Heading into a very noisy Arrowhead Stadium, it was clear that the Cowboys were headed for a tough challenge versus a young and up-and-coming Chiefs team. And despite most ESPN analysts disagreeing with other football pundits, it seemed the Cowboys had a good chance of coming away with a victory if their newly redesigned defense could contain Jamaal Charles and their talented offense could overcome the Chiefs stout defense. If I hadn't watched the game and I was told just these few specific stats, I would have certainly thought the Cowboys won...
- Jamaal Charles held to 55 rushing yards
- Dwayne Bowe limited to 56 receiving yards
- Tony Romo completed over 70% of his passing attempts
- Dez Bryant managed 9 receptions for over 140 yards
- Dallas Defense got 4 sacks, and allowed only 17 points despite -2 turnover differential
Seriously, does that look like a game that Dallas loses?
Of course, stats cannot be used selectively if you want to understand what really happened in a game. Charles also had 48 yards receiving, so the talented running back did manage almost 100 total yards. Alex Smith managed to avoid the pressure and gobble up another 57 yards rushing and convert a key third-down with his legs. While the Cowboys offensive-line held up better than most expected against a strong front-seven, the lack of commitment to the running game led to an anemic rushing attack and two (out of three) sacks were allowed because of mental mistakes. One blocking assignment error allowed Poe to go untouched for a sack, and Romo used up six seconds or more to try and convert a third-down, but allowed a strip sack as he stopped to throw instead of running or getting rid of the ball while on the run. And though Charles was totally contained for over 55 minutes of the game, he managed some big runs when a stop was needed most. These costly mistakes, to name a few, added up to a well-deserved loss for the Cowboys.
But as the pain of defeat subsides and we begin to look at what can be fixed and improved during the process that is an NFL season, the defensive performance from Week 2 should be closely examined. Because even though both the offense and defense could not do enough to guarantee a victory over the Chiefs, I think it is important to note that this new defense continues to improve from one week to the next, and did do a commendable job on Sunday. In fact, it was a few plays away from being dominant. And it's worth taking a closer look as we consider the future success of the new Kiffin/Marinelli Cowboys defense.
Dawn already wrote a good post about two huge opportunities that the defense let slip through their hands. Instead of two pass deflections, the defense could have had two interceptions, one stopping what became the only KC scoring drive of the first half, and another that could have been returned for a touchdown. If the defense capitalizes on these two chances, we likely are talking about how dominant the defense was during a victory. But there were other plays where the defense could have also helped raise their performance to a dominant level.
Out of eleven drives, the Cowboys defense forced punts on seven, and blocked a field goal on another. A solid defensive performance allowed the Chiefs only three scoring drives, one of which was a four play possession for 9 yards and a field goal. The other two were ten and thirteen play drives for touchdowns. If the Cowboys managed to stop either of those drives, we are likely taking about a dominant performance that guaranteed a victory.
As described above, the Chiefs first scoring drive could have ended with a big-play interception. But there were other small moments that could have made a big difference in the win/loss column and solidified a dominant performance by the Cowboys defense. And even though a dominant defense does not allow an opening drive with five first-downs while forcing only two third-downs, the Chiefs opening drive could-a, would-a, should-a been a three-and-out...or at worst, only a field goal.
Let's look at the game tape.
Alex Smith began the game with two read-option runs that totaled seven yards and a couple of hits. Allowing a manageable third-down, the defense would have to play very sound football to do what a dominant defense does...force three-and-outs on opening drives.
Kiffin dials up a blitz with Sean Lee on third down, but it forces Ware into (what I like to call) a cover/blitz assignment. He has the difficult task of covering Charles if he goes out, or blitzing if he stays in to block. I think this is designed more as a run-blitz on a short third-down, with the Cowboys in their base personnel package and a safety only seven yards from the line of scrimmage. Against Alex Smith and the Chiefs, the top priority is making it difficult for Charles to pick up a rushing first-down, and make a short pass completion difficult with man-coverage and pressure to force Alex into a mistake. Everyone except Durant did their jobs very well. But one weak link can turn a third-down stop into a first-down for the offense and a 10+ yard gain.
