Thursday, January 01, 2015

Marinelli Report - Week 16 - Redskins

Dallas Cowboys defensive Rod Marinelli on the sideline in a game against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half of play at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, December 21, 2014. Dallas Cowboys defeated the Indianapolis Colts 42-7.
I worked on a study at training camp back on August 16th that addressed the defensive issues of this team as it pertained to both the scheme changes of the spring of 2013 and the coordinator changes from Rob Ryan to Monte Kiffin and on to Rod Marinelli.
The principle discussion to address was the claim in the off-season that the Cowboys defense had to be better this year based solely on the very dicey proclamations that "they couldn't get worse" than they were.  Then, I grabbed 15 different major defensive statistics where that same proclamation was made the year before.  If you recall, everyone seemed so disgusted by the 2012 defense that Rob Ryan was fired and the 3-4 scheme was trashed.  The idea was that they were so poor in that season that a complete overhaul would be in order - even if there were no plans to upgrade the talent (or even change it).
Well, the Cowboys put their 3-4 personnel into 4-3 spots in 2013 under the veteran eye of Kiffin, and as we detailed at great length back in August (and you might enjoy reviewing), they actually did get worse in pretty much every category.  The premise that "they couldn't get worse" was tested, and in fact, they could get worse.  And they did.
So, as we sit here on the brink of the 2014 post-season, we are reminded about how this defense got here.  They have allowed just 22 points per game which is a major improvement from the 27 per game they allowed in 2013 and the 25 per game of 2012.  That may not sound like a lot (5 points per game), but it is huge.  And 80 points over the course of the year (over 11 touchdowns).  In a game of inches, 11 touchdowns less is a ton.
They have taken the ball away 31 times which is 2nd best in the NFL.  Since 1995, do you know how many times the Cowboys have ranked in the top 5 in takeaways in the NFL?  Try never.  This is the very first time.  So, is it a flukey odd year or is this the new Cowboys defense under Rod Marinelli?  And, is that so impressive and such a massive improvement that he has just put himself in the mix for a more enticing job somewhere else?
They have been protected by their offense and have played less and more effectively with a higher work rate when they did play.  The rest afforded them to play with their top players a higher percentage of plays and they avoided a massive onslaught of injuries (although they were hit by significant injury blows to Justin Durant, Morris Claiborne, and of course, Sean Lee).
In other stats, they did poorly.  3rd Down defense sunk again and again until they ended up at 27th.  Red Zone scoring defense also dropped to 27th.  Sacks were consistently bad all season and the team ranked 28th with just 28 sacks.  These all are issues that they can focus on as they look at talent upgrades in the draft and offseason.  By the way, if they don't target defense over and over in the first 3-5 rounds of the draft, we should all be disappointed.  Perhaps only finding a RB to replace DeMarco Murray in round 2 or 3 should deviate them from that plan of stockpiling defensive youth.
But, now, let's check back in on those 15 categories from August.  And also remind you of the idea of "the case for average" as we talked about after Jacksonville.  Basically, if the Cowboys could get their defense to "NFL average", the offense could do the rest.
The following 15 stats were 2013 measurements where the Cowboys were in the bottom 20% of the league.  If they could get a bunch of them to league average, they could be in the playoffs.
Given that they play Detroit on Sunday, we know it happened, but let's see how this defense graded out:
The first 5 are passing defensive stats:
Statistic'14 Dallas-Rank'13 Dallas-Rank'12 Dallas-Rank
Opp QB Rate88.5 - 13th96.0 - 26th94.7 - 29th
Opp QB Rate - Blitz101.6 - 26th117.4 - 32nd106.5 - 29th
20 Yd Passes Allowed45 - T7th71 - 32nd52 - 20th
Yards After Catch2216 - 29th2368 - 30th1926 - 25th
Net Pass Yds/Game251.9 - 26th286.8 - 30th203.3 - 19th
Great work on dropping the passer rating significantly.  The team still isn't good at blitzing, but they cover that issue by NOT blitzing.  They allowed 26 fewer 20-yard passes!  And, even net pass yards/game dropped by 35 yards.  I would say the passing defense impressed.
Now, running defense:
Statistic'14 Dallas-Rank'13 Dallas-Rank'12 Dallas-Rank
Rushes + Completions47.7 - 15th52.5 - 29th47.6 - 11th
Run Yards Per Game103.1 - 8th128.5 - 27th125.2 - 22nd
10 Yd Runs Allowed43 - 9th65 - 31st53 - 22nd
1st Down Run Avg4.47 - 22nd4.87 - 27th4.82 - 28th
% of Runs 4+ Yds41.8 - 15th47.8% - 29th42% - 7th
Look at that.  Across the board, the Cowboys run defense stepped up and stopped the bleeding.  The big runs dropped.  The cumulative run spankings dried up.  Top 10 in a few stats!?!  Who are these guys?
