I must admit, the more we wish to be able to predict the future -- despite having more information at our fingertips than ever before -- we still have a very difficult time getting ahead of the news. The fact of the matter is: We still don't know what is going to happen until it happens.
And that's just politics.
Now, on to football. The Cowboys' defense was under the microscope all offseason. It was hard to look at last year's defense and see optimism for 2016 success. Then, they added very little -- in fact, the return of Orlando Scandrick seemed cancelled out by the losses of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain. So far, the Cowboys' defense has faced 501 snaps. Seven different defenders have played at least 300 of those (60 percent) and all seven were part of last year's defense that got no sacks and no takeaways. Well below average on both.
So, yes, they have new guys contributing -- Maliek Collins, Terrell McClain, Anthony Brown, Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton have all played plenty, but just not over that 300-snap barrier. They are helping, but not doing all of the heavy lifting. But, of course, one sign of a very effective defensive front is the ability to show depth and come at an offense in waves. Fewer snaps may mean a higher motor when you play, which is reflected in the eyeball test.
Now, after a day in Cleveland when the defense shut down the Browns at every turn, let's take a look at some of the very interesting results at the halfway point of the season. We are exactly 50 percent of the way through the regular season, and the sinking feeling that the defense would be exposed has gone the way of many other predictions recently. The defense has been quite solid.
Sacks were something the defense had not been able to get in years. Basically, since DeMarcus Ware had his last great season in 2011 with 19.5 sacks at the age of 29, the Cowboys have been well below the league-average line. We have certainly found in many cases that if one side of the ball is elite (as the offense appears to be), then the objective for success is largely based around whether the other side can just get to "league average." Trying to get both the offense and defense to No. 1 is unreasonable in a league like this, but if one can be at the top and the other in the middle, you can be a real contender.
So, sack totals are in blue and league average is in red:
Here, in 2016 they are on pace to get to 36 sacks, where the league average has been at recently. It seems pretty interesting that they have shown an uptick in sacks in the past month. Through the first four games of the season, they had six sacks (a pace of 24). Then, in the next four games, they had 12 sacks.
Surely, the return of DeMarcus Lawrence should not be overlooked. I have been rather underwhelmed by his first four game -- and his sack total still is the same as Dan Bailey's -- but given how this defense works in concert with stunts, games and rushes that require several players working together, it would be wrong to assume he has not had any impact.
Regardless, the team has 18 sacks, which is impressive and puts them right at league average. And, no player has more than the 3.5 of Tyrone Crawford, so you could argue that they have no elite pass rusher, or you could argue that they are well balanced with what you would hope -- 11 different players who have been in on a sack.
Now, on to takeaways -- where, as a reminder, no team in NFL history had fewer takeaways than the Cowboys did last season. They had 11, and the league average was 23.3. This year, through eight games, they sit at 10 for a pace of 20. This is hardly great and it still doesn't get them to league average, but the blue line is much closer to the red line:
Now, again, I think it is important to remember "game effects" when comparing 2014-2016. The more you play with the lead, the more an opponent is passing and the more that allows for sacks and interceptions. In 2014 and 2016, the defense almost always has played with a lead and in 2015 it did not at all.
So, it will be interesting to see if this holds up, but the 2016 upticks in both categories is very encouraging and somewhat predictable with the situations they have been put in.
Here are the numbers from Cleveland -- and they are pretty incredible:
So, where should we start? Ten points! ... 222 yards??? This is the lowest of the season and the lowest since that ridiculous game in Miami last year.
Then, add only one explosive play allowed (that trick formation on the second play of the game) and 4 sacks? Then, chase it home with just 1 third down conversion.
Can they play the Browns every week? Sadly, no. It will get tougher this week in Pittsburgh.
CODY KESSLER THROW CHART
Young, right-handed quarterbacks don't always throw well to their blind side, do they?
He also was sacked four times -- let's take a look:
First one -- five-man pressure, where two linebackers blitz and a defensive end, Mayowa (No. 93) drops into coverage. You can see the objective is simple. The defensive end on the right of your screen is trying to take the right tackle wide. The defensive tackle wants to occupy the left guard and tackle. That leaves the Browns' center and right guard to deal with three Cowboys. This should leave a free blitzer and that is exactly what happens -- the running back tries to clean up No. 57, Damien Wilson. Wilson shows great athleticism by bouncing back up and getting to the quarterback at the same time as No. 59, Anthony Hitchens, on the inside. Score one for the scheme and those young, fast linebackers showing some splash.
This is just great from No. 96, Maliek Collins. He is a really nice player and we knew that when they drafted him in the third round. He is a 3-technique who has a fine combination of strength and quickness, making it very difficult to stay in front of him for too long. If you want to enjoy more from the 2016 draft, just focus on this guy and what he brings to the table. Simply the best draft in forever. Just a dominant display.
Here is a coverage sack. Kessler is looking, looking and finally tries to leave the pocket. Justin Durant is waiting for him to try to get out and meets him for a sack, but this is about a quarterback not seeing anything downfield. Again, there is plenty of deception on which players the Cowboys are rushing, leaving players not blocking anyone, and again, we credit the scheme work by Marinelli and his crew. Also, very active movement from the pass rushers.
And here is the fourth and final sack. Five-man protection against a five-man pass rush. You can see the Cowboys are starting to bring pressure a bit more often and this time, he has Scandrick off the right side and a pirate stunt underneath, with Collins coming around his other defensive tackle and end to lose his man for a free run at the quarterback. Again, look how well Collins runs. They have really hit on something great there.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 8
And here are the standings for total splash plays:
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The beat goes on. This from the Cowboys' post-game notes:
For the eighth straight game, the Dallas defense did not allow a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver against the opposing offense. It is the only team in the NFL to not allow a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver in a single game. It is also the longest such streak since the team had nine-straight games in the 2009 season (9/28/09-11/26/09).
So, no 100-yard rusher and no 100-yard receiver. And no opponent has reached 24 points.
And you thought this defense was going to stink this year, right? We all sort of did.