Sunday was quite a tale of two halves from the Cowboys defense against the Giants. In the first half, the Cowboys needed until inside the 2 minute warning of the 2nd Quarter to mix in their first stop of the night. The Giants marched down the field for touchdown drives the first three times they touched the ball with relative ease, to the tune of 223 yards on 30 plays which is a very poor 7.43 yards per play to concede. During those drives, the Giants converted 7 of 7 3rd Down attempts which added to a trend of the Cowboys spending the last month or so sliding down the standings in situational football.
Over the last month - from the Washington game until today - the Cowboys are the worst team in the NFL (32nd) at getting off the field on 3rd Down. They have allowed teams to convert 3rd Downs on 30 of 59 occasions for a 51% conversion rate. Prior to that Washington game, the Cowboys were actually slightly worse than league-average (40.9% is the NFL 3rd Down conversion rate) at 3rd Down defense, allowing 35 of 84 for (41.7%). That puts them now at 29th for the entire year.
They have also fallen down the charts all the way to 31st in Red Zone defense as well. In a league where 55.7% of all drives that enter the red zone are converted into touchdowns, the Cowboys are allowing 7 points on 67.7% of occasions. Indianapolis is worse, but that is the only team that can claim as much. Dallas has only allowed 31 opponents' trips inside the 20 (league average of 35), but have then allowed 21 touchdowns (league average is 19).
But, to the Cowboys credit, they are where they are through 11 games because they can and have played better in spurts. And the 2nd half against the Giants was impressive work for the most part. After being soundly whipped in the 1st half, the Cowboys dropped the Giants' yards per play down to 4.6 and recorded stops on 5 of the 6 drives - including a monster interception by Barry Church that turned the game (although any fair look at that thanks Eli Manning for his exceptional generosity) and the vital 4th down stop by Rolando McClain which secured the game.
Now, they face a team that brings with it a reputation that will stretch a defense and isolate its weaknesses with a scheme that certainly brings a unique challenge to the table. The Eagles under Chip Kelly have run an offense that over 2 years has run up the yardage at a very impressive rate. Basically, they are able to gash opponents for as many big runs as anyone but Seattle while also able to throw for as many big passes as anyone but Denver. Essentially, they have put themselves in a production category with Denver, New Orleans, Green Bay, and New England since Kelly was hired - without having a Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady as a QB. That neat trick over the course of almost two full seasons certainly should not be disregarded.
The issue with Philadelphia is two-fold, the first being their ability to massage the tempo to their liking. They are not more efficient than most teams in those vital execution-based metrics like 3rd Down rate (13th) or red zone rate (28th!), rather, they just know that the more chances they get, the more they can convert enough to stay ahead. With tempo, they are rushing you back to the line of scrimmage, certainly taking away your ability to specialize your personnel with substitutions, and not allowing for much time to recover or collect your thoughts before they come at you again.
The 2nd issue is the ability to tactically put you in "classic conflicts" where they stretch you horizontally to a point where you cannot deploy enough players from sideline to sideline to take away what they want to do. This is the life-blood of Kelly's scheme going back to Oregon where there are a number of packaged plays that basically present the QB with a decision tree where plays can evolve in a number of directions based on how the defense defends it. It turns into simple math and strategy, and Kelly rightfully gets credit for a design that is both simplistic in its approach but plenty complex to defend. Invariably, if he can increase the snaps in a game and stress all 11 defenders, he knows that ultimately, he will catch one of your guys napping and the big plays occur. If he ever finds a Quarterback who can perform at the high-leverage moments, it will be interesting to see how far it can go against the league heavyweights.
That said, he is a month from winning the NFC East again, and Rod Marinelli's unit might be the only way they are stopped. He will require assignments being handled, tackles being made, and, as usual, the timeliness of some key stops and takeaways for the Cowboys to celebrate Thanksgiving with a massive divisional win.
Looking ahead and behind brings us back to a player who has made 2014 his season. I was asked two days ago if the Cowboys could only have one of Rolando McClain or Sean Lee to keep for the future, who would I rather have? This is a hypothetical that may be irrelevant, because Lee is under contract and McClain is not - and the Cowboys have plenty of contract concerns for the spring - but, for the exercise, it is an interesting debate (and that alone speaks to the amazing year 55 has had).
I asked one high-ranking member of the front office and he hedged his answer by saying they are plenty different animals and each has his own issues - positive and negative. But, he then confessed he would love to see what they look like next to each other in 2015.
