Most who saw Sunday's game against Green Bay settled on two thoughts when it came to the performance of Rod Marinelli's crew: 1) The defense played its heart out, despite being left on the field without much assistance from a sputtering offense against a team that was determined to run the football in less than ideal conditions and 2) that opponent only broke through in the end because the defense was exhausted.
I think from a perspective that they had lasted 55 minutes with the score still sitting at 14-7, this is absolutely correct. On the other hand, they had already given up 251 yards at halftime after Green Bay kept the ball for 20 of the 30 minutes in the first half. There is the chicken and egg game that can be played there with fingers pointed at Matt Cassel and the offense, but in fairness to the truth, the defense had already given up an absurd 17 first-half first downs. To put that in perspective, the Miami Dolphins had 9 and the Washington Redskins had 15 the entire game in the Cowboys wins in the past month.
For the game, the Packers moved the chains 29 times against the Cowboys defense, which accounts for the most first downs the defense has conceded in a year where they have played from less than advantageous postures too many times. And, as we said earlier in the week, the Packers dominated the Dallas defense with repeated runs right into the teeth of the defensive line. The Packers do not use too many tricks when they are trying to feed Eddie Lacy and James Starks a series of interior runs and on this day they attempted 44 runs for 230 yards rushing which were both season highs for any Cowboys opponent. Rodgers had an efficient enough day, but in reality, this was a battle of strength at the point of attack, and too many times the Cowboys front 7 was over-powered.
This does lead us to an interesting discussion that we normally preserve for the offseason, but should at least consider it for a moment because some have raised the point quite a bit - are the Cowboys big enough up front to do something about teams that decide to run right at them? Luckily, it hasn't happened too much. But, if there was a knock on DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory when they entered the draft, it was that question that is asked of any pass rush specialists - are they stout enough to stand up to the running game? Especially when opponents see that a player is coming for the QB, Football Coaching 101 says that you start running right at them.
On many occasions on Sunday, the Packers were ready to run right at Lawrence, Greg Hardy, and Gregory with tackle runs where they - usually right tackle Bryan Bulaga - would simply allow the DE to rush to the outside and turn and wall the player off. This left a rather large hole in line where daylight could be found when the guard would cut off the DT and now - often with a FB lead running at the undersized Sean Lee - the RB was into the secondary quickly.
Again, this is not a regular occurrence, but it is possible that opponents do see how potentially great Lawrence and Gregory are as edge rushers and this is the way to slow them down. The book on Hardy has always been to run right at him because he destroys everything else. It will be interesting to see if the Cowboys think this is an issue to have two pretty small Defensive Ends (both were said to be weakside DEs when they were drafted) playing together moving forward or would they opt for a more traditional strong-side DE and rotate those two on the other side or in exclusive pass rush situations.
Another item worth checking in on is the way this team surrenders yards and points by Quarter. It certainly puts a lot of blame on the total team-view and asks the offense to support the defense and the defense to help out the offense, but the raw numbers tell us that the team concedes plenty of yards and points in the 4th Quarter. Now, your first response might be that this is all about the defense being exposed and left on the field. Well, the astute readers would answer that actually, the Cowboys defense has been on the field only 28 minutes a game. The Cowboys are still very good (3rd in NFL) in time of possession. And the defense has only faced 807 snaps in a league where the average team has faced 838 plays.
In other words, the defense has not been "hung out to dry" as much as many are claiming. Despite that, here are the realities by Quarter:
The Cowboys don't allow yards in the 1st Quarter. 13 games in they allow but 58 yards per 1st Quarter. But, then 104 per game in the 4th Quarter. They go from great to horrible. So, are they undersized and do they wear down?
The points tell a similar story. 2.5 points per game in the 1st Quarter and 8.3 per 4th Quarter. It is something to ask when the snaps and time of possession are where they need to be and yet this defense caves in as the game goes on.
Let's look at a few plays from Sunday:
This is the DeMarcus Lawrence sack from right before halftime that killed a Green Bay Drive. Dallas drops into a zone behind this 4-man rush and although Bulaga was great in run blocking against Lawrence, he lost a few times in pass protection and this is one where Lawrence dances around him with great ease. He uses his hands and then jumps to the outside while the tackles are stunting inside and keeping Rodgers in the pocket. Look at Gregory on the opposite side, too, with a spin and almost picks up half a sack.
