When it comes to a defensive evaluation of a game against the best offense in football over the last life-cycle, you hope to mix in some good news with the usual bad news that follows anyone playing New England.
They are going to "get theirs". It is just the reality of anyone trying to play this juggernaut. They have evolved with strategy over the years, but the Patriots are currently constructed in a way that there is almost nothing you can do to slow them down except hope for the best on 3rd downs. They have receivers that may not be as valuable to other teams across the league, but in their system with that QB, they fit like a hand in a glove. As long as the NFL is going to allow the rub route/pick plays to exist - and there is almost no chance they ever will not allow them - then a team like the Patriots is going to continue to use them. And why not? If you look around the league at the most impressive offenses, almost all of them use these tactics to get off of coverage and to make a defense's life miserable. It actually makes you wonder why the Cowboys offense refuses to employ the tactic any more than the minimal amount that they do, but we won't talk Cowboys' offense today.
So, the name of the game is to be "opportunistic" on defense. You want to figure out a way to generate big plays that could lead to taking the ball away. I certainly do not want to make this a weekly past-time, but we are disappointed to report another week of not taking the ball away. As last week's report indicated, there was only 2 occasions in 2013 and 1 time in 2014 where the Cowboys went without a defensive takeaway. Unfortunately, that spigot has been turned off now all season. 3 such games in 2013 and 2014 combined? Would you believe that Sunday marked the 4th time in 5 games this season that the team has not taken the ball away?
This is getting silly. Where are all of those takeaways? Why did they forget the most important skill a defense can ever have?
As we discussed and demonstrated with video last week, the question is are the opportunities still there? In the end, everyone knows that almost recovering a fumble or almost intercepting a pass doesn't matter. It only matters if you actually do it. But, from a tactical standpoint, all a coach can do is put the players in a the right spot to make a play. They actually have to close the deal. Are they still in a position to make a play? Are they close to taking the ball?
I think they are.
Here are this week's "close call" examples:
Greg Hardy blows around the corner and Marcus Cannon and blindsides Brady. It is a sack and a strip of the ball and it bounces right to Barry Church in the 2nd Quarter. If they run this back the Cowboys take the lead and the game changes in the blink of an eye. It is so close to turning the game. But, instead, the Patriots recover.
Here is another one. Early in the 4th Quarter:
Whoa. What is this? A corner blitz that works without Orlando Scandrick? Corey White times it perfectly and doggone, if Brady doesn't hit him right in the hands with this. Tough play, we have seen it made in the NFL and that is a walk-in Pick 6.
2 more chances. 2 more missed chances. But the chances are still there. I count at least 9 missed takeaways to go with the 3 they actually got in Philadelphia. If they only closed the deal on 4 or 5 of them, we would really feel differently about this defense. Keep the faith, because now they have a pass rush.
And tactically, they made some interesting modifications and adjustments to their defense to surprise the Patriots. I think the wrinkles in the defense indicate a much more aggressively coached unit than what the offense is offering these days. And when Greg Hardy was added, you could see Marinelli had ideas under the tarp that he was excited to unleash. Above, at the top of this story, you can see the wrinkle of a 3-2 front on nickel downs with both Rolando McClain and Sean Lee on the field on 3rd and 10. This allows McClain to rush (or not) and to pick a gap on the run and it certainly suits stunts, games, and the element of confusion for an offensive line on how to get to those guys. And the confusion was evident here early in the game.
See the center try to get to McClain? They weren't expecting a trailing rusher there for sure.
But, in the end, a lot of this goes back to having a pass rusher who terrifies the offense. Greg Hardy is that man. He was excellent and helped the Cowboys have their first 5 sack performance in nearly 2 years - since their last difference making pass rusher lived here, DeMarcus Ware.
DATA - WEEK 5 - New England
You can see how the defense did a nice job for a good portion of the game and were able to limit the number of plays the Patriots ran and also with those 5 sacks were able to get off the field on a regular basis. It is weird to give up 30 points and feel like you played pretty well, but they really did. Tomorrow we will look at those rub routes in greater depth, but the killer was not holding the Patriots to 3 points out of halftime. At 16-3, maybe there was still a chance (I am likely kidding myself with the offensive performance), but at 20-3, the game was over before people got back to their seats. The Dion Lewis TD really deflated everything.
Speaking of that, here is the Tom Brady "throw chart" with the coordinates of each of his passes, with the two touchdowns in yellow and the completions in blue. To the surprise of nobody, they almost never go downfield. It is a series of horizontal passes into space that slowly kill you with high-probability passes that are often completed without danger of an interception.
Killing you softly with rub routes.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 5
Each week, we recognize the splash plays for individual achievement for the defensive players. Consider these the helmet sticker awards in college football. Read all about the specifics by clicking here if you would like to know more about the system. Here are the plays made in this game. Pretty decent list.
That is a lot of Greg Hardy and the defense all looked more dangerous and more energetic with his emergence. Here are the season totals to date:
The real impact of Hardy should be seen by the others on the defensive line, of course. Let's see if DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford really take off in the next month.
Here are the pass rush numbers for Week 5 and the options they took against the Patriots:
As you can see here, the blitz got home on the McClain sack. Some of the other sacks were even on those 3 man rushes. That is so exciting.
Now, here are the blitz rate numbers for the season on a weekly basis and the results are exactly what Marinelli wants - 20%:
In the heat of the battle, Marinelli stays disciplined about how many he is using in a game. That is quite impressive, to be honest.
Ok, now we look in the other direction. When giving up explosives to the Patriots, we want to know how many? and did the blitz get burned? Maybe on the first play, but for the most part, the Cowboys handled their blitzing with solid coverage behind it.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION:
We definitely saw some interesting things from the defense on Sunday and I would say the mixed results were clear for all to see.
They aren't going to get 5 sacks every week, but they do need to get about 3 each week to lead this team back into the playoff mix. Greg Hardy is a dynamite talent and Randy Gregory thinks he can play against the Giants, too.
Now, behind that, the coverage issues were a problem, but I am not sure there are many solutions to man coverage against the Patriots. I might argue too much man coverage, but Marinelli seems very committed to Cover 1 all season. That means underneath, there are going to be a lot of man and that is going to hurt when you are dealing with Julio Jones, Drew Brees or Tom Brady.
Tyler Patmon was completely replaced by Corey White and we will wait to see if this is a match-up wrinkle or if they are wanting to move more in that direction. Also, is Byron Jones going to see his use increased? Is he a candidate to play more safety? He has handled his responsibilities pretty well and Gronk getting him a few times is just a testament to the idea that Gronkowski is not some hyped up media creation. He is quite simply unstoppable, to be honest. And the Patriots know how to make it even tougher by splitting him off by himself in the formation like the Cowboys do with Dez. Either you double team him and get killed elsewhere, or you single him up and get killed by him. It is true "pick your poison".
The offense has some problems that are unsolvable. The defense also has problems, but I believe the solutions just walked through that door. Over the next month, it is vital the defense dominates games. The Giants, Seahawks, Eagles, and Buccaneers are next, and that means no Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees to get frustrated by. Those are all reasonable offenses at times, but they each have issues with all having weak offensive lines. It is time to demonstrate that with this front.
If the defense can start controlling their business, the Cowboys can climb back into this season. But, it will require takeaways. Immediately. You can argue it is the team's best and only hope right now.