What ever happened to that ferocious defense Rob Ryan has been promising us? Through 11 games, we've likely seen most of what this defense has to offer, and I can't say it at all resembles what I was expecting - at least from a schematic point of view.
As we spent last summer charting the Cowboys' offseason moves, transcribing press conferences and watching practices, we felt we knew what this defense would try to be this year. We saw Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as direct indicators that we would be running a pressure defense, at least in the secondary. Drafting Tyron Crawford and Kyle Wilber showed some continued commitment to 3-4 pass-rush players. The promotion of Barry Church seemed to signify the coming of safety blitzes and one-deep coverages, and the faith in Bruce Carter stepping up seemed to show a desire for 'multiplicity.'
Remember that term? Multiplicity was supposed to be the identity of this defense. Primarily based on the assumption that our corners could lock down any receiving corps one-on-one, we believed we would be able to alternate any player between pass rush and zone coverage, confusing opposing offenses and filling highlight reels with splash plays. That's not what we've seen.
Don't get me wrong; we have been multiple. We've just been conservatively multiple. Believe it or not, there's a way to blitz players from strange positions while still maintaining gap integrity and playing solid zone coverage behind it. No, this isn't the sexy defense we've been wanting to see, but it is a defense that's been fairly consistent, especially considering the personnel they've been fielding.
The primary difference between the product we expected and what's been delivered is the amount of press coverage being played. At times I see bunched receivers lined up near Brandon Carr, and I'm hoping with all my heart to see him blast one into the other, destroying the route combination. My hopes are dashed seconds before the snap, as I see him suddenly retreat to the realm of the safeties (the 'deep' secondary), picking up a deep third while Dan Connor tries to take away the underneath throws. Why are we doing this? Why aren't we playing our strong, press corners in strong, press coverage?
It just so happens that Rob Ryan recently fielded similar questions in his presser. Carlos Mendez picked out the juicier bits in his recent "Cowboys Corner" piece for the Star-Telegram, quoted throughout this article:
"We do press a lot. There are some situations where you don't," he said. "I think when you get in longer situations, you're playing with fire the way the rules are nowadays and getting a penalty. We don't like to be a heavily penalized team. In fact, we pride ourselves in not being one.
"You have to be smart. We do a lot of everything. We can play up, back, off..."
So a part of it is down-and-distance situations. There are a number of times when the Cowboys defense will stuff a run or generate a sack on a first or second down - in fact, those situations seem fairly common. In those situations, then, Ryan feels there's a better chance to make a play when sitting in off-man (think Terence Newman) and zone coverage (Asante Samuel), especially once the defensive holding penalties that tend to plague press corners are factored in. There's a case to be made for both sides, but at least there's some logic to what's happening.
The Ryan name seems to carry with it the expectation of exotic blitzes at a high rate. This is another thing we haven't seen, and perhaps have been expecting more. Personally, I still haven't adjusted to our statistically improved secondary, so I find myself holding my breath when I see us send a blitz. To the dismay of the dramatics among us, we simply haven't been blitzing as often as we have in the past. Ryan has an explanation for this, as well.
"We've got a pretty darn good pass rush without blitzing...Will we pressure? Absolutely, we'll pressure. But we're picking our spots and believe in our players here. We don't have to hit a bunch of designer blitzes like some other places I have been at."
Think about the end of that statement for awhile. Much of the expectation for Rob Ryan's playcalling has come from very different situations. Ryan's recent gig with the Browns, as well as brother Rex' current role as a ringmaster in New Jersey. Neither of those teams feature a prominent pass rusher, let alone a DeMarcus Ware. So we've seen evidence that suggests Ryans love to blitz, but we haven't seen it substantiated on a team that didn't have to blitz to generate pressure.
Last season, you may note, Ryan had Ware at his disposal and still did not blitz as often as expected. Much of this was blamed, rightfully, on a leaky secondary. It's impossible to know how things would have been called last season under different circumstances. This season seems to suggest that, regardless of coverage ability, Rob Ryan prefers sound coverage to overwhelming blitzes, and is happy sending just enough men to make a difference, be it three, four or seven.
Perhaps this ties into the above section in the minds of many, but I like to think of multiplicity as an entirely different concept from blitzing. Any fans of strategy out there? How about strategery? The concept of unit multiplicity is something that factors strongly into many types of strategic simulations. Football is no different.
"We believe in being simple but multiple. That's what we are. You can get down there and press all day and blitz everybody like some teams in the league do. We think it's our best to mix in pressure, mix in coverages, and we think we have more success that way, and we have."
Let's, for a moment, pretend that every 'unit,' in this case defensive football player, has three ratings - RUN, RUSH, and COVER, ranging from 1 to 10. These units are placed on the field in plain view of the quarterback. An effective quarterback, with full mastery of his offense, will have the ability to modify the play based on the positioning of these units as well as their known abilities (coordinators on both sides also use these ideas when calling plays in the huddle, and shuttling players in and out of the game).
If you show a quarterback a field of players who, for example, all rank highly in RUN, but are mostly terrible in COVER (Dan Connor, maybe?), you could expect that quarterback to audible to a pass play and have success executing. The presence of players who excel in RUSH but suffer both in RUN and COVER (Victor Butler, perhaps?) may warrant shifting a back or tight end to their side, and then either protecting with that player, or sending him on a route, countering that player.
The point is that players who excel in one role can be neutralized by intelligent coaches and intelligent quarterbacks. When you field a guy like Anthony Spencer, who's noted for his abilities in all three categories, that position becomes 'multiple.' The opposition can't gain an advantage by scheming against that player, because they simply don't know how he'll be used on that play. Instead of guessing a player's role by scouting report, they'll be guessing based on where he lines up, allowing for those 'exotic' blitz schemes to show up.
One of my favorite formations this season (which has sadly disappeared due to the injury bug) featured Anthony Spencer and Sean Lee lining up in the A Gaps. The inside linebacker position typically indicates RUN or COVER responsibilities, so on these plays, when Anthony Spencer would knife into the backfield, he blew up plays.
When you see Brandon Carr playing safety, Mike Jenkins in the slot, Kyle Wilber at inside linebacker, and Alex Albright all over the field (when healthy), this is multiplicity at work. Players who can play multiple positions are an asset to the defense before the ball is even snapped. They add to the work of the opposing coordinators, as well as the opposing quarterback. They force some normal pre-snap reads to be done post-snap.
One final thought: multiplicity is most important for linebackers, and, when healthy, the Cowboys starting linebackers are all multiple players. In RUN, RUSH, and COVER, are DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Anthony Spencer not true triple threats?
I think we've now seen enough of this defense to know where it is, and where Rob Ryan wants it to be. It's a get-off-the-field-on-third-down defense, not a big play defense. It's a fundamentally sound defense, not a gimmick defense. It's the Dallas Cowboys defense, and I'm glad we've got it.