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In Defense Of Rob Ryan's Defense

Is Rob Ryan fighting for his job or for respect?
Is Rob Ryan fighting for his job or for respect?

The Cowboys 2011 season has not gone as well as many hoped, but better than some expected. Plenty of questions surrounded the Cowboys capabilities for success this year following the 2010 collapse. With the introduction of a new coaching staff and a shortened offseason, there were also worries the NFL lockout would slow down the "rebuilding" at Valley Ranch under the new regime. The Cowboys acquired the most recognized strength and conditioning coach in the league, but he would not have a full offseason to begin his regiment for the team. The players would also have less time to learn the new schemes and fewer practices and meetings to thrive under the new team culture.

Thus far, the 2011 season has come with as much heartbreak as hope. If the team did not look so dominant in the first half of most games, fans would be less upset about all the close-margin losses. Perhaps the bitterest statistic of the Cowboys 2011 season is a new infamous franchise record - three losses following 12-point fourth-quarter leads.

When a team's offense is ranked tenth in points and sixth in total yards, the blame for losses will usually fall on the defense, especially with losses following fourth-quarter leads. It is true; the Dallas Cowboys 2011 defense has plenty of deficiencies and there has been a lot of criticism that has befallen Rob Ryan. The fourth-quarter losses, the poor second-half performances, there are certainly reasons to fault the defense for the Cowboys losses, but should they get all the blame? Should they not get some credit for the victories?

Is it the fault of the defense that in the three losses following 12-point leads that the offense turned the ball over three times and the special teams allowed one blocked punt and one blocked field goal in the fourth-quarter of those games?

Let's take a closer look at Rob Ryan's 2011 defense...

Most fans were worried about how the 2011 defense would perform. In 2010, the defense was atrocious and set a franchise record for most points allowed in a season. Most would agree the single greatest addition to the defense was Rob Ryan as coordinator. In fact, the only other additions were Abram Elam, Kenyon Coleman, and Frank Walker. While all three have held their own, none would be considered game-changers and only Elam is a true starter getting most of the reps at his position. To date, the greatest improvements to the defense were the in-house developments and progress of Sean Lee and Jason Hatcher. Does Rob Ryan and his coaching staff get any credit for recognizing and utilizing these players more often? Has his scheme helped them (and others) prosper and improve their play on the field?

Rob Ryan took over one of the worst defenses of the 2010 season, and with little new talent from the draft and no big-name free agent acquisitions, has managed to much improve the maligned group. Now, I will be the first to admit I thought the defense had more talent than their 2010 (under)performance would indicate. Still, doesn't a one-year turnaround following a shortened offseason deserve some credit?

And there is no doubt Rob Ryan's defense is playing far better than the virtually identical unit did in 2010.

Defense Total Points Total Yards DVOA 3rd Dwn % Sacks Fum Rcvd Int
2010 31st 23rd 27th 25th 16th 16th 7th
2011 16th 16th 15th 18th 9th 12th 10th

- 2010 defense allowed the most points in the league, Ryan's crew ranks as average.

- 2010 defense was below average in total yards allowed, Ryan's crew ranks as average.

- 2010 defense DVOA ranked as one of the worst in the league, Ryan's crew ranks as average.

In every category (except for interceptions) the Cowboys defense has drastically improved under Rob Ryan. It should also be noted that in 2010 the Cowboys allowed their opponent to score 30+ points a whopping seven times. Rob Ryan's crew has allowed this to happen only three times.

Is all this improvement enough? No, not yet. But should a lynch mob arm themselves with guns and torches and chase the son of Buddy out of Texas?

I may be in the minority, but I find the talk of firing Rob Ryan as ridiculous as the talk of firing Jason Garrett. Cowboys fans have plenty of reasons to be upset for how the 2011 season has progressed. But the team is tied for the division lead and has shown considerable improvements defensively over last season. Many of these media critics casting stones were the same ones that thought the Cowboys would have no chance at the playoffs...yet here they are still fighting for a chance at postseason glory.

Instead of chasing Rob Ryan out of town, perhaps we should simply try to note the problems that still need fixing and discuss what a full offseason and new acquisitions could do to continue to improve the defense.

The Secondary

Just like last season, the Cowboys defense's greatest weakness is the secondary. The secondary was abused versus the Giants and have allowed blown coverages for big plays several times this season.

But consider the following...

Defense Pass DVOA 20+ Yard Passes 40+ Yard Passes
2010 28th 57 13
2011 14th 46 7

Is Rob Ryan's intricate defense with exotic schemes and blitzes to blame for the blown coverages? Perhaps, but only because of the players' inability to remember and/or understand their assignments. And yet, the Cowboys 2011 defense has been better against the pass than last season's group which had simple schemes with years of familiarity. Could it be that the secondary would have even worse statistics if Rob Ryan wasn't confusing and harassing quarterbacks with his pressure schemes?

