I have been meaning to spend one of these weeks in our defensive studies to look at the coverage philosophies of the Rod Marinelli defense. I think it is a very interesting development between 2014 and 2015 on the surface, but once you enter in the results of each season and each week, one can surmise on some level that perhaps the alterations to the 2015 defense have not worked out as well as we might have hoped.
The problems with these experiments, where we try to look at the results when we change a single variable is that many other variables are changing at the same time. You can't just switch your coverage philosophies and then rerun the 2014 season. That is something that you may do in a laboratory, but not on a football field. There is no way to replicate the 2014 season in 2015. There are new players, injuries, opponent approaches, and so forth that keep us from truly knowing what is the source of the altered results in 2015.
For instance, it became pretty clear in the offseason that the Cowboys wanted to switch from a team that plays a lot of zone to a team that played primarily man. In the coaching community, they basically went from Cover 3 - the same zone concepts you will see many teams, most notably Seattle, run - to a Cover 1. Cover 1 is another popular trend in the NFL that employs a single high safety, a man in the hole (sort of the center fielder in the shallow middle), and otherwise man coverage across the board.
Disclaimer: This is where I stop the column and express the honest view that secondary coverages are not my specialty. I have been able to study these pretty hard over the years, but of all the coaching concepts we cover in this space, this is where I am weakest. I just wanted to be honest with you, because I might not see everything perfectly.
OK, so last year, they were a primarily Cover 3 team and this year they wanted to be a Cover 1 team. Now, when we say primary, we are talking about the coverage they play most - not the coverage they play all of the time. Nobody in the NFL is playing the same coverage on every play. And, just so you know (but of course you know if you just play Madden), there are a dozen ways to play a Cover 3 or a Cover 1. These variations are what confuse QBs, so of course they are going to confuse part-time bloggers and fans.
Now, one more thing to continue to confuse everyone - over the years, since Monte Kiffin was hired and brought Rod Marinelli with him, many have made the bold claim that the Cowboys were a "Tampa 2" team. That was a reasonable assumption when they first arrived, but once anyone looked at an actual Cowboys game, those who were doing their homework knew that the Cowboys weren't doing that at all. And yet, as late as this year - a full 3 seasons later - I have seen national people call the Cowboys a "Tampa 2" defense.
So, they were a Cover 3 team, but now want to be a Cover 1 team, while the whole time some people call them a Cover 2 team. Get it?
Which brings us to what has happened this year.
They wanted to play more man coverage and then Orlando Scandrick was injured in camp and lost for the year. Scandrick, of course, was their best player for this coverage and maybe the key to it all.
Yet, they marched bravely forward with their plan and if you asked me (many of you have) what the Cowboys have been doing in coverage over the first 8 games, I would say that it has become a Cover 1 team. Lots of Cover 1. We saw Julio Jones abuse it and the Patriots attack it with the rub routes. But, we also have seen it look pretty strong at times and really seem to frustrate some top QBs for stretches.
But, along the way, we have also seen the complete drop off of takeaways. One of the basic tenants of defensive football is that zone coverages are more conducive to takeaways because the defenders are all watching the QB, whereas in man coverages, the defender has often turned his back and is running from the QB without the benefit of eyes on the ball.
Now, to Sunday. Did the Cowboys decide to try some new things or did they simply decide to do logical things this one week against a rookie QB who has difficulty making decisions with the ball? We will continue to track this story, but I believe we saw more zone coverage and yes, more Cover-2 looks than the Cowboys have shown all season long. Now, the coverages are tricky to call out and they mix them with one side of the field looking like they are doing one thing with the other in another look. But, either way, after being primarily a single-high safety defense for 8 weeks, they changed a lot against Tampa Bay.
And, perhaps because of these adjustments, they were able to force several throws that were either picked off or could have (should have) been picked off. Let's look at a few here.
This is the first interception:
I believe this might be the Tampa 2 here, because you see the Mike LB turn his hips and try to get the deep middle while the 2 high safeties are getting a bit wider. It could also be a Quarters (Cover 4) look with the corners carrying their guy deep, but it is unclear because nobody for Tampa releases into the flats where the corners would cover in a Cover 2, but not in a Cover 4.
Either way, Winston is looking for the hole in the zone and when he overshoots it, there are 2 safeties behind to pick up any tipped balls. Jeff Heath is there and the Cowboys have a takeaway.
This wasn't an interception, but Tyler Patmon should have picked this off right before halftime. Here, it sure looks like everyone is in zone aside from Morris Claiborne who is carrying his man up top. Again, not uncommon when you mix up coverages to have players on different sides in different coverages. Logically, these coverages are not meant to be easy to identify.
