On Wednesday, the defense goes under the microscope in our "Marinelli Report". We want to try to figure out what they were trying to accomplish, how well that went, and who in particular played well. The report includes "splash plays", our highly subjective, individual award program.
Of all of the unlikely scenarios to present themselves on Sunday, surely the way the defense dealt with Russell Wilson, Percy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch, and the rest of the Seahawks' weapons has to go quickly to the top of the list. It appears that most of the NFL has adopted the "You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them" philosophy when dealing with the Super Bowl Champions and their sideline-to-sideline concoction of speed and misdirection, but the Cowboys played like they were in the Seattle huddle hearing the play calls.
Harvin, in particular - Seattle's highest paid player in 2014 and most devastating weapon many weeks - was absolutely smothered every time he had the ball in his hands. Harvin had 7 plays called for him (3 runs, 4 passes) that combined for -1 yard. I would be hard pressed to find a similar defensive effort in recent years to allowing negative yardage to a player of his status.
And Wilson, who has a reputation already in his 3rd season as being unflappable and consistently deadly, has started 42 games in his career as of this moment. Only 4 times has he passed for fewer yards than his 126 on Sunday, only twice has he had a lower passer rating than his 47.6 on Sunday, and only 6 times has he rushed for fewer than 12 yards as he did on Sunday. And almost none of those previous bad days happened in front of his home crowd. Let's just say the 12th man didn't see this day coming.
So, how do we explain all of this again? How do we account for the Cowboys defense being able to do something that the rest of the league will now study as the blueprint for how to deal with Seattle?
The answer is not going to be particularly exotic, I don't believe. For Rod Marinelli, you can see they absolutely employed what you would expect a defense to try to do against Seattle - which is trying to keep the undersized Wilson in the pocket. The pass rush appeared to be in more of a "contain" technique than you would normally see, with even the occasional spying LB to make sure he doesn't take his escape path to move the chains with his feet. They continue to mix coverages and contest every pass at its arrival with cornerbacks who are comfortable with WRs more their size (Seattle has a group of smallish WRs relative to what the league can show you in places like Chicago).
But, overall, it was a test to the front 7 (particularly the edge players in the front 7 - DEs and LBs) who would have to stay disciplined to not fall for the ball fakes and misdirection, yet be quick enough that when Harvin tries to turn the corner, he is met by a convoy of Dallas defenders. Dallas continues to fly to the ball. And this is where we wonder about the chicken and the egg discussion through 6 weeks:
Is the Dallas defense playing better because they are playing fewer downs? Yes, it seems. And is that because the offense is killing off the clock or because the defense is getting off the field on 3rd Down and winning on their own? My eyes tell me this team is making more defensive stands and getting off the field, but the evidence is not agreeing with my eyes: Through 6 games last season, the Cowboys 3rd Down offense was surrendered a 1st down 33 out of 78 times for an opponent conversion rate of 42.3%. In 2014, that number is 30 out of 71 for a conversion rate of 42.3%. They are better by the slightest fraction, but effectively, they are exactly the same.
So let's go back to the number of downs they are facing. Through 6 games in 2013, the Dallas defense had already played 409 snaps - an average of 68.2 snaps a game. This year, the total snaps faced is 338 - an average of 56.3 per game. In 2013, the Cowboys faced fewer than 60 snaps from an opponent only twice - (H) vs Giants and vs Oakland. In 2014, they have faced fewer than 60 snaps 5 times! Every game but the Rams, the opponent has had to deal with their offense playing much less than usual.
It appears the cliche might have been backwards. In fact, the best defense may simply be a great power-running offense. What is the best way to improve upon a historically bad defense in 2013? Keep them off the field. Then, when they do play, they can be fresher and attack with more ferocity because they don't have to worry as much about pacing themselves to survive 3 hours.
It all seems so simple when it is properly executed.
Let's look at a couple moments from Sunday's performance. These first two Gifs are to show you why Russell Wilson was dealing with from the pass rush. Look how they are fighting with 4 rushers to keep him in the pocket. Look how they are trying to keep contain to force him to stay in between the hash marks if possible.
Most impressively, above, please note 93-Anthony Spencer. I have long been a real admirer of what he brings to the table (although I recognize he has frustrated many Cowboys fans who wanted him to be DeMarcus Ware), but like anyone, I feared micro fracture was going to be the end of his relentless pursuit. We may never know what he would be like as a DE in the 4-3. Well, Sunday showed me that 93 is back. His quickness on these plays we are highlighting seems to demonstrate that he can really be a factor on the way to January. Very impressive recovery for the veteran who has been a dominating player at times in his career.
Look above at this one. Zone read, and Wilson wants to bootleg around Spencer and get to his targets on the right. But 93 shuts it down and sends him back inside. Cowboys playing outside contain against Wilson all day on his zone read, and made him uncomfortable. But, Spencer's discipline on this type of key-and-diagnose has always been good, and now, with his knee allowing him to stay with a quick QB like Russell, he nearly forced a sack/turnover here.
Finally, below, it is the kill-shot. The interception by Rolando McClain in the final minute to close the deal on the victory.
