Grading Cowboys @ Eagles: Performances Of Note

Tony Romo felt the pressure from the Eagles all night.

One of the more interesting phenomena in sports these days - and really, all of society - is that more and more people are looking for simple answers in an increasingly complex environment. A player or a team was either good or bad on Sunday. There is little room, and little tolerance or patience, for an assessment that includes a little bit of both. Increasingly the answer has to be 'Yes' or 'No' and a 'Maybe' will simply not do.

After the beatdown at the hands of the Eagles on Sunday, it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are a lot more negative than positive grades for the Cowboys this week. And for the most part, the grades are probably about what you would expect, but there are a couple of observations that may be worth a closer look, particularly at a time when the cacophony of voices clamoring for attention and demanding simple answers obliterates any differentiated assessment.

As always, we'll use the Pro Football Focus grades to get a slightly more nuanced perspective on individual player performances from Sunday. If you like simple and simplistic answers, if you're into sweeping generalizations, if you take a digital approach to life where everything is either a '1' or a '0', then this post may not be for you.

Follow the link for a lengthy introduction to the PFF methodology.

The Soft Underside of the Cowboys defense

Before we get started, let's go back to the Bears game in week two last year.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had been under constant pressure the first two drives of the game. To protect his QB, Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz started calling short underneath passes to hit the areas left empty by the blitzing Cowboys defenders.

The strategy worked: Wade Phillips predictably dialed up the pressure even more. With the Bears on the Cowboys' 39 yard line, Phillips sent both inside linebackers after Cutler. Cutler hit TE Greg Olsen with a short pass up the middle to the 34, and with nobody near him, Olsen ran it in for a 39-yard TD after free safety Alan Ball whiffed on a tackle inside the 10.

Our own Rabblerousr described what happened after that and how this game set the tone for the rest of the season:

"Later, in that game, Cutler hit unheralded jitterbug WR Johnny Knox on a 59-yarder when safeties Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh opted to follow Hester on a crossing pattern, leaving Mike Jenkins without the deep help he was expecting. Suddenly, the Cowboys had to prove that this play didn't signal a fundamental weakness but was a singular incident. For the rest of the season, they failed to do so, and opposing offensive coordinators preyed on the soft middle of the Dallas pass defense like starving lions on an injured wildebeest."

The analogy to Sunday may be a little inexact, as the culprit this time was perhaps less the furious pass rush and more the two-deep safeties, but the results were the same, the Cowboys got horribly exposed on short crossing patterns and runs up the middle.

On Sunday, the short and intermediate routes were the responsibility of the inside linebackers and the slot corners. The safeties were playing back, the corners were trying to keep their guys outside and the front seven had their own issues up front.

Here's how the "middle defenders" (for lack of a better term) graded out:


ILBs Slot CB OLB

Lee Brooking James Scandrick Spencer
Snaps (74 total)
20 65 53 51 59
Coverage snaps (36 total)
9 28 20 25 18
Rating
-3.6 -6.4 -3.0 -2.9 -3.0

The table lists the total snaps that each player was on the field for, as well as the number of snaps in which the player dropped into pass coverage. I've included Spencer here because he played almost as many snaps in pass coverage as Bradie James. This was the soft underbelly of the defense on Sunday, both against the pass and against the run.

What is notable is that the players who did not play the middle so much graded out okay. Sensabaugh (+0.9) and Elam (-0.5) notched 16 tackles between them and graded out as around average (within +1 to -1) for the day. Similarly, the corners graded out okay overall, with the exception of Mike Jenkins (-1.2): Newman (+1.0), Ball (17 snaps, 0.3) and Walker (20, +0.1) all graded out positively.

Front Five

Except for DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff, the Cowboys front five had a forgettable day.

  • DeMarcus Ware (64 of 65 snaps, +2.9 grade) had a day for the record books: four sacks, 11 tackles (five for a loss), four QB hits and one forced fumble. No surprise then that Ware is the top ranked 3-4 OLB in the league right now.
  • Jay Ratliff (51 of 65 snaps, +3.6) took advantage of the obvious mismatch against the Eagles' center Jason Kelce (-3.8) and recorded a QB hit, five QB pressures collapsed the pocket multiple times. Of course, Vick then simply stepped up and took off. Coleman (-0.3) Spears (-2.1) and Hatcher (-3.3) were not the Bullies many had expected them to be and were ineffective against an Eagles line that played a good game.
The O-line

The Eagles sent their defensive ends after Romo and were able to sack him four times, consistently creating pressure especially off the edges. Free gave up one sack and four pressure on the left, Smith gave up three sacks and two pressures on the right, while the middle of the line played relatively well overall.

Here's how the individual linemen graded out.

Free Holland Costa Kosier Smith
  LT LG C RG RT
Overall -0.3 +0.2 +1.4 +1.2 -1.2
Run Blocking
0.0 +0.4 +0.2 +1.4 -1.0
Pass Protect
-0.6 +0.6 +1.0 -0.4 -1.1

But here is where the grades do not reflect the true story of the O-line on Sunday: The Eagles blitzed the Cowboys exactly four times.

That's right. The Eagles sent more than four people only four times the entire game. Not only were the Eagles' four defensive linemen pretty effective in getting pressure on Romo and forcing quick throws all night long, but it also left seven of their guys roaming around the secondary somewhere and effectively shutting down Austin, Bryant and Witten. 

In a league that is obsessed with mismatches, the Eagles created mismatches all over the field by winning the battle up front with only four linemen against five Cowboys linemen and a largely immobile quarterback.

Skill Position Players

Here are some of the high- and lowlights.

  • Jason Witten (52/52, -1.0): nowehere was the offensive futility more evident than with Jason Witten, who was targeted 12 times and only had four receptions. Hurried or inaccurate throws, tight and sometimes double coverage all helped the Eagles negate what is normally the Cowboys' biggest threat. Martellus Bennett (9/52, -2.2) disappointed once again as a receiver, had an off day as a run blocker and was yanked after nine snaps.
  • DeMarco Murray (39/52, +0.5) did what he could with limited opportunities in the run game. 
  • Laurent Robinson (42/52,+0.4) became the go-to-guy by default. He was targeted eight times and had five receptions as the Eagles took away Bryant (5 TA, 3 Rec) and Austin (3 TA, 3 Rec).
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