Week 2 Biggest Loser: Defense

Week 2’s loss can be blamed on a lot of people or units, but no one deserves more of the blame than the defense. It was a fantasy to think that the turnovers would continue through the season like week 1, but they fell off the map to 2012 levels. Lots of almosts, but if almosts counted the 2012 Cowboys would have had a ton more turnovers and a great win-loss record. What did continue from week 1 was the inability to get a stop when it mattered. Everyone knows that plays in the fourth quarter are bigger than most plays earlier in the game, and later in the fourth quarter even more so. The first quarter defense looked great, but once Andy Reid had time to make adjustments, they looked more like the 2012 defense than anything else.

The offense did them no favors this week, that’s for sure. Especially in the second half when Tony Romo looked to have reinjured his ribs or the injection wore off. Or worse, made some of those throws without a medical excuse. But regardless of what the offense did, the defense still has to do its job, like some weeks when the offense will bail the defense out. On that final Chief’s drive, everyone in the stadium and watching at home knew what they wanted to do—run the ball and throw inside routes, keeping the clock moving at all costs. Still, even knowing what the offense was going to try to do, the defense was unable to get a stop when it mattered most (yes, they eventually forced them to punt, but with :16 left on the clock, is that even worth it?). Defenses gain a reputation based on how they play in big moments, and this one did nothing to change the prevailing logic that Dallas’ defenses come up short.

Kiffiners might say, “But we WOULD’VE had a stop on 3rd and 10 but Mo Claiborne was called for pass interference on a bad call.” I can’t say if the call was good or bad, it looked pretty even to me. One of those that sometimes you get, sometimes you don’t. What’s more important, and damning, on that play is that Claiborne was trying to break up the pass anyway. It was 3rd and 10, so a stop is going to yield a punt. Rewatching it, it doesn’t look like the receiver is going to get the first down on the catch. Mo saw it in time to jump the pass and try to break it up, so he had plenty of time to be right on the receiver and make a tackle as soon as the catch is made. Maybe he even dislodges the ball and it goes down as an incomplete pass, but that’s guessing too much. If he makes the tackle and prevents the conversion, it’s a punt. I’m bad at the math of how much time Romo & Co. would have had in this scenario, but it would have been way more than 16 seconds.

An argument against it would be that allowing the catch late in the game is contrary to what the secondary is doing the entire rest of the game, asking a player to flip his instincts on a dime. I don’t think it is. I think it’s the same as an offensive player running out of bounds late in the game to conserve clock instead of fighting for yards. You would like players to be thinking big picture at all points of the game, but they absolutely need to see the macro view late in the game. Mo can be blamed for not thinking it, defensive coaches can be blamed for not stressing it before the drive, or they can split it. Doesn’t matter how you cut it, the offense still received a new set of downs and the Dallas offense lost precious time off the clock.

Cowboys fans are used to ifs and butts defining the defense in big moments, and nothing has changed. Week 1 against the Giants is looking more and more like an aberration or dream, and that doesn’t bode well for weeks 6 and 7 against Washington and Philadelphia.

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Week 2 Biggest Loser: Honorable Mentions

Losing sucks, and one of the (unhealthy) ways I deal with it is by finding someone to blame. Most weeks, and this is no exception, there is no shortage of people to pin my ruined Sunday afternoon on.

These are noteworthy, but aren’t the winner.

Offensive Play Calling

The Cowboys didn’t run nearly enough yesterday. 14 attempts for 24 yards?! Not going to cut it. That doesn’t put Tony Romo in a good position schematically or physically, and wastes the talent we have at runningback.

Romo stopped throwing to Dez Bryant. After having 100 yards in the first quarter, he was targeted only eight times the rest of the game. After Bryant had shown that he was able to beat the coverages the Chiefs were throwing at him, there is no reason to stop throwing it at him. Insanity isn’t doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Insanity is doing a good thing, and then doing something different. There’s no way to know if it was Romo or Bill Callahan who was responsible, but ultimately this has to go on Romo. You can audible the entire call, or just the route with Bryant. Until it’s proven that he can be stopped, keep feeding the beast that is 88.

