Hopefully, you have been reading my weekly reports for years and years. If you have, you know all about some of my theories and findings that this many years have provided. If not, let's get you caught up on one of the main truths about defense -- it plays in wildly different game situations that it often has very little to do with. And when you ask it to play downhill versus uphill, it wildly affects its ability to help you win.
This is what is tricky about football sometimes. We want to evaluate everything independently, but sometimes that is very difficult. A defense needs an offense to hold the ball a bit, but far more importantly than the overrated time of possession obsession that so many people have, the defense needs the offense to score. This may seem obvious, but sometimes when we talk about T.O.P. there are actually some people who wonder about the negative byproducts of scoring too fast. Let me help you on that -- there are none.
The main objective of any and every offense is to score. Owning the ball is a theory that the defense will never have to take the field -- which is a theory that only works if you play in a make-it-take-it league. Since none of those exist in the pro ranks, it is a faulty system. Now, of course, if you can score and eat 10 minutes, great. But, there is no real correlation between winning and time of possession. It is a product of winning, not a driver of winning.
But, there is correlation between that game situation for a defense. Across the NFL, when a defense is ahead by 4+ points, the interception rate shoots up off the graph and the sack rate compounds over and over again. In other words, defenses that are ahead do more of the fun things we all want to see.
Why? There are a number of reasons. One, the opposition stops running a balanced offense and simply starts passing more. It also gets aggressive and holds the ball in the pocket hoping for a play to open up out of desperation. It forces the ball into coverage. Meanwhile, the defense starts pinning its ears back and simply not caring about playing the run honestly. It starts stunting and blitzing because there is blood in the water.
By in large, sacks are found when you are ahead. And since the Cowboys took a lead early against the Bengals, we saw this play out yet again on Sunday.
To give you an example of how this might have something to do with what you think of the Cowboys defense, just know this: In 2014, the Cowboys defense played with a 4+ point lead on 49 percent of all snaps (483 snaps). It was an insane amount of advantageous snaps. In 2015, that number dropped off the face of the planet all the way down to 16 percent (159 snaps). So far this year? The defense has played in 206 snaps up 4+ points! That is good for 63 percent!
So that is good news and bad news. The good news is that the Cowboys are always ahead! The bad news is that even with this great advantage, they are still below league average in sacks and takeaways. In other words, they have probably been ahead more than almost anyone (Minnesota would be the exception) and while some teams are up near 20 sacks, the Cowboys needed a huge night to get the season total to 10. They are 17th in sacks and 22nd in takeaways, despite having everything tilted in their direction.
But, let's not worry about those ominous clouds. Let's focus on the uptick that coincided nicely with the return of DeMarcus Lawrence. Anytime the Cowboys get 4 sacks in a game, our film study demands we go in that direction.
This is just the fourth time since the start of the Marinelli era (39 games now) when the team has achieved the 4-sack badge -- 2015 vs. New England, 2014 in London vs. Jacksonville and at Philadelphia.
Let's look at some of the damage:
You are going to see a lot of this is built around Anthony Brown blitzing today. Here, the Bengals sniff out the slot blitzer, and move the right guard to pull out on a play-action look to get the edge guy which works well. What doesn't work well is that the center 61-Bodine tries to deal with 92-Cedric Thornton and is just flat destroyed. It looks like he got tripped, but Thornton arrives at Dalton in a hurry and this play never had a chance. That was at 14-0. The rest are when the game is in full-blowout mode.
This isn't a sack, but it is a play destroyed by pass rush. Bootleg to get Dalton out in space, but 93-Benson Mayowa is showing outside linebacker wheels and motor to end this play pretty quick, too. I thought it deserved some recognition today. Wonderful power to knock the TE off the block and then great quicks to chase Dalton down. Mayowa is a very useful piece on passing downs.
Rod Marinelli defenses employ a ton of teamwork in pass rushing. He wants active bodies and he wants to use them in concert and tandems to free each other up. It is difficult to say if this is an intended tackle-tackle game or whether it just organically occurred (to me it looks intentional), but Maliek Collins definitely freed up Terrell McClain for a clear path at Dalton here. You will see this a lot, so I am pretty sure they are taught to try to get home, but if you can't, obstruct or hip check someone else's guy to give him a win. This is clearly something that doesn't show up in the box-score, but Maliek Collins deserves something for making this sack possible.
Coverage sack here. You can see nothing open so Dalton has to wait. That, of course, makes this happen. This is McClain and Jack Crawford (so underrated) who meet at the QB as he tries to escape the pocket. This play shows the 4 rushers are just a pack of wild animals here. Great effort levels and motor. Like we said, they can smell blood now in the fourth quarter of a 28-0 rout.
This sack didn't count because of a bit of a ticky-tack call on Justin Durant in the secondary. But, watch 75-Ryan Davis work over the Aggie 70-Cedric Ogbuehi who offers the body posture of someone who knows they just did something very wrong. Again, it didn't count, but you can see why Ryan Davis is worth having on this roster.
And then this final sack is just an example of what this defense is all about right now. Full effort from everyone for 3 hours and that 97-Terrell McClain might be the best of the bunch at this. His energy is so good. I have been really impressed with him all season. What a great under-the-radar improvement to just get him healthy. Mayowa gets this sack as again, you have multiple guys bearing down on the QB which makes life miserable for a guy trying to look downfield.
This bonus GIF is from the second quarter on third down. I just wanted you to see another rush where they are perfectly in concert and working together to cause problems. Dalton did not get near the sticks, so this is a win -- getting off the field on third down.
Can they keep this up? I like their chances if the score is going to continue to be in their favor so much.
A massive improvement on allowing explosives. Just two is great. Also, you will take 5.5 yards per play. Again, so much garbage time influences a lot of numbers.
ANDY DALTON THROW CHART
What a job by this team for taking AJ Green out of any sort of explosive day. I think the corners have all played very well for five weeks. Anthony Brown looks like a great sixth-round pick and Claiborne keeps making plays. More importantly, you can see Claiborne get that swagger back. It was long gone for quite a while.
And now the season totals for splash plays through 5 games show some unlikely leaders:
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
There is nothing to say after this defensive performance other than offer positive reviews and wonder if they have figured out how to make an anonymous defensive line work again. Surely, this needs to be tested against the Packers, Eagles, and Steelers in the next month or so, but the pressure is coming and although the attempts per sack are still way too low (19.7 attempts per sack), Sunday was a big step forward.
Green Bay wants to run to put less on a passing game that is just stuck in a low gear right now, but Eddie Lacy's availability and effectiveness are going to be called into question with what appears to be a high ankle sprain last Sunday against the Giants. You won't believe this, but it seems like a great time to play Aaron Rodgers. Their passing game is just not close to what it has been for years. In other words, whatever the plan was against the Bengals in coverage, I suspect that will be pretty good this week. However, the Packers' pass protection has been so good and Rodgers often gets forever to try to find receivers that don't seem open very often.
But, that might depend on the game situation as well. Which means we don't know how much of the plan was dependent on the Cowboys being up 14-0 before the Bengals touched the ball a second time. And that is highly unrealistic to expect each week.
This should be a very interesting test for this defense.