5 times, and barely touched most of the night.  Was it a bad night or did the Cowboys force a bad night?  Probably a bit of both.

There is no question that once again we are impressed by this team's defensive motor.  They fly to the ball and rally around the action very well.  This is a defense of fighters and high-motor players who want to get in on the ball.  Credit the scouts and coaches for knowing what type of players they need to target.  The question remains whether they are high enough in premium talent and whether motor alone can win over the long samples.

Now, in the 2nd half, the Saints mounted a rally, gathered statistics that made it look like they accomplished quite a bit offensively, but this game was won and lost in the early going, as the Cowboys ambushed a strong opponent in their stadium for the first time in ages.


So, now, back to the 2 questions at the top of the page:  How is the Cowboys defense doing what it is doing?  And can they keep doing it for 16 games?

If only our memories had a date search.  Because, at the present, we remember the 2013 Cowboys defense as one of the most wretched collections of underachievers our eyes have ever seen.  But, what did we think 365 days ago?

Luckily, my blog keeps archives. I can revisit exactly how I felt when I sat in front of this very computer and put my thoughts on the screen about the early returns from the 2013 Cowboys defense after a handful of games. Here I was on September 23, 2013:

Perhaps, these jockeys are reaching this group of Cowboys defenders in a way Rob Ryan wasn't.  Or, maybe we are seeing a different approach to losing players to injury and "next man up".  We likely need to let this season develop more before making any bold proclamations, but the early returns are quite impressive.
I have been assured by many from around the league that these two guys - and Marinelli in particular - can routinely pull off projects like Hayden and Selvie.  They describe him as a coach who will absolutely push defensive linemen to be the very best version of themselves that they will ever be.  And have you ever seen Jason Hatcher look like this?  I cannot believe he has been here since 2006 and we are just starting to see what they must have hoped he would become back then.  

And if we consider the things that a Kiffin defense is known for: splash plays, pressure on a QB, and getting off the field on 3rd Downs, we would have to feel pretty strongly that this version looks promising.  
I always thought Rob Ryan was handcuffed by the personnel issues he was handed and then the injuries that took away huge weapons like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter last season.  And that is true, but the takeaways never happened and the team was horrendous on 3rd Downs.  They have been in the bottom 3rd in the league at getting off the field on 3rd Downs since they were last in the playoffs in 2009.  So, to see them 5th in the league through 3 weeks, especially without Spencer or Ratliff in the lineup is fantastic.  
Wow.  Do you mean to tell me that on October 1 of last season, we felt pretty pleased about where the Cowboys defense was after 4 games?


So, just to pound this point home, let's compare the 2 seasons with only September statistics.  These are the numbers allowed by the Cowboys defense through 4 games.  Stop me when you are staggered.

2013 - Sept (4 Gms) 2014 - Sept (4 Gms) Increase/Decrease
1529 yards 1519 yards -10 yards
85 pts 86 pts +1 point
84 1st Downs 78 1st Downs -6 1st Downs
16-49 33% 3rd Downs 21-45 47% +12% 3rd Down
8 Takeaways 8 Takeaways No Change
14 Sacks 5 Sacks -9 sacks
27:54 TOP 26:23 TOP -1:31 TOP

The yardage and the points against are nearly identical.  The Cowboys defense allows 1.5 fewer first downs per game, but are actually significantly worse on 3rd Down.  The takeaways are identical and the Cowboys defense is on the field 91 seconds less per game than they were last year - but even last year, the Cowboys offense was averaging 32 minutes of possession in September.

The most notable difference between Sept 2013 and Sept 2014 is that last year's defense - the squad that causes all of these feelings of impending doom - was way better at 3rd Down defense and 3 times as capable of getting sacks (at this point. Admittedly, Denver was about to change everything).

Now, the 2013 team still had Peyton Manning, Matt Stafford, the Eagles twice, Drew Brees, the Packers and the Bears waiting for them down the stretch.

The 2014 team has Brees and the Saints out of the way, no Lions or Packers on the schedule, but it does have Andrew Luck, the Eagles twice, the Seahawks, Jay Cutler and his giant receivers, and 12 more games before we know what they can do.

In other words, keep peddling as fast as you can.

DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: We are finally getting to a point where injuries are an issue.  Mo Claiborne is, at worst, a competitive CB in the NFL.  Whether he has met your expectations or not is not the question.  He has played and played ok for 3 years and now he is gone for the season.  That hurts. Attrition is a real thing and that injury is in a spot that can be exposed as I try to figure out what the plan is at 4th corner - Tyler Patmon, you are the next man up.

Otherwise, the defensive line rotation had Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey playing the most at 44 of 63, with George Selvie 36, Nick Hayden 31, and even Jack Crawford 28 playing more than Henry Melton's 24.  In fact, Anthony Spencer had 23, to demonstrate that Melton's health isn't helping his attendance record at this point.  Ken Bishop flashed a few times on his 21 snaps to round out the 8 man group.

Linebacker is the issue right now, as they can't seem to get Durant/Carter/McClain out there for a full game together.  One returns, another gets lost to injury like Bruce Carter who will miss Houston and most likely, Seattle.  Hitchens did not play on Sunday and Wilber had 1 snap.  They do have 5 linebackers who can play a bit, so while not ideal, they can handle some short-term absences here better than in the past.

Now, Carr 63, Wilcox 63, Church 57, and Scandrick 63 make up the big 4 with Claiborne down in the secondary and all are playing all the time and playing reasonably well.  But, it does get thin in a hurry.  Heath played 7, and there were no other corners.  For the Cowboys to stay alive after that injury for 50 minutes with only 3 corners left was pretty impressive work, for sure.  Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math on the snap counts.


Run Plays13
Pass Plays46
Avg Starting PositionO24
3rd Down Conversions4-10, 40%
4th Down Conversions1-2, 50%
Yards Per Play7.4
Yards Per Pass Attempt7.3
Red Zone TDs - Drives2-3, 67%

Lots of yards and lots of stats, but if you pay attention to 2 spots - 3rd Down defense (40%) and takeaways (3) - and you see all you need to see.  The Cowboys are 10-2 under Jason Garrett when they get 3 takeaways.  The only 2 losses at New England in 2011 and at Detroit in 2013.


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.

1-6:412/3/O41Chuch/CarrStop No Gain
1-4:353/2/D45Scandrick3rd Down Stop
2-12:421/10/O35T Crawford Big Pressure
2-9:593/9/D30Church3rd Down Stop
2-5:042/2/O28CarterPass Defended
2-4:031/10/O20Melton/SelvieTackle For Loss
2-3:262/10/O20ScandrickPass Defended
3-13:461/10/O30T CrawfordPass Batted Down
3-13:412/10/O30T CrawfordHolding Penalty Drawn
3-11:541/10/D12ScandrickPass Defended
3-11:203/10/D12HaydenHeavy Pressure
3-5:391/10/O39MoorePass Defended
3-5:043/2/O46CarterPass Defended
3-2:452/8/D27R McClainFumble Forced
3-2:452/8/D27WilcoxFumble Recovered
4-8:032/15/O35MoorePass Defended
4-2:271/10/D48Melton Sack
4-2:002/14/O48Durant/J CrawfordFumble Forced
4-2:002/14/O48MooreFumble Recovered

20 splash plays!  That is a lot for 1 game.  In fact, it is a season high.


1. LB Bruce Carter              7.510. LB Justin Durant2.5
2. CB Sterling Moore712. CB Morris Claiborne      2
3. LB Rolando McClain6.512. DT Nick Hayden2
4. DT Henry Melton4.514. DE Jeremy Mincey1.5
5. CB Orlando Scandrick415. DE Kyle Wilber0.5
5. DE Tyrone Crawford415. LB Cam Lawrence0.5
7. S JJ Wilcox3.515. DE George Selvie0.5
7. S Barry Church 3.515. DE Jack Crawford0.5
9. CB Brandon Carr3
10. LB Anthony Hitchens2.5
Team Totals                 56

The rankings are starting to shake out a bit.  On the plus side, Bruce Carter, Sterling Moore, Rolando McClain, and Henry Melton.  On the down side, I wonder what is going on with George Selvie?  He was dominant in the first half of 2013.  He still flashes, but he isn't getting there with the same explosion.

Career Totals
2013 Totals
2011 Totals



During the Marinelli Report, we attempt to chart how the opposing quarterback fared against the DAL pass rush (unlike Decoding Linehan, when we chart drive progression). The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came during a given throw. Each line entails where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught.  Dotted lines are incomplete passes.

Week 4 Summary


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.


