It is pretty clear that no statistic correlates more to winning in football than the turnover ratio. Over the course of my time keeping track, the NFL has had a very steady win correlation for teams winning the turnover ratio in any given game that stays over 75% and often even 80%. It is vital that a team controls this number and as we have detailed every week, the Cowboys have definitely been on the wrong side of that one.
But, let's pursue some new ground this week and at least make you aware of the belief that many coaches in football (at all levels) are emphasizing more and more as it correlates to the result and has to be taken care of very carefully.
That is the explosive play - plays of 20 yards or more. The premise is that the team that finishes on top with more explosive plays than the opponent will get the win. For me, while it doesn't seem to have as close a correlation as turnovers with the winner, we can all get behind the rather obvious idea that since the beginning of time, big plays are a horrible characteristic for a defense and a wonderful one for the offense.
A team that gives up many big plays is generally awful and a team that gives up hardly any (by league standards) has a chance to be elite. Seattle has led the league in each of the last 2 seasons, so I tend to buy this premise.
In 2015, despite the annoying inability to get the football from the opponent after doing it so well in 2014 (31 takeaways last season, 4 so far this year), the Cowboys have put together 2 months of not allowing big plays. This is a rather exciting development that could keep the Cowboys in the mix all the way to the finish line.
Knowing that they have played Eli Manning, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and Russell Wilson, it stands to reason that the big plays would have been a real issue in the front half of the schedule. Only Bradford would not rank amongst the better QBs in the league on that list. Yet, the Cowboys defense ranks 3rd in the NFL in explosives allowed.
Here is how that compares with other seasons in recent memory for the Cowboys:
Even though the differences in that statistic do not appear significant, you should know that the best in the league are usually down under three per game, and the worst are near five per game. Over those 7 seasons listed on the graphic, the Cowboys have never ranked in the top 5. In 2013, they were 31st. But, this year, they are ranked 3rd in the league and have a chance to improve upon that with the list of Quarterbacks they have coming up.
This should be seen as a very interesting and exciting development if it can be maintained.
Why is it happening? I think it does go back to the idea that since Rod Marinelli has taken over for the Cowboys, the team has stopped blitzing anywhere close to at a league rate. This may lower the potential for big plays from the defense, but it also dramatically seems to cut down on the big plays against the defense. Fewer people rushing means more people to round up the man with the ball downfield before a play gets worse.
It is an interesting theory, but know in those 7 years above, the Cowboys peaked at a 34% blitz rate in 2010 - the same year they were 27th in explosives allowed. Last year, they dropped to 22.9% in blitzing and only allowed 57 explosives all year.
Now, in 2015, in a season where they blitz at what appears to be franchise low since we started tracking the results, the Cowboys only send pressure about 15% of the time, and also have only given up 22 explosive plays all year. That puts them on pace for allowing 50 this season - which would easily be the lowest they have allowed on record.
That clearly appeared to be the overall premise against the Seahawks. The eye test indicated that they played more zone defense on Sunday than they had at any other time this season, surely out of fear for Russell Wilson running the ball when he sees man coverage. They wanted to keep him in the pocket (something we might see more with Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers ahead) and to do so, they had zone players with their eyes on the QB most of the day.
Seattle only had a single 20-yard play all day (the Touchdown pass down the seam to TE Luke Willson), so you would have to say it certainly worked. They also did generate a turnover and blocked a field goal. All in all, you would have to conclude the defense did - for the 2nd week in a row - enough to win a game. If you are Rod Marinelli, you have to continue to sell the message that the defense is doing well and has to keep digging hard.
On to some other items about the defense. I am asked quite a bit about my evaluations of the linebacking situation - especially since Rolando McClain has returned in Week 5 against the Patriots. That move inserted the veteran linebacker who was so excellent in 2014, and pretty much removed Anthony Hitchens from the lineup. In the last 3 weeks, Hitchens has seen his snaps per game fall from 54.5 per game to 13.
