Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Marinelli Report - Week 5 - Houston

As we go through a season evaluating and discussing the work of Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli, it is a good exercise as we go to ask ourselves to consider what they are dealing with.

In this particular case, if Houston and Ryan Fitzpatrick are coming to town, how will we handle him as a defense?  For instance, how will the challenges that he offers differ from those that New Orleans brought to the table?  With Houston, you see a team that has trouble doing too much offensively, despite solid WR personnel and a real good (but maybe not fully fit) RB.  It seems they have a QB who is pretty pedestrian and is not a threat to use his legs.  

So, the conclusion that we come up with is to bring pressure.  But, we are also facing a game without Bruce Carter at LB, meaning plenty of rookie LB Anthony Hitchens.  So, how do we bring pressure without dedicating too many numbers to pass rush and then have to live with poor man-to-man coverages behind them that might not fit our personnel?

Zone blitzing.  Or, as Jason Garrett referenced: 
"Obviously we have not had huge sack numbers, but I do think we are affecting the QB and making him uncomfortable.  We didn't have the big losses but we were around him.  You affect him with individual pass rush and you affect him with dogs and blitzes you might bring, and I think were able to do that even though we didn't have many sacks."  
So, when he says something like that, I think it is important to know what that means on the film.  

Anyone can use the Madden approach (and find out why NFL coaches don't think like Madden players very often) and sell-out blitzes that expose you for big plays, but what about these "dog" concepts?  Well, the dog is just an interchangeable coaching term for zone blitzes that obviously have now been in our game for a very long time.  They once were the new play-toys that Dick LeBeau dazzled so many with, but now, this is without question the easiest ways to try to create confusion and some chaos as you design a defensive game plan with the idea of "attacking without exposing."

Bring pressure and still play safer zones behind it.  

Let's look at an example of confusing pressure with only 4:

So, now you are Ryan Fitzpatrick.  It is 3rd Down and 10 of the 1st drive.  Look above without cheating by looking at the picture below.  You see the pressure options as Marinelli has lined up 7 players across the line of scrimmage.  The offense looks it over and has to identify which spots are most likely to rush.  From left to right, Wilcox-Spencer-Melton-Durant-McClain-Crawford-Mincey.

So, who is blitzing?  How many?

The answer is 4.  All 4 on the defensive left, 0 on the defensive right.  In fact, if you go back to Frame #1, you will see that 55-McClain was on the right, now handles the left part of the shallow zone.  Mincey, the DE is now zoning opposite of McClain on the right.  And who has the TE in man to man?  How about Tyrone Crawford - your defensive tackle???  Fitzpatrick is looking at him and waiting for him to shake loose, but what he doesn't see is 27-Wilcox sneaking around and about to hit him.  Or affect the passer.  Incomplete pass - punt.

So, they didn't "blitz" - just a 4 man pass rush.  But, they did make the offense do mental gymnastics to set protection and they did get to the passer in a complex and interesting way.  That is coaching and scheme and making the most of what you have.

You better not do it again like that much, because Houston is now looking at punishing you for putting DTs on TEs, but you got away with it on 3rd and long.

Now, this one.

Look above, Cowboys look like a very basic 4 man front on 2nd and 2.  This is 2 snaps before the Scandrick interception.  So, who is rushing and how many?

Well, this time, it is a 5-man rush, but Hitchens is coming from off the screen on the left, while Mincey is again dropping to get the slot WR who just happens to be Andre Johnson (are you brave enough to throw this idea out at the coaches meeting?).  55-McClain is going to try to shoot the B-gap once Hitchens draws the RT and Selvie engages the RG.

Look at Fitzpatrick in every frame.  He can't believe they are doing this again.  And he is waiting for Johnson to expose Mincey with the middle now vacated by McClain.  So there is the defensive decision.  Do we rush 4 and leave McClain to help in the middle, or do we blitz McClain and hope Mincey can hold on as long as it takes 55 to get home?

Look above at what is happening.  McClain is free.  Fitzpatrick has his arm cocked.  Mincey is trying to stay with a veteran WR and Johnson is trying to figure out what is going on.  This is the beauty of football chess.  Fitzpatrick is guessing how Johnson will see this and leads him into space.

Johnson disagrees with that idea and the ball falls to the ground with nobody even close to it.  

In both cases, the Cowboys are trying creative ways to steal downs and to not resort to blitzing 6 or 7, but still to get near the QB and try to trick him enough to get off the field.  They never blitzed more than 5, but brought 5 on 11 occasions out of 26 (which is a high number for Marinelli - and as you will see below, they blitzed a ton until they got the lead).  But, in each case, it was a different look with different rushers.  

