Cowboys Defense Came Through On Money Down vs. Bengals - Will It Hold Against The Steelers?

John Grieshop

Third downs are called the "money down" for a reason. Teams that consistently win in these situations usually go far in the NFL. The Cowboys defense has struggled of late on those money downs, but with a little luck, the defense came through against the Bengals and delivered some key stops that helped win the game. Can they repeat against the Steelers?

The Cowboys defense held the Bengals offense to a 36.4% third-down conversion rate (4 for 11) en route to the seventh win of the season. In six of their seven wins this season, the Cowboys have held opposing offenses to a third down conversion rate below 50%. The only exception was the second game against the Eagles, where the Cowboys allowed a 60% conversion rate - but the Eagles are so bad it didn't matter.

Conversely, in four of their six losses, the Cowboys allowed a third down conversion rate 50% or higher. The two exceptions were the Seattle game and the second Giants game, where turnovers and other miscues doomed the Cowboys.

Cowboys third down conversion rates allowed, 2012
Opponent NYG SEA TB CHI BLT CAR NYG ATL PHI CLV WAS PHI CIN
Won /Lost W L W L L W L L W W L W W
3rd Down Conv (M/A) 4-12 5-14 3-15 7-12 6-10 2-10 3-15 7-14 1-10 6-15 6-12 6-10 4-11
3rd Down Conv Pct 33.3% 35.7% 20.0% 58.3% 60.0% 20.0% 20.0% 50.0% 10.0% 40.0% 50.0% 60.0% 36.4%

For the season, the Cowboys defense has allowed 60 conversions on third down, the fifth lowest value in the league. Their 37.5% third down conversion rate allowed ranks them tenth in the league.

On offense, the Cowboys are ranked second in the league behind only the Patriots in third down conversions with 44.9%. The 7.4% third down conversion differential between offense and defense is the fifth best value in the league behind Denver (11.5), New England (10.8), Houston (8.8) and Pittsburgh (7.8). Obviously, that's some nice company to be in, but the Cowboys are only 7-6, so there's got to be more to winning games than third down conversions.

Nevertheless, they're an important part of the game, so today we'll take a closer look at what the Cowboys did and didn't do defensively on third down against the Bengals.

The first thing that stands out upon review of all the third down situations the Cowboys defense faced is that the Bengals attempted to pass the ball on all 11 third downs they faced, regardless of the distance to go. The Cowboys brought out their run defense three times on the first six third downs (4, 3 and 1 yard to go), but then Rob Ryan probably said "Screw it," and stuck with a pass defense for the remaining five third downs.

Nickel vs. Dime: If we stick with a very base definition where a nickel defense has five DBs and a dime has six DBs, the Cowboys lined up in the dime six times, the nickel twice, had four DBs on the field twice and even featured a defense with seven DBs. After some painstaking film analysis, here are the exact personnel formations for each third down the defense faced:

Play No. Down Play DTs DEs OLBs ILBs CBs S # of DBs
1st Quarter
95 72 97 96 70 94 93 57 59 52 55 39 24 21 30 23 43 40 27
1 3-7-DAL 27 (4:18) Pass to A.Green for 16 yards

x
x x x
x x
x x x x
x

5
2 3-4-DAL 5 (2:19) Sacked (J.Hatcher) x x x x
x x

x
x x x

x

4
2nd Quarter 95 72 97 96 70 94 93 57 59 52 55 39 24 21 30 23 43 40 27
3 3-5-CIN 24 (9:09) Pass to A.Hawkins for 11 yards

x

x x x x

x x x x
x
x 6
4 3-7-DAL 47 (5:34) Pass to J.Gresham for 25 yards

x
x x
x x

x x x x
x
x 6
5 3-3-DAL 15 (3:33) Pass incomplete to A.Hawkins.

x x x

x x x

x x x

x x
5
3rd Quarter 95 72 97 96 70 94 93 57 59 52 55 39 24 21 30 23 43 40 27
6 3-1-DAL 40 (12:05) Pass to O.Charles for 17 yards. Claiborne injured x x x


x x x x
x x


x x
4
7 3-7-DAL 7 (9:29) Pass incomplete to A.Green


x
x
x x

x
x x x x x x 7
8 3-7-DAL 34 (6:57) Pass incomplete to A. Green

x

x x x x

x
x x x x x
6
9 3-4-DAL 49 (2:52) Pass incomplete to A. Hawkins

x
x x x
x

x
x x
x x x 6
4th Quarter 95 72 97 96 70 94 93 57 59 52 55 39 24 21 30 23 43 40 27
10 3-12-CIN 32 (10:28) Sacked (D.Ware)

x

x x x x

x
x x
x x x 6
11 3-4-CIN 36 (4:40) Sacked (A. Spencer)

x

x x x

x x
x x
x x x 6

Note on some of the perhaps less familiar jersey numbers: Lissemore (95) and Callaway (72) are the DTs, Connor (52) and Albright (55) occasionally helped out on ILB next to Sims (59); Sterling Moore (30), Vince Agnew (23) and Eric Frampton (27) were the additional DBs.