Instead, McClain has been playing alongside Sean Lee. This was the vision so many of us hoped to see with Lee and the Will LB and McClain in the middle running down plays like only he can. He was so good in 2014 that surely the tandem would only improve the defense.
So, what is going on? Lee's production has pretty much stalled completely since Week 3 and McClain just looks like he has aged 5 years in the last 12 months. That is seldom going to be seen as a compliment.
Let's show you what I am talking about - First, look at 2 of my favorite plays in 2014 that McClain made. Notice the ferocity and the determination to destroy a play:
Just look at those. Beautiful work from a vicious tackler who will not let you mess with his territory.
Now, compare those 2 great plays from 2014 with these 2 odd and bothersome moments from Sunday.
He looks slow, unsure, and perhaps uninterested. He is clearly spying Wilson on the 2nd play and gets faked out. But, then, upon his recovery, he looks like a player who has no catchup speed whatsoever. The top play where he is headed to the sideline to blow up a quick WR screen, he appears to be a bystander who has teammates passing him on their way to the play on both sides of him.
These two plays suggest one of those situations where you almost hope he is hurt - at least that would explain a player who needs to be replaced with Hitchens as soon as possible if this is what we are going to see.
Data - Week 8 - Seattle
If you look at the numbers against the Seahawks, you will see that for the most part the defense did a pretty solid job with almost no big plays and the yards per play was very low. Unfortunately, in a game where Russell Okung could not play, the Cowboys could not generate a single sack against an offensive line that has given up 31 already this season.
That is certainly a bit disappointing, but I think the Seahawks made it an initiative to make sure they did not ask the pass protection crew to have to stand their ground very much. They were getting the ball out quite quickly and not challenging the Cowboys pass rush head on very often.
SPLASH PLAYS - SEATTLE
Another week of splash plays, another week of splash plays with Greg Hardy and Byron Jones all over it.
Hardy continues to run down every play on film. I imagine, when Marinelli is calculating his "loaf" plays (55), he is not seeing 76 much.
But, he did put this splash play on the board. Actually got 2 splashes for this.
Here is the new season-total splash board - Good news and Bad News when you look at this. Good news is that Sean Lee has been good (awful quiet recently) and Hardy and Jones have been fantastic since the bye week. The bad news is that we are not seeing the production of 2014 from many of those players returning. Instead of Hardy, Lee, and Jones enhancing the production, it almost seems they have merely replaced it. DeMarcus Lawrence is close to many plays, but the production of Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey is down and somewhat bothersome.
Here is the Russell Wilson throw chart:
You can see how he uses a big part of the field between seam passes to tight ends, his trademark comeback routes to the sideline, and of course, the frequent passes to the flanks.
Now, here is the Cowboys pass rush plan against Wilson. Again, no blitzing and keep him in the pocket. Very predictable and you would have to say, effective.
And now, below, here is the season to date pass rush tendencies:
And expressed another way, here are the blitz totals week-to-week:
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
I continue to feel some optimism for the 2015 Cowboys because I am seeing a defensive performance that passes most of the tests. Yes, they are going to need some 3-takeaway games and a few 4-sack games wouldn't hurt, either. But, overall, on a play to play basis, there isn't many things to complain about.
You would like to see your defense make plays and even score points, but the fundamental charge of any defense is to resist succumbing to the attacks of the opposition. From just about every angle, the defense has hung in there on most challenges - the 2nd half vs Atlanta and the 2nd half vs New England were not good enough - and overall they did their parts well.
Greg Hardy has raised the intimidation and respect from opponents as you can see how their game plans are now altered to work around him. We are also seeing Byron Jones forcing his way onto the field and the Cowboys are even trying to get better safety play as they actually played Jeff Heath more snaps than JJ Wilcox (who appeared completely fit as he was on special teams all day).
Now, they get another chance to deal with DeMarco Murray and the Eagles offense that they so dominated back in Week 2 without Hardy. Clearly, without reasonable QB play, the onus falls to the defense to carry the load.
The season may hinge on whether they can do it themselves.