Offense Vs. Defense: What Is The Real Problem For The Cowboys?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas made major changes in all aspects of the game. Which one of those aspects is most likely to get this team back to the playoffs?

One of the memes here at Blogging The Boys is that "as the offensive line goes, so go the chances for the Cowboys". I have often expressed that, or very similar opinions.

Well, in the interest of slaying a hobgoblin or two, I am going to look at whether we may have it all wrong. The real solution to the Cowboys may well be on the other side of the ball.

This is actually just a fleshing out of a debate that has been going on here for a while. While there is no question that it would certainly help the Cowboys to have better performance out of the offensive line, the team still was able to move the ball well, ranking sixth overall in total yards from scrimmage. Meanwhile, the defense came in nineteenth in total yards allowed. And Bob Sturm pointed out that the team was even worse in certain key measures - the most depressing is that opposing quarterbacks had a 106.1 rating against the Cowboys' blitz in 2012. That's against the thing designed to attack the quarterback. Perhaps that one stat alone is justification for the change in defensive coordinator and scheme.

There is no part of the team that was not subject to overhaul this season. Offensively, the changes were directed more at procedure and process, with the endlessly fretted-about reassignment of playcalling duties. Defensively, it was more massive, with Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli being brought in to install the 4-3 as a replacement for the 3-4. And special teams got a new coordinator in Rich Bisaccia - but special teams is seldom the make or break factor for an NFL team, and when you inherit Dan Bailey, a big part of your duties is to make dang sure you don't break things.

Doubtlessly, if there is one major factor that will lead to a more successful season this year, it is going to be the offense or the defense. And for the moment, don't try to use "both" as a choice. Yes, the plan is to make improvements on both sides of the line, but the question at hand is which is the more crucial.

One very simple way to look at it is: Which one of the two has the most room for improvement? Based on the statistics I quoted above, the obvious answer appears to be the defense. That just below the median rating seems to have pulled the offensive performance down to the land of mediocrity where the Cowboys dwelt last year. Offensively, the team can't go up much, and the idea of regression to the mean would suggest that it may well slide a bit. But the defense has lots of room to climb.

So, based on the theory that it is easier to improve when you start towards the low end, it would seem that fixing the defense offers more opportunity to increase the win total. But looking at other aspects gives a different perspective.

When you look at points scored and points given up on the season, they are almost identical (not a surprise with an 8-8 record). Dallas scored 23.5 ppg in 2012, and surrendered 25.0. It certainly looks like the red zone issues loomed large for the Cowboys O.

But the offense only needs some things fixed, if you look at production rather than units. Clearly the team moves the ball through the air well, outside the red zone. And there is a contributing factor. The defense was poor at generating takeaways, tied for fourth worst in the league. This in turn gave the offense fewer short fields to work with. According to a chart at Football Outsiders, Dallas did reasonably well in stats such as yards/drive (8th in the league), points per drive (10th) and TDs per drive (11th). This is another indication that the best way to improve the W-L record is to do better with the defense, since the offense is already doing reasonably well. The defense can contribute by holding the other team to fewer points, and helping the offense with better and easier opportunities.

There are some indirect indications that this is the approach the Cowboys are taking. One is that the changes on the defense were much more pronounced than on the offense, as I said. And Kiffin and Marinelli are known to emphasize taking the ball away. We have already heard quite a bit from the OTAs and minicamp about how the defensive players were constantly grabbing and slapping at the ball to get it loose. Add in the way the rushmen concept is supposed to increase quarterback pressure and sacks, and the defense is clearly looking to take a major new approach. Meanwhile, those offensive updates are more in the area of adjustments, with the emphasis on improving that red zone productivity.

Maybe I am just crazy (OK, I realize there is already quite the body of evidence), but I am starting to think the issues with the offensive line are not the linchpin that I once did. I think getting the 4-3 up and running, along with getting the safety position sorted out, will be more important to how this season goes than who winds up lining up between the tight ends in the 12 formation. The Cowboys were able to move the ball well with the frequently rearranged line last year. A little health and continuity should allow them to be better than they were to start the 2012 campaign. As for the defensive changes, one feature of Kiffin's scheme that I think was pertinent to hiring him is the reputation it has for being simple and easy to teach.

Also, I saw a stat recently that Dallas came from behind to win eight games last year (it was probably in something OCC did, but I can't locate it right now). If you are good at advanced math, you will be able to figure out that Dallas had to come from behind in every single win last year. That is a huge argument in and of itself that the D needs to do a better job at controlling the opponent and protecting leads.

Now, although I told you to not consider "both" as an option earlier, that is really the way we want the team to progress. There are things that can be done better defensively and offensively, and Dallas is at least trying to improve all of them. But in the end, I think the defense is going to be the larger factor in whether Dallas can get away from .500 and into the playoffs. And as I think about it with the days counting down to training camp, I think they are going to get it done.

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