With the pocket collapsing and great coverage everywhere else, Alex finds the only guy with a chance and gets rid of the ball immediately. Hatcher nearly deflects the throw (close to dominant but no cigar) and Durant is the only one who can't provide decent coverage.
Missing chances to become dominant is one thing, but perhaps the worst play from the Cowboys defense occurred on the next play. On first-down, Kiffin again dials up a blitz with Sean Lee. Everyone (except for Durant) has great coverage, but something has gone terribly wrong. The Chiefs best player is left alone in open space, with no Cowboy within ten yards of him.
The Cowboys defense came into this game with containing Jamaal Charles, KC's most dangerous player, as their top priority. His longest play of the game was 18 yards, and it happened because of a mental error.
No Cowboys player is covering Charles on this first-down. A dominant defense does not let this happen to their opponent's best player. Either Selvie failed to recognize his cover/blitz assignment (that Ware fulfilled beautifully on the last blitz) or Durant was poorly covering the wrong guy, or some safety made a mistake in his coverage assignment...or Kiffin needs to redesign this play. Whoever is truly at fault, this mental error let a dominant defensive performance versus Charles slip away by allowing him his biggest gain of the day with this broken coverage.
After the Chiefs waste a time out on some miscommunication on their offense, the Cowboys defense makes a big play on first down, despite George Selvie losing containment on the reverse to WR Donnie Avery. Even though Andy Reid made a clever decision in calling for a reverse away from Ware, who had switched sides and was lining up against the right tackle, and catching Selive looking inside to the fake run prior to the reverse toss, Sean Lee and Barry Church show off their play recognition, speed, and hard-nose tackling by stuffing the play for two yards.
On the ensuing second-and-eight, the Cowboys defense again displays a ‘close to dominant but no cigar' moment that would continue during their otherwise strong performance in Week 2.
Nick Hayden is an inch away from deflecting this quick throw, something Alex Smith had to do often with the pressure collapsing the Chiefs stout oline, and Orlando Scandrick is one-on-one with Bowe and has great coverage. He even gets a hand on the ball, but doesn't manage to stop the completion that gets a favorable spot and a Chiefs first-down...close to dominant, but no cigar.
On the next two plays, the Cowboys again display their stout, but not dominant performance, with Will Allen nearly intercepting Alex Smith, and Sean Lee knocking the snot and helmet off Charles (but not the ball) for no gain. With the rookie Fisher frazzled by the Cowboys pressure, he commits a false start, and the Chiefs find themselves in a third-and-fifteen. So far so good, this is what a dominant defense does, but they then manage to get off the field or force a sack or turnover after forcing a long third-down.
Kiffin dials up another blitz and brings Scandrick off the edge. The blitz also calls for a stunt with Spencer looping in after Hayden forces the center and guard out of position. But there is one serious danger to this aggressive play call. This can leave a huge gap if those players don't play sound football.
The Cowboys are in great position with their coverage, though it looks like Spencer didn't sell the stunt to the tackle, and the rookie isn't fooled as he quickly gets in front of Scandrick. This forces Orlando to try and go around the edge instead of knifing into it, and Fisher does a good job opening up an escape gap while handling the small edge rusher with ease. With Spencer vacating the gap on the stunt to the inside, Hayden must carry the double team up the field and towards the widening gap. Unsuccessful in the latter, especially with Scandrick going too wide, not to mention a hold to slow him down, Hayden can't correct the mistake and the good coverage and clever blitz design is taken advantage of by a scrambling Alex Smith.
But even with this error, a dominant defense should be able to stop the QB from converting a third-and-fifteen with his legs. However, safety Will Allen is too late recognizing the scramble and getting to the sideline. Also, Brandon Carr is late in recognizing the scramble, breaking away from the block, and makes matters worse by deciding to go too low versus a QB. A dominant defense may still allow the scramble, but they make the QB pay for trying to run it and stop him short of the marker. Instead, by just a few steps, Alex converts a long third-down to keep the play alive and gets his (and the Chiefs) longest run of the game and picks up 30% of his total rushing yards. Close, but definitely no cigar.
To make matters worse, Alex Smith has now discovered that this may be the only way he can move the ball against Dallas, and again tries to scramble the next two plays. The first is quickly met by Carter and Smith only gains three yards. But the following play, Smith once again gets too many yards scrambling away from the pressure. Smith runs for thirteen yards and gets his team to the Cowboys two yard-line with a first down.
