The defense finished Week 10 feeling great about itself. To go win a game away from home (a long way) and to win 3rd Downs (Jacksonville 4 of 14, 29%), take the ball away multiple times, hold them to 3 yards per carry, and to do it all without Tyrone Crawford and Rolando McClain is just flat-out impressive. Yes, it was against a Jacksonville offense that hasn't accomplished much of anything against anyone on their schedule, but this was a Dallas defense that we were pretty sure couldn't stop anybody back in August.
It reminds me of a piece that was written back in August by a Dallas blogger called, "the case for average", that I have thought about plenty this season as we have gone through this unlikely defensive revival. Admittedly, I wasn't optimistic in the slightest about this defense after the loss of Sean Lee on top of the free agency exits of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, followed by the bad news for DeMarcus Lawrence. All personnel developments left little room for hope of this defense being able to keep its end of the bargain.
But, the author, Adam, made the case that even though the top end talent gets the headlines and the attention, this team can actually get near the league average if it merely fixes the players lower in the depth chart. The idea is that when attrition and injuries hit, you will be more prepared to put "NFL-worthy" defenders on the field as replacements rather than fringe players who get quickly exposed by top offenses.
For instance, if Ware and Lee and Hatcher were "8s" on the scale of 1-10, but the replacements were "2s", what if you dropped your top ends down a few numbers but brought your reserves up to a 5? I will admit, I didn't much share his optimism, but I didn't forget the premise.
Well, with each passing week, we are seeing this plan in motion. We are seeing that while the Cowboys have fewer "top end" talents who will get Pro Bowl consideration on the defense, they are seeing that when Justin Durant or Morris Claiborne are lost for the year they have a plan. They also seem to be able to withstand plugging a guy named Jack Crawford (who I think it would be reasonable to say this week was the first time many Cowboys fans had ever heard of him) in for Tyrone Crawford. And Anthony Hitchens can handle filling in a few times for Rolando McClain.
Now, there is no guarantee that it will always go perfectly, but think about those times we have had to see Hitchens fill in for McClain - At St Louis and At Jacksonville. In fact, don't think about it, just look below:
Above, Zac Stacy takes the ball on 4th and 1 and is wrapped up and sent back when 59-Anthony Hitchens diagnoses and reacts to the pulling guard and destroys the play and the Rams drive. Hitchens is not playing passively nor gently. He is attacking - almost like McClain or Lee in front of him.
Now, here we go this week. 4th and 1. Toby Gerhart and pulling guards. Let me use this opportunity to again campaign against any team pulling guards on 4th and 1. It never works against a 9-man front. There is too much traffic to navigate and they generally just get in the way. Anyway, here is 59-Hitchens picking his way through the bodies, mirroring Gerhart perfectly, squaring him up, and ending the drive right then and there. Beautiful.
Hitchens wasn't supposed to be a key member of the LB crew this year. He was drafted to play special teams in his rookie season and grow into a bigger role. Then Sean Lee was hurt. Then, Devonte Holloman retired. Then, Justin Durant was lost for the year. Then, Rolando McClain was hurt against Arizona. Next man up. Always be ready.
Another component of success that reared its head on Sunday is the scheme and tactics run by Rod Marinelli this season. He uses common sense and hustle as the two major ingredients to what he wants done. Set up ideas that can be easily followed and demand that each player bury the needle on their RPMs until the whistle. Pedal to the metal.
I write every week about the blitz and its effects. I have learned by doing this study that the only way to use a blitz properly is as a weapon, not a necessity. You may remember after the Chicago game last season the madness of hearing Jerry Jones call for more blitzing because, “We just need to take more risks,” Jones said. “In a more conservative approach like Monday, the results are going to be the same, so we might as well try to somehow get more turnovers.”
That, of course, is exactly the wrong reason to do anything - although it is a common approach from fans. We get frustrated with what we do best not getting us results, so then the common idea is to try to do something else that is completely out of character and hope to do even better. It never works, but it is often suggested.
Regardless, that was going to be one of Marinelli's tasks. Figure out how use the blitz in a way that it doesn't make things even worse. He realizes he does not have Harvey Martin and Randy White sacking the QB, but he also knows that bringing numbers too often can result in exposing the secondary and giving up big plays. And giving up big plays cannot happen if this team is to go anywhere, so now we are back where we started this conversation - use the blitz as an occasional ambush weapon, but generally only rush 4 and drop 7 into coverage.
