Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Marinelli Report - Week 6 - Giants

Our defensive look at the New York Giants game is an interesting one to say the least.  In many respects, the defense played one of their very best games of the year surrendering just 289 yards and seems to spend much more time around the QB and getting off the field. 
At most, the defense was responsible for conceding just 13 points and you could understand some level of short tempers when the offense and special teams were giving up points - a sure recipe for disaster.   The defense played hard and in many respects deserved a better fate than they received on Sunday - but that is football.  It is a team game and you win and lose because of your cumulative level of quality.
There are things going better on this defense since the arrivals of Rolando McClain, Greg Hardy, and Randy Gregory (although Gregory was hardly seen on Sunday), and the reasons for optimism should be present.  However, as it pertains to Sunday, there were some disconcerting elements of the game that we should consider.
For instance, of the six biggest plays the defense has conceded in 2015, three of them were on Sunday.  So, yes, they didn't give up many yards in total, but they did give up 3 plays on Sunday that would be considered major explosives.  A 44-yard pass to Rueben Randle on a 3rd and 5 from deep inside Giants territory - something that surely would have resulted in Cowboys points if they can force that punt; a 39 yard run to Shane Vereen later in that same drive, and a 38 yard pass to Dwayne Harris across the middle in the 2nd Quarter against a blitz.   And there surely would have been a 4th in the final Quarter had Rueben Randle not bobbled a beautiful pass and allowed Byron Jones a chance to break it up. 
So, while the defense played pretty well and gave up fewer than 300 yards on Sunday, we certainly cannot throw roses at their feet if they are allowing several big plays and of course, not generating enough game-changers of their own. 
Certainly, two different 3rd down sacks were wonderful, but to go yet another game without a takeaway is starting to become absurd.  Here is the latest demonstration of how serious things are starting to become:
In the last decade, every year has a different story.  But, this year, the story that isn't being talked about enough because of the QB situation, Dez Bryant's injury, and the week to week Greg Hardy drama is a very simple football story.  The Cowboys have now tied their worst takeaway performance over the course of a year in just six games.  With 10 games to play, the idea that the Cowboys might set a franchise low for weeks without a single takeaway seem well within reach.  3 times in the history of the Dallas Cowboys have they had 6 games in a single season without a takeaway:  1989, 1994, and 2004.  With 5 already in the bag, they seem assured of a rather dubious low in 2015 - a year where they absolutely could not afford for this to happen.  With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant unavailable, this was to be the year that the defense carried the mail.  
And on this most vital of fronts - the statistic that most correlates to winning of any single number in football - the Cowboys are coming up empty.   By the way, of the 53 games since 2000 that the Cowboys have 0 takeaways, they are 10-43.  Since 2010 - the first year of Jason Garrett, they are 1-20.  It is a rough stat to overcome.
Here is this week's version of "The Cowboys Almost got a Takeaway", which will be the 10th such occasion in these 6 games (according to my unofficial count).  It is Byron Jones just about kicking himself an interception.
It seemed convincing enough at real speed, but after further review, they ruled the ball touched the ground in the process.  But, despite the close call, it feels like now is a great time to discuss Byron Jones.
Above, I mentioned a moment in the game where the Cowboys needed a play from a safety.  Enter the rookie from UConn.  If Randle catches this clean, Jones is not going to be able to save the day, but his arm on the ball certainly arrived to make sure Randle doesn't double-catch this one:
It was just last week that I received another bunch of emails and comments from Cowboys fans who were waiting to see the 1st round pick begin to pay dividends.  And he delivered with a game where he made several big plays and came very close a few other times.  
Jones is part of a group of youngsters who we have all labeled as potential "Blue-Chip" players.  Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, and DeMarcus Lawrence are all heavy Cowboys investments who were to help insert top-level talents into a defense that has been mostly retreads and try-hard guys who filled out the lineup in much of 2013 and 2014.  Surely, if you can add these players around a healthy Sean Lee and Greg Hardy, the sky will be the limit in 2015.
Well, with Gregory - like Lawrence last year, health has not cooperated.  But, hypothetically, each week he will get better.  Lawrence has flashed nearly every week, but just isn't getting home.  I think DeMarcus can be a very good edge rusher, but he has to get to the QB more often.  1 in 6 weeks is not what they were hoping for - they likely thought he would be a cinch for 8 sacks this season.  I know I thought that would be possible.
But, now Jones arrives and gets better each week.  I still don't know whether he is a corner or a safety in 2016 and beyond.  But, for now, it appears that he might just be a great football player that has the talent to do whatever you need.  He could be your best corner or he could be your best safety.  He is around the ball a lot (is that because opponents are challenging him?) and seems close to turning a game with a big play.  He also looks likely to block a kick before too long.  
In other words, I think Byron Jones is on his way to a heck of a career.
As mentioned above, Byron Jones made a majority of the big plays on Sunday for the defense as he checked in with 3 splash plays - all 3 where he knocked down passes from Eli Manning.  Manning is looking to get the ball out quick, so he is going after the coverage he thinks he can take advantage of, and Byron was more than able to fight back in his homecoming game.
Overall, it is a low number of splashes, but that likely has more to do with the game flow where the defense played only 9 minutes in the 2nd half as the Cowboys offense was on the field the entire half.  
As you can see here, the numbers indicate many good things about the defensive performance against the Giants.  The defense was able to get off the field on 3rd Down (3-11, 27%) and was able to minimize damage in the red zone drives.  They were also able to keep the yards per play to a minimum.  
But, in the end, the 0 takeaways tell the story.  
It really stinks to lose a game when you can't really name a player on the opposing offense that you thought had a really great game.  But, again, it is a team game and the way the Cowboys lost this one will sting for a bit.
The Giants offense consists of making short passes to allow for yards after catch and occasionally take a shot down the field.  The Cowboys were decent on this for the most part, but were burned on a couple big ones that could have made the margin even worse.  
As many know who read this, the Cowboys do not believe in blitzing much and certainly not as a necessity.  With each week, they are rushing 5 or more less and less.  They tried it 3 times in this game and actually were burned twice.  So, what little they blitz, expect even less.
A team that doesn't like to blitz tries 3 of them and then gives up explosives twice on those three plays?  Well....
Here is another handy pie chart to demonstrate how often the Cowboys bring how-many rushers:
Well, this is simple.  The defense is showing strides and talent.  They are not showing results in the takeaway department so we will continue to ask more of them.  I am not one of those people who say "you can't blame the defense" in a week where so many other things happened.  
Each unit is judged on their own merit.  You can play well in a loss and horribly in a win.  It is a team sport.
On this occasion, the defense has been really solid and looking the part.  But, when you are 1-20 when your defense does not create a single takeaway, well, we know what we are looking for each week.  
Get the ball.  Must get the ball.  And until they do, anything else may not matter soon.  They have tied their worst seasons in 0 takeaway games in the last decade by October 25th.  That simply must change and to do so, players might have to add another level to the intensity.
I may sound like a broken record.  But, that seems fitting since they are about to break a record.  

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