This is Week 9 in the NFL, which allows us to contemplate many of the larger and deeper questions about the standing of the league and the teams we follow. It is the halfway point in many respects, so there is easily enough information on hand to get a good idea of what we are looking at each Sunday.
One of the main questions of training camp and the early season was how good the defense could actually be. From that came dozens more: How much of their own weight could they support? How much could they be counted on to do their own work? How much would they need to be protected? Could they help win a game or even win a game on their own? Who would get the sacks? Who would be on the field? And on, and on ...
Now, ranking the team relative to the rest of the league is an important exercise, but for today's purposes, I wanted to merely rank the Cowboys' defense relative to itself -- or, its own production in 2016.
Last year's defense ranked quite well in many statistics, believe it or not. For instance, it gave up the fewest rushing yards per game in the NFL. Now, many of us suggested that was a credit to "score effects" rather than the likelihood that the 2016 Cowboys were something similar to the 2000 Ravens, but they still only allowed 83 rushing yards per game. They also only allowed 19.1 points per game, good for fifth-best in the league. Again, was this because the offense held the ball so much? Stop the run, stop points.
They were mediocre in 2016 for sack rate (5.7 percent) and horrendous at interceptions (30th), in addition to getting carved for 260 passing yards per game (26th). But they were average at most other stats -- 15th in third-down defense; 14th in red-zone defense; 14th in yards per game; 13th in yards per play. These are all what you need. As long as the defense falls within the confines of league average or so, you will win a ton of football games if your offense is elite.
So, how does 2017 look through seven games? Let's look at the same categories.
-- Rushing defense (yards per game) has fallen from first to 15th; 83 yards allowed per game to 106.
-- Rushing defense (yards per play) has fallen from 11th to 24th; 3.9 yards per carry to 4.5.
-- Third-down defense has fallen from 15th to 26th; 39 percent to 43 percent against.
-- Red-zone defense has fallen from 14th to 22nd; 53.7 percent to 56.5 as the rate at which touchdowns are being conceded.
-- Points per game has fallen from 5th to 20th; 19.1 per game to 23.
But there have been upgrades to some numbers.
-- Passing yards per game have dropped by 41 yards, from 260 to 218.9. That moves the Cowboys from 26th to 15th.
-- Yards per pass allowed has moved from 15th to fourth; 6.23 in 2016 to 5.38 in 2017.
-- Sack rate has increased immensely, from 19th to seventh; 5.7 percent has shot up to 9.6. That is very exciting.
-- Interception rate has hardly budged. From 28th to 30th. Consistency does exist.
So are they better than their defense in 2016? Well, football is a connected sport and the offensive impact is certainly there. Also, the Cowboys have just padded some numbers by playing two ridiculous offenses in a row (Washington played with no offensive line!), so we are about to test these theories in November pretty hard.
But, for now, we would have to say the defense has showed some signs of being better and has definitely shown signs of having players who now scare opponents. Two of them, in fact. DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving have put the league on notice. You can bet Kansas City has been studying them all week to prepare for Sunday.
Let's look at the Washington report card for a moment:
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Sunday was the third time this year (NY Giants, San Francisco and Washington) the Cowboys held their opponent under 300 yards. That is phenomenal. This also was the fourth time they held the opponent under 5 yards per play (NY Giants, Arizona, San Francisco, Washington), which is also quite nice. Add in four sacks and three takeaways (one was a special teams takeaway and another was the blocked field goal, which was the day's biggest play) and you have a really nice game in the elements where the Cowboys were clearly dictating play from an undermanned Washington defense.
Did they have a massive personnel advantage? Yes. But we have not seen that properly exploited in the past. On this Sunday, there is no question the opponent was bruised and beaten by the day's end, which is a real testament to the fine work of Rod Marinelli's men. Since pointing out the issues with low takeaway totals during the bye week, the defense has been able to go take the ball six times to raise the season total to 10 and put them right in the middle of the league.
KIRK COUSINS THROW CHART
The Cowboys had a few busts in coverage, but for the most part they kept everything to quick and out to the flanks. They also were able to bring pressure all day, which requires Cousins to get the ball out or take another hit.
