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Five Moments That Shaped The Cowboys' 2013 Season (Pt. I): Changing Defensive Coaches And Schemes

Our series on five decisions, moments or organizational decisions that had significant long-term repercussions over the course of the 2013 season kicks off with a look at the front office's decision to can Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defensive defense in favor of Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli and the "Tampa-2" scheme.

Kiffin's defense failed to live up to its promise. But was this a matter of scheme or injuries?
Kiffin's defense failed to live up to its promise. But was this a matter of scheme or injuries?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Almost exactly one year ago, Monte Kiffin was announced as the Cowboys new defensive coordinator. In the wake of the announcement, BTB and other Cowboys sites launched into coverage of the change. Specifically, we considered the larger philosophical problems the Cowboys had with Rob Ryan and his defense. What were these? Let's offer a thumbnail review:

  • The Cowboys' best pass rushers need to be rushing the passer, not dropping into coverage: In the 3-4 system, as we all know, the primary pass rushers are the two outside linebackers. This is problematic, however, as opposing offensive coordinators can find ways to scheme players like DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer into coverage - usually by placing multiple receiving threats on one side of the formation.
  • Ryan's system was unnecessarily complex: One of 2011's overriding memes was that the defense failed because Rob Ryan taught the players too quickly (in no small part due to the lockout), with the result that they were too often confused and out of position. But, even with the benefit of a full offseason in 2012, a high level of confusion permeated the defense throughout the season. A lot of different plays might be cool on paper, but is it worth it if the result is a high frequency of 9, 10 or 12 players on the field?
  • Ryan and his system were too undisciplined: The Cowboys' brass apparently soured on Ryan. According to sources inside the organization, internal reviews of Ryan weren't good; the Cowboys found that his schemes and philosophy at times were unsound. They also felt he was too inconsistent in his attack, seemingly arbitrarily opting to blitz the house (thus giving up big plays) and at other times opting to rush only three (giving opposing QBs all afternoon to throw).
  • Ryan didn't mesh well with the rest of the coaching staff: On the Mothership's "Talking Cowboys" show the day after Ryan was fired, Bryan Broaddus related that, when Matt Eberflus joined the coaching staff, he spoke to some of his scouting connections in Cleveland about Dallas' new LB coach. The Browns guys told him Eberflus was a detail-oriented guy who functioned as "Rob Ryan's brain," suggesting that Ryan's attention to detail waned, and he needed a meticulous guy like Eberflus to do all the detail work for him.
  • The defense didn't generate turnovers: The Cowboys' "D" tallied a paltry 34 sacks and an embarrassingly low seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles. The 1.3 turnovers per game ranked the Cowboys 26th in the NFL. In his two years in Dallas, Ryan's charges registered the same number of defensive scores that they had in the disastrous 2010 season under Wade Phillips and Paul Pasqualoni.

Kiffin, and his system, were supposed to remedy these problems. The Tampa-2, which is predicated upon getting pressure from the front four, would have DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer doing what they were paid big money to do: get after the quarterback. In addition, his system is notoriously simple; rather than teaching a huge playbook a la Ryan, he asks his guys to execute a limited number of things very well and very consistently. And finally, his defenses had historically been superb turnover generation machines; from 1996-'08, Tampa Bay's defenses collected just under 35 turnovers per year (roughly 19 interceptions and 16 fumbles a season).

As we now know, 2013 proved to be a disaster, with record-setting performances in terms of yards allowed in a game (a number that was then eclipsed a few games later), number of 400-yard passers, and first downs, both in a single game and in a season. Although 2012, under Ryan was arguably the Cowboys worst year defensively since the early Landry years, 2013 was statistically worse, and should deservedly be numbered among the worst in franchise history.

Indeed, things deteriorated so much that we saw Kiffin and Co. getting away from some core beliefs. As I mentioned above, a key philosophical element of the defense is to generate pressure using only the front four, so that the back seven can all be in coverage. As the season wore, on, however, the Cowboys defensive braintrust dialed up more and more blitzes, because the front four simply wasn't getting to the QB. As they did this, passing lanes opened up and turnovers dwindled. A team that was atop the league takeaway rankings in week three found themselves sitting at 26th by season's end.

