That start on Sunday from the defense was absolutely the opposite of what the Cowboys had in mind against a rather toothless 49ers attack. The only way the 49ers get to 21 would have to be by some gift from the visitors, and perhaps that was given in the form of the Cowboys looking rather asleep early.
Maybe it was the tempo getting on them quick. But, for whatever reason, the Chip Kelly-designed offense looked like Thanksgiving 2014 again as they marched up and down the field twice for touchdowns in the first quarter (and part of the early second).
Sixteen minutes into the game, the 49ers were up 14-0 and the Cowboys looked shell-shocked against an opponent that had no real notable weapons. This was really bad.
And then, they make their adjustments -- which, as we will see below, looks like was just getting everyone on the same page. Defense really improves when you all run the same coverage together and the Cowboys busted early a few times with players just not knowing who they were supposed to deal with -- which is one of the real benefits of running an up-tempo offense. Again, in the early days in Philadelphia, they did seem to benefit from the opponent just not getting lined up correctly. For whatever reason, the Cowboys spent plenty of time with that issue early on Sunday.
As you can see above, once they got through the first quarter, the Cowboys went from allowing 6.8 yards per snap to 4.6 the rest of the game. Luckily, they played an opponent that relied on blown coverages to move the ball and when you stop blowing them, they stop moving it.
You won't be that fortunate most weeks.
Let's take a look at a few of these early plays and speculate on what went wrong.
This is the Jeremy Kerley touchdown to make it 7-0. Frankly, this is a rather uncharacteristic blitz from the Cowboys bringing six rushers on a third-and-7. Not saying that the bust is there, but from following this team, it seems rather rare for a big blitz to appear with six rushing and just five on defense against four targets from San Francisco in route. Rare might be the plan, though. The problem is in the coverage.
Also, we should point out that one of the players dropping is defensive end Benson Mayowa. So, the idea that it would be man coverage suggests that he is supposed to match up with the tight end and run with him (which he clearly is not considering given his zone drop), which is all highly doubtful.
So, as I look at the above play, I see four players playing a zone (Cover 3 behind two dropping linebackers) and I see one guy playing man (Brandon Carr, who chases Garrett Celek across the field). Nine times out of 10, when you see everyone playing one coverage and one guy not, it is going to be his bust. I think you can safely say that Carr wasn't supposed to chase and instead play his Cover 3. If he does, Kerley isn't open and the throw is likely never made.
So there it is, 7-0. Now, on the next drive, another bust allows another big play:
This one is even more ridiculous. We have a corner blitz from Anthony Brown coming, and any quarterback knows to look where the blitz came from to see his hot route. Why? Because his man can't get there in time, usually. Byron Jones is trying to get from his Cover 2 shell to the slot guy where Blaine Gabbert could have gone, but instead, he sees that this blitz means the Cowboys are in Cover 1 behind it and nobody has the tight end! Again, we are going to suggest the most likely culprit here is the linebacker, No. 56, Justin Durant, who not only is in the vicinity, but also has that guilty body language. Twenty-five free yards and now the 49ers are right back down, deep in your territory again.
So, two massive busts on two drives and they both come on your only two blitz attempts of the first half.
All, this may be why they don't blitz much these days.
Anyone with the slightest enjoyment for football loves the blitz. It is one of the finest adrenaline rushes the sport can offer, and we are generally taken back to our youth when those crazy coaches in the 1970s and 80s would blitz every last guy in the secondary (it seemed) with reckless abandon to try to knock the quarterback senseless in the name of getting off the field.
But in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys hardly ever bring blitzes. And when I say that, Marinelli laughs and says he still does it too much. You can see from this graphic that this defense went from never to less-than-never over the past three years. Early in the year, especially, they aren't risking it on defense. And then they decide to mix it up and they give up the two biggest throws of the afternoon.