The Cowboys have taken to calling their Dime defense "Dollar personnel", and they've used that package throughout the season. The Cowboys take an ILB off the field and replace him with a physical safety at the point of attack who can cover.

One particularly interesting formation came in the third quarter on third-and-seven at the Dallas seven yard line: The Cowboys lined up with seven DBs, one defensive lineman (Spears), two OLBs (Butler and Ware) and one ILB (Sims) who for some inexplicable reason played the left corner spot. Here's the formation:

3rd-and-7a_large

On the play, five Bengals go out on a route. TE Jermaine Gresham, who's lined up with his hand on the ground next to the left tackle, runs straight at McCray and also draws Agnew in double coverage, and pushes both towards the goalline. Below Gresham, WR Andrew Hawkins runs straight at Jenkins and also pulls him back towards the endzone. A.J. Green, at the bottom of the picture, immediately breaks inside, while Moore is stays way back on the goalline. Here's how the play develops as the ball is in the air:

3rd-and-7b_medium

Gresham and Hawkins (circled in red) are trying to clear a path inside for Green, who's just about to catch the ball. In this frame, it look like McCray (below Gresham) still has an angle on Green, and Moore also look like could stop Green before the goal line. Note that while Frampton has begun to move, Sensabaugh hasn't yet.

3rd-and-7c_medium

Fortunately for the Cowboys, Green drops the ball, because he would likely have had a clear run to the endzone. McCray was caught over-pursuing and is trying to reverse his momentum, but that would have likely been too late. Moore runs straight into McCray. Frampton continues to follow Gresham into the endzone, leaving Sensabaugh as the only DB who could have stopped Green in a completely empty corridor down the middle of the Cowboys defense.

Keep in mind that the objective of the defense here was to stop the Bengals short of the goal line. And there's a chance they would have done that even if Green had caught the ball. But it certainly looks a little awkward when two receivers look like they are tying up five defenders.

This would prove to be the first of three successive incompletions thrown by the Bengals. On the next two attempts the Cowboys' pass rush got a lot closer to Dalton and arguably impacted the accuracy of his throws. On the final two third down plays, the Cowboys' rushers got to Dalton an sacked him.

A few more things stand out as you review the third down formations:

  • For a guy plucked off a practice squad, the Cowboys sure leaned heavily on Sterling Moore, especially after Claiborne was injured. And Moore conducted himself well overall. He gave up a 25-yard pass to Gresham and an 11-yarder to Hawkins, but had good coverage on that Gresham pass which Gresham caught with one - sometimes you just get beat.
  • Good third down defenses have a power rusher inside who is able to collapse the pocket. The Cowboys didn't have such a guy on Sunday, and only brought their nose tackles in on three short yardage plays. The rest of the time they relied mostly on DE Jason Hatcher to provide pressure up the middle.
  • You can spin it any way you want, but three sacks on third downs is pretty good. The Cowboys pass rushing trio of Ware (11 sacks), Spencer (8.5) and Hatcher (4) is ranked number five in the league with 23.5 sacks behind the top three rushers of the Broncos (28), 49ers (28), Texans (27.5) and Bengals (24). Not bad for a couple of guys battling injuries and working alongside a defensive line filled with backups.
  • The Cowboys got lucky on a few of the dropped passes on those money downs, but when the defense is limiting a QBs passing options by putting more DBs on the field than there are receivers, it forces the QB to throw into very tight windows (if the defense doesn't simply blow its assignment) and that in turn can also lead to incompletions.

In football, the third down is often refereed to as the "money down". Every NFL defense works hard to stop its opponent from converting third downs, and teams that consistently win in these situations usually go far in the NFL. The Cowboys defense started the season as a strong 3rd down unit but have struggled with their third down defense the last few games as injuries have started taking their toll. The Bengals aren't exactly a powerhouse offense on third down, but it's encouraging to see that the Cowboys at least held their own - and yes, luck is part of that equation too.

That luck needs to hold on Sunday: The Steelers are the fourth best third down offense with a conversion rate of 44.3%.

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