Looking at the defense for the Cowboys is a bit less complex than the 4-QB offense, but there are certainly some informational considerations that should be entered into the conversation before we get too carried away with conclusions.
For instance, and I will need to go back and examine this closer to confirm, it seems to me the Cowboys played a lot more Cover 1/3 in the first 2 months of the season. Whether this had much to do with never feeling like they had their full allotment of pass rushers during that phase or whether it was even more of a commitment to "do what Seattle does" defensively, I am not sure.
But, I am sure that when we are looking at big plays that went against the Cowboys, it seems like from Opening Day until about the Philadelphia game in early November, it appeared that the Cowboys usually had a single-high safety. But, in the 2nd half of the season, more often than not, it sure looks like they realize that single-high isn't really something that JJ Wilcox is good at playing. This means that we are looking a lot more at 2-high.
Now, a basic disclaimer about defensive pass coverages; almost nobody plays the same coverage every snap. NFL offenses are too good for you to constantly telegraph your defense, unless you are one of those defenses that is, like Seattle, that good.
So, when I suggest the Cowboys were more a Cover 1 (man-free) or Cover 3 defense in the first 8-9 games, I mean that in shades of gray. And now that I am suggesting I am seeing much more Cover 2/4 with 2 safeties high, it is the same. They are playing more and less of each coverage, but not exclusively by any stretch of the imagination. The Cowboys know they are not good enough to sit in one coverage all day.
I say all that to suggest that to the mind's eye, they seem to be susceptible to more coverage confusion these days in their zones. Again, this is not something proven by my math, but more of seeing the Jets and Redskins hit on passes over the top where the corner and the safety of the Cover 2 both looking at each-other. Early in the season, on the long pass plays, it was Julio Jones or Julian Edelman beating their man with a pick play or a good move, or a running back running by a everyone on a pass (CJ Spiller) or Jordan Matthews shaking a safety in coverage.
But, when the Cowboys went to zones, the pick plays were seen less (although Washington used them on the goal-line) and the zone responsibility confusion started. I know both are big issues, but it always seems like big plays versus man are easier to digest because your guy just got beat. Against zone, it just looks like nobody knows what they are doing out there. That is annoying, of course, and demoralizing.
Here are some examples of the new trend:
This, of course, is the play that ended the Jets game. Byron Jones is pressing when he shouldn't be and JJ Wilcox is not going to be close to getting there to help. Ryan Fitzpatrick makes a throw he is comfortable making because he knows the safety can't get there so it is a man-to-man fade to the sideline (basically the safest downfield throw in the book). It is called a Cover 2 beater, but this one is even easier because the corner isn't doing his part. This play pretty much lost the Jets game.
Here is the 1st play of the 4th Quarter on Sunday.
Here, the Cowboys are in 2-high, but it is pretty clear with the blitz underneath that Jones (the safety on the play side) is on the slot guy. There may be a zone rule here where Jones takes the inside guy or the deep threat, but Brandon Carr here looks to be the confused party. Again, to know, you would need the call and to hear each player explain it, and frankly in a garbage game at garbage time, I am not sure this one has been hashed out on the record. Either way, Carr looks positively clueless and fooled underneath when the #2 guy (slot) heads to him and he releases the outside man (Ross) on a training camp jog to the end zone in a most humiliating way.
Instantly, Twitter exploded with people wanting to cut Brandon Carr on the spot as he has officially become a decisive player amongst the fan base with his large contract and lack of substantial plays to confirm the wisdom in that signing back in 2012. I am not in that camp, and have actually enjoyed his run support in 2015 which I think is much improved, but there are times where he is uninspiring in coverage.
Anyway, I would be interested to see if others see this development like I do. More zones and more 2-high safety looks. It is tough to clearly define what is "helping the team win" because the games have been pretty difficult to view through that lens in the last month, but it leads me to believe that this team is still searching for a coverage philosophy that fits their personnel. This requires the following conversations:
1) - Are the corners good enough to play man?