Let's take a look at the history of the Cowboys defense while blitzing from Wade to Rod. In 2009, the Cowboys were 11th in the NFL in opponents passer rating versus the blitz in Wade Phillips' last full year. Then in 2010, they were 32nd. Followed by Rob Ryan's 2011 and 2012 in which the Cowboys were 31st in the NFL, and then 29th. Last year, with Monte Kiffin pulling the strings, the Cowboys were right back at 32nd in the league - surrendering an opponent's passer rating of 117 for the entire season against the blitz. That means, they were making every QB into the best QB in the league when they brought pressure. Very bad.
But, so far in 2014, there is reason for optimism - or as Adam suggested, the case for average. Could the blitz and other portions of this team merely squeeze up to league average? Check the chart below:
So, you can see the green line, which is the NFL average passer rating versus the blitz. You can see it is creeping higher and higher each year as rules and QB play conspires to make this a league where defenses never have success. You can see the blue line, which represents the Cowboys and the atrocious manner in which they are way worse than the league from 2010-2013.
But, through 10 games in 2014, the Cowboys defense has picked its spots and are now ranked 15th and are surrendering a rating of 88, while the league is averaging a 91. Better than average. So far, so good.
Here is a look at one of the 3 sacks the Cowboys had that was a result of bringing more than 4. This was from the 2nd Quarter and it shows a zone blitz, but one with a rare 6th man coming from the nickel corner slot. Notice the DE on the top, 93-Spencer, dropping back into coverage next to 32-Scandrick, as 42-Church and 20-Patmon both rush.
Jacksonville is being careful as they have a 7-man protection, but the Cowboys get there on both edges. Look below at the fine work of 92-Mincey against Luke Joeckel.
If DeMarcus Lawrence had done that, we would all be over the moon. Mincey dominates on his way to the QB and Church meets him at the QB. That is the 2nd time in 3 weeks that Mincey has shown his ability to bring a pass rush off the edge and has beaten Trent Williams and Joeckel. Well done.
Their rate is still barely over 20% still, but they are picking their spots and most importantly, they are getting home. That has been the overall issue over the last 4 seasons. They blitz and yet they don't get there. That exposes your undermanned secondary and you give up a 50-yard slant.
It is a delicate balance, but they are doing well in this category for sure.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: The story of the week when it comes to playing time is Jack Crawford who played 41 snaps and most of them at defensive tackle. I point that out because he was a defensive end when we saw him earlier in the season, but here he was at the 3-technique and he accounted for 4 different splash plays. That may remind you of Tyrone Crawford, who seemed quite ordinary at defensive end, but upon moving inside, he looked like Jason Hatcher. Quite remarkable. His 41 snaps were the most on the team - more than Melton, Hayden, or Terrell McClain. Shocking, to say the least.
Garbage time also led to more playing opportunities for those down the roster, including Cam Lawrence (10 snaps and a sack), Keith Smith (10 snaps and a splash), Jeff Heath (18), and CJ Spillman (8). All snap counts from ProFootballFocus.com.
WEEK 10 vs JACKSONVILLE - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
SPLASHES VS JAGUARS - Week 10
It is plenty confusing to have multiple Crawfords, McClains, and Lawrences on this defense. But, as you know, all of the Crawfords above were the English-born story-of-the-week, Jack Crawford.
2014 SEASON TOTALS
For what it is worth (maybe not much) the Cowboys had 166 snaps through 10 games last year (in 754 snaps). This year, 629 snaps has brought on 158 splashes. So, in 2013, it was one every 4.54 snaps. In 2014, it is a splash every 3.98 snaps.
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. Red squares are sacks.
Week 10 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
Wk 10 - Blake Bortles: 4/6, 47 Yds, 2 FD, 3 Sack
2014 Total: 46/74, 62 Cmp%, 502 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 13 FD, 3 Sack - 85.5 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
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%
Wk 10 - JAX: 9/45 - Blitzed 20%
2014 Total: 72/320 - 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: The recipe to a better defense might be to play Jacksonville more often. In fact, you do wonder about the AFC South schedule that allows a defense to play Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston twice each if you are the Colts.
But, let's give credit where credit is due. The Cowboys overhauled their defensive personnel depth, and added guys like McClain, McClain, Mincey, and Melton to the return of Spencer and development of Crawford and Wilcox and the additions of rookies like Patmon, Hitchens, and, now, Lawrence. And now, Josh Brent will have a chance to add to the mix and you can see that this defense isn't about the top 3-5 players. It is about 20 guys who seem to have a role and are each ready to contribute when the chance arises.
They have some very steep hills to climb in the final 6 games - beware, Chip Kelly! - but, again, the Cowboys have done what many of us thought impossible just 90 days ago - they appear to have the makings of an average defense.
And that may be good enough to play in January.