One thing that the Cowboys would like to try to accomplish in 2015 is to answer the simple question: "Do the Cowboys have a good defense?"
They spent most of the 2015 offseason trying to address parts and improve upon what they established the year before, but I must confess through 11 games, I am unclear on exactly how I feel about Rod Marinelli's side of the ball.
They certainly are not very good at getting the ball as they now sit 32ndin the NFL in takeaways. We have addressed this in previous write-ups, the idea that the Cowboys have spent so much time behind hinders their ability to "play downhill" and generate more takeaways, but there is no way to sugar-coat a team that sits at the league bottom.
For instance, I don't think Cleveland spends much time with the lead in games, either. Yet, they have 17 takeaways this season. Dallas sits at merely 7.
Last week, they played the team with the league's most takeaways (Carolina) and provided a matchup between #1 and #32 in this conversation. Carolina, predictably, found 3 more freebies and the Cowboys, also predictably, were shut-out in this vital category.
In sacks, the Cowboys sit 25th in the league, with 20. This puts them on a pace for 29, which will, again, be well below league average. In the preseason, I placed the season goal at 40, simply because there seemed to be no reason they should finish below the league average (38 was NFL average in 2014) with the investment they have placed on their pass rush. It simply hasn't developed like we anticipated.
Points against - the only statistic that truly matters for a defense - is at league average. The Cowboys give up 22 points a game (15th), but they fall to 27th in the league when it comes to 4th Quarter points allowed. Given the games that were lost in the 4th Quarter this year, that seems like a relevant number.
The Cowboys rank in the Top 10 in yards allowed per game. They are 8th with 332 yards against per outing. The league average is 356 per, and the rest of the division is in the bottom third of the NFL. Washington gives up 367, Philadelphia 379, and New York is worst in the league, allowing 420 per game.
They are middle of the road in so many other statistics. Passer ranking against (16th), Rushing Yards per game (15th), Explosive plays allowed (12th), and 3rd Down Conversions allowed (11th).
We have seen a brutally bad defense (2012 and 2013) around here and definitely know what one looks like. This is not a bad defense.
But, we also know what a real good defense looks like, too. And this team is certainly not that, either. Not with an absurdly low number of takeaways and game-changing plays. The effort seems to be there and the talent seems higher than the recent past, but the results have been pretty disappointing. When the epitaph is put on the 2015 Cowboys, it will likely read "this was a team that won nothing without Tony Romo taking them there." That might seem harsh, but much of that will certainly fall on the defense's ledger.
When it comes to Thanksgiving Day, the defense was sabotaged with the horrendous situations that the Romo interceptions put them in all day. But, there were a few very disappointing sequences that must be accounted for during that game.
That is the repeated issues of 3rd and Long (10+). The game often comes down to 3rd down efficiency from both sides. And when you get into 3rd and long, it is generally a proposition under 20% to convert - meaning the defense gets off the field across the league at around 81% of the time.
The Cowboys in 2015 had dealt with 34 situations in 3rd and long before Thursday and had allowed just 5 conversions (14.7%). But, against Cam Newton and his very impressive gun, the Panthers converted on 3 of 7 "3rd-and-long" situations for a staggering 43%. It is just one game and a small sample, but giving up 3 of these long-shot scenarios in one game is an absolute failure. Then, you can add in a 4th if you count the 2ndand 19 where he also converted on another long pass to Olsen again, and you can see how the defense was culpable in snuffing out time-consuming drives to a team that is not known for its ability on 3rd and long. Going into the game, Carolina was slightly better than league average at (21.8%) on these.
But, they absolutely crushed the Cowboys on long pass plays at just the wrong moments:
1) 1Q/11:04 - 3/5/27 - Newton to Cotchery down seam, +24
Cowboys in Cover 3 with the Panthers only running 3 players into routes. Outside left man runs right at the deep safety and takes the corner (39-Carr) with him. Then, the right slot receiver (Cotchery) runs a deep-in right past the depth of the dropping shallow zone guys. You would like to think 7 defenders versus 3 receivers is a major advantage for the defense, but you can see all of those shallow guys worried about Cam breaking contain and getting to the sticks. This allows this opening down the field and then the velocity on Newton's throw and the accuracy in that window does the rest. A big potential stop goes by the boards in the space between 50-Lee and 42-Church.
2) - 1Q/0:33 - 3/10/20 - Newton to Olsen down seam, +24
Perhaps the signature play of the game for the defense because this one is a real killer. You only rush 3 guys to keep Newton from trying to run. You then drop into what looks like a Cover 1 (single high, man coverage under), but with a number of others loitering in zones to make sure you don't let them to the sticks.
Somehow, Olsen gets easy leverage on Carr and McClain doesn't get deep enough (in fairness, he is protecting the sticks, not the deep seam), and Newton shows you his go-to pass. The deep seam is his bread and butter. I swear he does it every week. Look at this from the end zone:
That should quiet questions about whether he can beat you from the pocket. The velocity and accuracy of this throw is beautiful.
Then, to make matters worse, Garrett challenges this play and ends up looking pretty silly. I don't know what he was doing there. Bizarre.
