In terms of great military minds, none other than George Washington is credited with uttering a phrase that resembled one of our favorite clichés today used in football:
"The best defense is a good offense."
To use our friends at Wikipedia, it is described thusly, "Generally, the idea is that strong offensive action will preoccupy the opposition and ultimately hinder its ability to mount an opposing counterattack, leading to a strategic advantage."
So, as we look at the Cowboys performance against the Miami Dolphins and then turn it forward to examine their approach to Carolina and any future opponents, we are left to wonder about how many of our perceptions of this defense are linked directly to the QB that runs the offense.
Yes, there have been many a defense that have carried a team and overcome the incompetence of their offense, but in the case of the Dallas Cowboys, based on a sample from 2014-2015, this is, quite clearly, a different defense when they are protected.
We have discussed this at length. To review, there are a number of reasons that the presence and health of Tony Romo can aid the defense, but the two big ones are the following:
A) When the offense is playing with any level of quality, the number of snaps the defense must face and the time of possession advantages swing dramatically. It wasn't always the case, but in the last 2 seasons, the Cowboys offense appears to be trying to control the game with long, methodical drives that take 12-15 snaps and eat 6-8 minutes each time they are on the field. A reminder from Sunday was that in all 4 Quarters of the game, the Cowboys had the ball for at least 9 minutes. All 4! Any brilliant deduction would realize that this means the defense was able to play less than 6 minutes in all 4 Quarters. The defense controls this by getting off the field (Miami was 1-10 on 3rd downs, 0-1 on 4th Downs), but the Dallas offense controls it more by never giving up the ball.
B) When the defense is on the field, it is often with the lead. This allows them to play the type of aggressive defense that leads to sacks and turnovers, while the opposition is also playing an aggressive style of offense (because they trail in the game) and this leads directly to sacks and turnovers, too (if they are not precise). The defense can play downhill and "pin their ears back" and go get the QB. The only team in the NFL without a 4th Quarter sack until Sunday was the Dallas Cowboys. Now, they have 3.
Sunday was pretty special, though, from many standpoints. To be honest, it takes two parties to conspire for these results and Miami's offensive frustrations certainly helped. In other words, you don't get to play the Dolphins every week. Miami had 41 plays on Sunday. This is the lowest number of plays the Cowboys have allowed in any game against any opponent since 1996! That, as you can see below, was the game they played in Miami against Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins in the very same stadium against the very same opponent. Amazing.
So, they didn't run any plays, they didn't have any time of possession, and they didn't have a single drive of more than 5 plays! Think about how crazy that is. No rhythm, no consistency, and certainly no success on 3rd down. The Cowboys deserve some credit for that, but I wouldn't expect Cam Newton to go 1-10 on 3rd down.
Another beautiful thing happened on Sunday as the Cowboys posted their first defensive touchdown of 2015. They had 3 in 2014 and 5 in 2015, but this is the first time they were able to actually put points on the board this season. Of course, they still remain dead last in takeaways with 7 for the season and have the thrill to play the best team in the NFL in takeaways on Thursday with Carolina. That would be the +13 Panthers with 25 takeaways against the -9 Cowboys with just 7 takeaways.
Let's look at this Pick 6 from Rolando McClain below.
It is good old "Cover 1 Robber" which is one of the most common coverages the Cowboys run (and most of the NFL, for that matter). Back a decade, Cover 2 and all of its derivatives were used as the league was trying to make an opponent methodically drive down the field without any huge plays.
But, over the course of time, this seemed to cause teams to put horizontal stretch passing plays in and also emphasize the run game because if you have 2 high safeties, you cannot get a numbers advantage in the box. So, to adjust, teams started playing more with what amounts to a safety high and a safety "in the hole". This can often be a LB who is playing "shallow center field" and he can do a number of things a high safety can't do. He can be used as that extra defender in the box against the run, he can blitz, or he can "sugar" a blitz (appear to the QB like he is coming) and then back off and get in a passing lane by reading the eyes of the QB.
Which happened here:
As you can see, the man coverage uses a "trail" technique where they are basically chasing their men and this often leads to a QB leading his man with a throw - right into the robber who is sitting on the route. But, in this case, Ryan Tannehill sure appears to think Rolando McClain is rushing and therefore should have an easy pitch and catch with Greg Jennings into wide open space once he cross the face of his man on the slant from the slot as he notes Tyler Patmon - his man - is lined up off and soft in his coverage. Tannehill thinks this an easy completion. Watch Sean Lee. He is only rushing if his RB stays in to block. It is also fun to watch him celebrate.
