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Sunday Morning Bloody Mary: Cowboys Defense Versus Redskins

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[ED NOTE]: This post was written by rabblerousr, I only posted it for him so it's under my byline. But all credit for this piece goes to rabblerousr. - Dave [END NOTE]

In part one of this post, I noted that one of the best ways to judge the state of the Cowboys at a given point in the season is to compare Dallas' games against division rivals. These games provide a quick yet effective comparison and contrast, allowing us to see how the respective teams have progressed, regressed, altered their philosophies, adjusted to injuries, etc. Yesterday, I looked at how the offense has changed over the course of the 2010 campaign; today, I'll do the same with the defense.

Coming into this season, I felt very confident that if there was one aspect of this team upon which we could hang our hats it would be the defense. In 2009, as we all know, the Dallas D allowed the second fewest points in the league, and had closed out the season with a series of dominant performances. They had seemingly found the fiery leader they needed in Keith Brooking; young, talented players like Mike Jenkins and Anthony Spencer were coming on strong, looking like Pro Bowl fixtures for years to come; Wade Phillips and his coaching staff seemed to have developed a deep, potent defensive line rotation; Gerald Sensabaugh had provided coverage prowess from the strong safety position that the Cowboys had been lacking for years. With ten of eleven starters due to return in 2010, the horizon was clear and bright.

In the season opener, this feeling was confirmed. Although the Cowboys lost that game, it wasn't because of their defense. Seemingly picking up where they left off, the Dallas D held the hated 'Skins to 250 total yards, 161 of them through the air. And none of their big-name players went off: Donovan McNabb was a paltry 15 of 32 passing; other than one big 18-yard gainer; Clinton Portis was held to 2.6 yards a carry; Chris Cooley and Santana Moss each caught six balls, but neither gained more than 80 yards. The post-game assessment was that the Cowboys defenders had continued where they had left off--and that the defense was going to have to carry the team until the offense worked out its offensive line woes. Whatever the case, there were no portents of the horror to come.

Those came the following week, in the home game against the Bears. If you'll recall, Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz opted to attack the middle of the Dallas defense--their inside linebackers and safeties. He did so successfully, and offensive coordinators around the league have been doing so ever since. This abuse reached its zenith in the three-game stretch which led to Phillips' demise: shellackings at the hands of the Giants and the impotent Jaguars and the public beatdown administered in Green Bay.

At that point, as we know, Paul Pasqualoni took over as defensive coordinator. What we don't know is exactly how good or how bad this defense it since he took the helm. Certainly they have been putting up putrid numbers. In his weekly post-game analysis FanPost, our resident statistical demigod, Fan in Thick and Thin shows, using adjusted pass yards per attempt (for those of you not familiar with this, O.C.C. provides a rationale here), that the Dallas pass defense has actually regressed since Phillips was canned. A pre-Phillips adjusted YPA of an embarrassing 7.2 had, in the post-Philllips era, ballooned to a staggering 7.6. The highest Adjusted YPA figure the Cowboys allowed last season was 7.3--below this season's average; Against the Eagles, the adjusted YPA was 9.2! This is a clear and precipitous dropoff in pass defense--and, as Thick has been arguing passionately and cogently for some time now, with these kinds of numbers, it really doesn't matter how the Cowboys play the run--or whether they do at all.

That said, with the exception of the Lions game--in which the D notched its lowest adjusted YPA of the Garrett-Pasqualoni era, at 5.7--the Cowboys have been going up against some pretty formidable offensive units. It could be argued that, in the past three weeks, they have gone up against the top three quarterbacks outside of New England (I don't agree; I'd take Phillip Rivers over Michael Vick every day and twice on Sundays). And, in Garrett's first game, they played one of the league's deepest and most balanced offensive squads. The larger point here is that, in a difficult time of transition, the Cowboys have wrangled with a veritable murderer's row--exactly the wrong sort of offenses to face when trying to regain lost mojo.

This week, they will go up against arguably the weakest offense they have faced all year. This is particularly true given the recent news out of Redskins Park that Donovan McNabb has been benched in favor of Rex Grossman. In no small part, this is because Washington has scored at a feeble clip of late: over the past three games, they have registered a mere 12 points per. Their offensive line, a suspect group going into opening night, has done nothing to dispel that designation. The interior of the OL is especially suspect: at guard, they roll out two journeymen: LG Kory Lichtensteiger RG Will Montgomery, each of whom is with his third team; aged center Casey Rabach is banged up. Yes, this group has managed to open enough holes for journeyman RB Ryan Torain to have accrued three 100-yard days this year, topped off with last week's 172-yard effort against the Bucs. But they hadn't been able to pass block well enough for McNabb to find his speedy, undersized wideouts with any consistency. And, as Thick is quick to note, its all about stopping the pass.

Following Thick's credo, I'm okay if Torain goes off, so long as its not so much that Grossman can do his best Bob Griese impression, dropping back to pass only nine times. The key to the game is allowing Grossman to make mistakes--because he will. That's his game. And speaking of games, this is a good one in which to determine just how far the Cowboys defense has fallen. If we see an adjusted YPA in the sevens on Monday, then it'll be clear that this D needs a complete overhaul, because something is seriously rotten. I don't think that's what we'll see, however. There were long stretches against the Eagles in which the defense was playing as well as they have all season (before Shady McCoy busted his long run in the third quarter; then the wheels fell off). I'm betting we'll see a continuation of the progress I noticed against Philly--largely because Washington doesn't have the explosive players capable of turning a game that the Eagles do.

Given the insanity of this season, I'm not going to pick a score, but I think we'll see a season-low adjusted YPA and one of the best defensive performances of the year.

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