There are many, many statistics that we track during the course of a football season. Every week, I get a report sent to me that has roughly 300 different team stats which certainly make one eligible for "paralysis by analysis".
But, when tracking a defense, all of these different stats point to the only stat that truly matters for a defense - limiting points that are being scored against you. The name of the game is to win, but, of course, that is a team accomplishment where you are awfully dependent on the offense (and they are dependent on you). If one of you is substandard, then the other side has to compensate...or lose.
So, on Sunday against the New York Giants - a team the Cowboys have averaged allowing 29.1 points per game in the "Cowboys Stadium" era - they allowed only 21 points for the second meeting in a row. 21 points against, as you can see below, is the season average against Dallas which ranks them 9th in the NFL and 3rd in the NFC in this vital category.
The difference in points per game from 2013 to 2014 might not sound like a lot to you (it is only 6 points!), but just know that in this generation of the NFL, 27 points per game allowed ranks around 30th in the league and 21 points per game allowed usually squeaks you into the Top 10. 6 points is an enormous upgrade.
In the bye week, we will have a detailed breakdown on why everything is working out (and we will have 3 more weeks of data to insure us that we are not seeing a sample size uptick that will continue to normalize), but today, I would rather focus more on what this gif video shows us below. The fire in the belly of Rod Marinelli:
Marinelli started coaching in 1973 at Rosemead High School and then in the college game in 1976 at Utah State. That was a long time before he met up with Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay in 1996, so to assume that he doesn't have his own philosophies and ideas that predate Kiffin is ridiculous. He is not a disciple who merely repeats what he heard from Kiffin. But, there is one thing that when you hear either of them speak that is clear and consistent. They both believe you can make up for a lot of things with a high RPM motor. There is nothing difficult about spending every ounce of energy you have for 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon. Leave it all on the field. Here is one of my favorite paragraphs from a Monte Kiffin clinic speech that best encapsulates their belief system on how to play defense:
"The first thing we teach from day one in camp is that the name of the game is pursuit. You have to teach the defense to fly to the ball. That fact has not changed. On defense you must fly to the ball and gang tackle. You can talk about it all you want, but if you don't practice it on the field, you won't do this in the games. You have to coach this in practice every day. We do it at the pro level. Even though the pros are paid well, you have to work on this to get them to do it." - Monte Kiffin, 1991
Kiffin hit on something there. Paychecks. The financial situation of many pro athletes is such that being yelled at to hustle harder is not always well-received. That is why it is vital for the Cowboys to find and develop the right types of players to play this system. If you are looking for possible reasons for the Cowboys looking like a better defense in year 2 of the scheme change that dig a little deeper than the absurd idea that Kiffin no longer understood defense, it would be that Dallas now has far more players who are willing to play that style than they did at this time in 2013. Rick Gosselin tackled this very topic in this very blog back in January of 2013: “Monte Kiffin is a great coach,” said Dungy, who had Kiffin as his defensive coordinator for six seasons (1996-2001) at Tampa Bay. “But if they want to go to this system, it will take a couple of years to get the right pieces to this puzzle. To get the 4-3 front personnel and the defensive backs tailored to play this system is going to take a few drafts.”
At the time I read that, I took it to mean the pieces of the 4-3 system from a size/weight/ability standpoint. The more I think about it, I wonder if Dungy was thinking about the mentality of players who fly to the ball and play through the whistle. The types of players who are gang tackling and then trying to pry the ball loose on every play. The types who are whipped into a frenzy and play "confrontational defense", not this bend-but-don't-break garbage that has been rolled out too often.
Also, it helps to have so many players who are trying to prove they are NFL players. As the great Bob Gainey, the respected GM for so many years of the Dallas Stars, "it is hard to be hungry when you are full." Simply put, players who have been paid well, generally play differently. Again, these are generalities, but that is how teams have to think.
Know your assignment, carry out your assignment, and play with everything you have or we will get someone in there who can when you need a break.
Again, many people are waiting for the other shoe to drop as the sustainability of the defense seems much less of a safe bet than the sustainability of the offense. But, there is no question this defense looks far more assignment-sound and 11-to-the-ball than we have seen in years.
So, what was Marinelli screaming about in the video above? Easy. He was not pleased with Jeremy Mincey for the play below. Mincey, who I think is exactly the type of high motor player they were targeting this spring (cheap and ready to go 100% every snap), busted on a 3rd down early in the 3rd Quarter.