Above is the 2nd pick. Heath again in a Cover 2 look. Hard to tell what the corners are going to do fully, but it looks like it might be converting into a Cover 4/Quarters coverage (notice the TE wide open headed to the sideline up top). Actually, it sort of looks like Quarter/Quarter/half to be honest. But, again, tight space, defenders all looking at the ball and Winston, and a chance at a takeaway with tipped ball.
Also notable on Sunday's effort was a ton of blitzing. The Cowboys, who never blitz, brought a lot of pressure. Sometimes it was very good and sometimes not. Here is why you have to be careful with how much you do it - especially if you don't blitz much as a general rule:
Cowboys bring 6, and Winston dinks a little screen over the top and the Bucs gain 25 yards pretty easily.
You can see the Cowboys searching for answers. More 2-high safeties and zones, more blitzes as well. They should have picked Winston off at least 3 times, but he also made enough plays to frustrate the Cowboys defense at the moments of truth. It is a fascinating game to track the evolution of the philosophies, but in this case, I wonder if we were looking at a one-week changeup, or a midseason change in direction.
DATA - WEEK 9 - TAMPA BAY
I would like to start at the top and indicate that the Cowboys gave up 10 points and lost a game again. So, let's take note that this team in its last 3 games has lost a game where the defense gave up less than 14 points on two different occasions. That is a very difficult pill to swallow. So, if you want to say the defense did its part, you have a real argument.
Of course, there is also that issue of giving up the most damaging production-against when the team needs a stop the most. If you are in a one possession game in the 4th Quarter, whether it is 35-31 or 6-3, and the defense breaks down and concedes the touchdown at just the wrong time, then we better consider that evidence as well. Against New Orleans, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay, the Cowboys were in a spot where a stop might mean a win. And there was no stop to be found from the defense. Harsh, but true.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 9 - TAMPA BAY
This was a strong week for splash plays. Lots of solid individual efforts over the course of the game with a season-high 18 splash plays awarded out. It is impossible to watch the defense play and fly to the ball on Sunday and question the effort. The results aren't perfect, but there is a fantastic amount of effort being spilled every week. Forgive me, but I really detest those who suggest this team has "checked out". The evidence doesn't agree. It is just that winning is really hard.
And here are the season totals in the splash categories:
I thought DeMarcus Lawrence was particularly noteworthy this week. I really like how he mirrors the play that Greg Hardy has given where there is just a violence to his game in the trenches. Very impressive motor from both of those two.
THROW CHART - JAMEIS WINSTON
If nothing else, Winston keeps it interesting and is throwing it all over the field. When he sees a blitz, he is looking up top. And why not? If Evans doesn't catch it, it seems he is drawing a penalty.
EXPLOSIVES - TAMPA BAY
This is the story of the game, in some respects. The defense is playing an opponent with a rookie QB, a rookie LT, just one WR who has ever done anything at any level, and yet that guy - Mike Evans was able to account for over 180 yards of offense. It is pretty clear that the alpha-male WR is still a handful for the Cowboys that they may not have a great answer for. Julio Jones and Mike Evans come quickly to mind. They get everyone, but the Cowboys cannot scheme them out as well as some teams do against Dez Bryant, it seems.
PASS RUSHERS - WEEK 9 - TAMPA
Look at all of the blitzes! Rookie QB? Either way, 28% is a season-high as well.
We need to track those above numbers and see if the Cowboys keep blitzing as they move forward. Again, it is not what they do, but after 8 games of no takeaways, they may have decided to alter things to find bigger plays. And, for one week, it seems to have worked on some level.
Here are the season-long pass rush numbers to date:
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
If the team has not had takeaways because they have not had the lead, we now wonder what this defense will do to complement th return of Tony Romo. Overall, the defense has suffered the same inconsistency as the rest of the team and seems to be a largely undetectable pattern as to whether they will dominate or not from Sunday to Sunday.
There are many moving parts where this week it appears Sean Lee has a chance to return, while Morris Claiborne seems unlikely to be available now for a couple games.
They also have shown on the field that they are willing to mix up their safeties quite a bit and to play more Cover-2 shell and change things up more between zone and man. They, if nothing else, are trying to empty out the ideas on the table and are messing with new alternatives rather than being accused of stubbornness on their way to a slow death.
Is it a matter of playing downhill with the lead? It is a matter of playing less because the offense is on the field more? Given that they are either completely out of it or at least completely out of mulligans, we begin this latest experiment in earnest at noon on Sunday with no room for further errors or 4th Quarter collapses.