Cowboys Defense Under Rob Ryan Providing Hope

Coaches, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers...even referees should be worried about Rob Ryan and the 2011 Cowboys defense.

Coming into the 2011 season, most Cowboys fans believed the star-studded offense would have to carry the team. The defense was atrocious in 2010 and would also need time to learn the new Rob Ryan scheme. Even the most hopeful of Coach Ryan supporters understood there were a lot of players on this defense that had underperformed a year ago and there was a lack of new additions from the draft and free agency. So surely the defense could prove a liability at the beginning of the season considering the abused 2010 version and the shortened offseason for Ryan to work his magic.

And yet, after a loss that could have just as easily been a victory - to a New England team that was held below 30 points for the first time all season - I am prepared to claim with excitement and fervor that I have the audacity to hope the D is back in Dallas.

While early signs had me ready to proclaim my hope that Rob Ryan had cured the 2010 defensive woes for the Cowboys, I still needed to see what the unit could do with all the starting corners and a little more time under the new scheme. There are clearly issues that still need to be rectified, but I am a true believer of this defense, especially after their performance versus the juggernaut offense known as the Patriots. While the team lost, the Cowboys defense nearly dominated the game.

 Let's take a closer look...

At the end of August, I had hoped the Cowboys offensive-line woes were cured

There will be growing pains with a young offensive line. So as I said before, this is a work in progress. The remedy has been given but there will still be some recovery pains during the rehabilitation process. But the debilitating psychosis, the one that led to poor evaluation and neglect of the offensive line, appears to be fading into a bad memory. This young group of offensive linemen bodes well and speaks volumes about the effect of Jason Garrett as a head coach and team builder, and the new Cowboys culture.

I still have hope and believe in the Yuglies. While the young offensive-line has had difficulties establishing a running game, the Cowboys have indeed taken a much needed step in rejuvenating and rebuilding an o-line that has already surpassed many pre-season expectations. The loss of Bill Nagy will certainly hurt, but there is still reason to hope in their continued growth and success (as well as that of rookie David Arkin).

I now feel much the same with this 2011 defense. While the Cowboys have allowed over 24 points per game (actually above average in the NFL this season) they just held the New England Patriots to 20 points. The Cowboys were the first team all season to keep them below 30 points. Most people thought the game would be a shoot-out between two high-powered offenses and if the Cowboys lost it would be because the defense let them down. But to hold the Patriots offense to 20 points - even though the Cowboys offense was stagnant for most of the game and twice turned the ball over - is an impressive feat.

Yes, the defense had the chance at the end of the fourth quarter to stop the Patriots but allowed a touchdown with under a minute left in the game. Yet, shouldn't a power-house offense be able to put the game away when it has the lead and possession with two and a half minutes left in the game? Personally, I think the Cowboys came close to beating the Patriots because of a phenomenal defensive effort and despite the performance of the offense. You can blame the defense, but it should never have come down to the final Patriots drive, which also had several completions where the Cowboys had spectacular coverage on the receivers but Tom Brady simply put the ball into an indefensible window.

This is not to say the defense played a perfect game...but the Cowboys should be able to beat any team in the league if the defense continues to perform like they did against the Patriots.

There was a 3-step plan I thought Rob Ryan had to accomplish in his attempt to stop the Patriots unstoppable offense. They came quite close to dominating all three phases, and even managed to help the Cowboys win the turnover differential though Tony Romo threw an interception on the opening drive of the game (and seemed to be timid as a result for the majority of the game). The Cowboys defense under the command of Rob Ryan was very impressive against the Patriots.

Step One: Stop the Run

The defense allowed the Patriots running backs 84 yards on just 21 rushing attempts, the highest rushing average (4 yards per carry) the Cowboys have allowed this season. Even worse, they allowed Tom Brady to gain nearly 20 yards on four quarterback draws. It was the first time all season the Cowboys allowed an opposing team to rush for over 100 yards. Of the three steps, this was where the Cowboys defense was the least dominant, though it was also the least dangerous aspect of the New England offense. While the Patriots did manage to sustain drives due to the running game and found a lot of success on first-down runs, the defense's poorest performance against the run was still far better than even the best of performances in 2010. Comparing the results to previous games for the Patriots, it also becomes apparent the Cowboys defense accomplished what had to be done to slow the Patriots power-run game.