The basic math is actually simple.  The offense has as many as 5 targets to cover.  So, in turn, your options are limited to your resources.  Send 4, you can cover 5 receivers with 7 in a multitude of ways.  But, if you send 6, now only 5 defenders remain for 5 receivers (man to man).  Therefore, unless you have all superb man cover guys or you don't mind risk all over the field, you have to figure out ways to blitz sparingly and to bring "dogs" the rest of the time.

Or, the obvious solution, have rushers who can get there with 4.  That seems to be the most tried and true solution, but that one costs the same level of commitment that building an offensive line requires.    And if you have been too worried about OL to spend much on DL...Well, you get the idea.


Here is our Gif of the week.  It is JJ Wilcox, a player I am not sold on yet, making the type of play that will sell you on him.  He saves a big play here as the Cowboys are blitzing a corner meaning JJ must get this guy down in the flat.  

There are blockers in front - this could be big.  But, Wilcox splits the blockers and gets DeAndre Hopkins down.  Well done!


Here are a few submissions from Twitter for this week:

Here is another Rod Marinelli favorite - 3rd and long.  What is the plan?  See for yourself:

It is the ever popular 3-6-2 zone.  The Texans need 20, so my line of 6 is at about 15 yards, with some safeties at 25.  If you watch the plays, it ends up looking like a kick return with collisions and bodies everywhere.  I imagine offenses will have a counter to this, but it looks pretty sound strategically as long as everyone swarms when the screen concept which gets many lead blockers out in front of a shifty small back (Darren Sproles/Percy Harvin) in space.  It is not fool-proof (or everyone would do it) but so far it looks like it is confusing the offenses.  

DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: No Bruce Carter and no Morris Claiborne means we start to test the depth.  5 defenders played every snap: Durant, Carr, Scanrick, Wilcox, and Church.  The rest rotate throughout (although Rolando McClain is out there all snaps, too, until he aggravated his groin).  Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey are playing the most on the DL with snaps around 45, with Hayden and Selvie around 35, Spencer and Melton around 25, and Crawford and J McClain under 20.  It is tough to fully decipher what is health related and what is role related.  But, I do think it is worth noting that Tyrone Crawford has gone from being a piece to THE piece.  Hitchens played 34 snaps and Kyle Wilber was the only other LB to get a snap and he had 1.  Sterling Moore took 38 snaps and otherwise, no other DB played than those 5.  Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math on the snap counts.


Run Plays31
Pass Plays25
Avg Starting PositionO26
3rd Down Conversions4-13, 31%
4th Down Conversions1-1, 100%
Yards Per Play5.9
Yards Per Pass Attempt6.2
Red Zone TDs - Drives2-3, 67%

In a league where 4 teams give up less than 5 yards a play (Miami, Detroit, Buffalo, and Seattle), the Cowboys are 32nd in this stat, surrendering 6.38 yards per play.  When you factor in the opposing QB they have played, this remains troubling.

It can be equalized with 3rd Down defense and Takeaways.  They are basically a league average 3rd Down defense through 5 games (opponents are 43.1% on 3rd (15th) and the league average is 42.1%) and they are tied for 10th in takeaways with 9.

Fingers crossed.


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.

1-15:001/15/O15Carr/SelvieStop No Gain
1-13:533/10/O20WilcoxPass Breakup
1-11:171/10/D40Scandrick Interception
1-1:232/6/O42T CrawfordHolding Drawn
1-0:542/16/O32ScandrickPass Defended
2-8:031/10/O22CarrPass Defended
2-7:332/15/O17WilcoxBig Hit and Stop
2-5:442/10/D43WilcoxPass Defended
3-6:081/10/O20T CrawfordTackle For Loss
3-5:282/11/O19T CrawfordHolding Penalty Drawn
4-12:463/6/O12McClain3rd Down Stop
4-6:471/10/D39Selvie/DurantRun Stop
4-5:223/9/D38Moore3rd Down Stop
4-2:363/4/D11MinceyBig QB Pressure
5-13:113/2/D48MinceyBig QB Pressure

Lots of JJ Wilcox and Tyrone Crawford this week.  Hurray 2012 and 2013 drafts!