2-11:271/10/O47Brees to Colston, +224
3-12:121/10/O42Brees to Stills, +464
4-14:001/10/O26Robinson Sweep, +624
4-10:452/10/O41Brees to Cadet, +315


2-5:042/2/O28Durant INT off Carter tip4
4-2:271/10/D48Melton Sack on Brees4


Each week we calculate how opposing quarterbacks fare against the Dallas blitz. Consider this the raw data behind the passing chart.

Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 4/8, 74 Yds, 1 TD, 1 SACK
Wk 2 - Jake Locker: 3/6, 22 Yds
Wk 3 - Austin Davis: 4/7, 42 Yds, 1 INT
Wk 4 - Drew Brees: 6/8, 68 Yds, 1 TD

2014 Total: 17/29, 206 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT - 89.1 QB Rating


Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys 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 New Orleans - 46 pass rush/blitz situations:

Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - Blitzed 33.3%
Wk 2 - Tenn: 6/38 - Blitzed 15.7%
Wk 3 - STL: 7/42 - Blitzed 16.6%
Wk 4 - NO: 8/46 - Blitzed 17.3%

2014 Total: 30/147 - Blitzed 20.4% 

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

The scheme and the personnel call for limited blitzing and playing coverage to protect the soft personnel.  Marinelli has to be very selective how he employs the blitz and did a very fine job at times on Sunday.

I think it is interesting that he chose to blitz early and on early downs.  On 1st Down against the Saints, Rod sent the blitz 5 times.  On 2nd Down he sent it 3 times.  But, on 3rd Down?  No blitzes at all.  Kind of the Anti-Rob Ryan.

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6+ RushTotals
1st Down3 -
12 -
4 -
1 -
20 -
2nd Down4 -
11 -
2 -
1 -
18 -
3rd Down3 -
4 -
007 -
4th Down1 -
0001 -
Totals11 -
27 -
6 -
2 -

And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 RushTotals
1st Down3 -
45 -
12 -
1 -
62 -
2nd Down5 -
33 -
7 -
4 - 8%49 -
3rd Down6 -
28 -
1 -
3 -
38 -
4th Down1 -
1 -
002 -
Totals15 -
107 -
20 -
9 - 5%

SUMMARY:  Now that the dust has settled for a few days of great feelings, it is worth noting that the Cowboys defense is starting to slide statistically in quite a few categories.  They are getting gashed on 1st downs, are now 20th in 3rd Down rate, and are now 32nd in the NFL in yards per play surrendered at 6.49 a snap.

They are 3-1 and that is awesome news, but the season is young.  As much as we think the offense is for real, I must also confess that the ominous signs of minimal pressure on the QB and attrition are not going to go away.

Just last week I wrote the following about how this 2014 season might hinge on 2 players defensively:  Rod Marinelli must get Bruce Carter and Mo Claiborne back to what we thought they were to have any chance.

Then, Claiborne was lost for the year and Carter dropped in pain late in one of his better performances in years.  Let's hope I was wrong about how important those two are.  The defensive line is bolstered by the return of Spencer, and seeing DeMarcus Lawrence and maybe even Josh Brent on the horizon.  That unit might actually be ok, although, whether those new names can increase pressure on the opposing passers is speculative at this point.

If they can continue to make a few plays and get a few takeaways, everything will be fine.  But, we saw in 2013 that the stream of takeaways can stop without warning.  They had 8 last September, 11 last October, and then just 6 in November, and 3 in December.  That surely was enough to cost them the division and the playoffs.

None of us - especially me - have any idea what is around the next corner.  But, hopefully, reading this today will remind us all that it is a very long haul.  4 weeks is great.  But, the remaining 12 will write the narrative for 2014.


Keith G said...

Great analysis as always, but two gripes: We had three corners after Claiborne was injured. You left off Sterling Moore. Also, the defensive numbers table left off the 4th down conversions. Not counting the failed fake punt, I believe NO was 1 of 1 in converting 4th downs.

Sturminator said...

Thank you. I could use an editor.

Shelby R. Gray said...

The comparison the glares at me between 2013 and 2014 is turnovers. How much worse would the defense have looked even in September 2013 if they had only 5 takeaways?

I also think that getting Spencer back, and then Lawrence, is something we didn't enjoy last year. We had a hobbled and aging Ware and Hatcher only. I think, so long as health is on our side, that Crawford+Melton, Spencer, and Lawrence have a chance to at least keep the defense competitive.