Everything was going really well for the Cowboys' defense on Sunday. With 10:12 left in the game, the Cowboys had limited the Giants to just 13 points on seven drives.
In the second half of the game, the Cowboys had stopped Eli Manning with a Brandon Carr interception on the first drive of the third quarter, a Benson Mayowa sack on the next drive, an Orlando Scandrick sack on the next drive and a pretty impressive play by Byron Jones to break up a pass on third down on the fourth drive that was early in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys were making plays defensively. A takeaway, two sacks and breaking up passes? Who were these guys?
But as we know, the game didn't end with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. At that point, the Giants hadn't accomplished too much offensively and very little on the ground. But, somehow, on the final two drives, when the Dallas defense had only played about 16 minutes the entire afternoon, they were unable to deal with the Giants' running game right down the middle.
The Cowboys were about to taste the pain. The Giants cranked up a running game we didn't really realize they had and pushed the ball down the field twice when it counted most. Once to take the lead was just complementing Eli and his crew through the air. But the killer was the final Giants drive that took the clock and all the timeouts away from the Cowboys.
It was a classic four-minute drill. This is not as famous among fans as the two-minute drill, because it is pretty much the opposite. Instead of trying to score quickly, you are trying to bleed the clock dry. This is best done on the ground so that you don't stop the clock. The problem is that the defense knows you want to run and that means it is a matter of might. Can your guys block theirs?
With Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton and a healthy Tyrone Crawford, I was optimistic the Cowboys would be fine in these situations. But, if any part of your preseason confidence should be rattled, it might be what we saw in those final two drives. A fresh Cowboys defense was gouged repeatedly.
In yellow, please see six carries for 58 yards -- very discouraging against what the league expects will not be much of a run game. But they ran it down the Cowboys' throat in Dallas.
Just demoralizing -- and almost all similar runs where they were between the tackles and attacking the Cowboys in the heart. And maybe most discouraging, with all six of these runs, is there are almost no signs of linebackers making a positive impact.
We saw the first sign back in the second quarter. Look at this run right at the Cowboys' middle:
The Giants' left guard, Justin Pugh (No. 67), counters around and Rashad Jennings goes untouched into the secondary. Both linebackers get blocked and there is just nothing the Cowboys' front is able to accomplish.
Now, on to those six runs in the fourth quarter. Ben McAdoo knew he could go back to this.
The Giants' right guard, John Jerry (No. 67), counters the other direction with Shane Vereen behind him through the hole. Rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins (No. 96) is tossed aside and you could drive a truck through that hole. Lee gets blocked, Durant gets caught in the traffic and again, your safety makes a tackle.
Fullback lead. Same concepts. Double-team the defensive tackle, push the defensive end out and have a lead run right at a linebacker untouched. Secondary is exposed and must make the tackle.
Do you think, by now, the Giants are wondering if the Cowboys can stop them? Jennings, your turn again. Look at this one. Double-team the 1-tech (McClain), pull the weak-side guard to get the linebacker, and off to the races again.
Now, pull the weak-side guard in the other direction. This is getting silly now. Mayowa gets shoved inside by the tight end (can't happen) and now, on a play that looks confusing, the Giants and Jennings are in the secondary again.
This is the portion of the review where it might be worth asking why in the world Rod Marinelli isn't putting this team in the right defense. You know, when the team is getting killed in the middle, why are they still with only six men in the box? Why not - as the Giants did all day - put 7 or 8 in the box to chase the Giants out of this repeated hammer session?
At this point of the exercise, it is possible you are starting to understand why the Cowboys have an irrational dependency on Rolando McClain, right? It is tough to play in this league without a middle linebacker.
And finally, a 3rd-and-12, where they almost got it.
I didn't mean to make you sick on this Wednesday morning, but these are seven runs -- all pretty important in the game -- where I'm not sure a running back had to break an attempted tackle from the D-line or linebackers. They were seven big runs in which the safeties and corners had to make all of the tackles on inside runs! Ground-and-pound.
Heaven help us.
WEEKLY DATA BREAKDOWN
The defensive overview shows us plenty of interesting things, with a lot of numbers you will take on a weekly basis. In this league, giving up 20 and 316 yards is pretty decent. Low explosive plays against (20-plus yards) and that time of possession is solid.
But you can't give up three touchdowns on three red zone drives -- that is not going to get it done. Last year, of all of the things the Cowboys tried to do on defense, they actually were pretty solid in this category: finishing eighth in the league with a red zone defense of 51 percent. Only 51 percent of drives by opponents in the red zone ended with touchdowns. That was good. Allowing 100 percent is going to get you beat.
ELI MANNING THROW CHART:
Behold, the McAdoo offense. Get the ball out quickly and spread it around. You can see a lot more between the numbers than Dak Prescott from yesterday. Also, fewer shots downfield.
We are looking for playmakers and moments in the game where the defense has a chance to do something to turn the tide.
That is why I keep splash plays here to see who is doing what. There is no question that the big takeaway from Week 1 was the run defense could not get a stop in the fourth quarter. I don't want that to influence you about the quality of Terrell McClain. I think he was the bright spot defensively in Week 1 as a defensive tackle who was routinely making big plays and causing havoc. He lost some snaps -- this league is hard and the players are very good -- but he also ended the game with a team-high 3.5 splash plays, demonstrating why everyone on the coaching staff raved about him through training camp.
TEAM TOTALS - SPLASHES - WEEK 1:
Unfortunately, all we saw from the defense with any degree of consistency was the play of Terrell McClain (3.5 splashes). Otherwise, there were several occasions when someone made one play.
Clearly, watching Mayowa rush the passer was enjoyable, but there are concerns about him holding up against the run. Scandrick certainly didn't look like he could run vertically with someone like Odell Beckham, but in blitzing, he has some real value.
And even publicly, Jason Garrett said they need more from Tyrone Crawford, which is starting to become a bit of a trend we hope changes quickly.
I thought David Irving really showed he needs more opportunities and Byron Jones has plenty of value as both a safety and a slot guy against tight ends. And, more than anything, I am very worried about Anthony Hitchens and Justin Durant trying to play big snaps at middle linebacker. It seems like a real weak spot right now, but we need to see more to verify on Sunday.
I thought we would see more blitzes in 2016, but I also said we shouldn't expect it against the Giants in Week 1. Teams don't blitz them and for good reason. So, this is just for your information. But, 6-29 is roughly the 20 percent Rod Marinelli usually sends.
CONCLUSIONS AND TAKEAWAYS
Overall, the defense was like the offense: Some good, but too much that needs to be better. From the defensive perspective, they are trying to play without defensive ends and linebackers they believe in (besides Sean Lee). The good news is that the most talented defensive lineman they have will be returning for Week 5 in DeMarcus Lawrence, but that won't help them get ready for their next three opponents.
They have to find their strengths and identity. You have to be good at either stopping the run or stopping the pass. When you look at the personnel, you are tempted to say that stopping the pass should be their strength, but then you see that rushing the passer is a real issue. You think they have some good run-stoppers, but then you see they have no linebackers who can clean up any issues on run plays in the middle, like peak Rolando McClain would. If a perfectly fresh defense can't stop the Giants' running game in the fourth quarter, what happens when they play a solid running team and are tired?
In other words, Marinelli has his work cut out for Week 2 and beyond. They have interesting parts, but they appear to be a few short of a solid defense at the moment.