In defensive line play, there are basic "contain" concepts when pass rushing. Eli Manning is certainly not a runner, but last week in Seattle, you could see the Cowboys were dialing back their pass rush and concentrating much more on keeping Russell Wilson contained. This means that each of the 4 rushers know his lane and responsibility. Therefore, you cannot have anyone free-lancing and choosing a direction that is not part of the contain package. Below, Mincey has contain and loses it.
Watch 92-Mincey and 65-Beatty who is helped by a chipping TE as they push Mincey into the middle of the line. When he gets pushed inside further, Eli sees man-coverage and knows he can just run to the sticks. Mincey loses contain and Marinelli loses it.
That is why you want a defensive coordinator on the field and not in the box, in my opinion. Instant feedback. Now, Mincey is likely thinking that his assignment was difficult as he was chipped inside pretty hard from a 2nd guy, but Rod isn't worried about your excuses. He wants you to carry out your assignment.
One more thing before we get into the data, and that is a play I watched last night about 15 times in a row. I must confess I have a thing for Rolando McClain and the level of play he has brought to the Cowboys defense after the loss of Sean Lee. I know it is blasphemous to say, but I don't think Lee can do better than what 55 does below.
Seek and destroy. Even with a pitch out, McClain knows what you are thinking and he plans on snuffing it out with great authority. Beautiful.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: Another game without Bruce Carter, but otherwise, the availability of this defense continues to be solid. So does the consistent quality of 52-Justin Durant and 98-Tyrone Crawford. Terrell McClain is making his first real impact at the 1-technique and it seems he may take workload from Nick Hayden. Whether Josh Brent and/or Amobi Okoye can challenge for Hayden's roster spot is a question for the future. Otherwise, no real snap issues jump off the page this week. Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math on the snap counts.
WEEK 7 VS NEW YORK - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
Back to back performances against the Seahawks and Giants where they had a total of 16 3rd Down wins out of 26 opportunities. 5-13 in Seattle and 5-13 vs the Giants. That will win some games and then the strips of 2 Giants fumbles and a 3rd that was disallowed.
Also, 59 snaps again. The recipe keeps working.
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 NEW YORK GIANTS WEEK 7
20 splashes this week. The average so far was 15 before this game, so it was an active and productive defensive effort, despite 0 sacks again.
2014 SEASON TOTALS
* Terrell McClain was omitted from the above chart in error. He has 2 on the season.
I do realize that splashes are not equitable for cornerbacks, because Sterling Moore is clearly being attacked more than Brandon Carr. Moore has more chances (as Eli was throwing at him specifically) and therefore has more splashes. I admire Moore, but I don't suggest for a second that he is a better corner right now than Carr.
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 7 Summary
The chart shows us what we knew going in - the Giants passing game is quite shallow and horizontal right now. Eli throws the ball short continuously and the Giants don't have much punch over-the-top. But, Odell Beckham looks like a real keeper.
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)
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
Wk 7 - Eli Manning: 7/8, 75 Yds, 4 FD
2014 Total: 32/54, 59 Cmp%, 347 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 7 FD
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
As you saw above, Eli was not troubled much by the Cowboys blitz. They still can't figure out how to get to the QB. Close doesn't count for too much.
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%
Wk 7 - NYG: 8/35 - Blitzed 22%
2014 Total: 56/239 - Blitzed 23%
2013 Totals: 140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals: 134/551 - 24.3%
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
SUMMARY: If I were to imagine a team that has cut down scoring this much, I would have to assume that they are causing a ton of turnovers and getting a ton of sacks.
They have caused 12 takeaways (7 interceptions, 5 fumble recoveries) which trails only the Giants and Packers in the NFC and puts them on pace for a respectable 27. That isn't fantastic, but it will work and it has allowed them to survive the offenses' generosity.
As for sacks, they are on pace for easily the worst season in Cowboys history. In fact, the worst season ever in sacking the opposing was 1991 when they got there just 23 times. Of course, 7 sacks in 7 games is an easy pace to figure out. 16 is an amazingly low season total. But, 6-1 fixes a lot of things.
They continue to move pieces around and try new ideas hoping they can hit on better solutions and get more pressure on the QB. Anthony Spencer should continue to improve, DeMarcus Lawrence is almost ready, Bruce Carter is a go for Washington, and so on.
Again, it isn't spectacular and easy to explain like the offense, but so far so good. Now, you prepare for the Redskins who continue to have poor QB play and a vulnerable offensive line. But, they will challenge you with DeSean Jackson, a man who has had his share of memorable days in Dallas, and is absolutely hitting home runs in his new uniform.
But, for now, 7 weeks in and the defense is defending to the ceiling of even the most optimistic expectations.