The Dallas Cowboys defense is no longer a liability. Rob Ryan has inspired and utilized the Cowboys defenders far beyond anything we saw in 2010, even after Jason Garrett took the reins as interim coach. This defense does not quit. This defense does not back down. This defense bends but actually doesn't break, with a whiplash that often results in turnovers and/or sacks at key moments in games.
The Cowboys continue to lead the league in sacks. The defense is Top 5 in yards allowed per game and yards allowed per play, impressively keeping teams to less than 300 yards per game and five yards per play. The Cowboys also rank Top 10 in the league in 1st downs allowed to their opponents. This is an aggressive, creative, and stingy defense.
In truth, the defense is a big reason the Cowboys have won their last two games to currently top the NFC East division standings. It's not the dream team, but they have held three good rushing attacks to an average of about 60 yards per game and only three yards per carry. They never allowed teams to establish the run, even when the opponents were playing with the lead. Combine this ability to make teams one dimensional with a scheme and lineup that makes life difficult for quarterbacks, and offensive coordinators will have sleepless nights preparing for Rob Ryan's Cowboys defense.
Let's take a closer look at the 2011 Cowboys defense...
Yes, the Cowboys have not faced powerhouse offenses and rank in the middle of the pack in points allowed and subpar in 3rd-down conversion percentage. But the defense is still learning the new scheme and has yet to start the three best corners on a game day roster. So far, the results have been far more than adequate.
Reviewing all the intricate plays Ryan has designed is a great lesson in football. I marvel at how he manages to keep his intentions disguised, even fooling and baiting offenses with the organized chaos. I am inspired by his aggressive style of defense that doesn't back down when things get difficult or the offense beats a few blitzes. He diagnoses the areas of need, adjusts his defense, and continues to apply pressure through blitzes to stop both the run and the pass. He doesn't' dumb things down when his backup corners enter the game, he challenges the team and the players to rise to the occasion.
There are also interesting motifs that keep appearing each week. It is too early to use stats to rank teams or to be certain of any trends, but this defense seems primed to get better every week (especially with the return of all the starters) through Jason Garrett's coaching mentality and Rob Ryan's ever-expanding playbook. As the defense learns even more wrinkles to Ryan's scheme, offenses will continue to find it difficult to diagnose the Cowboys defense.
Here are two big signs that the defense is playing well, which are also reasons to think the defense will only improve in the coming weeks with more practice and a healthier roster.
Dominate the Fourth Quarter
The Redskins offensive-line really surprised me. They were impressive in the preseason and during the first games of the season, but they handled the Cowboys pressure much better than I expected. Rob Ryan continued to dial up blitzes though the line managed to help Rex Grossman stay poised in the pocket. I have never seen anyone handle DeMarcus Ware as well as Trent Williams did on Monday night. But in the end, while managing to hold the Cowboys to only three sacks, the fewest in any game this season, they simply could not hold up against the Cowboys pressure the entire game. Two of the Cowboys three sacks occurred on the Redskins finally two drives of the game, of course, the final being the Anthony Spencer sack-fumble that assured the Cowboys victory.
While the commentating concentrated on how well Tony Romo would hold up in the fourth quarter after taking shots to his fractured rib, it should also be noted how well the Cowboys defense played to close out the Redskins game. In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys defense forced two punts and solidified the victory recovering the fumble in the final drive. This strong showing in the fourth quarter is becoming a trend.
In the first week of the season, the defense did allow the Jets an early fourth-quarter touchdown, but the next two drives ended with one turnover from a sack-fumble and a punt forced by a third-down sack. The final Jets possession, after the Romo interception, started in Dallas territory but the defense forced a 50-yard field goal. While allowing ten points in the fourth quarter is not a great sign, given the circumstances, the defense kept the Cowboys in the game until the very end.
In Week 2, the defense improved, allowing only a field goal early in the fourth quarter. After that point, the defense forced two punts. The 49ers final drive in regulation stalled due to a DeMarcus Ware sack, and the 49ers opening drive in overtime failed in part due to a sack by Jay Ratliff.
Notice the start of a trend?
Week 1 - two sacks, one forced fumble in 4th quarter, but allowed ten points.
Week 2 - two sacks and allowed only three points including an overtime drive.