The offense just gave up on the last drive of the game. Starting at your own 4 with :16 left in the game isn’t a recipe for success, but you have to either try or give up. The Cowboys did neither, and it’s a slap in the face to fans. Murray isn’t taking a screen pass 60 yards to get in field goal range. And even if he did, Dallas was out of time outs, so time would have expired before the field goal unit could get lined up anyway. A couple short out routes and a Hail Mary is your only shot. A very slim one, but still. Coming out and running a “run out” play to end it. If you’re going to just run a play to end the game, send the second string out. There’s no sense in someone getting hurt on a play that doesn’t matter (Miles Austin against San Francisco in 2011). Try or don’t, but don’t act like you’re going to try and then give up.

Red Zone Offense

It’s been an emphasis for multiple years, with arguable (if any) improvement. Like defensive turnovers, we have seen that emphasizing something is far from obtaining the results. I understand that Witten will often be required to block which will limit his effectiveness in the red zone. But Dez Bryant should be option #1 and #2. If he’s covered, just put it somewhere where it’s not likely to get intercepted and let Dez try to make a play. Ball location isn’t Romo’s strongest trait, but Bryant’s talent makes it worth practicing. Bryant should’ve had a touchdown on every red zone possession Sunday.

Tony Romo

Like many people, I’m so conflicted on him. But Sunday, you didn’t see a ton of the positives. He made some good throws, but most of them were to 88 who can make a quarterback’s job much easier. I can’t gripe about the interception, because you know he’s going to throw one. It’s like getting mad about having one incompletion. The sack/fumble is completely his fault. This offensive line is going to be suspect this season (just like it has since 2008), and Romo has to be on the lookout for unblocked rushers. On that play, they got through, Romo saw them, spun and rolled to his right. He loads up to make a throw downfield and gets hit and loses the ball. You’re inside your own 40, giving them the ball there is basically an automatic field goal. Once he saw that there were two unblocked guys coming after him, and rolls out, he needs to just make the safe play and throw it away. Yes, it was third down but the fourth quarter had just stared, and Dallas was only down 4. It’s a play that Romo has complete control over, and instead of letting special teams flip the field, he gave Kansas City the ball and (almost) free points.

Pay Attention to 88

Dez Byrant is unquestionably the best receiving option on this team. There are few things that no one will argue with, but that’s one of them. He showed in the second half of 2012 that he’s for real, and has finally melded his phenomenal talent with knowledge of the offense and his role.

But other teams have taken notice of this, and the Giants were a preview of how many teams may choose to defend the Cowboys. Almost the entire game, there was a safety shaded over him before the snap–not even wasting time with deception. The lack of production didn’t seem to bother him, as the same tactic would affect Terrell Owens. The telecast only showed one “tantrum” thrown by him, and it was right after he’d rolled his ankle so it is easy that it was related to that instead of his lack of production. He said in an interview that he didn’t care about numbers, if the team could win. That’s a great attitude, because teams are likely going to keep adopting this approach. The Giants shut him down statistically, but the resources needed to shut Bryant down allow others to excel.

If there is a safety covering Byrant with the corner, which counts as a double team even though it’s not done in the traditional way, that means that the other receivers are going to be one-on-one. Putting Miles Austin in the slot is a matchup that should be a win more times than not, and leaving more openings for Jason Witten is a tried and true method for success. One school of thought is that by these other receivers racking up yards and (hopefully) points, teams will move away from their 88-focused attack and then allow Bryant to showcase his abilities. I think it will depend on the team. Some teams will feel that they need to try another approach, but others will still play the odds of eliminating the best receiver on the field and forcing less dynamic guys to consistently beat them.

Regardless of how a team ends up handling Bryant as games progress, one thing is certain–he will continue to see two defenders at the beginning of each game. His mindset is just as important as his physical abilities while he’s getting stymied. If teams see that not getting the ball frustrates him and causes him to cause problems on the sidelines or in the huddle, they’ll be sure to follow suit. Once he’s messed up in the head from not getting the ball as often, teams can then change their defensive focus without having Bryant be able to beat them. When a player is throwing fits on the sideline and mad about his production, he’s not thinking about the defense he’s facing and what adjustments are needed to his route. Then he’s compounded the problem. Now, the defense can not focus on him and still beat the offense.

