The season is now 3 weeks old and we are still trying to evaluate the caliber of the Cowboys defense from a number of perspectives. Every week I am sent a report with where the Cowboys rank in a number of categories on both sides of the ball to see where they sit, relative to the rest of the league.
Weeks like Sunday offer a view that is awfully misleading, because it is built on raw statistics rather than context-based considerations. For instance, the Cowboys surrendered around 390 yards on Sunday, which is quite a few. But, I felt that most of them were in what we would describe as "garbage time", when the defense stops caring about yards allowed and starts trying to get you to burn what remains of the clock and to end the game.
For instance, of the Bears' 390 yards, nearly 300 were gained after halftime. Of those, 188 of those were in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys up 31-10 with 9 minutes to go. Garbage time. They count, but I contend they don't matter.
Now, there is no filter on these stats to demonstrate how defenses give up their yards. It would be nice to eliminate garbage time numbers in prevent defenses, but in the end, all roads lead back to the discussion that the only stat that matters is winning. And they did that on Sunday comfortably, against one of the softest rosters they will face.
We don't want to completely discount what Brian Hoyer and his receivers accomplished on Sunday -- 6 explosive plays against Dallas is disconcerting -- but, very little of it felt important when the Bears were run out of the building on both sides of the ball in the first half. At 24-3, with plenty of their roster in street clothes, the Bears were merely playing for fantasy football participants.
Regardless, every team has a story to tell, and for now, the Cowboys' rankings on defense tell us they are in the bottom third of the league in the following defensive categories through three weeks:
22nd in yards per game allowed - 379 yards
25th in yards allowed per play - 6.22
28th in rushing yards per play - 4.79
23rd in passing yards per game - 290
25th in sacks per passing attempt percentage - 3.25
As for those explosives, the Cowboys have surrendered 15 plays of 20 yards or more, including six on Sunday night. That means they have given up 12 in the last 2 weeks and that is going to be a real problematic issue if it continues.
New Orleans and Oakland have both given up 17, Tennessee is at 16, Green Bay and Dallas sit third at 15 against through 3 weeks. A few of those defenses are known as high-risk defenses that understand part of the cost of their blitz rate is going to get burned from time to time. But, we know the Cowboys are as conservative as it gets. They are blitzing even less than last year when they blitzed less than anyone. So, we don't want to give up a half-dozen big plays a week if you are dropping 7 in coverage.
You certainly have to be pleased about the great job on third down from this defense on Sunday night and the job they have done so far at getting off the field on the money down. They are tied for 11th in the league in third down defense and this represents a very promising start. This and takeaways control everything on defense and we don't want to underestimate what we talked about on Monday in the Morning After column:
Last night, they caused a few fumbles and came up with them and in the first two weeks it was interceptions. We know the limitations of this defense, but, if they can just go get the ball a few times, they will survive most weeks. Four takeaways don't impress you? Well, in 2015, they got their fourth takeaway on November 1.
That multiple takeaway game takes them to 30-9 under Jason Garrett when the defense takes the ball twice.
BRIAN HOYER THROW CHART
Pretty amazing how much the Bears went at the right sideline -- Morris Claiborne's side -- and how many times Hoyer threw the ball out of bounds. Claiborne is the player I am asked the most about by readers and listeners. The opinions range quite a bit, but everyone wants to talk about him and his progress.
So, let's do it:
SPOTLIGHT - MORRIS CLAIBORNE
Yes, this is a contract year for Claiborne, but so was last year. He was brought back on a 1-year "prove it" deal and then moved from right corner to left corner. This is kind of a big deal as that is clearly the high traffic side in the NFL. Every week, you are going against someone who is pretty great (or expected to be pretty great very soon).
Every week, he is going to see tons of action and the Cowboys are asking him to stand up to it. As I have said a few times, I am not eager to get carried away with how great he is doing. In fact, we covered this last Friday in our mailbag:
I think Mo Claiborne is playing some solid football. Not perfect, but much better than what we have seen. He just needs to stay on the field. He has to play. He just has never played as much as he needs to and cornerbacks are all about snap counts. They have to stay on the field or their value is zero.
Look at the snap count difference between Claiborne and Brandon Carr. They both got here in 2012, so they have both had the same number of available snaps. Carr has been in 4,305 plays (all of them) and Claiborne has played in 2,319. That is roughly 54 percent of Carr's total. I have always defended Carr and never defended Claiborne based on this simple idea. Carr may not pick off enough passes and stop enough plays, but he battles and battles for three hours every Sunday. Claiborne has not proven he can be counted upon.
So, we never get to a technique discussion. One is present and one is not. That is why I don't get carried away when Claiborne plays two good games. Call me when he plays a full season (at any level of quality) to prove he is worthy of a monetary investment moving forward.
Granted, that seems a bit harsh, but I was watching him on Sunday get all sorts of action again and for the most part, you can see he is battling his tail off and competing at a reasonably high level. Again, there will be no "mission accomplished" banners until we see this for a full season, but I thought Sunday was pretty good. Let's look a this work:
I love this first play. This is early in the second quarter and the team is now in the red zone. Third down and in the red zone. The object of the game is to get off the field and hold them to three. The Bears want to beat him to the sticks, but Claiborne cuts off the angle, forces him back to his help, and then completes the stop on his own. Third down stops are key and he played it well.
Here we are again. Zone coverage, hand your man to the safety, and then go protect the flats. Nothing special here, but that is the point. Just solid zone corner play.
2-Man here in the fourth quarter, and they want to isolate Mo in the flat. One on one play and Claiborne is having none of it.
We said this is a league where you are always going to be attacked and good players are going to do great things at times. Kevin White hasn't done much in this league, but I suspect he will. I loved him coming out of West Virginia, and the degree of difficulty of this catch is pretty high. At first, I thought Mo didn't look for the ball in time, but he did. Just a great catch.
So, that catch above made the Bears go right back to it. This time, Claiborne is even more aggressive in his coverage and backs White right through the sideline. Great technique there.
I think he is coming along. I still need to see it as a long-term fixture, but his start is offering optimism.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 3 -
In addition to those plays that Claiborne made - both on 3rd downs, I think the player who made a nice difference again was Tyrone Crawford. He is the member of that 2012 draft the team has invested in and it is now vital for him to continue to pay off that investment.
It sure looks like playing him more at DE is working for now and I think Maliek Collins is showing that is something they can afford to do.
The player I need more of is David Irving. They play him so sparingly, but he flashes every single time. The team was not credited for a sack on Sunday, but I thought when Irving and Mayowa were able to force the fumble from Hoyer, they deserved one. I guess the stat people think that Hoyer just fell and fumbled with no help. I disagree.
SPLASH SEASON TOTALS
Here is where we are so far through three games. The beauty here is that they are now very close to getting DeMarcus Lawrence back and they have stayed healthy on defense. Knock on wood.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
We are still figuring out what this group is capable of and who can hurt them. In a few weeks after playing playoff teams in Cincinnati and Green Bay, we will know more. But, this San Francisco game should not be underestimated. The good news is that they have almost nothing on their offense that scares anyone with a poor QB, mediocre OL, and anonymous WR group filled with retreads. This is perhaps even less dynamic than Chicago from that standpoint.
But, it is also a road game in the NFL and this will be a good test for the entire squad to see if they can go do what they are supposed to do. Leave with a win on the West Coast. It doesn't even have to be pretty, but it starts with this defense getting off the field on third down and holding those explosive plays down to 2 or 3, not 5 or 6.