During the bye week, I wanted to offer some observations to prepare us for the stretch run with 11 games to go. Sitting at 2-3 is not a great place to be, and the schedule ahead looks a little daunting. On the other hand, there is nothing in this sport like an off weekend to look around and see you aren't the only franchise dealing with issues and challenges that were unforeseen in the offseason. Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth, right? Well, the NFL season is all about taking those punches and charging forward to strike back.
The Cowboys remain in a fine position to strike back. Not because of their win total or their great accomplishments this year. Not at all. But again -- just like in 2016 -- it seems like they're just about the healthiest team in the sport. On offense, they have had perfect attendance across the board from pretty much every single member. That is not common right now in this league. Everyone is dealing with injuries and nearly everyone has lost someone for a few months or the year. Not the Cowboys. Look at that offensive roster -- where they have planted their resources and salary cap -- and you will see that they just keep marching on with the exact lineup that appeared on paper when the season began. That can change on any hit that occurs, but for now, you have a healthy team and that puts you in as good a spot as pretty much anyone in the conference.
The defense has not been as fortunate, but the few injuries that have occurred have been of the "weeks" variety rather than "months." Yes, Sean Lee being out could have likely made the difference between beating the Rams and Packers and not, but he is back. Anthony Hitchens is back. David Irving is back. Damontre Moore is back. The only injuries that have really been issues are Charles Tapper (broken bone in his right foot) and Stephen Paea's, who just up and retired because of his knee.
As you look at the calendar and see that we are approaching the end of October, we know two things: 1) There is a long way to go and the injury fortune could turn on a dime as early as Sunday, and 2) if a team can navigate to the postseason relatively healthy, they have a substantial advantage against the ragtag bunches that they will compete against, where most teams have 3-5 pieces (sometimes more) that have been lost for the rest of the season by then. Aaron Rodgers getting hurt (broken collarbone) means Green Bay is just another potential foe that the Cowboys made up massive amounts of ground on from their couches this past weekend.
Health appears to be a bit of a gift from the football gods some years, but I believe it is also a function of having a young team, and the Cowboys certainly have young players all over the field these days with almost nobody over 30 besides Jason Witten and Lee.
There are some other things to talk about, though, that are more than just hoping against injuries in the most violent sport we could possibly imagine. That is why a lot of what I am thinking about during this off time in the schedule is how much pressure Rod Marinelli is up against if this team doesn't pick up the pace defensively.
The Cowboys play a conservative brand of defense. Last year, it worked out pretty well until they got into a game in the playoffs and didn't have the ability to stop an offense that was as good as Dallas could throw out there.
This year, though, the defense has some very interesting characteristics that are not quite what we feared in the offseason. Let's look at some of them from my friends at NFL Remarkable at Inside Edge:
The Cowboys defense has allowed passes of 40+ yards on just 1 of 183 attempts (0.5%) this season (2nd best in NFL; League Avg: 1.6%)
Offenses facing the Cowboys defense have thrown deep balls on just 8.2% of pass attempts (15/183) this season (5th lowest in NFL; League Avg: 11.5%)
These two numbers above tell us what we know about how the Cowboys have defended. There is really no sign of teams trying to beat the Cowboys "up top." The Cowboys have put their two safeties deep and played conservative coverages to keep everything in front of them. Wide receivers have not had big days against the Cowboys partly because the Cowboys have taken that away. Now, unfortunately, when you take something away you give up something else, but aside from Carson Palmer to Larry Fitzgerald, the Cowboys have not allowed a 300-yard passer or a 100-yard receiver this season. They have taken away the quick death.
But they also haven't been able to stop C.J. Anderson, Todd Gurley and Aaron Jones from running all over them in the losses. And they also have all caught important passes to make it even worse.
Now, the sack totals are interesting and encouraging to say the least. Look at the seven-year trend as we compare the Cowboys (blue) to the NFL leaders (green) and NFL average (red) team totals:
As you can clearly see above, the Cowboys' pass rush is as productive as anything we have seen in this era post-Wade Phillips and DeMarcus Ware. They led the NFL in sacks in 2008 and were a great pass rush for almost all of Wade's tenure, but since then, they have dropped below the league average for almost all of Rob Ryan, Monte Kiffin and part of Rod Marinelli's stay. Now, they may have assembled a group that can get home and currently sits in the top 10 in sack rate. That is most encouraging. But, back to the folks at Remarkable -- what about this? The Cowboys defense has not hurried opposing QBs on any of 59 dropbacks in close and late situations this season (worst in NFL; League Avg: 8.5%) This is subjective, and it sure looked like Rodgers was under duress on that final drive a time or two, but if it is anywhere close to accurate that they have no hurries on 59 dropbacks in "close and late," that tells us that while they have the pass rush, perhaps they don't have enough of one to get home late in games due to fatigue? Or, it tells us that the defensive play-calling gets way more conservative in these spots and the Cowboys' rush is not as determined to get home. Either way, this is a trend worth investigating.
But, the biggest issue I have remains with what every defensive coordinator is mandated to do: stop threats and create takeaways.
Look at these numbers -- none of them are terribly positive:
The Cowboys defense has allowed 5.5 touchdowns per interception (11 TDs allowed, and 2 INT) this season (6th worst in NFL; League Avg: 1.9)
The Cowboys have intercepted 2 of 183 attempts (91.5 pass attempts per int.) this season (7th worst in NFL; League Avg: 42.9)
The Cowboys defense has forced 4 fumbles this season (tied for 3rd fewest in NFL)
So, no interceptions and no fumbles forced -- not a great combination.
It is worth noting that it seems quite obvious this league is committing fewer and fewer turnovers every year. We are trying to completely eliminate risk in our offenses and in our quarterback decision-making over the years.
Last year, there were 700 turnovers in the sport. Ten years ago: 918! That is a remarkable drop-off in that span of time. The NFL average used to be around 28-30 for each team per year, and now it has dropped to 21-22 league-wide.
So, it is tougher to get takeaways, sure. But, Marinelli and his crew have just 35 in the past 37 regular-season games going back to the start of 2015. This trend is almost too big to be a trend as much as it is simply who they are. They are trying to alter that, but the first five games of 2017 have been more of the same. Deep, deep safeties, careful corners, three-man pass rushes and hope something that good happens.
In doing this, opponents aren't even looking deep, they are just taking the easy stuff underneath that moves the chains and hardly don't risk any turnovers. I would love to know if any defensive coordinator in the history of the league has ever produced takeaways at such a low rate for three seasons and not been under threat of job security, or at least some public heat. I generally hear nothing but plaudits for Marinelli and I really admire his personality and his defensive approach in general, but to oversee three years in a row that have yielded an average of 15 takeaways, in a league where the average team is able to get about 22 (46 percent more), is a problem that is going to be difficult to overcome.
Starting Sunday, the Cowboys have to reverse this trend quickly.