Thursday, January 15, 2015

Marinelli Report - Divisional Round - Green Bay

Rod Marinelli has signed a new lucrative contract to remain in Dallas for what is reported to be the next 3 seasons.  That is great news as the 2014 season will show with very little doubt that he did an excellent job and the Cowboys needed to retain his services and now get him some time with Sean Lee and what we expect to be a rather deliberate infusion of talent.
The obituary of the 2014 Dallas Cowboys defense will be that in its final game, it could not finish strong enough.  Green Bay's first 5 drives resulted in a mere 10 points - an opening drive touchdown and a field goal before half along with 2 punts and a fumble takeaway.  But, the final 4 drives for Aaron Rodgers and his offense went for 30 plays, 237 yards (7.9 yards per snap), 16 points, and 3 knees to end the game where more points were available if they had required them.  The Cowboys, who had limited big plays all year, allowed 5 plays of over 25 yards - something that never happened all year.  In fact, only two times in 2014 did the Cowboys surrender 4 plays of 25+ in a single contest, garbage time in London against Jacksonville and Thanksgiving Day against the Eagles.  In short, the Cowboys made you work for everything all year, but in this game, Rodgers appeared to find an extra gear in the mid 3rd Quarter (immediately following the fumbled kickoff return opportunity) and from there on out, he seemed to do what he wanted.
The Cowboys brought only one blitz after that moment in the 3rd Quarter where James Hanna had his hands on the ball.  One blitz in 30 plays.  And we are left to wonder why that might have been.
Surely, you cannot allow Aaron Rodgers, who appears as immobile as he has ever been, to stand back in the pocket with comfort and time.  Why were there no 2nd half blitzes seems to be one of the most asked questions of the aftermath of this game.  So let's try to figure out what happened.  It is my premise that the Packers coaching staff had a plan that Dallas had no answer for.
What I am speaking of is an adjustment that the Packers have shown a number of times in the 2nd half of games that really puts the defense on its heels.  It is basically taking Eddie Lacy and John Kuhn out of the game and replacing them with Randall Cobb as the RB and playing what amounts to a 4 WR, 1 TE offense and sometimes even a 5 WR offense.
They did it against New England and Detroit with similar results.  As good as Eddie Lacy can be and their power game is nothing to sneeze at, when defenses deal with them, they load up with "bigs", knowing that Lacy and Kuhn can be covered with LBs in space.  Now, Cobb, on the other hand, requires your best quick corner - Orlando Scandrick.  Well, now, that is a problem, because Scandrick is then occupied and now all of the other targets can work against Sterling Moore and Tyler Patmon or Barry Church.  In other words, all of this noise about letting Brandon Carr go is silly.  They need more quality corners, not less.
Anyway, the story of the game turned into the fact that when Cobb was the RB, they would send him wide and now it is Rodgers in empty or with Cobb as a flare out threat.  The defense is now spread from sideline to sideline and you have guys covering DaVante Adams or their tight ends in space that you don't want by themselves.  That means the safeties have to stay deep and help.  And THAT means there is no chance you can blitz.  It would really be the last thing that Marinelli was going to do.  That is why you saw no blitzes.  Not because they didn't want to pressure Rodgers, but because they figured out a way to dictate the game to their opponent - in this case, Randall Cobb as a RB threat (even though he was given only 1 handoff).  Add to that the banged up defense that now has Jeff Heath and Patmon playing a lot of snaps, and it starts to make sense why Rodgers had some appealing options getting open.
Let's look at 2 examples:
This is the last Cowboys blitz when they were leading on Sunday.  It was the first drive of the 2nd half and it was 1st and 10.  Notice, Kuhn and Lacy are in.  So, the Cowboys are not afraid of anything in the secondary happening, and they unleash a blitz:
We might point out that Rodgers missed Cobb who had a step on Wilcox and that might have been ugly if he saw him.  But, the blitz forced Rodgers to try to make a throw to Nelson, and Carr was on the scene for a poor throw.
Here is the protection situation for the Cowboys fire zone blitz.  5 coming, overload the offense's right side and drop the opposite defensive end, 92-Mincey into the short zone.  59-Hitchens is trying to undercut the route to Cobb, so Rodgers takes the safer throw before 32-Scandrick gets home.  99-Selvie is also getting something done inside.
But, the thing to take from that play is that the Packers have Lacy and Kuhn in to help pass protect.  However, in doing so, they are almost inviting more blitzes.  So, this is the thinking of coaches in the league.  In an effort to prevent blitzes, you actually have to sometimes take protectors off the field.  It seems upside down, but now let's see what it does:
3Q - 3/15/46 - Rodgers to Adams, 46 yards, Touchdown
Let's look at this play backwards.  End zone view, first.  Rodgers has Cobb next to him and then sends him away, which takes Scandrick.  This is a math problem for Dallas.  5 targets means you need 5 guys in coverage plus two safeties.  It is 3rd and 15, so anything short is ok, so we put 2 safeties in to clean up any messes in front of them.  The Cowboys must get off the field here.  Must.
You simply cannot blitz in that situation.  It would be considered crazy - unless it works.  You have a lead and you have 3rd and 15 where the NFL average is under 10%.  Stunt the tackles and Mincey has a chance before Rodgers steps up in the pocket.  Rodgers looks to his left to suggest he wants Cobb early.