3) - 3Q, 4:20 - 3/17/39 - Newton right to Cotchery, +24
You want a blitz? Here is your blitz. 6-man pressure means you only have 5 left behind it to deal with 3 in routes. Patmon is blitzing from a very deep starting position in the slot here, and he will not get close. I really hate blitzing slot guys from off-coverage. Behind it, the Cowboys have 31-Jones and 39-Carr to play the corner spots on a Cover 3 zone, with 38-Heath up top. It looks like 50-Lee and 94-Gregory are the 2 shallow coverage guys.
Newton does exactly what you should do when you see a blitz. Throw into it. But, even if you do throw at Patmon's guy, how is he going to pick up 17 yards here?
Again, it is the concept of the Cover-3 corners who run with their man. Just like Cotchery's other catch above, he is running into space that has been vacated by the corner going with the vertical threat through their area. You could argue, this is the difficulty of this scheme is that when your corner goes with his guy (as he must), then that side of the field is going to be tough to patrol, especially if Sean Lee appears to be starting at the opposite hash as he tries to bluff a blitz. You want him to switch with Patmon and then Cotchery is running to the far sideline?
I may be too conservative, but on 3rd and 17, at this juncture of a 23-6 game, I might just play coverage and assume I won't give up 17. Instead, they gamble and give up 24. It was that kind of day.
4) - 4Q/13:11 - 2/19/33 - Newton to Olsen down seam, +31
This is just showing off. Here, on 2nd and 19 and up comfortably in the game, Newton is just going to show you that those earlier throws were not flukes.
I don't know what Carr is doing here as it sure looks like man coverage, but that soft outside leverage is never going to work. Olsen pushes him further outside and then angles back inside. With what appears to be sub-standard free safety play all day (meaning, they never arrive at the actual point where you need them to be), the corner's coverage has to be better than this.
Newton is actually getting hit as he makes this throw, but he definitely has the tools to make this look easy.
Overall, this has not been an issue all year long, but on Thanksgiving, the secondary looked like a sieve against a team that only needed to throw down the field a few times (they were up the entire game and never "needing" to do it), but when they did, the Cowboys offered no resistance whatsoever.
WEEKLY DATA - WK 11 - CAROLINA
Again, when you look at certain numbers they were not that bad. 1 TD allowed, less than 300 yards. But, if you look at 3rd down conversions (8!), starting field position, and, of course, no takeaways for what is now an all-time record 7th game this season of no interceptions or fumble returns, you can forget this nonsense about the defense being blameless. They simply are not getting the needed results on any consistent basis and I am sure are not pleased internally about how that has gone.
CAM NEWTON THROW CHART
Newton is a special player and to demonstrate, John Daigle inserted his runs into this chart to show how much of the field you must defend when you play Carolina. Also, look at his throws beyond 10 yards. It is an impressive collection on a day - don't forget, where the Carolina offense really didn't need to feel compelled to do anything.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 11 - CAROLINA
One thing that splash plays doesn't account for is the idea that I give an award for passes defended - and in theory, they should be awarded. But, what about the passes defended that could and should be intercepted and maybe even run back for a touchdown? The Cowboys have had many of those and while it is technically awarded as a positive, it is also most certainly a negative at the same time. Rolando McClain was guilty of this early in the game on Thursday and it is one of those times we wonder "what if?"
SEASON-TO-DATE SPLASH PLAY LEADERS
Greg Hardy has been very, very quiet since the Philadelphia game. Was it the controversy surrounding the photographs being released? Was it his conditioning after a very long lay-off? Where have all of the big plays gone? He had 9.5 splash plays in his first 3 games. And 4.5 in the 4 games since the Deadspin article. And frankly, he doesn't look the same. Something to watch.
PASS RUSHERS - WEEK 11 - CAROLINA
The Cowboys were not going to blitz Cam Newton for fear that he would take off running. Just 3 times all day and they were burned badly on one of them.
SEASON TO DATE - PASS RUSHERS
GAME BY GAME BLITZ PERCENTAGES
EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED
All of these plays are featured above with video. The Panthers were killing the Cowboys all day on 3rd down where they went 8 for 16.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Let me circle back to where we started this discussion. Are the Cowboys a good defense? Are they simply a league-average defense? How do they get to be a 40-sack team or a 30-takeaway team again? This year, they are on track for 29 sacks and just 10 takeaways.
In other words, as you look to next season - what do you want to sort through at the end of 2015? There will be a number of players entering free agency from this defense: Morris Claiborne, Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Jeremy Mincey, Kyle Wilber, and Jack Crawford may all be UFA's. In addition, Brandon Carr has a very big number to deal with in 2016.
It is vital for this team to figure out what they are. They love to play man coverage this year after being a primarily zone team for some time. The results have been terribly mixed. They also have had to deal with partial seasons from so many important pieces like Sean Lee, Hardy, McClain, Randy Gregory and others. No season at all from Orlando Scandrick.
This season may be lost and unsalvageable, but the wheels in the NFL keep on turning. The Cowboys have 5 December battles where I believe the team must not only compete, but decide what and who they really are.
This defense has not been good enough to "shoulder the load" since Wade Phillips and it is time that changes. That is why I would be focusing very hard on this side of the ball moving forward to use all of this information from December to make many of these decisions - who stays, who gets offered extensions, and what spots need premium draft picks this spring.
In other words, this is NOT about playing out the string for Marinelli's bunch. These games matter a lot.