This angle shows that McClain is about to chase the underneath tight end and then sees Tannehill telegraphing his intentions. Rolando has been disappointing at times this year, but this shows real ability to catch this pass that is fired at strong velocity and walks into the end zone. Really good work there.
One of the weirdest elements of Sunday was how little the Dolphins got Lamar Miller going. The Cowboys were not stopping him with any regularity and he had piled up 7 carries and 44 yards on the ground along with 2 catches for 11 more. 9 touches found 55 yards and yet they stopped using him altogether. I really think the Dolphins made themselves very easy to defend on Sunday, so we should temper our enthusiasm on the great results until we see more of it.
It has been over 2 seasons since the Cowboys have played a game in which they only allowed 1 3rd down conversion - that was September of 2013 against Sam Bradford and the Rams. In other words, Miami's offense appears lost and without a clue right now.
RYAN TANNEHILL THROW CHART
Tannehill did connect on a few occasions as he went after Byron Jones in man coverage and connected a few times. In fact, the Cowboys barely avoided a few more disasters as Brandon Carr broke up another play over the top and the Dolphins were trying to get a vertical game going. The Cowboys have to know that if they remain in man coverage, teams are going to go vertical and take shots - especially with the health of the defensive backs in question.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 10 - MIAMI
The team has 134 splash plays in 10 games, so you can see the average is about 13.5 a game. On Sunday, in just 41 snaps they accumulated 14, although the McClain INT was worth 2 as I reward one on the pick and one on the return since the play is so vital. I also award splashes when a player draws a penalty that was committed to prevent a splash play. The Cowboys were held 3 times and chop blocked a 4th and if there is anything that kills a drive, it is a nice 10 or 15 yard offensive penalty. Like I said, the Dolphins participated in their own demise pretty heavily on Sunday.
As usual, if you think I missed any or dispute those findings, drop me an email. It is all done with the eyeball test, so sometimes I might miss one.
SEASON TOTALS - SPLASH PLAYS
Pretty remarkable that Hardy has played in only 6 games but has shot to the top of the team that quickly and also remarkable he is joined by a rookie defensive back at the top. Hardy may not make plays all the time, but he plays hard and is receiving a ton of attention from the opponent. Would love to see Tyrone Crawford and Rolando McClain get on a roll here down the stretch.
COWBOYS PASS RUSH
As you can see, the Cowboys laid back on the pass rush and were very selective on how often they brought the blitz. This is what they normally do, after that odd approach against Jameis Winston the week before where they blitzed much more.
In general, they want to be below 20%. 5 of 27 this past week. I bet they are really careful with Cam Newton tomorrow.
And the overall season numbers for pass rushers by down:
EXPLOSIVE PLAYS - MIAMI
This tracks plays of 20 yards+ that the team emphasizes (as does every defense at every level of football). We do this to see how many are being allowed and what sort of rusher deployment may have affected it.
For a team that barely had 200 yards of total offense, you can see that the Dolphins were relatively explosive on Sunday. Usually, you don't see this many big passes with that poor a total output.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
It is an odd game to evaluate because they were never really challenged and they didn't play that much. Somehow, the Cowboys won the snap +/- by 27 with 68 offensive snaps and only 41 defensive. I am not sure I can recall a difference that high.
Regardless, the offense might have some fatigue issues tomorrow after wrestling with that Dolphins front all day, but the defense should be pretty fresh. They will need it, because Carolina will test your organization and fundamentals with that run game and the confusion at the mesh point where Cam Newton uses his RB, FB, and himself to make sure you have all 3 of his triple options accounted for. Then, he can also drop back and fire some darts with great effectiveness. In other words, I am confounded by how many people think Cam Newton is not that good of a QB, because if you add in all of the elements of his position, he is very good. Somehow, one of the most publicized athletes in the sport seems under-rated from an actual skill standpoint.
This is the test that will likely make or break the season. A win will invigorate the team and put the NFC East on notice. A loss might begin a December of playing out the string. If ever you needed to dial up the defense to make a few plays and assist the offense which has to go against a fantastic Panthers defense, this would be the day.
For one day late in 2015, at least, the Cowboys find themselves in a heavyweight fight with great relevance. But, this is one they have to put in the win column.
The defense will need to step up and make a stand.