Last Sunday, the Cowboys had a chance to clinch their division title after the unlikely run since Thanksgiving of nothing but wins from the Dallas Cowboys and nothing but losses from the Philadelphia Eagles. If Dallas could beat the playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts - and their high powered offense that leads the NFL in many categories - they would clinch the divisional title in front of their home fans and with a week to spare.
The incentive was high, but the question of how the defense would contain Andrew Luck and his host of weapons was difficult to answer. This is the match-up that caused much stress when the schedule was released, and reminded many of us of the 4 times that the Cowboys caved in for 500 yards in a game in 2013 to San Diego, Denver, Detroit, and New Orleans. Two more teams went over 475 in 2013 - Chicago and the Giants, making it 6 teams that absolutely obliterated the Cowboys defense.
So, with the aforementioned exits of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, and the unfortunate injury to Sean Lee, the question of how Rod Marinelli might eliminate the obliterations was a major point of concern and stress in the offseason. With 2 meetings against Chip Kelly's offense, Indianapolis, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle, and various other games on the schedule, how could this year be different in that regard?
It is difficult to say exactly how it has been accomplished, but now, 15 games into the challenge, and 3 days since they held the Colts to 229 yards - easily the lowest production of any of Luck's 47 starts in the NFL - the Cowboys have avoided the meltdown occasion in 2014. In fact, only once all year have the Cowboys allowed 450, and that was the 464 they gave up to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving.
Here is evidence of the fantastic defensive performance that you might find suitable for framing:
Now, we realize that the Colts were certainly culpable in their own suicide on Sunday, with limited participation, focus, and interest levels, but we have been taught to ignore excuses when they hit close to home, so this one might have to also be good for the gander. 5 punts, 3 takeaways, a turnover on downs, and a garbage time touchdown before the game ended is perhaps the finest defensive performance the Cowboys have rolled out all season with the exception of their performance in Seattle. I think the job done in Seattle stands on its own two feet as the best of the year (perhaps of the decade), but to clinch against the Colts in a style that had the Colts pulling the plug early in the 2nd Quarter is a testament to a full-team demolition and one that assures the defense properly gets a certain amount of credit.
Unbelievable job that was predicted by absolutely nobody before the game started.
If you follow this defensive series through the years, I bet by now you are aware of my fascination with pass rush tactics. The Cowboys have fewer sacks than almost every team in the NFL (Bengals, Raiders, Falcons, and Chargers have fewer) and of the 25 sacks the Cowboys have this season, the vast majority of them have come from a sack generated from confusion. Said another way, the Cowboys have almost no sacks this season where a pass rusher from the "front 4" has simply beaten his man to the QB. It doesn't happen much with this crew, which should offer a fine clue on what direction the Cowboys need to head in April in the draft. Until then, creativity is the only way.
But, the classic conflict Rod Marinelli must face is that when he brings pressure, he weakens his secondary. Rush 4, drop 7 is safe and sound defense. But, bring more and you have less in coverage. That is why over the years, coordinators have designed "zone blitzes" where you get the confusion of the blitzes of the past, without leaving your defenders out on their own where a broken tackle means a touchdown. Overload blitzes - or fire zone blitzes - bring 5 rushers (many from the same side), but the weak side drops into coverage to keep 6 in the secondary.
Here are the two sacks from Sunday both on 5 man rushes.
This first one is interesting because Scandrick comes off the right side of the screen with the LDE (90-Lawrence) and both DTs (97-McClain and 98-Crawford) all slanting to the right (your left) and the RDE (99-Selvie) drops into zone coverage. Scandrick gets home and Selvie ends up recovering the fumble. Again, zone blitzes just want to confuse the OL and get advantageous match-ups.
This 2nd one is a similar concept to the other side. RDE, DT, and DT all slant left, while the LDE 99-Selvie drops in coverage (this time he man covers the tight end). Meanwhile, 53-Lawrence and 51-Wilber rush from their LB spots and Wilber is too much for the RB to pick up. More of coverage sack, but the key there is the rush either generates A) a pass into coverage or B) an extra second for the rush to arrive. It helps to have a backup QB in the game trying to get his bearings, but both of these worked very well from a team that doesn't blitz much.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: Again, when the game plan is working great, the defense is not on the field many snaps. This is the 6th time the defense has had to play 56 snaps or less - which is well below the NFL average of 64 snaps per game. When the Cowboys are on the field fewer than 64, they hold a 8-1 record. It is clear that the defense is much more explosive and impressive when they play less. It makes sense, but it all fits this "1-game plan" 2014 season which has tied the offensive and defensive game-plans at the hip. The entire defense had a very relaxing day with no DL playing more than 37 snaps, and many seldom used defenders each getting over 20 snaps: Kyle Wilber, Cam Lawrence, Keith Smith, CJ Spillman, and Jeff Heath. You never know when you will need one of those to play in a big situation, so live ammunition helps. All snap counts from ProFootballFocus.com.
WEEK 16 vs COLTS - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
Yards per play: 4.1! That is a 2014 low and the lowest since they held the Eagles (the most unstoppable force in the universe) to 3.7 in 2013. And, of course, the team moves to 10 straight wins when they generate 2 or more takeaways.
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
SPLASHES VS COLTS - Week 16
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.
Week 16 Summary
This week, we charted both Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck in order to show just how ineffective the Dallas defense rendered the Colts starting QB.
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)
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
Wk 13 - Mark Sanchez: 2/2, 16 Yds
Wk 14 - Jay Cutler: 6/9, 98 Yds, 3 FD, 1 TD
Wk 15 - Mark Sanchez: 4/5, 24 Yds, 1 FD, 1 Sack
Wk 16 - Andrew Luck/Matt Hasselbeck: 2/3, 11 Yds, 2 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble, 1 Fumble Recovery
2014 Total: 66/99, 66 Cmp%, 726 Yds, 3 TD, 1 INT, 22 FD, 6 Sack - 94 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:
There is no question that the absence of T.Y. Hilton helped the Cowboys along on Sunday, but let's not make any mistake about what happened. The Dallas defense seemed determined to not let this situation slip through their hands and with the help of the emotion of the home crowd, the Colts were going to have their hands full all afternoon under any circumstances.
The defense has survived all season with relentless pressure, a decent rotation of depth, and some pretty solid tackling on most occasions. Yes, they have had their issues, but the team is 11-4, and in 3 of the 4 losses, the defense had plenty of assistance in losing the game. Only in the Eagles debacle could you lay the majority of the blame on their ledger.
Now, they have qualified to the main stage of January, and will open with a home game against a team that will have its own warts to deal with. The defense has improved by improving its floor, not its ceiling. They have fewer meltdowns and fewer replacement-level players on the field when someone gets hurt. They have improved their depth and have never just conceded the game like so many times in 2013 under Monte Kiffin. This point is not made to disparage Kiffin, but rather to compliment Marinelli. Whatever changed on that defense from last year to this - given the realities of who was going to be here to play and who wasn't - is the real story of 2014. They simply do not collapse like a house of cards this season.
For the rest of the run - the playoffs - they will no longer have the benefit of some soft opponents along the way. Any team that makes the NFC playoffs (with the exception of Arizona with its chaotic QB realities) will be picked to slice and dice the Cowboys defense.
Now, the only thing that might stand between the Cowboys and a deep January run is the ability for Marinelli to scheme his way around match-ups with offenses that have some very difficult players to deal with. That is what we look forward to, marquee battles between heavyweights.
Until then, one last contest against Washington - a place where they have had some unpleasant visits over the years. Putting them to the sword in Week 17 would be a most enjoyable way to enter the new year.