Five Decisions That Shaped The Cowboys Season, Pt. IV: Going Thin Up The Middle

This sight was sorely missed for most of the 2012 season - The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE

In the first three installments of this five-part series on decisions, moments or (over) reactions that had significant long-term repercussions over the course of the 2012 season, we looked at the season-long effects of Dallas' decision to apply the franchise tag to Anthony Spencer, their decision to trade up in the 2012 draft to select Mo Claiborne, and their inability to find a blocking tight end to replace Martellus Bennett. Today, we look at their choice to invest heavily in edge players on defense, filling in the middle with low-rent talents.

Throughout the 2012 offseason, the frequently-sung refrain was that, with the acquisition of cornerbacks Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr, the Cowboys were going to play a lot of "zero" coverage - no safeties deep - dial up a passel of exotic blitzes, and generate a ton of pressure on opposing QBs. In training camp last August, we saw a lot of this, in physical daily battles at the line between Dez Bryant and Brandon Carr. What we also saw a lot of was the emergence of Barry Church, who not only made free agent acquisition Brodney Pool almost instantaneously obsolete, but also quickly demonstrated a complete understanding of the scheme, terrific communication with his secondary mates, and surprising coverage ability and range.

The problem is that, unlike Carr and Claiborne, who were backed up by very capable players, Church, with forth-rounder Matt Johnson perpetually nursing injuries, effectively had no one behind him. Do we need any further evidence of this than the sight of Carr, the Cowboys' shiny new, multi-million dollar free agent corner, playing safety against Tampa Bay after Church went down with what proved to be a season-ending Achilles injury? For the duration of the season, special teams ace Danny McCray filled in at the position, and gamely. But he's the kind of player that a defensive coordinator spends the week figuring out how to protect (precisely because he's the kind of player the opposing coordinator wants to exploit). Since week three of the season, therefore, priority one in the secondary was to protect McCray. This didn't affect only the back four; it severely limited Rob Ryan's gameplan and curtailed his callsheet.

Dallas has been ill-prepared to suffer injuries to the middle of its defense. As we all know, the NFL has increasingly become a passing league; as a result, "edge players" are thought to be the most important (and, by extension, receive the largest contracts). In a 3-4 defense, these players are pass rushers (outside linebackers and, to a lesser degree, defensive ends) and cornerbacks. By investing first-round picks in the starters at those four positions between 2005-08, it was quite evident that the Cowboys braintrust had allocated its defensive resources with edge play in mind,

During the disastrous 2010 campaign, this strategy was sorely tested. In that ignominious year, you may recall (probably with revulsion), the middle of the Cowboys defense was manned by two 7th-rounders, a fourth-rounder and two free-agent pickups (the D-line was rounded out by the forgettable LDE Igor Olshansky, another FA pickup). What this suggested was a clear dropoff, if not in talent then certainly in terms of the application of resources given to the various inside or outside positions. Over the course of that forgettable campaign, opposing offensive coordinators spent the season preying on the weak middle of the Cowboys defense, particularly inside linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James and safety Alan Ball. Anybody miss those guys? I thought not.

Since then, the Cowboys seem to have tried to rectify this disparity, distributing second-round picks for inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, both of whom emerged as dynamic, three-down players in 2012. At safety and nose tackle, however, Dallas has continued to scrimp. Going into the 2012 season, who was slated to back up seventh-round NT Jay Ratliff? Two other seventh-rounders, both picked up in 2010: Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent. Look at the Cowboys safeties, an amalgam of low-rent free agents (Gerald Sensabaugh), UDFAs (Barry Church, Danny McCray) and late-round draftees (2012 fourth-rounder Matt Johnson is, we must remember, a third-day, small-school selection).

So, even though the Cowboys have begun to add a modicum of talent to the defensive middle, there is much work to be done. And, as you might imagine, they have not had the chance to address depth where they are working to upgrade the quality of their starters. As a result, they are precisely the positions at which the organization cannot afford to sustain any significant injuries - and exactly the positions at which they did, in 2012.

Each year, the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin releases a complete team-by-team list of injuries. While his chart tracks such things as the number of players placed on injured reserve and the number of layers who started all 16 regular season games, the key statistic is the number of games lost to injury. In 2012, the Cowboys lost 71 games to injury, which means that their opening-day starters missed a total of 71 games. Of those 71, 51 were lost by nose tackles, inside linebackers and safeties. To make matters worse, potentially capable backups such as Caleb McSurdy, Orie Lemon and the aforementioned Johnson missed all (or almost all) of the season.

Although the Cowboys starters didn't experienced the same crippling mismatches in the middle that they did in 2010, when injuries began to pile up, they resembled the 2010 iteration. Consequently, they had to radically alter their gameplans, almost as if they were running out Brooking, James and Ball again. In an article after the Cleveland game, local scribe Bob Sturm demonstrated that Rob Ryan and company enacted a fairly radical philosophical shift after game five - not coincidentally the game they lost Sean Lee.

I've taken Sturm's idea and extrapolated it over the entirety of the season. Lets look at how often the Cowboys blitzed before and after they lost Lee and Church:

# of rushers Weeks 1-5 percentage Weeks 6-10 percentage
3 25 16.90% 63 15.60%
4 69 46.60% 260 64.60%
5 43 29.10% 71 17.60%
6 11 7.40% 9 2.20%

As you can see, in weeks 1-5, Dallas sent five or six rushers on roughly 36 percent of all pass attempts. In weeks 6-16, that number dropped to just under 20 percent, which represents a 45 percent dropoff. That's significant. Losing Church negatively impacted Ryan's callsheet; losing Sean Lee in week six forced him to abandon it altogether.

The losses of Church and Lee, as Sturm suggests, resulted in the Cowboys offseason defensive plan - play tight man-to-man and get pressure by blitzing - to go right out the window. Certainly, no team can prepare for the almost comical number of injuries Dallas suffered last season, especially up middle on defense. Still these injury outbreaks are a common occurrence in the NFL; indeed, the two teams with more games lost to injury in 2012 than Dallas, the Redskins and Packers, both made the playoffs. Whether due to negligence or design, the Cowboys were ill-prepared to weather such a rash of breaks and tears.

As a result, the "D" took a step back. To 2010.

Missed any of the first three installments? Check them out here:

Part I: Tagging Anthony Spencer

Part II: Trading up for Mo

Part II: No replacement for 'Tellus

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