2) - Do the Cowboys have safeties that can do anything more than 2-high zones? It requires a fantastic safety to play Cover 1/3 because he has to fix a lot of problems. I am reasonably sure the Cowboys don't have that player. Wilcox, Church, Heath for sure no. Byron Jones, maybe, but is that the best use of his talents, anyway?
3) - If the Cowboys wish to play man, do they have linebackers who can run with running backs in space? (And we mean the most elusive Running Backs in the game)
If there are too many "no" answers to those questions then you must be a safe zone team like we saw in 2014. They planned on being more aggressive and more dynamic in 2015. But, perhaps by the end they realized that all of the ideas did not hold water in the long run.
In other words, back to the drawing board. Because since going back to a zone, it looks like they forgot how to play the deep balls.
WEEKLY DATA - WEEK 17 - WASH
It is worth pointing out this year that defensively, the Cowboys were about average in many categories. Of course, the big one is takeaways where they were not only bad, but they were arguable the worst ever (more on that below).
But, as it pertains to 3rd down defense - where the team was scalded again on Sunday, they were actually 15th in the NFL and allowed 38.9% on 3rd downs when the league average was 39%. That is the very definition of league average. And they allowed 374 points with the league average at 365 which we would consider roughly the same. Sacks were low by 6, but if you consider the fact that teams never passed the ball against Dallas (they faced the 31st most passes in the league) I think you can suggest that you need to dig deeper than simply sack numbers. I prefer sack rates, where the Cowboys actually rank 21st. Not the best in the NFL by any stretch, but very close to league average.
Really, so much might come back to takeaways. If that number was right, you might find the 2015 Dallas Cowboys defense acceptable. Which, of course, is stretching quite a bit, but I am just pointing out that much of the rest seemed reasonable.
WEEK 17 SPLASH PLAYS - WASHINGTON
Am I crazy for wanting to see more of Terrance Mitchell? It sure seems as he has been given a chance, he has demonstrated some big play ability, especially as a blitzing DB.
SEASON TOTAL SPLASH PLAYS
It was a close race to crown our 2015 champion, but the Sean Lee decision in the final week (that perhaps his hamstring made for him) helped decide the crown. DeMarcus Lawrence, in his 2nd year with the team, has won the Splash Play title - joining DeMarcus Ware (2011), Anthony Spencer (2012), George Selvie (2013), and Rolando McClain (2014) as winners.
As you can see, the overall splash play total has gone down, which I attribute to far fewer pass plays faced. At least, I assume that is the reason.
THROW CHART FOR REDSKINS QB
The Redskins sure love their bubble screens, but you know what, I would to if this was always going to be a possibility:
PASS RUSHERS VS WASHINGTON
SEASON BLITZING NUMBERS
SEASON PASS RUSH TOTALS
Look at the consistency from year to year on what Rod Marinelli does on each down.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Over the next few weeks, we will continue sorting through this data and looking for trends and nuggets about the Cowboys' defense.
Basically, from where I sit, I think the personnel matters and decisions are going to be pretty interesting for the defense.
They have a lot of money committed to Brandon Carr and have to make a similar financial decision on Greg Hardy. They also have to figure out how the defensive line fits with Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence with Tyrone Crawford inside. Are they big enough against the run? Can they get enough pass rush?
Do you do another year with Church and Wilcox at safety? At corner, Morris Claiborne might be done here, but with Carr (if he stays), Orlando Scandrick, and Byron Jones are you in decent shape?
Linebacker is a place I look to find a special talent, too. The draft is there and Sean Lee looks pretty solid right now with Hitchens and Damien Wilson both available, too. I am not going to go with Rolando McClain again, unless my other plans fail.
Let's review what I wrote on Monday about this lot:
This and the 4th Quarter collapses will be the takeaway from this unit. And we will look at that more tomorrow morning.