This Sunday, Dallas will square off against the New Orleans Saints and their new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Yes, that Rob Ryan; former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Not only does Dallas have to figure out a way to stop Drew Brees and company, but they also have to figure out a way to score on what has become a stingy defense captained by you-know-who.
If you've been listening to the media over the last few weeks, heck, we've discussed it plenty here too, the Cowboys have a historically bad defense. Dallas has given up 400 passing yards in a single game a dysfunctional total of four times. Four. No other team has done it twice, and this is with Brees, Aaron Rodgers and another date with Eli still on the schedule.
The straw that broke the camel's back was giving up over 300 receiving yards to Megatron in the Detroit epic fail of a loss. Monte Kiffin chose to line up Brandon Carr against Johnson one-on-one, and kept that matchup even during the last drive after Calvin had amassed 290 yards.
All we heard after Detroit was lamenting about Kiffin being too old; his defense is too antiquated to work in today's NFL. People tweeted me constantly asking about firing Monte Kiffin.
All the media lambasted the Cowboys because, as we all know, they fired Rob Ryan because of the putrid state of Dallas' defense last season. The talk was how the Cowboys went from really bad with The Big Lebowski to historically Bad Grampa.
But, did they really?
The Cowboys have given up an atrocious yardage total. No one is going to poo-poo that it's a problem. However...
Last I checked, I can't for the life of me remember seeing a headline that read "Dallas loses to Washington 447 - 413." You neither? Then why is so much ink being spilled over the Cowboys historically bad yardage defense?
First things first. It's a shame how quickly we forget everything we talk about in the offseason. We're 10 weeks in, and now all of a sudden the critics fail to remember the edict that it takes a year and a half for a defense to fully learn a new scheme. Sure, the Kiffin defense is supposed to be easier to grasp, but even Hall of Fame 3-tech Warren Sapp warned it would take the 540 some-odd days for Dallas to really get the scheme to the point it's instinctive.
Even with that caveat, though, the 2013 Cowboys defense isn't nearly as bad as it's been made out to be.
It's well known that the Cowboys have been rolling out a D-line rotation filled with guys that weren't even associated with the team in training camp. Dallas has now played 16 players along the defensive line in 2013. Everette Dawkins will make it 17 this Sunday.
It is a testament to Rod Marinelli's coaching and system that this team is able to generate consistent pressure. Or is it? I've seen several comments talking about the fact that Dallas never gets into the backfield and opposing quarterbacks have all day to throw. Really? El toro excrement.
With this hodge podge of players, Dallas ranks tied for 9th in the NFL in pressures per game with 19.8. Let me say this again... THE COWBOYS ARE A TOP TEN TEAM IN DEFENSIVE PRESSURE FOR 2013. Got it? Good.
Moving on, and circling back, there are much more telling metrics and stats as to how a team is functioning than just raw yardage.
For instance, Defensive EPA. Here is Advanced NFL Stats explanation of what EPA is and it's relative superiority to just looking at raw yardage.
The value of a football play has traditionally been measured in yards gained. Unfortunately, yards is a flawed measure because not all yards are equal. For example, a 4-yard gain on 3rd down and 3 is much more valuable than a 4-yard gain on 3rd and 8. Any measure of success must consider the down and distance situation.
We can measure the values of situations and, by extension, the outcomes of plays by establishing an equivalence in terms of points. If we add up all the ‘next points' scored for and against the offense's team, whether on the current drive or subsequent drives, we can estimate the net point advantage an offense can expect for any football situation. For a 1st and 10 at an offense's own 20, it's +0.4 net points, and at the opponent's 20, it's +4.0 net points. These net point values are called Expected Points (EP), and every down-distance-field position situation has a corresponding EP value.
Suppose the offense has a 1st and 10 at midfield. This situation is worth +2.0 EP. A 5-yard gain would set up a 2nd and 5 from the 45, which corresponds to a +2.1 EP. Therefore, that 5-yard gain in that particular situation represents a +0.1 gain in EP.
Likewise, a 5-yard loss on 1st down at midfield would create a 2nd and 15 from the offense's own 45. That situation is worth +1.2 EP, representing a net difference of -0.8 EPA.
We can value turnovers in the same way. Suppose that on 2nd and 5 at the opponent's 45 there was a fumble recovered by the defense. The 2nd and 5 was worth +2.2 EP, but not the opponent has a 1st and 10 on their own 45, worth +2.1 EP to them. The result of the play represents -2.1 EP for the original offense for a net loss of -4.3 EP. On average, a fumble in that situation means a net expected loss of a little more than 4 points.
The Cowboys defense currently ranks 16th in the league in Defensive EPA. Not only that, but last year? They ranked a lowly 26th! That sure looks like improvement to me and a far cry from being a historically bad defense.
Let's check in on DVOA. DVOA is Football Outsider's proprietary metric. Here's their definition of what it measures:
DVOA breaks down the entire season play-by-play, comparing success on each play to the league average based on a number of variables including down, distance, location on field, current score gap, quarter, and opponent quality. While it can be used as a measure of total team performance, it differs from other power ratings found throughout the Web because it can be broken down to analyze team effectiveness in any number of ways: down, quarter, rushing vs. receiving, location on field, passes to backs vs. passes to receivers, and so on.DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, although we use the same letters to refer to defensive rankings which are adjusted to take into account the quality of offensive opponents.
In terms of DVOA, Dallas ranks 18th in the NFL. Not great, but an average effort. Guess what? That's also an improvement over where they were last season, 21st.
When I posted these findings on Twitter, The Goog chimed in with a great metric from ColdHardFootballFacts.com called "The Bendability Index". You already know this stat felt tailor made for the discussion. Here's their breakdown.
Think of Bendability as a way to quantify the phenomenon of the "bend but don't break defense" and measure how well teams play in "situational football." The Bendability Index is not merely a defensive indicator! It is a team-wide measurement of ability to keep opponents off the scoreboard. It takes into account a variety of factors, including proficiency of offense and special teams, field position, red zone defense, and turnover differential, and then spits it all out in an easy-to-understand number. Teams that rank highly in Bendability are typically smart, efficient, well-coached teams.
Guess where this Dallas team ranks thanks to their historically bad defense? A lowly 7th. Wait, 7th? Yes, 7th. Chew on that!
And of course, all of these metrics take into account the large number of turnovers that Dallas has forced in 2013. Two weeks ago, they surpassed 2012's lowly total of 16 turnovers in just eight games. Now, they sit with 21 forced turnovers on the season; 9 fumble recoveries (tied for 2nd) and 12 interceptions (tied for 3rd). That's the great equalizer that doesn't get factored in when looking at raw yardage. I'm pretty confident in saying I think turnovers are a pretty important facet of the game, no matter how much you weight you give saying recovering fumbles is luck.
Finally, and most importantly.. let's leave behind all of the advanced metrics. Let's get down to brass tacks.
The Dallas Cowboys defense ranks 15th in the league in Points-Per-Game against. That's a huge improvement from last year's rank of 23rd.
No one is saying that the performance won't bottom out. There is just as much a chance of that happening as there is an improvement and as there is a maintenance of the status quo. It's unpredictable. What we do know, however, is that the Dallas defense is nowhere near being "historically bad" as they've been framed as.
That picture's out of focus.