From the wide shot, it looks like the Cowboys are in Good ol' Tampa 2. Where, your MLB 55-McClain carries the middle of the field back to the safeties and this time, it means that he is able to pick off a pass that is meant to bisect the back 2. The 2 outside corners are carrying their men to the sideline and maybe even playing man on the edges (as the Cowboys are running a ton of hybrid coverages - most of them with their corners in man) and Scandrick and Durant playing the shallow hook/curl spots of OLBs in nickel.
This was the question about Rolando McClain in Oakland - whether he was a liability in pass coverage. Not saying this is the biggest challenge he will face in a season trying to cover a TE down the middle, but he looks pretty comfortable here getting his hips turned in his drop and then squared back up in his back pedal to pick off the pass. Also, see Tyrone Crawford fork-lifting James Carpenter back into Wilson. Crawford is very impressive, but we all await his many pressures to start converting into sacks. He is close.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: No Bruce Carter again means Kyle Wilber gets a chance to play 13 snaps and had a few big moments in pass coverage. He was attacked and was able to defend his spot pretty well (and avoided a flag then dropped a potential Pick-6). The secondary is consistent now with Church and Wilcox settling in, Scandrick, Carr, and Moore challenging every pass. Jeff Heath showed up for 12 snaps as the 3rd Safety. On the DL, Mincey (43) and Crawford (39) are playing the most, with Spencer now 3rd (31 snaps), Hayden and Melton both played 27 snaps and Selvie 24. Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math on the snap counts.
WEEK 6 VS SEATTLE - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
On Sunday, they were able to get off the field with 8 3rd Down wins in 13 attempts. Also, the Seattle passing game hardly had a big play all day long. 4.5 YPA is something you will take against anyone, let alone in Seattle. Then, in the red zone, force Field Goals to keep that defensive magic trick going.
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 SEATTLE WEEK 6
19 splash plays were given on Sunday. Tyler Patmon stopped his man short of the sticks to get on the board for the first time, and as we mentioned above, Anthony Spencer, who led this category in 2012 is on the board in 2014.
2014 SEASON TOTALS
Team leaders through 6 games? Rolando McClain and Tyrone Crawford. Just like we all thought in August, right?
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 6 Summary
Even with very few sacks to date, something as simple as consistent pressure can easily produce a chart layered with dotted lines.
Look at that, below. Almost no lines down the field. Wilson had nothing going on Sunday.
This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED (+20 Yards)
SACKS AND INTERCEPTIONS
PERFORMANCE AGAINST THE BLITZ
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
Wk 6 - Russell Wilson: 2/6, 25 Yds, 1 FD
2014 Total: 25/46, 272 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 3 FD - 77.4 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
Against Seattle, it was a very conservative - drop 7 into coverage - approach. Surely, we cannot argue with the philosophy of keeping Wilson in the pocket and then attempting to collapse the pocket into his face.
Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - Blitzed 33%
Wk 2 - at TEN: 6/38 - Blitzed 15%
Wk 3 - STL: 7/42 - Blitzed 16%
Wk 4 - NO: 8/46 - Blitzed 17%
Wk 5 - HOU: 11/26 - Blitzed 42%
Wk 6 - at SEA: 7/31 - Blitzed 22%
2014 Total: 48/204 - Blitzed 23.5%
2013 Totals: 140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals: 134/551 - 24.3%
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
SUMMARY: What more can you say? At some point, we are going to have to credit the Cowboys brain-trust for assembling players who can carry out the plan of the day. Please forgive those of us who wonder if disaster is around the next corner, but it still seems unlikely that they could lose Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Morris Claiborne, and now even Bruce Carter from last year's very poor defense and then go into Seattle and spank the champs.
Is it sustainable? Let's take this week to week. Next, here come the Giants who are licking their wounds from a tough night in Philadelphia where they lost Victor Cruz for the year, a guy who generally makes a living off the Cowboys. Since the Giants and Eli Manning are 4-1 in Arlington, and since the only loss was when they turned the ball over 6 times last September, I think the best advice is for all involved to put Seattle in the rearview mirror now and get ready for the first NFC East Divisional opponent.
But, as we turn the page after 6 weeks, we must tip our cap to all of the bright spots about this defense. Tyrone Crawford, Rolando McClain, and Orlando Scandrick are very high on that list. But, the best and most promising aspect of this sustaining for a while is that there doesn't appear to be a major achilles heel that the Cowboys are trying to scheme around right now. In other words, when you attack the Cowboys defense, who do you want to go after?
And maybe that is what the philosophy really has been. As we focus on star power and and name recognition, maybe the biggest difference with the defense this year versus 2012 and 2013 is the idea that they while they don't have any elite defenders, they also don't have any weaklings being exposed.
If each player is ranked on a scale of 1-10, maybe they lost some of the top end, but have been able to make sure they the least of their defenders are at least solid. The numbers all say that the Cowboys are merely about league average on defense. But, as we have felt for many years, if only the Cowboys defense could play at league average, maybe the offense can be good enough to take them somewhere.
So far, so good. And with Spencer flashing, DeMarcus Lawrence returning to practice, and Bruce Carter back for Washington, you can understand the optimism and confidence from Marinelli's troops after Seattle.