Coty Saxman opined earlier that the Cowboys' defensive line will be the position group that will have the most impact on where this team stands come season's end.
And since we're turning this into a little mini-series of posts where the front-page writers highlight different position groups, I'm going to be all about pass defense and the secondary. I've argued repeatedly that the key to a successful season for the Cowboys will be an improved passer rating differential, and I see no reason why I should change that assessment.
In 2012 the Cowboys combined a top ten passing offense (91.3 passer rating, ranked ninth in the league) with an atrocious pass defense (94.7 defensive passer rating) that ended up 29th in the league. The resulting passer rating differential of -3.4 ranks 18th in the NFL. We've repeatedly shown that passer rating differential is one of the stats most closely linked to winning in the NFL. The Cowboys already have a top ten passing offense, so there isn't really that much room for improving the passer rating differential via the offense. That leaves the defense. It stands to reason that if the Cowboys want to win more games this year, they'll have to do it via an improved pass defense.
Unfortunately, fixing the pass defense isn't just about waiting until the injured players on defense return to health. Here's a breakdown of the Cowboys' defensive passer rating by weeks:
- Weeks 1-6: 97.7 - The Cowboys still had Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, and the only significant injury was Barry Church, who tore his Achilles tendon in Week 3. So even with a relatively healthy defense, the Cowboys pass defense didn't look good.
- Weeks 7-11: 85.6 - Sean Lee was injured in the Week 7 game, but the Cowboys still had Carter and Scandrick patrolling the middle of the field, as well as Ratliff returning during this period. Some improvement in the Defensive Passer Rating but only to a level marginally better than the 88.4 rating the pass defense had in 2011.
- Weeks 12-17: 100.6 - Scandrick, Carter, Ratliff are all out for the season and injuries keep mounting at other positions as well. The pass defense reverts to the level of the first couple of weeks.
The Cowboys pass defense - as measured by defensive passer rating - was just as bad when the defense was healthy as it was when the defense was badly injured. It stands to reason that the Cowboys will need to do more than hope their injured players return to full health.
Part of the solution for the Cowboys' pass coverage woes will have to come from an improved pass rush. The Cowboys' sack total of 34 was the lowest since 2006, so the absence of a consistent pass rush is at least partly responsible for the Cowboys weak pass defense, and the change to a 4-3 defense and the new coaching hires are in large part an effort to address that. In his inaugural interview with the Cowboys, the first question new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was asked was whether the pass rush led to the high number of turnovers for his previous team in Chicago.
"Oh yeah. It think more than 50-60% of takeaways come from the pocket. It could be a sack/fumble, or a ball is thrown high or thrown too quick, or guys are breaking or tips, things like that. So a major part of those things are from the pocket, it could be a blitz or a four-man rush that make the guy throw quick or high."
But it's not like the only thing ailing the Cowboys pass defense was the lack of interceptions. Here's a breakdown of the components making up the defensive passer rating, and where the Cowboys ranked in each metric last year:
per pass attempt
The other part of the solution when you're looking to improve your pass defense has to come from the secondary itself. The Cowboys need to get a better return from the huge investment they made into their new starting corners.
For that, they'll need to find a way to allow these corners to do what they do best: play press coverage. Use Carr's and Claiborne's physicality to bump receivers at the line, re-route them and disrupt their timings. If you can jam, re-route, funnel, or disrupt receivers from where they're supposed to be and when they're supposed to be there, you're making the job of the opposing quarterback a lot harder. But you can't do that if you're giving receivers 10-yard cushions. And you can't do that if you don't trust your safety help over the top.
The Cowboys need to have a safety over the top who has sideline-to-sideline speed and can make plays on the ball in the air. Kiffin's new 4-3 defensive needs a dynamic playmaker at safety. That guy may or may not already be on the roster, that's up for the coaches to decide, but either way, the Cowboys need to find their own (up-dated) version of John Lynch
Today, winning in the NFL is all about passing efficiency. The best offenses are those that pass the ball the most effectively, the best defenses are those that prevent their opponents from passing it effectively. The best teams in the league are those that do both most effectively.