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Grading Cowboys @ Chargers: Defensive Performances Of Note

There are many things that go right in a football game, and many things that go wrong. And when something goes wrong with your pass defense, you're usually in trouble.

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

By now, you've heard all about how, according to Pro Football Focus, Morris Claiborne ranks 98th out of 101 qualifying cornerbacks (who played at least 25% of their team's snaps). You've also heard about Bruce Carter's struggles against the Chargers.

After a loss, these types of performances always receive extra attention, but like every week, some Cowboys players did their job better than others. Over the course of the game, the Cowboys racked up some impressive and some less impressive numbers, as well as some individual highlights and some individual lowlights to go with it. Today, we look at how the individual defensive efforts on the team graded out and we'll be using the Pro Football Focus player grades to do that.

As usual, follow the link for PFF's detailed FAQ, which should answer the vast majority of questions about their grading system. PFF also have their own review of the game up, and that is definitely worth a read, this time they focus on the Lee, Carter and the offensive line.

The Pass Defense

When you allow Philip Rivers to get a 120.3 passer rating against you, something didn't go quite right. What's downright scary though is this: Of the 42 pass attempts Rivers had, two were thrown away, one was a batted pass (that Sean Lee ended up intercepting) and one was dropped by Danny Woodhead. That leaves 38 pass attempts, of which 35 were completions. It's like the Cowboys pass defense didn't exist.

And it's part of a worrying trend that's carried over from last year. In 2012, the Cowboys ranked 29th in the league with a defensive passer rating of 94.7, a big reason for their 8-8 finish. This year, the Cowboys have a defensive passer rating after four games of 99.6 and are "only" ranked 24th because there are a lot of even worse pass defenses in the league this year.

And it's especially painful to see that New Orleans, a team that ranked just one spot ahead of the Cowboys in 2012 with a defensive passer rating of 93.8, has a defensive passer rating of 65.1 this year, the third best value in the league.

Here's an overview of how Rivers' 35 completions were distributed across the Cowboys pass defense:

Player Snaps Targets Receptions Yards Pass Coverage Grade
Carter 54 10 9
108 -2.3
Claiborne 66 7 6 115 -3.2
Lee 74 6 5 84
Scandrick 63 5 5 16 -1.3
Church 66 4 4 26
Carr 74 2 1 19 -0.1
Sims 28 2 2 10 +0.3

J.J. Wilcox (+0.7), B.W. Webb (-0.4) and Justin Durant (-0.9) all allowed one reception on one target each. Claiborne has been singled out publicly as one of the main culprits behind the disappointing pass defense on Sunday, but look closely at the table above, and you'll see that every single defender was burned badly.

With all of those completions allowed, the Cowboys defenders had a lot of tackling to do. The official game book lists Sean Lee with 18 total tackles, followed by Barry Church (9), Bruce Carter (8), and Morris Claiborne (7).

Defensive Line

Every week, I have to add new names to the tables I use to show the grades for the defensive line. What is a minor nuisance for me is a major issue for the Cowboys. Rabblerousr made a point earlier this week that five D-linemen the Cowboys thought would have an impact in 2013 are now gone for the season, and illustrates just how deep down the chart the Cowboys had to reach on Sunday - and will continue to for the rest of 2013:

At one point, with Ware and Selvie sidelined due to injuries, and Hayden getting a breather on a warm day, they had what amounted to fourth-stringers manning the left side of the D-line. And, thanks to the aforementioned warm conditions, these backups played significant snaps: Jones 28 (39% of total snaps); Wilber 18 (25%); Nevis 18 (25%); Carter NT 16 (22%).

With that in mind, Cowboys fans will have to accept that the strong performance the defensive line showed in the first few games will probably be the exception, while the performance against the Chargers may be closer to the rule. To illustrate that point, here are the cumulative grades for all defensive linemen over the first four games:

Cowboys Defensive Line
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3 Week 4
Overall Grade
+15.3 +2.9 -1.1 -5.5
Pass Rush
+7.4 -1.1 -3.4 +0.6
Run Defense
+5.4 +1.8 +2.0 -6.9

The trend is definitely not your friend if you're looking at the defensive line performance.

Philip Rivers was under pressure on only 13 of his 43 dropbacks. You cannot complain about the staggering amount of completions against the Cowboys pass defense without also complaining about the absence of pressure from the pass rush. Here's how the defensive line graded out against the Chargers.


Selvie Hayden Hatcher Ware Jones Carter Nevis Wilber

PFF Snapcount 45 53 58 56 29 16 19 18
Grade vs. Chargers +0.4 -3.2 +1.7 -0.4 -2.2 -1.1 -1.1 +0.4

PFF have a slightly different snapcount than the official gamebook, so there are minor differences between the numbers in Rabblerousr's quote and the table above. Looking at the grades above, and particularly at the situation with the backups, Jay Ratliff can't come back soon enough.


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