And now, 5 more stats that are very important defensive metrics for limiting damage when a drive is happening.  Get off the field on 3rd downs, force field goals, etc...
Statistic'14 Dallas-Rank'13 Dallas-Rank'12 Dallas-Rank
Off Pts Allowed329 - 15th425 - 30th359  - 22nd
Yds Per Play RZ2.84 - 16th3.38 - 29th3.02 - 23rd
3rd/Short (less 4yds)65.6% - 28th77.1% - 32nd55.9% - 18th
3rd/Long (more 6yds)25.5% - 19th33.9% - 31st25.3% - 16th
RZ Scoring Efficiency61.2% - 27th64.5% - 31st54.5% - 18th
The big one is chopping 96 points off the ledger on offensive points allowed.  6 points a game!   Still issues on 3rd and short and red zone scoring, but again, with minimal resources allocated to the defense, Marinelli and the front office made it work.
We should take a moment to point out that front office.  They found Jeremy Mincey for 2-years at $3 million total.  They found Rolando McClain.  They developed Tyrone Crawford into a monster.  They found Anthony Hitchens.  Those 4 players were all major contributors in 2014's defensive uptick without a major expenditure for any of them.  That is some great work and when they do start investing major resources into the defense, they will be that far ahead of the game.
Basically, to have the year that they have had without DeMarcus Lawrence - who they did invest largely in - making much impact at all is quite impressive.
DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION:  The linebacker group was thrown into chaos yet again when Hitchens was hurt and Rolando McClain did not even make the trip.  That gave us a huge dose of Bruce Carter and Cam Lawrence in Washington and in the case of Carter it was his best game since September.  He played with his two best characteristics shining through, speed and the knack for making plays when they arrive on his doorstep.  It will be interesting to see what happens to Carter in his free agency.  I don't believe the Cowboys have him in their plans, but he will certainly get a chance somewhere and maybe here if the finances are low.  In the meantime, they may need him plenty this weekend.  All snap counts from
 Very little remarkable about their trip to Washington until the 2nd half when they started repeatedly finding takeaways.  Two interceptions and two fumble recoveries from a very generous Redskins' offense that certainly is not high on confidence these days.
A reminder of what a splash play is by clicking on the link:
Congratulations to Rolando McClain who won the splash title while only playing the 7th most snaps.  McClain missed 3 full games this season (St Louis, Jacksonville, and Washington) which seems to at least raise an eyebrow when discussing the durability of Sean Lee and the future of the linebacker group in general.  I would love to see the two play together and to understand that with 3 spots, you likely need 5 suitable players because that spot is always getting injured.
Incidentally, Tyrone Crawford finished half of a splash behind (and lost a sack on a penalty in the secondary on Sunday) and actually played even fewer snaps than McClain.
This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.
The blitz got home a few times on Sunday with solid pressure in the pocket yet again.
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
Wk 17 - Robert Griffin III: 3/4, 33 Yds, 2 Sacks, 2 FD
2014 Total: 69/103, 66 Cmp%, 759 Yds, 3 TD, 1 INT, 24 FD, 8 Sack - 94.2 QB Rating
Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
The best performance Matthew Stafford has ever had in a Lions' win was when he threw for 488 yards (And 10.2 yards per attempt!!!) against the Cowboys last October in their improbable win where he stuck the ball in the end zone on a sneak.
However, you may have heard the stat that has been repeated about a thousand times this week that Stafford has never won a game on the road against a team that finished the year with a winning record (0-17).  We do recognize that win-loss record is not a QB stat, but we will also say that 0-17 is rather suspicious.
Meanwhile, Calvin Johnson needs no introduction.  His career high was that same day against that same shambolic Cowboys defense that allowed 329 receiving yards which were the 2nd most yards allowed on one day to one receiver as any player in the history of the sport.  Only Flipper Anderson's big day in 1989 exceeded that.
The Cowboys have the moment they dreamed of, a home playoff game against a team they have every right to feel they should beat.  But, do not assume that this can't go wrong, because this defense is up against some substantial challenges.  The Lions can run the ball as well, and the status of Larry Warford - the big guard from Kentucky - should be followed closely between now and Sunday.
But, Dallas has made a living this year by getting takeaways and limiting huge plays against them.  That will be put to the test on Sunday, but the improvements under Rod Marinelli tell us that they should be capable for this. And, while this defense may not be capable of 4 consecutive wins against playoff competition, getting this one should be well within reach.

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