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Grading The Cowboys: Defense Fails, But Accountability May Be Working

It is a surprise to absolutely no one that the overall grades for the Dallas defense are pretty bad. But there are a few things you might not expect buried in the bad numbers.

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Ronald Martinez

A quick look at Pro Football Focus' grades quickly confirms what should be blatantly evident to even the most casual observer concerning the Cowboys 51-48 loss to the Broncos: The defense failed the offense and deserves much of the blame.

I'm going to break down the main numbers for the three defensive groups. They aren't pretty, by any means, but there are some things to learn hidden in all the misery.

Defensive Line

On all three of these tables I have included the snap counts so you can see some things, not only about how players perform, but about how Monte Kiffin and, in the line's case, Rod Marinelli use their players.

Here you can see the rotation used with the starters all getting spelled for a couple of dozen plays or so. One thing that does not show up here is the -1.7 George Selvie got for penalties, which really hurt his overall score. Also, note that the PFF numbers are cumulative. If you double the snaps for a player, you would expect the score to about double as well.

Ware Wilber Selvie Rayford Hayden D. Carter Hatcher Nevis
Snap Count
57 24 59 22 58 22 59 24
+1.9 -2.6 -0.5 -0.8 -0.8 -1.2 -1.9 +0.2
Pass Rush -0.8 -1.2 +0.3 -0.9 -1.1 -0.7 -0.6 -0.7
Run Defense
+2.4 -0.5 +0.9 +0.5 +0.1 -0.6 -1.5 +0.8

DeMarcus Ware was the best of the bunch, but he got no sacks (nor did anyone else outside the facemask Selvie grabbed). Kyle Wilber is a clear downgrade when he has to come in. The biggest surprise here is that Nick Hayden outplayed Jason Hatcher - and now there is word that Hatcher may not be available this week due to a shoulder injury. Drake Nevis actually had a decent game, and may get to try and prove he is for real this week.

The one thing that is glaringly obvious is that the positive numbers this bunch started with are long gone.


Dallas played all but one snap with no Sam linebacker (DeVonte Holloman was in for one play as the Sam). Sean Lee was all over the field making tackles (13) but still struggled in pass coverage. Ernie Sims was not terrible in coverage, but was really bad against the run, plus he had a penalty. Among the three linebackers who carried the load, Bruce Carter clearly had the best game.

Lee (MLB) Sims (WLB) B. Carter (WLB)
Snap count 81 46 41
-0.5 -4.5 +0.1
Run Defense
+0.9 -3.3 +0.7
Pass Coverage
-1.3 0.0 -0.5

Yes, the same Bruce Carter that was perceived as being benched in San Diego for not putting out enough effort. He was solid if not spectacular in a game where many of his defensive teammates were downright putrid. The reports of Carter being a bust were greatly exaggerated. And from the looks of this game, he will likely be getting some snaps back against the Washington Redskins.


Bruce Carter had a nice bounceback from being in the doghouse last week. He wasn't the only player to come back from the bench or even the one who looked the best.

Carr Scandrick Claiborne Church Wilcox Allen

Snap Counts 80 80 75 67 81 14
-3.0 -2.6 +2.4 -1.5 +0.3 -0.8
Pass Defense -3.6 -1.1 +2.4 -2.9 -0.8 +0.2
Run Defense
+0.2 -1.8 +0.2 +1.3 +0.9 -1.0

Morris Claiborne did even better, having a hand in both turnovers the Cowboys had. He was not perfect. Bryan Broaddus took a look a the corner play, and he felt Orlando Scandrick had a better day, but that after a rough start, Claiborne settled in and finished out the game looking comfortable and capable. Brandon Carr, however, had a bad time of it, whether you go by Broaddus or PFF. Broaddus thinks it may be due to how the Cowboys matched each corner up with a given receiver (Scandrick/Wes Welker, Claiborne/Eric Decker, Carr/Demaryius Thomas). But he also feels there is just a technique issue for Carr here.

Where Carr has had his struggles in coverage, is the amount of separation we see between him and the receivers. I have always view him as a physical player that used that style in order to make up for a lack of foot speed, but I am having trouble finding that physical player.

There have been too many times whether it was practicing in training camp or in these games where you see receivers get away from him. I can't recall the last time, he has defended a ball when the receiver has taken him across the field while he is playing man coverage.

For the safeties, Barry Church took a licking and kept on ticking, but he had his struggles as well. Although I suppose a broken nose will do that to you. Except for those cases, like me, where you collapse to the ground and lie there whimpering until someone gives you really good painkillers.

The surprising scores here come from J.J. Wilcox, who appears to have acquitted himself well. The rookie is looking like a very good deal for the Cowboys.

Things were awfully grim on this side of the line of scrimmage, but there is a small positive note to be taken from the way Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne came back this week. It looks like the idea of holding players accountable may actually be paying off. But the same may not be happening for the man who is responsible for the defense as a whole. While Rob Ryan, the former Dallas defensive coordinator, is on an undefeated New Orleans Saints staff, Monte Kiffin has seen his unit surrender over 1,000 yards over the past two games, However, Jerry Jones, who is generally credited for the decision to make a change, is being awfully forgiving.

"Knowing what my expectations were playing Denver and playing against Peyton Manning coming in, I'm going to cut him some slack," Jones said about his concern. "I must tell you that I was expecting a high-scoring game and high-yardage game from Denver and I knew we were going to have to match it. So I'm not (concerned). I know that the challenges he gave us out there and it turned out it did."

Personally, I would rather see some owner/GM glowering here. I am pretty sure Kiffin can take it, and knows he deserves it.

Tomorrow, some more enjoyable numbers: PFF grades the offense.


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