Meanwhile, as you would hope, Marinelli again stepped up the blitz rate to cause confusion and get some free rushers. We are seeing Jaylon Smith being used as an occasional blitzer finally and he is responding well in that capacity.
WEEKLY BLITZ RATES
Here is a look at playing time for the defense. We are posting this to look for the snaps of the defensive line -- we want the best D-linemen to play about 60-70 percent, ideally. We want them fresh when the opposing O-line is tired. We want rest advantages in the fourth quarter that depth affords. Looking below, you would have to say the team agrees.
WEEK 8 SPLASH PLAYS - AT WASHINGTON
SEASON TOTALS - THROUGH 7 GAMES
And then John Daigle made me another chart to again show you the annual leaderboard and the splash rate, which is how many snaps per splash play a player is averaging. You can see that the year Lawrence is having is without equal through seven games since we started tracking this stat.
Lawrence already exceeded the top splash man of 2014? Goodness.
On to the tape!
How about Richard Ash getting his first big tackle for loss here? Ash (No. 76) is another player in the search to build up the defensive tackle spot, especially the 1-technique spot for this team. The personnel department has gone from Cedric Thornton, Terrell McClain and Stephen Paea at the 1-tech to Maliek Collins moving over, Ash and Brian Price. For one thing, that is managing payroll and finding younger pieces. Ash is 25 and signed off the Jacksonville practice squad from last year, but check this explosion out. Very nice.
Collins makes this sack happen as he gets that rookie backup right guard in space, and that is no contest. Look at the chase of Irving. He is just too athletic to deal with as a defensive tackle in the open field for most quarterbacks (which makes that Aaron Rodgers scramble a few weeks back look even more unlikely). This is great work from the front and we see Taco Charlton and Tyrone Crawford at the defensive end spots with Irving and Collins inside.
Here is the blocked field goal. There is a lot to watch here, but I want to point out Lawrence again. I am just on this mission to quiet down anyone saying he is only playing for a contract. This should disprove that nonsense. If you are worried about cash, you are getting out of the way in this spot. He is Orlando Scandrick's lead blocker and trying to get this into the end zone. And he appears faster than most everyone in the play besides Scandrick, who he is right on the hip of the whole play. Huge play. Crawford with the block and great effort to flip the field to try to change the game. Which they did.
This is textbook Irving. I am not sure he has many pass-rush moves. He lingers, keeps himself free, waits for chaos and cleans up all the messes. It is really remarkable given how successful he is that most of his work comes from the second phase of the rush. Here, Lawrence has the first shot at Cousins and Irving ends the play. Just like the sack before, he is not the first guy home. But he is generally the guy to end it.
Six-man pressure here that generates a takeaway, too. Crawford gets there first, but the Redskins are in no shape to deal with this early in the third quarter on a third and 9. Lawrence gets on the ball, but imagine being Cousins here. The whole play is caving in from the snap. The ball has to come out quicker if he is to have a chance when six are coming.
Here is the five-man fire-zone blitz. That brings a defensive back and linebacker from one side and drops the defensive end into coverage on the other side. So, Scandrick (No. 32) and Smith (54) are coming and Crawford (98) is dropping. Here is a rough idea of what I mean below -- even though Scandrick would be the Cowboys' blitzer instead of the SAM linebacker -- from SmartFootball's Alabama blog.
But man, Lawrence is so explosive when he gets close. I'm serious when I say Lawrence-Irving is as dominant as anything we have seen in years and years around here. That poor rookie right guard, Tyler Catalina, is just out of his league on this day. Brandon Scherff would have had some better answers for this.
Here is the pick-six for Byron Jones. Really a simple drop into a fairly vanilla zone to end the game. Nothing fancy here. But this is what a collapsing pocket can produce.
Oh, look, it's Irving again making that play happen. Somehow, he deflected this pass and made that pick-six possible with a ball up for grabs against a zone.
Great effort, but now Kansas City rolls in and it will present the toughest test in quite a while. That will tell us plenty about this defense. November is here, and Ezekiel Elliott is not.