Football is a pretty simple game when you boil it down to its roots. Sure, we see it present itself in new places with new names every new year, but the basic tenets of football reveal themselves every Sunday in the following way: Blocking and tackling. In other words, can my guys block better than your guys can tackle? Can my guys tackle better than your guys can block?
Well, on Sunday, everyone who followed football knew the Cowboys were going to have their hands full with Julio Jones. He is awesome and maybe the best in the business as of this moment. But, nobody in the world expected the Cowboys, who had just been praised for limiting the Eagles running game to 7 yards on 17 carries, to be beaten into a bloody pulp by Devonta Freeman. Freeman is a talented young player, but up until this day, in 2 seasons in the NFL, he had 87 career carries for 291 yards (3.3 per carry). So, who anticipated 30 carries for 141 (4.7)?
Welcome to the NFL, where you better bring it every Sunday.
And if there is a lesson to be learned from this past week, it is that the league is still interested in challenging the Cowboys with a punch in the face to see how Dallas responds.
Patrick DiMarco is a fullback for Atlanta that I certainly confess to not knowing much about before Sunday. According to Wikipedia, he is the nephew of golfer and Masters runner-up in 2005, Chris DiMarco. He also played for the Chargers in 2011, the Chiefs in 2012, and now the Falcons since 2013. During that stretch of time, he almost never played the 36 snaps that he played against the Cowboys on Sunday, but his effects were felt as the Falcons decided to load up with a fullback in front of Freeman, and attack the Cowboys with some downhill runs - mostly to the edges - to see what Dallas would do about it.
The results were pretty disappointing from Rod Marinelli's standpoint.
And, unfortunately, it didn't replace the attack of Julio Jones; It complemented it. When that happens, when you get spanked on the ground and through the air, well, let's just say we must curb our enthusiasm a bit with regards to the 2015 Cowboys defense.
The following is a chart that represents very bad days. Thanks to Game Finder on Profootballreference.com, it is a list of the 22 occasions in Cowboys' history where the defense had the dubious double of allowing over 400 yards and generating no takeaways. As we discuss on a routine basis, your defense better be good at one or the other - either stop the yard production or take the ball away. Great defenses can do both. Poor squads can do neither. And on Sunday, the Cowboys were a very poor defense:
You will want to pay very special attention to the W/L column on the right. All-time, Dallas is 2-20 when they give up 400+ and get 0 takeaways, and only have 1 win (2009 in Tampa Bay) since Tom Landry walked the sidelines.
It is total and complete domination.
In fact, under Jason Garrett, this team has been at the mercy of the takeaway game quite a bit. Here is a helpful chart to understand how this works:
Record Under Garrett (43-32)
As you can see, if Garrett's Cowboys take the ball away at least twice, they almost never lose. But, if they don't get any - like Sunday - then they simply cannot win (save for Week 1 against the Giants this season).
So, what happened? Well, this isn't complicated. The Cowboys were down a lot on the defensive Front 7 - Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain were key reasons the Eagles struggled up front. Mincey missed this game and McClain will miss the rest of the season. Add those two to the absences of Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, Rolando McClain and you are especially thin. Those that remain include guys like DeMarcus Lawrence and Kyle Wilber - guys who are known for pass rushing, not run stoutness. We saw a ton of Ryan Russell, Davin Coleman, Ken Bishop, and Jack Crawford on Sunday. Are they all NFL players? Yes. Should they be able to step up and "next man up" their opportunities? Yes. Did the Cowboys look like they missed those who were gone as Freeman was storming the castle repeatedly? Yes.
The above one is funny/sad. The Falcons right guard actually goes the wrong way, leaving the Cowboys with a free LB to hit Freeman. It didn't help Anthony Hitchens.
Ryan Russell was untouched and over-ran the play above. Those were only the 1st half runs for Freeman of 7 yards or more. Here comes the killer 3rd Quarter:
Here, the two DTs - Crawford and Hayden look to be on different pages and the hole opens right up.
How many times is the defensive end going to fall for this? Russell again. And Hitchens? Oh, my.
I wish we were done. Now, the 4th.
DeMarcus Lawrence with a free shot.
10 runs of 7 yards or more. From Devonta Freeman. The Cowboys made him famous in one afternoon.
It sure looks like the inexperienced defensive ends caused plenty of this with falling for the inside movement and then losing contain. I assume Mincey would have dealt with this much better. But, again, that is the sport. Who can play has to play well.
