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Building a Winning Game Plan, Part II: Dallas' Defensive Turnovers

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In part two of this series, I examine Dallas' effectiveness at creating turnovers, and how the team can return to its 2007 levels.

The Incredible Shrinking Interception Totals

The '08 Cowboys offer a paradox.  How can a team whose passing defense ranking rose from 13th in '07 to 10th, and whose sack totals jumped from 46 in Wade Phillips' first year to a league-leading 58, see its turnover totals drop 24%, with its interception total dropping 58%?

Dallas Defense 2006 2007 2008
Fumbles recovered 13 10 14
Interceptions 18 19   8
Turnover total 31 29 22
TD passes allowed 25 19 19
Pass defense rank 24th 13th 10th









Let's focus on that black number eight. How could a defense with a top-drawer rush and fewer yards allowed intercept just eight passes?  Comparing Dallas' '07 and '08 coverage metrics, two explanations emerge.

The first is age.  Right corner Anthony Henry's success rate dropped from 48 to 35% and his yards per attempt allowed jumped from 6.6 to 7.7.  As Henry's closing speed eroded, his interception total plummeted from six to one.

The second is sub-par strong safety play.  We've beaten this subject to death, but Roy Williams' injuries, and Keith Davis' physical limitations dropped the SS's overall performance down.  What's more, it had a detrimental effect on Ken Hamlin's play,and contributed to his drop from five picks in '07 to just one last year.

Long-time readers of my old site know Keith has been a secondary scapegoat for years.  That's because Davis posted the worst YPAs of any starting free safety in '05 and '06.  That's not Davis' fault.  He's always been better suited to play in the box and was badly miscast playing in center field in Bill Parcells' last two defenses.

Hamlin offered an immediate and immense upgrade in '07: 

Ken Hamlin 2007 2008
Direct Coverage YPA 4.9 9.7
Dir. Cov. Success % 59.1%
Deep Assist YPA* 6.0 10.0
Deep Asst. Scs% 85.0 60.0







*(Deep assists catalog the plays where a safety helped a corner in double coverage.)

Hamlin's numbers dropped a fair amount last year, but those are still respectable totals. Remember, Pat Watkins' YPA and success percentage in '06 were 15.1 and 53.3%. Davis' were even worse the year before.

Let's now take a look at Roy Williams' coverage numbers from his healthy'06 an '07 and those the gimpy Roy, Davis and Pat Watkins amassed in their three man SS rotation last season:

2006 2007 2008
Direct Coverage YPA 10.3 7.8 15.8
Direct Coverage %
60.9 31.0 15.0





Roy offered two half-a-loaf seasons in '06 and '07.  His success rate was very high in '06, but he gave up a large number of  yards when he surrendered a catch.  Wade Phillips promised his scheme would limit the number of times Williams was exposed in deep coverage.  Williams posted a career best 7.8 YPA in '07, a result of playing in shallow zones.  His success rate dropped almost 50% however, showing that his short-zone coverage skills were nothing to brag about.

Last year, the Williams-Watkins-Davis trio was the worst of all worlds.  They could not stop passes and they gave up big gains on a regular basis.

That might be overlooked if they offered strong run support, but they did not.  KC Joyner's new run metrics have a category called sky tackles, which measure the number of tackles a team's safety made in the backfield or within five yards of the line of scrimmage.  It measures a safeties effectiveness at filling the lane on tosses or isolation runs:

  • Williams-Watkins-Davis sky tackles: 16
  • Hamlin sky tackles: 13

Hamlin almost had as many sky tackles starting twelve yards deep at the free as the strong safeties did playing in the box.  This says that Hamlin had to cover a lot for the strong safeties: Roy L. had 92 tackles in '07.  He and Davis combined for 45 last year.

Hamlin was trying to defy the laws of physics last year;  he played a lot closer to the line of scrimmage in run support while trying to maintain in deep patrol.  His single interception shows he failed. 

The early reports on Gerald Sensabaugh have been glowing.  He was signed for his coverage skills, which appear to supercede those of the three guys he's replacing.  We won't know until the full pads come on in August, but he could well be the most important roster addition this year.  If he's half as good as the coaches claim, the turnovers which went missing last year will return.