I don’t think that while he’s being blanketed he should be forced the ball dangerously, but I also don’t think he needs to get the ball at all costs. There are some routes where he can be thrown the ball before the safety comes into play–back shoulder fades, slants, etc. There’s not a magic number for the amount of times that he should get thrown to, but it should be enough to keep him in rhythm and probing the defense, and only on those safe throws. Rhythm is not important enough to risk a turnover.

Cowboys fans hope that the six takeaways are only the beginning of a trend that continues through the season, but it’s not likely. What is certain is the attention paid to Dez Bryant continuing for the foreseeable future. As long as he stays focused on the larger goals, that extra attention won’t inhibit the course of the season.

Crazy Stat

There were a lot of crazy stats and numbers that come out Sunday night’s game, and fortunately most went in the Cowboys’ favor.

But during the broadcast a stat appeared that is a game changer. I’ve never heard this stat before, and I haven’t heard it on ESPN or sports radio since. Tony Romo gets labeled as a butterfingers type quarterback, and everyone knows that if you give him time, Romo will give up the ball–maybe more so than any other quarterback in the league.

Eli is a clutch quarterback who starts the first quarter as a good quarterback and then turns into a cyborg-clutch quarterback in the fourth quarter. He throws big passes and incompletions.

Boom.

eli stat

 

Since 2010, Eli Manning has turned the ball over 68 times. Most in the NFL. Not most after you account for the obvious (Romo) leader. No, he’s turned it over more than Romo. But do you hear about it? No.

Some of the narrative on Romo is fair, but a lot is unfair (or worse, wrong). This doesn’t change how either guy plays on the field, but it should affect how they’re discussed on barstools and couches.

Cover 2? Tampa 2?

Sunday night’s game brought the Cowboys’s defense to the forefront, and they deserve to be there. It means that more people are talking about the defense (in a good way), and that’s a big change from the last three or four years. In talking about that, people are referring to Kiffin’s Cover 2 scheme. Wait, what about the Tampa 2? I heard someone on the radio refer to the Tampa 2 as what the Cover 2 is called when Kiffin ran it with the Buccaneers. Kind of.

Kiffin did run the Tampa 2 in Tampa Bay a lot, but it’s slightly different than just Cover 2. But not much. Both are zone coverages, which mean that defenders are covering areas of the field instead of focusing on following certain players around the field. In Cover 2, the corners are responsible for the flat, the linebackers cover intermediate areas, and the safeties split the field in half. Corners will cover the receiver down the field until they identify a threat to the flat, then the receiver gets passed off to the safety. In doing it, they will line up trying to force the receiver back to the middle of the field where it’s less steps for the safety to get to the pass if needed. Linebackers sink back and blanket the middle intermediate area of the field.

cover 2

 

 

In the Tampa 2, basically everything is the same except for the middle linebacker’s responsibility. In the Tampa 2 variant, the middle linebacker is responsible for playing in a zone as deep as the deepest interior route. This means more of a linebacker on a tight end, or slot receiver–which is rarely what I would want. If you have an athletic player like Sean Lee it can work, but it can also open your defense up to combo routes where one player goes deep to take the MLB with him, and another player comes into the space that he just vacated to catch a pass.

tampa 2

 

There are disadvantages to every defensive scheme, and even between these zone defenses. At times using them in tandem will be good, and at times it will be bad, that’s life. But we should at least know what we’re talking about (as best we can) when criticizing.

Big Winner: Monte Kiffin

There were a lot of good performances last night, obvious and subtle. Of all those, the person who deserves the lion’s share of credit for the win last night is Monte Kiffin. He came in and started stressing turnovers from day 1. I was skeptical that simply focusing on them and making guys pick up the ball in practice would have any real yield on the field. I was wrong. Dallas won’t be forcing six a game for the rest of the year, but there’s reason to believe that they will be much more consistent at forcing them.

Both interceptions and fumbles can be attributed to Kiffin’s and his hand-picked partner Rod Marinelli’s presences. Interceptions are a product of scheme and execution, both things that were questionable during Rob Ryan’s hectic tenure. People argue that cover 2 is too reactive and bend but not break, and that’s true. Optimistically, I’m believing that having less to think about will make the defense play faster and smarter–yielding more turnovers and a more stingy defense in general. But I reserve the right (and will likely use it) to flip flop on this.

I don’t think that the Giants are the most challenging team in the division for Kiffin and Marinelli, but this week they’re kings. And they deserve every compliment they get.

