With each passing week, the numbers continue to accumulate to tell us a more complete story about the quality of the Dallas Cowboys defense. The bigger the sample size, the more we can learn about how improved the Cowboys are in 2014 defensively versus the record-breaking lows of 2013.
As we continue to preach each week, the statistics that matter the most for any defense will always be points allowed. That total from last season of 27 points a game was nearly insurmountable for the offense to out-perform often enough to make the playoffs. That had the Cowboys ranked near the bottom of the league and was ultimately seen as the biggest area to focus on improvement coming into this season. Of course, "allow fewer points" is a macro idea that is best addressed through a number of micro improvements all around the field.
So, 27 points in 2013 had been upgraded substantially to 21.7 per game (9th in NFL) through the first 9 games of the season. Now, we should caution any celebrations because there are multiple games upcoming against high-octane offenses, but the idea that they are in November and still ranking in the Top 10 in opposition scoring (nearly 2 points per game better than league average, 23.4) is worth noting.
After Sunday, they will hit a bye week to allow many bruises to heal, and that means with 6 games to go on November 23, they will be at pretty close to full strength health-wise for the stretch run (barring any unforeseen injury issues on the unstable turf at Wembley) with players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Josh Brent with almost no wear and tear to speak of.
But, let's look at what is starting to creep into the Cowboys game a bit too much defensively in this stretch - situational football issues.
We often refer to the numbers of great importance for a defense beyond points against, and those will always be takeaways (take the ball away), 3rd Down Defense (get off the field), and Red Zone defense (allow 3 points instead of 7).
These numbers guide every report card and allow us to go much deeper than just the poor, vague statistics of yards allowed, which generally tells us next to nothing in context.
So, through 9 weeks, we see that the Cowboys a 4-0 when they generate multiple takeaways. Incidentally, they generated multiple takeaways 3 times in September in 4 games, but just 1 time in October in 5 games.
Now, let's look at the situational football. 3rd Downs are slowly creeping back down to the bottom in the last few weeks, and the Cardinals were just killing Dallas on 3rd Downs with 9 gutting conversions, but they still linger around the league average (44% Dallas, 41% is NFL average).
The big concern is this red zone defense. The Cowboys are not forcing enough field goals when a team breaks inside the 20 yard line. In fact, the last 8 times the opponent has been in the red zone, they have left with 7 points. 8 in a row! That will get you beat.
Here is the Opponents Red Zone TD% by week. These numbers are their accumulated season totals:
The 3-game ascension shows the 8 for 8 on this 3-game home-stand. If they are not allowing a frightening number of trips to the red zone (which they are below league average), then the trick is simply to mix in a stop at around the league mark in the 57% range. That was no issue through 6 weeks, but now they are 29th and threatening to drop right to 32nd if they don't force a field goal or two soon. 3 points won't always kill you, but 7 points will. Watch those 3 trends for this defense that competes hard but is still undermanned from a premium talent standpoint. They have to figure out a way to bow-up and make a stand.
The 2014 depth chart has contributions being made by rookies (denoted by green by Ourlads.com on their charts). Zack Martin has received the most love, but it was pretty enjoyable to see 3 "green" names on the field Sunday and all looking like they belonged between DeMarcus Lawrence, Anthony Hitchens, and Tyler Patmon.
Of course, you would hope that Martin and Lawrence can play, as the team invested heavily in both of them. But, to see Anthony Hitchens toss bodies around from that Will Linebacker spot like he was still wearing a Hawkeyes uniform really should encourage anyone who was skeptical of that pick.
But, what do we make of Tyler Patmon? Patmon wowed us all when he made the team in place of 2013 draft pick BW Webb by just making plays in the preseason. If you want to catch the eye of the team, make a play like this in a game and you are good to go:
Before that, though, his story is pretty interesting - including a story about how he had to tryout for the Cowboys just to get a chance to go to training camp. That is not customary, as usually, the Cowboys are trying to talk undrafted college prospects into the idea of going to training camp and proving their worth. He had to talk them into it.