Because of this, media pundits and droves of fans maintain that the front office should again be making changes, booting Kiffin and perhaps several members of his defensive staff. I'm holding with our resident Cowboys insider, Birddog26, who graced us with this tweet back on New Year's Eve:

As Birddog suggests, the Cowboys organization realizes that one of the keys to winning is continuity - of systems, coaching staffs, etc. It's quite clear that the teams who fire coaches every few years (and that includes coordinators) are precisely those that are perpetually drafting in the first fifteen picks of the draft. Instead of firing Kiffin, or Jerome Henderson ("The Cowboys couldn't cover!") or Matt Eberflus ("Bruce Carter sucked this year!"), the Dallas front office appears to recognize that another year in the system will do everybody more good -or at least less harm - than a new set of coaches.

As will a return to health. I'll deal more specifically with the impact injuries had on the season in the final installment of this series. For now, allow me to point out that the key elements of Kiffin's system - the ability to generate a pass rush solely with the front four and, by extension, to generate turnovers - weren't absent the entire season. To the contrary, we saw a lot of the promise offered by the 4-3 in the campaign's first two months.

To illustrate what I'm talking about, I've compiled a handy-dandy chart, including all the elements that make Kiffin's defense successful (note that I didn't include yards allowed, as the Tampa-2 has often given up yards but not points). All of the information should be self-explanatory, save for "short fields." This is the number of times in a game when the defense, either by generating a turnover or a turnover on downs, gave the offense the ball at the Cowboys 45 yard line or better (20 yards from field goal range).

Game Sacks Turnovers Defensive Touchdowns Short Fields
Giants 3 6 2 2
@ Chiefs 4 0 0 0
Rams 6 1 0 2
@ Chargers 1 1 1 0
Broncos 0 2 0 2
Redskins 3 2 0 1
@Eagles 3 3 0 1
@ Lions 1 4 0 2
Vikings 2 2 1 1
@ Saints 1 1 0 0
@Giants 2 1 1 0
Raiders 0 2 0 1
@ Bears 1 0 0 0
Packers 2 1 0 1
@ Redskins 0 1 0 1
Eagles 5 1 0 1

As this table clearly suggests, the Cowboys generated better numbers in each category early in the season and then tailed off. We can see this even more clearly in the next chart, which divides the season into quarters, showing the numbers for each.

2013 Season Sacks Turnovers Defensive Touchdowns Short fields
Games 1-4 14 8 3 4
Games 5-8 7 11 0 6
Games 9-12 5 6 2 2
Games 13-16 8 3 0 3

Thanks to a mini-explosion in the final game against Philadelphia, when the Cowboys collected five sacks (it's a match-up thing; the Eagles' linemen don't deal well with stunts and twists, which is Marinelli's specialty), the Cowboys don't look like they tailed off quite to the degree they did. But they did. To a great degree.

We can see this in the rising percentage of passing plays in which the defensive staff called a blitz. This number rose steadily as the season wore on:

Games 1-4: 16.6%
Games 5-8: 17.1%
Games 9-12: 23%
Games 13-16: 27%

And we can track the nodal points of Dallas' defensive diminution. A thinned but still highly productive defensive line suffered two major in-season injuries: to DeMarcus Ware in game four and Jason Hatcher in game eight. Although each of them continued to soldier on after missing a game or two, the dropoff in sacks (and, by extension, turnovers, defensive scores and short fields) when first Ware and then both Ware and Hatcher were hobbled is, to my mind, clear and evident. As is the resultant rise in blitzing by a frustrated defensive staff.

In short, when the team was stocked with actual NFL players, Kiffin's defense might not have been at the top of the "yards allowed" charts, but was able to produce in the categories - sacks, turnovers, defensive scores - which has allowed it to thrive. And, when the depth chart still had some recognizable names on it, there were some memorable defensive moments. Not surprisingly, most of these came in the first month, with both Ware and Hatcher at full health:

  • The third-quarter sequence against the Chiefs during which the Cowboys turned the ball over on consecutive possessions, giving the Chiefs the ball at the Dallas 31 and 35, respectively. Somehow, Kiffin's boys managed to limit the Chiefs to a single field goal.
  • The Cowboys held St. Louis to one of thirteen on third down tries. The Rams average yards-to-go on third down was 7.87; a little simple math shows us that they were gaining a mere 2.13 yards on first and second down combined. Indeed, the Rams inability to convert third downs got so out of hand that they ended up going for it on fourth down six different times.
  • In the same game, the Cowboys collected six sacks, against a Rams O-line that hadn't given up a single sack all season. After three games, the Cowboys totaled 13, which put them on pace for 69.3 on the season.

Each of these sequences offered a glimpse of the potential inherent in this defensive scheme. And this is why I believe Kiffin and Co. will remain. As BD says, Stability, Continuity, Execution.

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