But, on the other side, there is Nelson underneath with Carr, and the two inside receivers 81-Quarless and 17-Adams running simultaneous deep ins at the sticks.  He wants Adams on Sterling Moore, who frankly is not in bad coverage and it requires a great throw.
Then, to make matters worse, JJ Wilcox is no help whatsoever and the rest is a race to the end zone.  It has been my suggestion all along that the Cowboys have 2 safeties who are both much better up as "strong safeties" and still lack a true centerfielder.  It is plays like this that seem to pound that point home.
Regardless, this personnel grouping, which Green Bay did not use at all in the 1st half, was employed almost exclusively in the rally.  It seems odd to know that their most dangerous grouping is when Eddie Lacy isn't on the field, but the evidence shows that this particular wrinkle is working well.  One difference between Linehan and Mike McCarthy appears to be that they will not change personnel from play to play, but rather from series to series.  It aids in their use of up-tempo and keeping your guys on the field when tired.
But, overall, that is why the Cowboys weren't blitzing.  They feared the bad results of one broken tackle.  It didn't work, but it was a classic mumps versus measles conundrum, where you just hope for the lesser of the two evils.  And, that QB is the best blitz repellent of them all.  Burn their hands once and they will not want to touch the stove.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION:  It is the biggest game the franchise has played in years, but it is also at the point of the season where injuries and depth are going to control what you can and cannot do.  Players who played at least 19 snaps that you never imagined would have to play a ton in a game like this on the defense: Ken Bishop (23), Jeff Heath (23), Tyler Patmon (21), Josh Brent (19).  That means you have over 80 snaps going to guys who were really never on your radar when things broke camp this year.  Sprinkle in Sterling Moore for 63 snaps who is a player I really enjoy, but it appears he has been the target du jour for opposing QBs recently, and you can see that the Cowboys were missing Henry Melton, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant, and yes, Mo Claiborne.  They built quality depth this year, but the further you want to go in the playoffs, the more quality depth you need. That is why as we look ahead, I would argue that there are very few specifics as to which position needs depth on defense.  Some weeks you need more pass rushers, but this particular opponent required you to have 8 defensive backs you felt good about.  That wasn't realistic.  All snap counts from
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
Unfortunately, they picked a bad time to have their lowest splash count of the year.
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.
Divisional Summary 
The two black lines are the final two third-down conversions that sealed the game for the Packers.
This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
Each week we calculate how opposing quarterbacks fare against the Dallas blitz. Consider this the raw data behind the passing chart.
Aaron Rodgers: 2/6, 33 Cmp%, 14 Yds, 1 FD
2014 Total: 71/109, 65 Cmp%, 773 Yds, 3 TD, 1 INT, 25 FD, 8 Sack – 91.2 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
And here are the full season numbers to date:
In the end, we thought they would need multiple takeaways to beat Green Bay.  They also were going to need to have a fantastic 3rd Down day.  But, they secured just one takeaway and Rodgers and the Packers moved the chains on 9 of 14 3rd Down occasions, including 2 gutting conversions on the final drive of the game that insured that the Cowboys would never touch the ball again.
What does this defense need most?  Well, pass rushers.  The ability to do what Rod Marinelli wants to do - which is to play sound, 4-man rush defense, with 7 great athletes behind that rush who fly to the ball, create havoc, and make plays.  7 cover guys who do not get attacked by QBs who have too much time to choose their man and fit a ball into coverage.  Rodgers is a MVP for a reason, but you wonder what more pressure might have done on a day where he was hobbled.  I would still love safety upgrades, more corners, and Sean Lee, but that is for the offseason.
But, in the end, this defense did about as much as it could with what it had in 2014.  The improvements and organized nature of the unit across the board were the biggest surprises of the season for this franchise.
Now, they have Marinelli under contract and can continue to cherry pick "their type" of defender and as we browse their choices in free agency and the draft, we know what to look for.  They want guys who never stop battling and their chief attribute is "high motor" players like Jeremy Mincey and Orlando Scandrick.  They just need more of them.
Because to win the ultimate prize, you are going to have to figure out a plan for the best offenses you face in the playoffs.  This particular challenge was a bridge too far for the defense to handle in 2014.

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