Here is Greg Hardy just over-running 70-TJ Lang in another 3rd down pass rush situation. This is a bit of a coverage sack because you can see Anthony Hitchens following Rodgers' eyes across the middle and when he has to hold the ball, Hardy gets home. I think Lang was hoping for a little help from the center, but Hitchens faking his rush occupies 73-Tretter to the left.
But, on the pivotal play of the game for the defense, at 14-7 with 8:15 left to go in the 4th Quarter, the unit has a chance to get off the field yet again. Packers are going to have to figure out a 3rd and 9 from the Dallas 48 if they want to put this game away. The Cowboys send five rushers and appear to have called the same blitz as they did against Washington when Sean Lee grabbed his 1st Quarter sack - except this time it would be McClain that would engage in the LB/DT stunt to Rodgers' left (although it looks like McClain is running a stunt but 95-Irving is not aware of it).
Here, the Cowboys do exactly the thing they talked about not doing; they rushed past Rodgers level. This means as he dropped back to his 45 yard line, you can see Jeremy Mincey and DeMarcus Lawrence both at the 43 or 42, a few yards behind him. This, with man coverage behind it, opens up the entire field except for Sean Lee who is performing McClain's normal spy/robber role in the shallow middle of the field. But, as he sees Rodgers begin to vacate the pocket with all of the defenders behind him, Lee loses his footing and now Rodgers has a chance if he can dart past Tyrone Crawford. Crawford, however, seemed to be sitting and waiting for this as he has an angle on the QB that should end this at midfield. He is able to wrap both arms around Rodgers, whom he outweighs by about 80 pounds. And yet, somehow, Rodgers runs right through the arm tackle and keeps running past the sticks in a play that likely broke the backs of the tired defense.
And from there, the dam broke.
WEEKLY DATA - WK 13 - GREEN BAY
It is probably one of those weeks where we see the tally sheet here is a bit misleading. We should be sure to put the big numbers on here which are: 81 plays, 37:46 in time of possession, and 435 total yards.
It is great if you can hold Aaron Rodgers to 5.5 yards per attempt, but you certainly can't give up 5.2 yards per carry. At some point, they will just stop passing the ball and decide to keep your pass rushers from doing anything but fighting off run blocks. They generally don't enjoy that. Also, 7 of 14 on 3rd downs was aided by Rodgers running for the marker on 2 occasions because coverage down the field was fine once again.
AARON RODGERS THROW CHART
As you can see, everything you heard about Green Bay's vertical passing game was correct. They really don't have one. A few deep outs to James Jones, but everything else was short and quick. They really miss Jordy Nelson's ability to "take the top off the defense", but they made it work because of the success of the ground and pound.
SPLASH PLAYS - GREEN BAY
Partly due to the Packers committing so many holding penalties, there were 17 different splash plays on Sunday. Including, the first three of Randy Gregory's career.
SPLASH PLAYS - SEASON TOTALS
DeMarcus Lawrence with a late surge up the standings. Byron Jones has had a quiet few weeks.
PASS RUSHERS vs GREEN BAY
They certainly didn't think blitzing Rodgers was a great plan. And, I think their coverage ideas confirmed that they did the right thing. They made him work to complete passes. That is all you can do there.
SEASON BLITZ PERCENTAGE
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
It absolutely felt like the defense played well enough to win this game. Whether that is true or not depends on perspective and level of optimism/pessimism in the reader. It sure appeared that while they had their hands full, they made Green Bay accomplish whatever they would in 5 yard chunks. In fact, Rodgers had one 20-yard pass all day and it was a screen pass to Eddie Lacy that was completed behind the line of scrimmage. By the way, the screen pass did kill the Cowboys quite a bit, but you would rather deal with that then a series of bombs because you can at least get bodies to the ball carrier underneath.
Regardless, that was a physical struggle for sure and it likely took a lot out of the defense that will now have to operate with another short week. Meanwhile, the team has released Tyler Patmon which was certainly a surprise. Reports like this one from the DMN's David Moore offered an explanation:
He was never going to be a physical corner, but he seemed to battle his tail off. They appeared to try to blitz him more in the last few weeks, but it doesn't look natural for him. That said, when they had Corey White and Tyler Patmon to choose from as a 3rd/4th corner as they played Byron Jones more at safety is now jumbled by releasing both of them. Orlando Scandrick will be back, but with Morris Claiborne as a free agent and Brandon Carr on a massive cap number, it makes you all wonder if they will once again look at corner back in the next draft.
But, man, it sure looks like they already have quite a list of positions to consider in that draft and maybe not enough picks to handle them all.