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Cowboys' Defense: Grading An Excellent Performance

The Dallas defense came very close to shutting out Philadelphia and as can be expected there were some good grades, especially for the stars wearing the Star.

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The best defensive tackle in the NFL.
The best defensive tackle in the NFL.
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it was a flash in the pan or an indication of things to come, the Dallas Cowboys had their best defensive performance of the year against the Philadelphia Eagles. Monte Kiffin slapped his old nemesis Chip Kelly right upside the head and made him like it.

Oddly enough, while there are good grades on the game review at Pro Football Focus, there are also some pretty negative ones as well. This leads me in a different direction this week with the scores. Rather than break out the different subunits, I want to look at things as a bigger picture.

First, here are the best players Dallas had on the field last Sunday.

POS Player Season Position Rank Qualifying Players Percentile Game Grade
DLE George Selvie 14 47 70% +2.7
DRT Jason Hatcher 1 69 99% +6.5
MLB Sean Lee 2 51 96% +4.9
LCB Brandon Carr 11 107 90% +3.1
FS Barry Church 12 85 86% +3.1

This will look even better when DeMarcus Ware gets back, because even with sitting out the week, he is rated the number 4 4-3 DE. But even with him out, this gives the Cowboys five players who all are highly ranked across the league. Not too many other defenses can boast a combination like Hatcher and Lee up the middle, or this many overall with such high grades.

What this makes clear is that the Cowboys have a very talented set of key players that elevate the performance of the unit as a whole. I don't think any of these names come as a surprise to any of us after the past couple of weeks. And a couple of these names, like Selvie and Carr, are likely to move up in the rankings as they are playing better now than earlier in the season. (The same can be said for Hatcher and Lee, I think, but they can't move up much.)

However, a look at the rest of the grades gets into some of the things that don't always seem to work right about the PFF system. Here are the rest of the starters, showing the same data as for the top performers.

POS Player Position Rank Qualifying Players Percentile Game Grade
DRE Kyle Wilber 38 47 19% -2.0
DLT Nick Hayden 69 69 1% -3.5
WLB Bruce Carter 25 30 17% +0.6
RCB Morris Claiborne 94 107 12% -0.9
SCB Orlando Scandrick 60 107 44% +0.4
SS J.J. Wilcox 41 85 52% -2.9

I have really been puzzled by some of these, particularly Hayden' s horrific ranking. He continues to be slammed in the grading criteria, and while I don't have any problem with him being the least capable starter on the defensive line, I just don't get how he is that bad. I would say the same about Wilber. The line has done quite well, and yet most of the players (when you include the backups, who see up to a third of the snaps) continue to get poor scores from PFF. I tend to suspect that this is one of the areas where the way Kiffin and Rod Marinelli are asking their players to do their jobs is not fully understood or accepted by the guys studying the video for PFF.

One thing that explains some of the difference here is the way they score missed tackles. For Scandrick and Wilcox in particular, these were big deductions. Scandrick had three missed tackles all on his own, and PFF totaled up eleven for the team (while only showing three for the Eagles defense as a whole). This has been an issue at times, and was during the game, with Wilcox letting a player make a first down when a good tackle would have dropped him short. And that was the second week in a row he made the same mistake.

Still, some numbers don't seem to match what happened on the field. PFF has an overall run defense score for Dallas of -2.7, but the Eagles only had 84 yards rushing total, and the big factor for Dallas was how they shut down LeSean McCoy. PFF is centered around grading the individual, so even if a play is a success for the team, a given player may get a negative grade on it because he missed an assignment, even though someone else took care of it.

And that is what I think this really tells us. The Cowboys have some issues still, but because they are playing together as a team they are getting the job done. During the game there were times when it looked like Nick Foles could not find anyone open and this allowed the rush to get to him despite him having a lot of time in the pocket beforehand. And as things went on, the pressure started affecting his accuracy.

However you want to interpret things, PFF does agree with the names of who most would say are the biggest contributors for the team. And that is a lot of strong performers to have. Whatever weaknesses the defense still has, those five players (hopefully with Ware rejoining them before too many weeks go by) are making the real difference. And with others improving (Morris Claiborne has made a minor jump this week, for instance), the defense will be looking to continue to improve as a whole. That is always more important than individual rankings, anyway.


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