Today's topic, as we discuss defense, revolves around the simple question of: "How many points is a reasonable amount to allow in a game?"
It is important to remember that this is a league in which the margins are very close and every opponent has some exceptional talent on it. If you want a level of football where you play several games against completely incompetent opponents, the NFL isn't for you. This is the highest level of the sport and therefore, even the worst teams have many unreal football players on it. Parity. It is what this league is founded upon.
And for that reason, expectation levels for any defensive coordinator need to remain in the realm of reasonable rather than fantasy. Of course, you would prefer to give up no yards and no points, but let's understand that most of the time, even the poor teams are able to eat up statistics.
The NFL has a pretty constant "average points per game per team" number in the past several seasons. It sits at about 23 points per team.
So, as a defense in this league -- especially a defense that is in Dallas and doesn't seem to ever get its fair share of resources (premium draft picks, salary cap space) -- you are just competing against that number. In other words, you realize that having the best defense in the league is not reasonable without investment. But, the plan on this side of the ball has always been -- to steal a phrase that I like -- "trying to get to average."
If you want to be a top team in this league and in the mix for a Super Bowl every January, I would contend that very rarely does a team come along that is "top five" in offense and defense. If there is, it is usually for just a flash. Instead, you want to get one side of the ball to "elite" and the other side to league average. This seems to put you in the mix for a Super Bowl.
With that in mind, the Cowboys are trying to get under that 23-points-per-game barrier. And they have done a nice job of it with Rod Marinelli. You can tell it is easier when the offense is what it was advertised to be (elite). But this season the level has dropped substantially, in a good direction, and after two weeks of facing supposed playoff offenses -- to which they allowed 30 points over two games -- optimism is bubbling over.
So the line is 23 points per game. That is league average for any offense to score, or for any defense to allow. It is early, but getting below 23 has never been easy, and when they have, they barely did so. I cannot stress how impressive the first six weeks have been for this defense. In fact, the season high they have allowed was 23 points to Washington. Nobody has surpassed 23 points even once against Marinelli's crew. Nobody!
Now let's look at it from a perspective of what I would consider "great games." These are games in which you do not allow 21 -- games in which the Dallas defense allowed 20 points or fewer.
Those are all full seasons, you guys (except this year). This year is just through six games! They have 10 games to go. They have allowed 20 points or fewer in five of six games. They have really done well in the bend-but-don't-break defense and pursuit of average. For now, they have flown by average to a point where we'd better start asking whether their plan has really worked brilliantly.
And for that plan to work, they needed big performances from guys you didn't expect and that the league knew nothing about.
Sunday was all about those guys. Look at the names on the splash chart. By the way, the pure number of splashes is the highest since I started keeping this stat -- 21 splash plays! They got to 20 splashes three different times in 2014, but that flurry at the end of this game, when they kept stripping the ball loose, put them in a new place.
WEEK 6 SPLASH PLAYS
Anthony Brown, Terrell McClain and David Irving? Who are these guys? Ryan Davis? Benson Mayowa? Is this a no-name defense, or what? I could see it if they were led by Sean Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence or Tyrone Crawford. Instead, many of the biggest plays from this big day at Lambeau Field were made by guys making a million dollars a year or less. Bargain-basement production surely is the key to figuring out how to skin a cat with no resources.
It is also interesting to see how many splashes I had to share between two guys. I try to avoid this, but on many occasions Sunday, two guys arrived at the exact same time on players. In other words, Rod continues to get all these guys to fly to the ball and make plays.
Let's look at the tape, coach:
This is Anthony Brown. Hopefully you are up to speed with his fine work by now, but he is their sixth-round pick out of Purdue (one of several sixth-rounders, actually). This guy has had to fill in for Orlando Scandrick almost every week this season, and given that you haven't seen him make too many mistakes, we should be happy. Now he is getting confident and showing off one of his best attributes -- tackling. That's Randall Cobb in the open field.
Here is Jordy Nelson trying to get to the sticks on third down. Also, notice the three-man rush from the Cowboys. The Packers hate this. Rodgers has all day but is being kept in the pocket. Eight players in zones trying to give him nowhere to go.
Here is Anthony Brown one more time. Not sure what the lead blocker is doing here as he runs by Brown on his way to nowhere, but Brown closes fast and gets a big tackle for a loss. Starting to wonder if this is the best draft class in decades around here. And we haven't even seen Jaylon Smith yet.
There's my favorite defensive player these days. Terrell McClain has just been a pleasure this season. So much so, that I may try to get him signed during the bye week because he already has earned an extension from me. Look at that. He plays it like a linebacker, scraping to the play and then putting a form tackle on Eddie Lacy. Gracious.
Look at McClain blow up the center here and score another tackle for loss. Such a great combination of strength and quickness.
Finally, my other offseason delight was David Irving. I hope you read this during training camp. I still don't know why his snap totals are so low. But, they won't be able to keep them down if he keeps taking over games like this. He just turned 23. And he was unreal in this game with six splashes. Yes, he was given double credit if you can strip a fumble and then recover it.
He is such an active and massive body. And look at him go -- he strips Rodgers, then goes and gets it out of the pile. Awesome stuff, No. 95. And did you see they had Nos. 97 and 95 together inside on that play?
And this is the three-man rush again. But, Irving still gets to the ball to knock it loose. Nobody is open again. This is a coverage sack and the ball comes out.
Those three players -- Brown, McClain and Irving will make a total of $2.1 million combined this year. In a league where Jeff Heath makes $1.9 million, I would say there is some value in that trio.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
I realize the Cowboys might have just had to hand the Packers the rope and they would fashion their own noose, but Dallas should not apologize for an awesome four-takeaway performance in which it did not allow Green Bay into the end zone until it was too late and held it under 400 yards and 20 points at Lambeau.
AARON RODGERS THROW CHART
Those blue dots on the right were the constant swing passes to safety valves that Rodgers had to continuously settle for, most of them as the Cowboys decided to drop deep into coverage to simply allow things underneath. Rodgers did miss some throws down the field, but the plan was perfect.
And here it is. Give him time, but no options -- here is how Marinelli deployed his pass rushers:
See, don't rush him. Frustrate him with no open spots to throw. Keep him in the pocket with a spy, but flood the zones and make him make perfect throws. Some times, Rodgers can. Right now, he obviously cannot.
SEASON SPLASH TOTALS - AFTER 6 WEEKS
If you expected the leaderboard to look like this, you should gamble. I never imagined it would materialize like this.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Many of the statistics should remind us to remain suspicious about whether this model is sustainable. To be honest, we don't fully know how much of their early success is completely "situation-reliant" and a testament to the offense's play right now.
The Cowboys are 23rd in yards per rush allowed and 20th in yards per pass; 23rd in sacks per attempt and 29th on third downs.
A lot of things need to improve and can improve. At the same time, it seems a story is worth telling about this first stretch for the defense beyond just the offense being so great. If you watch the games, it is worth seeing that they fly to the ball and seem to make opposing offenses frustrated.
Honestly, we will need to see more before we offer any proclamations, but they are off to quite a start with a lot of unknown players stepping up.