Running Backs Only  Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing Average
Previous Wins 26.5 132 4.98
Buffalo Loss 22 81 3.68
vs. Cowboys 21 84 4

The defense was missing Jason Hatcher on the line, but Ryan's defensive-line rotations did win many battles in the trenches. Marcus Spears had a solid game and even made Logan Mankins look foolish with a swim move that resulted in a sack. Kenyon Coleman had a decent game (though Sean Lissemore seemed to win more of his matchups) and helped force Tom Brady's first interception by collapsing the pocket and getting in the quarterbacks line of sight and tipping the pass. Jay Ratliff was also very strong at the point of attack and made more plays against the run than in previous games this season (possibly one reason the Patriots ran so often on first down, when Ratliff is almost always playing nose tackle). All in all, the Patriots second-worst rushing effort this season should be considered a success, though the poorest performance to date for the Cowboys.

Step Two: Confuse and Harass Tom Brady

The Patriots offensive-line and Tom Brady were averaging less than two sacks allowed per game. The Cowboys managed three sacks against the Patriots and were pressuring Brady all game. The Cowboys had over a dozen pressures and plenty of hits on Tom Brady who was rarely comfortable in the pocket. The only way the Patriots managed to slow down the Cowboys defense was by going no huddle for the majority of the game. Several times the Cowboys were not completely lined-up when the ball was snapped and were  flagged for 12-men on the field. But still, with fewer opportunities to sub-in specific rotations and less time for organized chaos prior to the snap (though some disorganized chaos was apparent) the Cowboys defense did not let Brady get comfortable in the passing game. In fact, Brady had one of his worst games all season, well below his season averages.

Passing Comp % Passing Yards TD INT Sack QB Rating
Season Averages 26.6 - 39.5 67.5 360.5 2.6 1.3 1.8 104.8
vs. Cowboys 27 - 41 65.8 289 2 2 3 82.3

The defense certainly did not allow Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game to rule the day. Brady had his worst QB rating of the season, his second-worst completion rate, and worst yards per attempt average. All in all, the Cowboys basically dominated this aspect of the game-plan and Tom Brady likely knows he's lucky he continued his win-streak at home...more a result of the New England defense playing far better than in any other game this season.

Step Three: Contain Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez

On the surface, the Cowboys nearly failed in this assignment. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez totaled 15 receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown (the one to take the lead with under a minute to play). While this is certainly too good of a performance by a team's tight-ends, it should not be overlooked that the Cowboys defense shutdown Wes Welker and managed to wrangle the Patriots by not allowing many yards after the catch. In fact, the Patriots passing game would be considered quite tame if they're two longest plays in every game (like versus the Cowboys) were 45 and 20-yard gains. Here is how the Patriots leading receivers' season averages compare against their game versus the Cowboys.

Receptions Yards Yards/Rec TD
W. Welker 8.5 130.8 15.4 1
vs. DAL 6 45 7.5 1
R. Gronkowski 4.83 66.83 13.8 0.83
vs. DAL 7 74 10.5 0
A. Hernandez 6.75 120.5 10.7 0.75
vs. DAL 8 68 8.5 1

There is no debating the fact the Cowboys defense managed to create plenty of pressure on Tom Brady and covered so well that the Patriots leading receiver, who was on pace to shatter several season records, managed only 45 yards and six receptions. For the first time all season the Patriots did not surpass 400 yards of offense. An offense that surpassed 600 yards once this season and twice was around the 500-yard mark (averaging 474.5 yards of total offense per game) managed a meager 371 yards versus the Cowboys defense.

While the Cowboys offense had one of its poorest showings this season, the Cowboys defense managed to slow down the Patriots rushing attack, force the worst performance for Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and the Patriots high-powered passing game, win the turnover battle, continue to average three sacks per game, and do everything the Cowboys needed to beat the New England Patriots.

Unfortunately, as a team the Cowboys fell short on Sunday and now have a 2-3 record. New fears of a stuttering offense are dawning, but the Cowboys defense continues to improve every week even though their competition has also improved each week. Cowboys fans should all have the audacity to hope the D is back in Dallas. Rob Ryan has the faith and belief of his players who are all playing better than last season. He is also creating great game-plans versus each opponent and utilizing all the talent throughout his roster, getting the best out of rotational players as well. This Cowboys defense hits hard, forces turnovers, creates pressure, and never gives up. While their incredible performance wasn't quite enough to beat the Patriots, that was only because the Cowboys offense didn't pull their weight. This 2011 Cowboys defense is far from a liability and should prove a nightmare for opposing offenses.

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