Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Marinelli Report - Week 10 - Baltimore

Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving (95) pressures Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) in the fourth quarter during the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Dallas Cowboys NFL football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, November 20, 2016. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving (95) pressures Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) in the fourth quarter during the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Dallas Cowboys NFL football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, November 20, 2016. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

Marinelli Report

It's a short week, so therefore, in the interest of time, we will probably make this a shorter version of our weekly check-in with the defense.

I think it is still a fair and reasonable question to wonder just how good the Cowboys' defense really is in 2016. We have seen very good signs at different times this season -- including Sunday. They get off the field in rather short order. They allow fewer than 17 points. They did not allow Baltimore to dictate the proceedings like Pittsburgh did for stretches.
But there are some potentially problematic indicators of the defense's direction that we should not ignore. For instance:
  • They now are sliding back in takeaways again. At the moment, they are tied for 23rd in takeaways with 10. There are just six defenses that have taken the ball away fewer times than the Cowboys and they don't have a takeaway since the Philadelphia game. Interception rate is now all the way down to 30th.
  • Sacks also are regressing. After an uptick for many weeks, the past two weeks again have been rather quiet, which finds them tied for 19th and sliding back to the bottom third of the league again. Sacks per pass attempt is down to 24th.
  • Opponents' yards per game is holding strong, but opponents' yards per play is not. At 23rd, they are exactly the same as a Washington defense that is widely regarded as poor but does not have the benefit of being protected by its offense.
  • The Cowboys' run defense may actually be poor. Per play, they are 21st in the league. But per game, they are third. The reason? No team in the NFL has faced fewer run plays than the Cowboys. They have faced 199 runs all season -- the next best is 224. Nobody runs against the Cowboys. Especially after halftime. Why? Because in the second half, you are passing to get back in the game. And overall, you are running the fewer plays.
So basically, the recipe is working. Have an offense so good that the defense never has to actually prove how good it really is. We should also admit that there is some level of "only regular season" component to this, in that you do get to play opponents in the regular season that are easier to manipulate. One would assume that in January, you will actually have to pass some quality tests on both sides of the ball. Then again, besides Seattle, who in the NFC has that full squad?


Here we go with the weekly view of the sum totals. Third-down success for the defense (anything under 40 percent is a very nice day), explosive plays are back in a reasonable range and time of possession is A-plus. But again, no takeaways and one sack suggest that it's tough to call this a good defense as much as it is a protected defense.
In no way am I trying to play the role of contrarian or harsh your buzz, because they are 9-1 and this seemingly is working quite well. Two weeks ago, I suggested this defense is exceeding expectations, but it was under the premise that the offense is basically playing defense. If we are going to have conversations about just the defense without heaping praise on the offense again, we should probably look reality in the face and wonder how much better this defense is than the 2015 version. The reality is starting to appear to suggest there is almost no difference whatsoever, except the massive question of exposure.
And that is the trick the team is playing very well.


As you can see, teams want to go after Anthony Brown deep, but to his credit, he is fighting his tail off. I really have enjoyed the tenacity of this rookie. Also, most of their yardage came on inside routes across the middle. The reason we don't mind those as much is that they bring many more defenders back into play to corral and tackle the receiver. Plays on the edge are far more dangerous, of course, for just the opposite reason.
Let's look at some tape for a moment or two. I wanted to look at those three big runs the Ravens broke off in the first half, and then wonder why they stopped running the ball altogether after doing that.
It's 20 personnel for the Ravens. Three wide receivers put the Cowboys in nickel, which, as math teaches us, leaves six "bigs" with four defensive linemen and two linebackers to deal with a potential run. That means if the fullback can get his own guy, you have six on six in the box and likely will need someone to win, or a defensive back will have to make the tackle.
Cedric Thornton -- No. 92 -- gets double-teamed by the center/guard and that provides the cutback lane. Anthony Hitchens, who has really struggled against the run (which may not really be his fault because he clearly is their best option, or they would have found another one by now -- get well soon, Jaylon Smith), is the free man here and he again over-pursues and appears to take himself out of the play. He has to mirror the running back and be there for a cutback, but that is not something he has proven to do very well.
Next play -- 11 personnel. Same numbers situation. This time, DeMarcus Lawrence is unblocked, but the Ravens use a fake end-around to hold him in place, which allows the running back to get through. Once he does, look at their awesome guard, Marshal Yanda (No. 73), wall off  big Terrell McClain after the center chips him over and then goes and gets Hitchens, too. This is very well blocked. It also doesn't help that Anthony Brown is unaware of what is happening and the safeties are really deep because of the three receivers. Running out of 11 personnel is a very good tool in today's NFL. There is so much more space.
Next play, and you can see the Cowboys are now confused. Here is another well-blocked inside run with a pulling guard and a lead fullback. The running back sets the delay with his feet and allows his guys to get the timing right inside, and once J.J. Wilcox gets his angles wrong, the play is in the end zone.
The Ravens look like a really good running team in this sequence and shredded the Cowboys' defensive front. The Cowboys made some adjustments after this, but the biggest one seems to be that the Ravens got away from this altogether.
Now, here are a few of the key plays in the second half to get off the field. You must make third-down stops to cover all sorts of smaller issues.
This is the very nice breakup by Anthony Brown on a comeback route to Mike Wallace. The questions here are to look at the pass rush (or lack thereof) and ask question, "How big of a hole would Joe Flacco need to just run for it?" That all said, Brown made a real nice play here on third down and this is what he needs to do to avoid being targeted more.
And then, later in the third, the Cowboys got off the field again when Wilcox, in a Cover-2 shell, wrecks a crossing pattern to Wallace and doesn't get this angle wrong. Direct hit.
Wilcox is certainly a controversial figure in Cowboys' fandom, but nobody hits harder. He seems to be a box safety asked to try to play in space, but you have to love the aggression.


And look who had a big day again -- David Irving! It's a pretty nice trick for the guy who is tied for 17th in defensive snaps to be at the top of your splash-play chart after 10 games, right? Well, behold:


I have said it before and I will say it again: I have no idea why David Irving doesn't play more. He has 203 snaps this season. That is 426 fewer than Sean Lee. I am not saying he should be up that high, but guys, let's split the difference!


The summary is this: They have taken a step back defensively since losing two key components. Both may return, so that is good news. Otherwise, know that Kirk Cousins just destroyed Green Bay's silly secondary and will have deep plans for Dallas, too. In Week 2, he definitely was able to accomplish some things over the top.
The Cowboys likely don't have a good defense this year. Next year, with Jaylon Smith and another few guys in the draft, they can start handling their own business better. This season, the plan is to continue scrapping their tails off. Make a few plays (turnovers or third-down stops) and let the offense do the rest.
It is certainly working so far.

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