Orlando Scandrick has missed three games this season. Mike Jenkins has missed four games and has been in-and-out in a few others. Terence Newman has missed two games. Would anyone have expected this secondary to play better than last season when the three starters have combined to miss nine games? And with a new coach, the injuries not only hampered the defense's performance on the field, it also slowed the players' familiarity of the new scheme.

Some might say Rob Ryan has actually done a remarkable job under the circumstances.

Fourth-Quarter Points

Since the team has lost so many close-margin games, it is easy to think Rob Ryan's defense has been a failure in the fourth-quarter. And while it can certainly improve, the Cowboys defense has allowed 317 points to their opponents and 28.4% have occurred in fourth-quarters. This doesn't strike me as proof the Cowboys defense routinely collapses in the fourth-quarter. In fact, the Cowboys have allowed the most points (31.6%) in the third-quarter. It seems the real issue is the defense's performance following halftime. If the Cowboys defense could manage to play as well in the second half as they do in the first, they would currently rank tenth in the league in total points allowed (256), tied with the Cowboys dynamic offense which ranks tenth in points scored.

Perhaps this defense isn't as crippled as many critics would assume. But there is clearly a problem that follows halftime. But what is the issue?

That is tough to speculate. Perhaps Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan need to improve their halftime speeches. Perhaps Ryan has to start making more adjustments after halftime. Of course, that is a slippery slope. If your defense plays well before halftime, do you fiddle with what isn't broken? Perhaps the second half let downs are not due to a lack of motivation and adjustments, perhaps it is simply the players getting tired. Every sports coach (not to mention psychologists and military officers) will tell you humans that are tired and under stress are apt to make more mistakes as their cognitive reasoning and memory recall are slowed under those conditions. Could the short offseason and conditioning of the defense be more at fault for the breakdowns than the lack of adjustments at halftime?

Though not a big help for those frustrated with the 2011 season, my guess is Mike Woicik and more time in Rob Ryan's system will be the biggest help to the players' second-half defensive letdowns. But to put things into perspective, the Cowboys have allowed 40% of their points in the first half and 60% in the second. The split is not as bad as many assume. Actually, the 49ers defense which leads the league in fewest points allowed has an even worse split (37.4% and 62.6%). Finally, it should also be recognized that a defense's best friend in the fourth-quarter is an offense that can grind out the clock and seal a victory, an ability the mighty Dallas offense has not displayed.

Know Thy Enemy

There are only two games that as a fan and football connoisseur I thought Rob Ryan failed in his game plan, and not coincidentally, they are also two games in which the Cowboys allowed the most points this season. Unfortunately, both those games were against division rivals that Ryan has not had a lot of experience facing. Against the Eagles Rob Ryan kept two safeties deep for most of the game trying to contain the deep threats. The problem was he also didn't (run) blitz often in fear that it would only allow Michael Vick the ability to gash the Cowboys on the ground. Ryan stubbornly stuck with the game plan for four quarters and Vick ended up gashing the Cowboys with short and medium throws and Shady McCoy had an easier time running. There was no pressure, poor rush defense, and the game got out of hand quickly. I don't expect Ryan to repeat the same mistake.

The second was against the Giants, however, I can understand why Ryan didn't make any adjustments at halftime. Perhaps he should have known better and understood Eli Manning is often at his best when blitzed by a defense. He quickly recognizes the coverage and in under three seconds gets the ball out of his hands. All night the Cowboys were forcing quick throws, but all night the son of Archie found the open receiver...and too often they were uncovered due to blown assignments. I can understand why Ryan didn't dial down the pressure too much in the second half. The Cowboys ended the first with the lead, and likely like me, Ryan didn't believe Eli could keep it up all game. He also likely didn't think his secondary would be such a letdown in the second half.

As they say, live and learn. The Cowboys worst games defensively were against their division rivals. This will be sure to garner the ire of many fans, but the good news is Ryan's crew has a chance for redemption when the teams meet again in the final two weeks of the season. This defense is not that of a championship caliber team, yet. But there have been drastic improvements to the performance of the Cowboys defense though there have been very few new additions. Rob Ryan should deserve more credit than blame for what he has accomplished. Perhaps if the players stop letting him down, if they improve their mental fortitude and physical conditioning, start to comprehend the design and intents of Ryan's schemes, and simply remember their assignments and understand the play-by-play adjustments required versus specific offensive formations, then this defense can go from middle of the pack to the top 10 - perhaps even before the season ends.

And if you think it is entirely the fault of Rob Ryan's defense that the Cowboys now have a difficult path to the playoffs, consider the following: Three division leaders have allowed more points than the Cowboys (Giants, Broncos, and Saints) and five have allowed more yards (Patriots, Packers, Saints, Giants, and Broncos). The Dallas defense has plenty of room for improvement, but Rob Ryan's crew is certainly not the only reason the Cowboys' season hasn't gone as well as most have hoped. And they also have three more weeks to continue to improve and help fight for a playoff berth.

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