Week 3 - two sacks, one forced fumble, and the defense allowed no 4th quarter points
The 2011 Cowboys defense has been clutch at the end of games. Nearly half of the teams' sacks have come in the fourth quarter (or later) as they hold teams to very few points late in games. This seems to be an effect of Ryan's coaching philosophies. He turns up the heat in pressure situations and asks his defense to win games and attack offenses. A lot of credit should also include Ryan's use of rotations and creative schemes. Ware is not facing double-teams all game because Ryan is moving him around and disguising pressure packages, and the defensive-line stays strong throughout the game as Josh Brent, Sean Lissemore, and Kenyon Coleman see plenty of time on the field. Coleman had a great game last night, and likely stole the starting job from Marcus Spears. Also important to note, Lissemore had a good (though quiet) game and could see a lot more reps depending on the injury to Jason Hatcher.
Ryan seems great at identifying his players' abilities and maximizing their effectiveness in his scheme. Everyone gets to contribute, and the team seems stronger for it...not only in the 4th quarter.
Force Long Third-Downs
Usually, great defenses are at their best on third-downs because they have forced tough conversion attempts and can make the critical stops. Clearly, the conversion percentage allowed by the Cowboys defense shows there are still improvements that must be made, which should be helped with healthy corners. However, this Cowboys defense is so good on second-downs that I find it difficult to imagine that the bad third-down conversion percentage will last long into the season. Last week, I reviewed the defense against the 49ers and noted how Ryan uses blitzes to not only pressure quarterbacks, but to also stop the run. There were several well executed run blitzes on second-downs last week, and several more on Monday night versus the Redskins. Not to mention that all three sacks against the Redskins came on second-downs. Despite the poor conversion percentage, the Cowboys defense is forcing long third-downs.
Examples from Cowboys vs. Redskins:
1st Quarter 10:56 - Coleman plays a screen-pass forward pitch to Santana Moss perfectly as the Redskins near the redzone and gets a tackle for a loss to force 3rd & 13. End up forcing a field goal.
1st Quarter 1:12 - Ogletree fumbles and the Redskins recover in the redzone. First-down run is held to a three yard gain, and then (like last week) Sean Lee makes a big play on second-down and tackles the runner for a loss of yards to force 3rd & 9. End up forcing a field goal.
2nd Quarter 11:39 - The defense forces an incomplete pass on first-down, and again steps up on second-down to force a long third-down by stopping the run for a gain of two yards. End up forcing a punt.
2nd Quarter 1:00 - The Redskins were driving to end the first half, and after a great play by Ratliff to force a 2nd & 13, the defense rallies to chase down Grossman who was flushed from the pocket and out of bounds to force a 3rd & 7. The ‘Skins manage to convert this long third-down, but on the following second-down, Victor Butler takes advantage of a fallen lineman to get the Cowboys first sack of the game. A 2nd & 4 becomes a 3rd & 10 and leads to a forced 50-yard field goal attempt to end the half.
3rd Quarter - The Redskins had two drives in the third quarter. The Cowboys did not manage to force a long third-down on the first drive and it led to the only Redskins touchdown of the night. On the second drive, the Cowboys force a 3rd & 10 as the pressure and some plays in the secondary lead to three incomplete passes and a three-and-out. End up forcing a punt.
4th Quarter 11:47 - The defense forces an incompletion on second-down and a 3rd & 7 that the ‘Skins can't convert. End up forcing a punt.
4th Quarter 4:18 - The Redskins cross midfield after a few receptions and a bad penalty called on Alan Ball. However, with momentum starting to shift, DeMarcus Ware gets a big sack on second-down to force the Redskins back into their territory and a 3rd & 17. End up forcing a punt.
4th Quarter 00:38 - The Redskins need a field goal to win the game and manage to drive near midfield, but the defense seals the victory with a sack-fumble on second-down.
Over 50% of Cowboys sacks (7 of 13) have come on second-downs. With four occurring on first-downs, it means the Cowboys defense (NFL leader in sacks) has only managed two sacks on third-downs. Since the defense is often forcing long third-downs, it would seem that the third-down issues will be resolved. As the coverage improves, so will the third-down sacks and conversion percentage. If the Cowboys can continue to play solid run defense, play strong in the fourth quarter, and make big plays on second-downs to force long third-down conversions, this defense could end up one of the best in the league by the end of the season.
Tony Romo had a very valiant effort the past two weeks and has quieted down a lot of the foolish criticism against him, but what Ryan has done for this defense and what this defense has done for the 2011 team should not be overlooked. There are still some questions, worries, and injury concerns, but suddenly Cowboys fans should be excited when their defense steps onto the field instead of being nervous. With the high-octane offense of the Detroit Lions coming to Cowboys stadium, we will see if this defense can be as affective versus a more dynamic team this coming Sunday. The Cowboys may not have the corners to shut down one of the best receivers in football, but at the same time, the Lions may also have the worst offensive line of the Cowboys' past three opponents. Things should get interesting when the Cowboys take on the undefeated Lions.