Wouldn't we all?
McClain for me should be paid the compliment of at the very worst, upholding the level of play from that position when Lee is available. As my friend Bryan Broaddus has said a million times, what type of ice cream do you prefer? Which means, it is all a matter of what type of player are you looking for. For me, I love the idea of a middle linebacker who plays downhill and punishes. I prefer big to small in the trenches of the NFL, and as good as Lee has been over the years, I am not sure his body is designed for the warfare between the tackles. Again, with no disrespect for Sean Lee, I think Rolando McClain was made for these battles. He is a destroyer of run plays.
Let's see a few from Sunday:
Watch #55 - diagnose and attack. He dive bombs in there and then brings the shoulder to snuff out a run before Rashad Jennings can get back to the line of scrimmage.
This one is the best. McClain runs past a tight end who didn't have a chance to find him before he circles and attacks again for another tackle for a loss. There is no indecision in his game. He trusts his eyes and attacks.
This is where McClain is awesome. The stretch plays to the sideline. We have seen this over and over this season as the middle linebacker basically mirrors the running back and meets him in the hole. The Center 55 is supposed to get him, but Rolando runs past him. Do you think Jennings loves what he sees when he wants to cut upfield? And then, he tries to hit the booster, but McClain is not letting him get away.
Look at this collision. Same situation as the other play above but the pain train is coming. Explosion and certainty for where he is going. Jennings is surely getting tired of this routine.
Another one where McClain takes these goal-line runs as a personal challenge and he sees the play so quickly. Then, he doesn't fall for the FB dive and meets him right at the line again with force. Diagnosing is one thing, then being able to make the stop is vital as well. McClain does both.
And then, the play that saved the game. Look how he directs Carter and makes sure they have their ducks in a row on who has who. Then, he battles to protect that 30-yard line.
From what I saw on Sunday, the Giants game for McClain might have been the single best performance of a Cowboys defender in any game this season.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: A scary moment on Sunday night was when it appeared Orlando Scandrick was injured. He is as tough as they come, but when you look at these final 5 games and the players they can least afford to lose on defense, the cornerbacks must remain upright with Brandon Carr and Scandrick. Sterling Moore also has played a ton of football this season and against a number of 11 personnel teams, the Cowboys need to be able to continue to count on those 3. Otherwise, the rotation up front is intact, but the 2nd wave of Anthony Spencer, Henry Melton, and DeMarcus Lawrence need to step up with more splash plays in this final month. Jeremy Mincey and Tyrone Crawford have done a lot, but the more those and George Selvie can contribute, the better chance this thing has. All snap counts from ProFootballFocus.com.
WEEK 12 vs GIANTS - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
So many snaps and so many 3rd Down conversions. The Cowboys got away with one on Sunday from those perspectives.
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
SPLASHES VS GIANTS - Week 12
As demonstrated above, this was the Rolando McClain show, with special guests Jeremy Mincey and Barry Church.
2014 SEASON 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. Red squares are sacks.
Week 12 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.
We see again that the Cowboys are almost never sending pressure. They are trusting their front to bring the pressure and their coverage to be as sound as possible.
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
Wk 12 - Eli Manning: 6/6, 75 Yds, 5 FD
2014 Total: 52/80, 65 Cmp%, 577 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 18 FD, 3 Sack - 89.4 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%
Wk 12 - NYG: 7/42 - Blitzed 16%
2014 Total: 79/362 - Blitzed 21%
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: There is no question there are signs that the Cowboys defense is showing signs of breaking down to some of the issues of 2013. Yet, they are to be admired for the battle and the effort plays that they continue to make. This is an organization that has decided to put the lion's share of its resources into the offense and therefore the defense is going to have to get by with less than ideal circumstances and then attempt to just come up with the timely stops.
On Sunday, they kept the game where it was for a long span and allowed their offense to catch up and provide the fireworks show that they are capable of from week to week.
Now, the great test of a showdown with Philadelphia. This is where the safety play of Barry Church and JJ Wilcox will be absolutely vital to securing the back half of the field and attempt to minimize the receivers running free in the secondary.
The Cowboys slowed them down twice in 2013, but there is no question that the magnitude of these two showdowns in 17 days have a playoff build-up and the national attention. They simply must find a way to generate takeaways and if there is a real achilles heel for the Eagles, it is just that. With 27 giveaways and counting, the Eagles have been very sloppy with the ball and if the Cowboys are going to win this division, that generosity will need to continue.