1. CB Sterling Moore             811. LB Justin Durant3
2. LB Bruce Carter7.512. LB Anthony Hitchens   2.5
2. LB Rolando McClain7.513. CB Morris Claiborne2
4. DT Tyrone Crawford713. DT Nick Hayden2
5. S JJ Wilcox6.515. DE George Selvie1.5
6. CB Orlando Scandrick616. LB Cam Lawrence0.5
7. DT Henry Melton4.516. LB Kyle Wilber0.5
7. CB Brandon Carr4.516. DE Jack Crawford0.5
9. S Barry Church3.5
9. DE Jeremy Mincey3.5
Team Totals                 71

I just tally the totals, I don't explain them all the time.  If you had told me that Sterling Moore would be leading this category through 5 games, I would say the Cowboys are 1-4.  The rest seems to add up a bit better.

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 5 Summary

Though the Blitz Report at the bottom will report an uncharacteristic number of blitzes (or, uncharacteristic as to what we've grown accustomed to this season), blitzes were only sent as a mean to gaining the lead. Through the first three quarters, for instance, the Cowboys blitzed during an uncanny 66 percent (10-15) of their opposing snaps. Once they entered the final quarter with a 10-point lead, however, those blitz numbers regressed to the tune of 9 percent (1-11) for the remainder of the game.


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.


3-9:342/6/D48Foster Left End, +334
4-1:591/10/D45Fitzpatrick to Johnson, +204
OT-15:001/10/O20Foster Middle, +244


1-11:171/10/D40Scandrick INT                        4


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
Wk 5 - Ryan Fitzpatrick: 6/11, 41 Yds, 2 FD

2014 Total: 23/40, 247 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 2 FD -  81.9 QB Rating


Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.

Clearly, they thought they could turn up the heat on Fitzpatrick and he won't beat you.

Pass Rushers Against HOU in 26 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%
Wk 5 - HOU: 11/26 - Blitzed 42.3%

2014 Total: 41/173 - Blitzed 23.6% 

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

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6+ RushTotals
1st Down03 -
3 -
06 -
2nd Down05 -
5 -
010 -
3rd Down1 -
5 -
3 -
09 -
4th Down01 -
001 -
Totals1 -
14 -
11 -

And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 RushTotals
1st Down3 -
48 -
15 -
1 -
68 -
2nd Down5 -
38 -
12 -
4 - 6%59 -
3rd Down7 -
33 -
4 -
3 -
47 -
4th Down1 -
2 -
003 -
Totals16 -
121 -
31 -
9 - 5%

SUMMARY:  Clearly, it would be foolish to write up a report on the defense this week and not reference the extremely troubling situations where Arian Foster did whatever he wanted in the 3rd Quarter, followed by the situation in the 4th Quarter where they were absolutely on the scene when Houston almost hauled off and came all the way back with 2 late scoring drives.  

Add to that just 1 takeaway and 0 sacks again and we can see what Marinelli is trying to scheme around.  It requires a full team strategy (offense, protect your defense) to keep this ship sailing.  

This should remind us that the margins are extremely thin around here, and the simply idea of Rolando McClain leaving with an injury can turn this plucky unit into a mess.  That said, they seem to have better reserves than we have seen in the last few years, and young players are starting to emerge and gain confidence.  The story of Tyrone Crawford is gaining steam each week and now we are wondering if they might prefer him to Henry Melton with all things being equal at that 3-technique.  What a great problem to have.

This defense is based on being assignment-sound, creating confusion and chaos for the opposition without exposing your own weaknesses, and more than anything - flying to the football with all 11.

When you do watch this defense on film - including those plays shown above (especially the Wilcox play) you can see the effort level on all 11 on the field.  That is vital and can assist in making sure any shortcomings in talent is compensated for with effort and fire.  That can only take you so far, but it can take you a bit.  

Seattle will test this defense in extraordinary ways - in particular if Carter and McClain are down (and I don't see how they aren't).  The Seahawks have a real interesting offense that really attacks from sideline to sideline with horizontal principles (lots of jet sweep action and counters combined with zone stretch plays to the strong side behind a massive offensive line).  This makes you respect both, and that stretches your defense from side to side and isolates the weaknesses as well as anybody.  Then, once they soften you up, they cut loose the play action for the kill shots.  They will not throw you to death, as only the Bengals have thrown fewer passes this season.  But, they will make you respect the whole field and it is all built around a QB in Russell Wilson who always keeps that passer rating above 100 and also can kill you with his legs to the tune of 7.2 per carry.   

Everyone always talks about the Seahawks defense, but don't believe the hype.  Their offense is a massive test for the Cowboys defense with speed and concepts that can give them a fine dress rehearsal for Chip Kelly and the Eagles - but with a much better QB1.  

It would be wonderful to see what the matchup would be like with #54 and #55 available (let alone #50), but that isn't how this league works.  Those who can, march on.

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