This is the danger of using your linebackers in man coverage. Kiffin liked the matchups and let his LB corp go one-on-one in coverage often and, in most cases, they did an excellent job. But eventually, the QB will notice he will have room to run with backers turning their backs to him while in coverage. Kiffin decided to put an end to it by giving Lee spy duties on this particular play. So while the other LBs had great coverage and Smith was once again forced to scramble, Lee was supposed to make him pay for the decision. Unfortunately, in a rare case of letting his speed carry him out of position, Lee runs to the big gap in the pocket. But with Landon Cohen not getting any pressure as the 1tech another gap is open, and Smith sees Lee and goes the other way. Just like that, Smith has two scrambles for thirty yards and over 50% of his rushing yards.
The Chiefs now have a first-and-goal and the pressure forces an incomplete pass. But on second-down, Reid takes some time and dials up one of his clever misdirection West coast passing plays. He had already set it up earlier with the reverse. At the snap, the KC offensive line shoots left though Charles begins to run to the right. Initially diagnosing this play, the defense likely thinks the Chiefs are faking the run with Charles but the line blocking has given away the reverse. However, Reid has called a double-whammy. The reverse is actually a play-action pass, and Charles was not looking to fool the LBs from the reverse, he was looking to take advantage of them flowing towards the reverse with Smith on a play-action bootleg.
Once again, the Dallas defense could have done just a few small things better and most likely stopped this touchdown. Selvie, once again, fails on his containment duties (except this time on the opposite side of the reverse) as he lets Smith get outside of him after biting on the fake reverse. DeMarcus Ware saw a very similar play later in the game and made Smith pay for the naked bootleg with a sack. Selvie not only loses a chance for a sack by blowing containment, he also isn't in the throwing lane to make life more difficult or deflect the pass.
Meanwhile, despite having a phenomenal game, Hatcher too doesn't do the small things to help stop this play. Despite not biting on the fake and starting to motion out to the flat, he fails to slow down Charles with some legal press coverage and lets him slip past on his route. Finally, Barry Church overcompensates after taking one wrong step on the play-fake and ends up being too far off the line to provide quick help on all the short routes. And while he manages to try to make the tackle at the one, he fails. If he takes one or two better steps in his coverage (especially if Hatcher slows down Charles a bit) he would most likely have completed the tackle and kept this play out of the endzone. Close, but clearly no cigar.
I hope you don't come away with the wrong message here. Defenses will not win every matchup and make every play...even dominant defenses. However, a dominant defense will manage to avoid more of these small mistakes or capitalize on more of these small moments throughout the game. I think the Cowboys defense played a solid game. Despite allowing the majority of Charles' rushing yards to come on the Chiefs final drive, and allowing his longest passing play and two of the Chiefs longest running plays (QB scrambles) on the opening drive, the defense certainly did enough to let the offense win this game. I understand, a dominant defense doesn't give up first-downs in the final minutes when their team needs the ball back, and I will likely do a post on that series as well. But a dominant defense can also guarantee a victory by creating big plays (in this case, the two interceptions instead of pass deflections) and by winning more of these small moments during the course of the game...never letting the game get to a point where a quick stop is needed at the end of the game (and where a late stop is deemed a failure).
This post isn't to make anyone think the defense routinely failed or will be a liability. On the contrary, this defense needs only learn from this game and win more of these small battles. There were half a dozen instances that the defense could have used to completely shut down the Chiefs best (and opening) scoring drive. If one player provides better coverage on a play, or another doesn't break containment and manages to deflect the pass, or someone doesn't take one wrong step...this defense has suddenly provided a dominant performance that keeps the Chiefs to 13 points or less, and has taken away four of the Chiefs plays of over ten yards.
To me, this is very promising for the future of the Cowboys. Even without managing to make the big plays for interceptions, this defense was just a few steps away from cashing in on a dominant performance. With some injured players getting healthy as the season progresses, with some young guys possibly earning a start over some of the veteran stop gaps, and the team getting more practices to master Kiffin's new scheme, this Cowboys 2013 defense could be just a few steps away from becoming dominant.