When studying defenses in the NFL, sometimes we over-complicate what constitutes success or failure. What is a great defense? What are their characteristics? What do they do well? What are we looking for when building them?
Well, we can discuss at great length the components of all of this and write 10,000 words on how Rod Marinelli sees a defense. In fact, if you wish, I advise anyone who is interested in these concepts and answers to review our extended visit with Marinelli from training camp by clicking here. It is quite informative and his passion will get you fired up to play for him.
Above, you can see for yourself the bottom line for any defense. Find any great defense and you will find one that took the ball away. Takeaways are how good defenses become great. Heck, it is even how bad defenses become good. Taking the ball away is how the defense can win games.
And that has been a problem so far in 2015. Over the last two seasons - since switching to the 4-3 scheme before the 2013 season, the Cowboys have taken the ball away a total of 59 times in 32 regular season games. That average of 1.85 per game is fantastic and amongst the league leaders.
But, this year, the Cowboys have been able to take the ball away 3 times. In fact, all 3 happened within 15 minutes of football in Philadelphia in Week 2. Sean Lee intercepted a pass, Nick Hayden fell on a ridiculous shotgun snap mistake, and JJ Wilcox grabbed a tip pass. Those 3 takeaways are all they have to show for 4 games (25% of the season). Some simple math shows us that projects to a grand total of 12 for the season. In other words, the Cowboys defense will go from one of the best in the business at taking the ball away - and giving the offense a short field - to the very worst in one year (unless they hit the gas quickly).
2013 and 2014 taught us that this scheme and this coordinator (even though he technically "helped" Monte Kiffin in 2013) get the ball. 59 in 32 games. In fact, here is something else that should drive you nuts. The following is the entire list of games since the start of 2013 where the team was unable to get 1 turnover:
2013 - Week 2 - At Kansas City - Loss
2013 - Week 13 - At Chicago - Loss
2014 - Week 1 - San Francisco - Loss
2015 - Week 1 - New York Giants - Win
2015 - Week 3 - Atlanta - Loss
2015 - Week 4 - At New Orleans - Loss
So, yeah. It happened twice (no takeaway games) in 2013. Once in 2014. And already THREE times in 2015.
What happened? Why is this team not getting turnovers? Who do we need to be angry at? Are they doing something different? Did players leave that knew how to take the ball and leave non "play makers" behind?
After further review, the answers might not be that complicated.
I looked back at the first 4 games to see what I could see. Would I love to see a terror of a pass rush that we thought we might see in August? Patience. The days of a nickel pass rush of Lawrence-Crawford-Hardy-Gregory are coming. I promise that will trouble pass protection schemes all over the league. More pressure on QBs means more takeaways. Strip sacks, duck interceptions. They will come. But, what about the first four games? Where did all of the opportunities go?
I know every team has "close calls" and missed opportunities (Jason Garrett said they call them "Missed Opps" -I can only assume that is because he thinks the word opportunities is too long), but the Cowboys have had no fewer than 7 shots at takeaways that have not gone their way. If they had closed the deal on just 4 or 5 of these, they would be right on their normal pace.
Chance #1 - Anthony Hitchens strip and recovery of Rashad Jennings. Unfortunately, Jennings had his other elbow on the turf. Review over-turned the play.
Chance #2 - JJ Wilcox knocks the ball out of Odell Beckham's possession. Officials ruled it incomplete pass, rather than a catch and fumble.
Chance #3 - Matt Ryan fires a pass off the chest of Leonard Hankerson and the deflection falls right between the arms of Kyle Wilber and Anthony Hitchens.
Chance #4 - Matt Ryan, moments later, throws a slant that hits Mo Claiborne in a bad spot. In fairness to Claiborne, Julio Jones does a nice job with a hip check at the moment of impact, but what a opportunity.
Chance #5 - Drew Brees has the ball deflected by DeMarcus Lawrence (Pass Rush) right into the chest of Tyler Patmon. Patmon will see this in his nightmares.
Chance #6 - Drew Brees is trying to fit the ball into a tight window here when Barry Church jumps the pass and secures the pick. Unfortunately, Brandon Carr is tugging a jersey behind him here and giving the gift back.
Chance #7 - Mark Ingram has the ball stripped and recovered by Andrew Gachkar a split second after Ingram's knee touches the ground. Gachkar was a blink of the eye from making his first major play with the Cowboys.
So you tell me - is this defense just not causing turnovers? Or are they getting chances every game and they just aren't closing the deal? It seems to me if a few of these plays go the right way, we are not even talking about this.
Of course, if "ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we would all have a Merry Christmas", too. So, perhaps they need to start closing the deals here if they want to win games.
WEEKLY DATA - WEEK 4
The loss to the Saints comes back to the issues of the Cowboys getting off the field on 3rd downs and the overall situation with the no takeaways.
The chances were once again there, but as you saw above and on Sunday - including the "12 men on the field" penalty as well as the issues with not knowing who has who late in the 4th Quarter and in Overtime, the defense really allowed a wounded animal to survive for another day when they were begging to be put out of their misery.
It was against an opponent that did not look right the entire night. Drew Brees is dealing with major arm issues and it was pretty evident throughout the game. He simply cannot make the same throws. Here is the throw chart from John Daigle:
As you can see, Brandon Weeden isn't the only one throwing short and to the numbers. In many ways, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and everyone does that every week. Football is now a game - more than ever - of yards after catch and getting the ball to the athletes and letting him try to make somebody miss.
Those two throws down the right sideline that connected were from the final 5 plays of the game.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 4
Despite the disappointment, we do award splash plays for the game and believe it or not, there were many individuals and individual plays were good things are happening for the defense.
Top players on Sunday once again include Mo Claiborne who is really stepping up as he "traveled" with Brandin Cooks all day and did quite well. Also, DeMarcus Lawrence played his best game, Tyrone Crawford was disruptive, and David Irving had a very interesting debut and appears to be another big, disruptive body for the Cowboys defensive line to utilize in spurts. Anthony Hitchens also appeared to be quite good and added to his splash total.
SPLASH SEASON TOTALS
My one observation on this list is that I would like to see my safeties up higher. And, of course, I wonder how long it will take Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy to work up the list.
EXPLOSIVE PLAYS - WEEK 4
The defense surrendered 4 explosives, including, again, 2 on the final few snaps for New Orleans. It was a very good performance for most of the night, but things caved in late when it was most vital.
PASS RUSHERS - WEEK 4
Above, please notice the weekly pass rush chart which again demonstrates that the Cowboys do not believe in blitzes. They get there with 4. That should improve this week.
SEASON PASS RUSHERS
155 pass plays against the Cowboys, just 25 blitzes. 15%. That might be the lowest number in Football.
CONCLUSIONS AND SUMMARY
Overall, the defense should be disappointed about Weeks 3 and 4 where the games were sitting there if they could only make a play. During that stretch, they surrendered eight scoring drives out of ten total opportunities after halftime in those two games. 8 out of 10! Just one punt in each game in the 2nd half in the last two weeks.
Make a stop. Interception, fumble, punt. Anything will work. Just don't give up points on every single drive after halftime against the Falcons and Saints.
In both cases - when you consider the offensive circumstances and the defensive chances, they need to receive much of the blame for the two losses. They are coming close to making plays, but that doesn't count.
But, those games are over. Here comes Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain to assist. Sean Lee is also likely to be available as they step into the fire against Tom Brady and the Patriots.