That follows a college career where he was at Kansas until his graduation, but then a falling out led to a "mutual agreement to part ways" that found him using his final year of eligibility at Oklahoma State where he would line up with Justin Gilbert, the standout corner who would be picked #8 overall by Cleveland last spring. Patmon had no such luck in the draft, but would get a chance to prove his worth in Oxnard and on the preseason field. There, he just made play after play to where they couldn't cut him loose.
Well, the Cowboys decided to roll out a dime defense against the Cardinals on 3rd and long situations which is 4 Corners and 2 Safeties. That leaves 4 DL and Rolando McClain and then they pretty much breakout a little Tampa 2 with corners Patmon and Scandrick playing the roles of outside linebackers underneath and McClain dropping into the deep middle with the safeties widening out. Look at Patmon pass his man off and then get back into the hook/curl space and read the eyes of Carson Palmer.
That is not the type of play you expect from an undrafted rookie who had to ask you to consider him. But, look what the Cowboys found - a corner with ball hawking tendencies.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: Patmon played a dime role that gave him 14 snaps which is noteworthy because it was only 2 fewer snaps than Bruce Carter with 16. Carter played significantly less than Anthony Hitchens (51) and even Kyle Wilber (25). It appears that they are not married to forcing the pending free agent back onto the field. DeMarcus Lawrence played 28 snaps in his debut and was plenty active which allows the Cowboys another body. That will come in handy as it appears Tyrone Crawford will not be back until after the bye. But, I will take that because when it happened, it looked much worse. Again, the big story is we are here in November and the Cowboys are winning this battle of attrition - mainly because the new players they are putting on the field look like NFL players. That is a major credit to the scouts and front office for really improving on their failures of 2012 and 2013 in that regard. But, there is a lot of season to play.
WEEK 9 VS ARIZONA - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
We have covered this above, but you can't allow 9 3rd Downs and 4 for 4 in the red zone and live to tell about it very often. The idea that the "defense did enough to win this game" does not compute when you consider those huge aspects of situational football.
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
SPLASHES VS ARIZONA - Week 9
2014 SEASON TOTALS
Look at Henry Melton charging up the boards. He has come on nicely and is now appearing to be the difference maker that we didn't see in the first several weeks due to health concerns.
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. Squares are sacks.
Week 9 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.
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
Wk 7 - Eli Manning: 7/8, 75 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 8 - Colt McCoy: 5/7, 66 Yds, 2 FD
Wk 9 - Carson Palmer: 5/7, 42 Yds, 2 FD
2014 Total: 42/68, 61 Cmp%, 455 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 11 FD - 85.1 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
As you can plainly see, the Cowboys do not want to blitz - it is not part of their idea of how to play sound defense. And unlike last year in December when they panicked, they are sticking to the script.
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%
Wk 8 - WAS: 8/35 - Blitzed 22%
Wk 9 - AZ: 7/36 - Blitzed 19%
2014 Total: 63/275 - Blitzed 22%
2013 Totals: 140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals: 134/551 - 24.3%
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD: We knew it was going to take everyone paddling as hard as they can on this defense to keep things afloat. There will be good weeks and bad weeks and the bad weeks would likely come against veteran QBs. But, the Cowboys have had their day against Drew Brees and Russell Wilson but then got taken to task by Colt McCoy and Carson Palmer a bit.
It comes down to the last few weeks on 3rd Down - from halftime of the Washington game until now, the Cowboys have just been slaughtered on 3rd Down. Add in the 4th down conversion the Skins obtained, the Cowboys have been hit for 16 conversions in 26 attempts. 62%? That won't beat anyone. They have to get off the field and in the last 6 Quarters, they haven't come close.
But, you can't change the past. I am sure that Rod Marinelli is going to keep pushing buttons and trying things to find new results. Next up is a rookie QB in Blake Bortles, and that might give Marinelli the opportunity to throw some wrinkles at the rookie that he won't expect.
The idea of having Melton to replace Crawford is unlike any luxury this Cowboys defense has had in some time. Also to have 4 corners that are serviceable suggests that unlike a year ago, they have options.
Now, they have to get back to finding those results that they had in the first 6 or 7 weeks. And to assist with that, they get to play an offense that has very little - Jacksonville is about as docile as you can find in the NFL. They do almost nothing well offensively at this point.
So, if there is an opportunity to get well before the Cowboys must deal with the Eagles and Colts, here it is. Seize the day.