Looking at Interceptions

The Cowboys defense played really well last night at times, and managed to come up with three interceptions. Even though Eli gives the ball away, it still takes a defender to be in the right spot and get his hands on the ball. In addition to laughing at Eli at home by myself, I wanted to go back and look at what happened on all the interceptions last night.

The DeMarcus Ware interception screams “predetermined throw” to me. Once Ware sees that it’s play action and feels the tackle let him slip by, he doesn’t keep rushing Manning. He finds David Wilson and plays defense. Basketball defense. Go back and look, you’ll see what looks like Ware defending an inbounds pass. Manning knows where everyone is, and isn’t going to lose track of Ware that easily. They had probably planned that first play from scrimmage all week, and almost as a habit he made the throw even though parts of his brain were yelling at him to not. Otherwise, Manning recognizes that Ware isn’t coming at him any longer (even if he can’t see Ware, he can feel him, and knows he’s on that left side), checks for him and sees Ware laying in wait, and doesn’t make the throw to Wilson. It worked out for the good guys and it was a very athletic play by Ware, but it shouldn’t have happened.

On the second pick, it looks like the defensive play call out of the huddle is for a AA run blitz (Lee and Carter blitzing from both A gaps–space between center’s shoulders and guard). But Lee sees something and checks out of it (more of a “kill” call than an actual audible to a different play) and the cornerbacks back off the wide receivers a few yards, now expecting them to run routes instead of blocking a run. The second best part of the play (after the interception) is that the call from Lee (banging the top of his helmet with his hand) is relayed to the entire secondary. You can see Mo Claiborne making the call as well as the safeties. Even if you hear the call and see Lee make the sign, reciprocating it reinforces that you heard him and you know what you’re supposed to be doing. That type of communication was never present in Rob Ryan’s defense, and that’s a great thing. After the snap, the coverage looks like a zone, or maybe man outside and zone behind it, but regardless, Eli overthrew him and Will Allen capitalized. Not something we’re used to seeing, but hopefully we need to get used to it.

Not to be one sided, I looked back at Romo’s pick as well. The Giants were in Nickel, and because three receivers were to Romo’s left, you know that a linebacker or safety is going to be covering someone. That’s a mismatch in Dallas’s favor, either way. Dez is the only receiver to Romo’s right. Jason Witten is just off the offensive line to the left, split out and standing up like a wide receiver. Miles Austin is in the slot, and Terrence Williams is on the outside. Looking at the Giants’ alignment and not seeing them shift as the playclock winds down, Romo knows that he has three receivers against two defenders in the first ten yards because the linebacker is lined up over Tyron Smith. Romo audibles with 4.5 seconds left on the play clock (“safety”? “baby”? no idea what he said there) to the left side and snaps the ball. After the snap, Miles and Witten release and block the cornerback. By Romo’s throw you can tell that Williams is supposed to have broken inside on his route, but I can’t tell if it was supposed to be a slant or a comeback. Regardless, he only makes a slight move inside and then goes deep (making me think he was running a hitch and go and not a slant and go or “sluggo”). I’m not sure what the audibled play was. With Witten and Austin blocking it looks like a screen, but you don’t often see them throwing a screen downfield like that. 82 and 19’s blocking is odd too. They’re both on one guy, while other defenders are running to get involved. Not really sure what’s going on. If Williams follows Romo’s audible, it’s likely a completion and at worst an incompletion and a field goal try. But I’m not sure that Dallas can convert on that play. It was 3rd and 11, and even after making the catch Williams would have had a ways to run, without Austin and Witten having a wall of protection in place.

On Eli’s third pick, he gets Romo’d by a guy not doing his job and leaving Eli catching the blame. Giants are running a screen to the runningback, and the Cowboys look to be in cover 2. Carr’s responsibility is to cover the receiver while he’s in the flat/short area, then pass him off to the safety who’s deeper if he sees another receiver attacking the flat. At the snap, he starts to backpedal with the receiver then peeking in the backfield he sees the screen developing, and passes the receiver to the safety as he goes to close on the runningback. On his way there, the ball bounces up in the air after hitting the back’s shoulder pads and Carr has a touchdown. It’s a basic play and Carr got lucky, yes. But it’s a play that last year is probably something we point at as “a play he needs to make there”.