Last time we got together - after the Baltimore game a week ago - we were discussing the distinct slide of the Cowboys defense since the Cleveland game. It was small, but it was still enough to begin to normalize the team defensive numbers in a way that made us realize what we knew back in July: This defense is largely a product of the offense.
It would be nice to make the case that the Cowboys are dangerously underrated and that sooner or later people would regret marginalizing the 11 guys on this defense, but the evidence of this season is starting to make us believe that this is the reality - they are 11 guys trying hard and tactically attempting to avoid catastrophe. But, good offenses are not having much trouble in the attack.
The one exception to this as we look back at the season now and simply ask about the degree of difficulty with each opponent appears the big day at Lambeau Field against Green Bay. The Packers and their one-dimensional offense had a day attacking many of their November foes, but the Cowboys did a fine job of dropping eight into coverage and frustrating Aaron Rodgers. The Bengals have just looked awful on offense all season, which is something we did not anticipate. Otherwise, Eli Manning had success, Ben Roethlisberger had a huge day, and Kirk Cousins did twice (and missed open options in Week 2).
This may be the new normal as we look at what lies ahead. We would like to say this is due for a change, but the further we get into this season, it seems the Cowboys realize their offense is strong enough that they need to be even more cautious on defense. They are now playing with 2 safeties high a lot more than we are used to seeing. Three-man rushes and eight-man secondaries seem to be the trend (although I have not charted the season from this perspective yet). It appears the idea is to hope for some stops - hold them to a field goal or even a punt - and know that your offense will take care of the rest.
I would not call this a great long-term plan, but under the "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" mantra, they keep turning out win after win under this. Because, yes, the offense is that good.
Is this part of the plan "sustainable and repeatable?" Well, let's just say that it will be more enjoyable to play Minnesota's offense than Washington's (we assume).
Washington did something that has only been done one other time in NFL history: 500 yards of offense with zero turnovers and zero sacks and LOST! All time, teams are 32-2 when they do that and only the Troy Aikman-led Cowboys who lost on Thanksgiving Day to the 1998 Vikings can relate. It is something about Thanksgiving in Dallas, I guess. In other words, you don't give up 500 yards and get nothing positive and live to tell about it.
Then, there was more evidence that indicated we should perhaps start worrying about the defense.
Look at this from Ed Werder from yesterday. Staggering!
Gracious. That also seems incredibly historic. No takeaways again. In fact, look at the trend on this handy little chart below if we add sacks + takeaways by week:
We are not suggesting that takeaways are a product of Church and Claiborne going down with injuries, but it would be impossible to forget that little detail in looking at the defense right now. They simply are riding coat-tails at this point. And, as we look at how to get a pass rush going, it would seem to require doing exactly the opposite of what the Marinelli-led coaching staff wishes to do. It would require extra rushers, and he is dead-set on rushing fewer. The Cowboys do not want to blitz, they want to rush three and make you do what Cousins had to do all day. Take the underneath throws. This tells us that yardage is largely empty unless you can eventually break through into the end zone.
WEEKLY DATA - WASHINGTON
As you can see, the success falls almost entirely in the idea of holding the Redskins to 40 percent in the red zone. You win by 6 and you look at that stat saving you 12 points and it reminds you of the Green Bay game where the Packers were constantly settling for 3 on their red zone drives, too (1-4, 25%). This is a neat trick, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking the Cowboys are better than normal at this skill. In fact, the Steelers and Ravens just went 6 for 7 (86%) against Dallas at getting touchdowns in the red zone.
The Cowboys have given up 22 touchdowns on 39 red zone drives this season for 56.4%. Would you like to know the NFL average in this category? Sure, you would. It is 56.5%. They are ranked 20th in this category.
The Cowboys are not great at this skill. They are virtually league-average. They got away with it this week, but next week, it might actually even out. And in both cases, you hope the offense is covering it up.
Again, that recipe has worked wonders this season. The question that everyone has is can it get them to the finish line.
KIRK COUSINS THROW CHART
As you can see, drop eight into zones and make Cousins beat you underneath while burning his clock and his downs. The Cowboys played defense on Thursday like they had a distinct advantage with the scoreboard and the clock because they did. The recipe includes playing defense with the lead, and they have done a fine job of following it.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 11
SEASON SPLASH TOTALS
And I was asked for this from a reader, here is the week-by-week splash production for each player. DNP (Did Not Play).
Before we finish here, let's look at some of the issues regarding the game and the biggest one for me is trying to match up with the devastating TE, Jordan Reed. This guy is going to be a problem for a while. After Gronk in New England, this guy might be the best TE in the business. He is such a mismatch.
First, here is what happened in Week 2 when the Cowboys considered trying to run a LB with him. Even one with decent speed like 59-Hitchens:
Well, that didn't go very well. So, they knew that they would need to put Byron Jones on him. Jones can handle most tight ends. But, even for him, there were plenty of moments where it was more of the "what are we supposed to do against this beast?" defense.
This play was on one of those 1st half drives where the Cowboys forced a field goal. More importantly, it appeared Reed was going to be lost for the game for this nasty tumble he took with a little help from Jeff Heath. Here, the Cowboys rush 3, still get some pressure, and then force a high throw from Cousins on the run. Big stop, but Reed toughed it out.
Here was the very impressive "Go" against Jones down the sideline. Cowboys in Cover 1-Robber with a safety dropping down to jump a pattern, but QBs know the proper read is to go to the sideline here. Cousins drops a dime and Reed does the rest. They even drew a penalty here and it was definitely a "what do you do" moment for Jones. A guy that big still has that speed and catch radius. Wow.
Next play, he uses the Cole Beasley-favorite pivot route. If you sit outside he goes inside. If you sit inside, he pivots outside. A well thrown ball makes this impossible against a guy with hips. And yes, this TE has hips that can lose a 1st round corner in tight spaces.
And then this throw to the post which looks like the Cowboys were in a Cover 3 and trying to funnel things inside to their safety. Again, once he gets inside leverage, the play is already over. The Cowboys were trying to run out the clock here, but I am not sure how many ideas Rod Marinelli has left for this guy at the moment. He kills a lot of teams with this skill set, but it seems like the Cowboys, in particular, don't have many answers for big Reed. I am sure they hope to wait until next year to find out.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The formula is working. Ride the offense and hope they can continue to be the best defense the Cowboys have. Other than that, they need DeMarcus Lawrence to get home more and for Church and Claiborne to return, and to figure out ways to force takeaways. Playing with the lead should offer more chances to take the ball away.
Maybe tonight is the first night since October where they take the ball away from their opponent.