Do you blame the Falcons for simply looking at the personnel, seeing the Cowboys were light up front (in numbers and in run stoppers) and decided to attack with muscle and a fullback? Pretty sharp idea from Atlanta that I am sure future opponents will make note of very carefully.
Pretty much across the board, the Cowboys defense was not good enough on Sunday and the stats on the left here demonstrate it rather loudly. 64% on 3rd down. 80% in the red zone. 3rd downs were all 3rd and manageable, it seemed, and you just can't do much good if you are giving up 5 yards a carry over and over to a backup RB.
Again, there is nothing wrong with Freeman, but the Falcons don't think he is a starter and that is why they invested in Tevin Coleman. But, on Sunday, both sides saw how deep Atlanta appears to be a that spot.
Now, similarly, what was the plan with stopping Julio Jones? Well, the Cowboys decided to mix coverages and try to figure out ways to slow Matt Ryan and Jones down. Of course, the Falcons deal with this issue every week and laugh at your plan, because the reason Dez Bryant and Julio Jones are who they are is because they can make NFL defenses look like small college defenses with these unstoppable weapons. Health is the only way to slow them down, and unlike Dez, Julio appears to be in pretty good shape at the moment for destroying coverages.
The Cowboys mixed things up, but the Falcons threw 20 balls to Julio Jones. Here is map for how that happened. They simply and happily force the ball into him.
Here is the damage from an individual standpoint as the Cowboys show some level of stubbornness about "traveling" corners. Instead, they pretty much remain in their individual spots and the Falcons can move Julio around to get the matchups they want. Again, so much of the Cowboys defense is from Seattle, so this shouldn't surprise us, but you do wonder if there should be exceptions made to make sure that when they are in a man-coverage, the Falcons don't get him against a little corner like Tyler Patmon.
We will break down some of the coverage breakdowns, tomorrow.
A very small list of impact plays were made on Sunday as you might imagine. our leader for the game is Nick Hayden, which with no offense to Nick, is probably never a good thing.
I do believe and enjoy in this splash play tabulation each week, but it should be noted that a flaw in the system is for defensive backs who generally accumulate those splashes when they are being picked on or attacked. On Sunday, there is little question that Morris Claiborne was being targeted and I believe he saw more action than he has in just about any game of his career. On one drive alone I believe Ryan threw 8 balls in his direction. He held up pretty well, but he did have a shot at an interception deep in Cowboys territory that might have swung the game, but Julio Jones timed a hip check to break up the play.
On the right are the season totals for the Splash Plays through 3 games.
It has been noted by many of you that DeMarcus Lawrence is having a disappointing start to his season. I would certainly agree. Many of us hoped his playoff performances would launch him into Year 2 with great ease, but his growing pains are likely normal. That said, on a day like Sunday, they needed him to take the game over a few times, and he showed no signs of doing that and was actually at fault a few times on those run plays we showed above.
To nobody's surprise, the Cowboys weren't bringing the rush very much on Sunday. They knew they needed a populated secondary, but in doing so, they hardly pressured Matt Ryan at all. It was definitely a case of picking your poison. Below is the season total which again shows just a 14% clip for bringing pressure (league average is about 32%). That is VERY low. Even lower than last year so far for Rod Marinelli - and that says something.
There is no question that this defensive effort will be looked at as a cautionary example of declaring problems fixed too soon. We believe the 2015 defense is much more talented than its predecessors, but that is predicated on many talented players making a difference and most of those "difference makers" were not present.
That may sound like an excuse, but if the Cowboys were featuring Ryan Russell and Jack Crawford high on their depth chart in August, nobody would have forecasted a force to be reckoned with. But, reinforcements are coming. When they do, the product should be better.
In the meantime, we do wonder about the Cowboys coverage plans moving forward. After being a base "Cover 3" team last season, it seems the Cowboys are more determined to play more "Cover 1" this season, but without Orlando Scandrick, do they have the corners to do that?
The bottom line is the bottom line. The Cowboys got whipped up front on both sides of the ball in the 2nd half on Sunday - and for large parts of the entire game. This was a 12-4 team that we believed had switched their identity to a team that is known for being strong in the trenches. Unfortunately, in their latest game, they looked like the 2nd most physical side against Altanta. The Falcons might be this years surprise, but nobody expected them to be able to do that with a smash-mouth attack.
They did, and now the Cowboys try to pick themselves up off the mat. Because New Orleans is a game they need to win and then the reinforcements arrive for Marinelli and his squad.