Let me show you one more bust:
Here is the first play in the second half. Simple read option. Sean Lee is clearly on Gabbert here and my other linebacker, No. 59, Anthony Hitchens, is untouched by any block and seems to have the middle of the field -- unless he overplays the outside zone, and then Carlos Hyde just accepts his generosity and starts running to the end zone. You can certainly see the value in the QB fake here, as he is able to pull Lee away (which might be why Hitchens is so eager to get outside), but I need Hitchens to not guess. I need him to mirror the running back through the traffic. Byron Jones might have taken a better angle, too. It is not easy, but what they did gave Hyde 32 of his 74 yards on another assignment bust. If they whip you, fine. But, don't hand out gifts.
The magic number is 300 yards. If the Cowboys keep their opponent under 300 yards and the offense does not have an absurd, turnover-filled day, the Cowboys will win.
Since 2012, they are 13-3 when holding the opponent under 300 yards. The three losses? Romo throws four picks against the Giants in 2012, Matt Cassel throws three picks against the Giants (and they allow a kickoff return touchdown to Dwayne Harris) and Romo throws three picks to the Panthers last Thanksgiving. Those were three games in which the defense didn't even matter.
But, in normal games, you hold an opponent under 300 and you win.
BLAINE GABBERT THROW CHART
When Andy Dalton and Aaron Rodgers are attacking this secondary, let's remember this day when Gabbert did not. This week of not playing an offense without any sort of threat is a rare treat. Enjoy it.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 4
Based on our keep of splash plays for moments of merit, we see that the guys who brought in the multiple splashes include Sean Lee, rookie Anthony Brown ... and look who closed the deal with three massive plays late in the game -- our young friend Morris Claiborne again.
It is now officially a story. Morris Claiborne may have turned the corner in his fifth trip around the league. I will again attempt to temper the enthusiasm a bit given that last year, after four games, Claiborne was still having a great 2015. But this start is really, really impressive.
I want to look at those last splash plays of the day that sealed the victory:
First-and-10, Cover 1 -- Rat in the hole (Sean Lee), and with multiple routes to the offensive left, Byron Jones is pulled that way (which is the 49ers' intent -- draw the safety, throw it up top). The guys on TV said if this is a better throw, it is a touchdown. I wasn't sure from the TV copy, but this is pretty clear and verifies Aikman's assessment. Very poor throw, and it brings Claiborne back in the mix.
Torrey Smith never really even saw the ball, it appears. But Gabbert looks like he is worried about Jones getting there. From the first view, it is clear he has no chance. Claiborne's recovery here is nice and he made a fantastic play when a turnover was available. But, it takes two teams to tango, and this one has two perspectives.
Then, this final play, which is bizarre from the San Francisco perspective. It is fourth-and-6.
Gabbert gets flushed out to his right, but they have a route to the sticks -- Torrey Smith again. He has to get to the 29 and runs his route there (which is the design, I am sure). As his quarterback is headed to him, he is fading back to the QB. But, now, instead of the 29 he is at the 32. Claiborne properly closes on him and ends the play, but I see many blaming the quarterback here. I think Gabbert can only assume his guy is at the sticks. He is under duress trying to deliver the ball. So, if this is a Cowboys blog, we congratulate Claiborne. If it is a 49ers blog, we wonder why Gabbert and Smith are on different pages in the fourth quarter on two critical plays.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Lots of good -- plays in the fourth quarter -- including a critical takeaway -- adjustments during the game and holding the 49ers' production down to nothing.
Also, some bad -- blown assignments, in particular, are devastating because not all plays are created equal. If you allow five big plays, you can lose. Those other 60 plays aren't important if you do everything right and then hand your opponent a free touchdown.
That part has to be cleaned up. And I am sure that is the objective as we speak.
But, this week, this guy returns:
Let's hope he can take down some left tackles now that he is switching to the other side and won't have Greg Hardy to attract attention. I think DeMarcus Lawrence will be great this year (I said eight sacks in 12 games), but he must prove it and must start on Sunday.