One of the key questions that fans of every NFL team face at this time of year is what the 53-man roster and the depth chart of their team could look like, and Cowboys fans are no different.
For the Cowboys, three main areas remain where the depth chart is still not finalized, at least for those of us looking in from the outside: The most talked about roster battle is clearly that for the third wide receiver spot, but the the roster battles along the defensive line and at inside linebacker are equally intriguing.
To get a better feeling for how the roster battle in the front seven is shaping up, I reviewed the entire first half of Saturday's game against the Rams and charted which defensive player was in on which defensive play. Overall, there were 30 defensive plays in the first half. This excludes that weird fake punt play, all special teams plays like the field goal, the kickoff and the punts, but I did include the plays that were blown dead due to penalties. After the break, we look at what the number crunching got us.
The first thing to do is to simply do a snapcount and list which defensive player was in on how many plays. And that's exactly what I did in the table below, with the hypothesis being that the more snaps a given player has, the higher up the depth chart he'll be. I realize of course that that is a shaky hypothesis, but at the very least it's a starting point for discussion.
|Cowboys' Defensive Snapcount, 1st Half vs Rams|
|Defensive Tackles||Defensive Ends||Outside Linebackers||Inside Linebackers||Cornerbacks||Safeties|
We'll get to the specific down-and-distance situations a little later, but here are some general observations about the snapcounts:
Defensive ends: The Cowboys started the game with three cornerbacks in a nickel formation. To make room for Scandrick, Rob Ryan played only two defensive linemen, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher, which means Kenyon Coleman did not get an official start. He did however play on the next snap and in the first three drives of the game.
Sean Lissemore got more snaps than Coleman and Spears, but this is due to the fact that he plays a hybrid DE/NT role, which saw him get more snaps overall. To my surprise, Baraka Atkins got four snaps shortly before the half, and was then replaced by Tyrone Crawford on the last two snaps of the Rams' final 1st half drive.
Linebackers: Victor Butler played all 30 snaps, lining up both on the strong- and weakside throughout the game. Anthony Spencer played the first three drives, after which Alex Albright took over at OLB for the fourth and fifth drive. Spencer came back to spell Albright for four snaps in the middle of the Rams' final 15-play drive.
At inside linebacker, it looks like Carter has the edge over Connor, but interestingly, neither seems to be the third down option at this point. The Cowboys faced nine third or fourth downs in the first half, Connor and Carter each played in only one of those situations. The player who got the other seven linebacker snaps on third or fourth down: safety Danny McCray, who was playing the "cover LB" role. This is a position that Barry Church frequently played last year, but as he's playing deeper this year, that role fell to McCray. This was a little disconcerting to see, as Bruce Carter had been widely hailed as a very good pass defender due to his speed, but the coaches apparently see McCray as a better option. Hmmm...
Defensive Backs: Not much to see here. The starters all played every single snap, this depth chart is set in stone. But it does make you wonder where Mike Jenkins would fit in upon his eventual return. Then again, that's a luxury problem to have.
Nickel vs. Dime: The Cowboys lined up nine times in a proper nickel defense (5 DBs, 2 LBs) and seven times in what looked like a dime defense (6 DBs + Sean Lee). McCray would always be the sixth DB in these formations, but because he played the "cover LB" role, you'd probably be technically correct in calling this a nickel defense as well, but which Rob Ryan calls his "Dollar personnel".
Throughout camp, Ryan has been working a package on third down which he calls his dollar personnel. This is when he takes an inside linebacker off the field and puts a safety in that spot. What it has given him is a physical safety at the point of attack that can cover.
And here's the interesting thing: The Cowboys played their nickel defense exclusively on first and second down, while the "Dollar" defense was used on seven out of nine third or fourth downs. The two third downs on which the Cowboys didn't deploy a "Dollar" defense were both 3rd-and-1 situations.
Here's a full overview of which Cowboys defensive players were on the field for which plays:
|STL Drive No. 1||90||92||95||99||96||97||70||59||93||55||57||50||52||54||24||39||32||42||43||40|
|1||1-10-SL 18 (8:58)||Pass to B.Gibson for 14 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|2||1-10-SL 32 (8:24)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|3||2-10-SL 32 (8:20)||I.Pead right guard for 3 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|4||3-7-SL 35 (7:41)||S.Bradford sacked for -8 yards (J.Hatcher)||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|STL Drive No. 2||90||92||95||99||96||97||70||59||93||55||57||50||52||54||24||39||32||42||43||40|
|5||1-10-SL 40 (6:10)||Pass deep left to L.Kendricks for 26 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|6||1-10-DAL 34 (5:48)||PENALTY. SL-B. Richardson, False Start - No Play.||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|7||1-15-DAL 39 (5:35)||I.Pead right tackle for no gain||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|8||2-15-DAL 39 (4:58)||I.Pead right tackle for 2 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|9||3-13-DAL 37 (4:17)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|STL Drive No. 3||90||92||95||99||96||97||70||59||93||55||57||50||52||54||24||39||32||42||43||40|
|10||1-10-SL 33 (:27)||D.Richardson up the middle for 5 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|11||2-5-SL 38 (15:00)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|12||3-5-SL 38 (14:55)||S.Bradford sacked -4 yards (S.Lee).||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|STL Drive No. 4||90||92||95||99||96||97||70||59||93||55||57||50||52||54||24||39||32||42||43||40|
|13||1-10-DAL 38 (11:37)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|14||2-10-DAL 38 (11:33)||Pass short right to D.Amendola 4 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|15||3-6-DAL 34 (10:54)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|STL Drive No. 5||90||92||95||99||96||97||70||59||93||55||57||50||52||54||24||39||32||42||43||40|
|16||1-10-SL 18 (9:22)||D.Richardson right tackle for 4 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|17||2-6-SL 22 (8:44)||D.Richardson left guard for 5 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|18||3-1-SL 27 (8:03)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|19||1-10-DAL 43 (7:27)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|20||2-10-DAL 43 (7:21)||Pass short right to D.Richardson for 9 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|21||3-1-DAL 34 (6:35)||D.Richardson right end for 2 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|22||1-10-DAL 32 (5:55)||D.Richardson left end for 7 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|23||2-3-DAL 25 (5:16)||D.Richardson right end for 4 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|24||1-10-DAL 21 (4:35)||Pass short middle to S.Smith for 7 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|25||2-3-DAL 14 (3:52)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|26||3-3-DAL 14 (3:47)||PENALTY on DAL-B. Atkins, Offsides, No Play
|27||1-9-DAL 9 (3:42)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|28||2-9-DAL 9 (3:37)||Pass short right to M.McNeill for 4 yards||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|29||3-5-DAL 5 (2:55)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|30||4-5-DAL 5 (2:49)||Pass incomplete||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|