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What's Wrong With The Dallas Cowboys Pass Defense?

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A look at the Cowboys pass defense, by the numbers.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

At it's most fundamental level pass defense is pretty simple. You want to stop your assignment from getting the ball; if that is unsuccessful, you want to limit your assignment to as few yards as possible. That's it. There are a number of ways to measure those two tasks, but at its core that is what pass defense is all about. Stopping the pass, and tackling the receiver. So how do our beloved Cowboys measure up in those areas?

Stopping the Pass:

How do you measure how well a defensive player is stopping the pass? The stats that I find most useful are "targets" and "receptions". Receptions are what it is fundamentally all about; you don't want to give them up as a defense. But by themselves they don't really tell us much. Giving up six receptions on 12 targets sounds great, giving up six receptions on six targets not so much.

Targets is a more useful stat for telling us just how good a player is doing in coverage. The best way to prevent a reception is to have such good coverage the quarterback doesn't throw your way. Again though, targets as a number doesn't tell us much; if you're only in for a handful of pass plays having zero targets isn't as good as having zero targets on 20 passes. So a more useful statistic is targets/pass snap.

Using these stats we can begin to draw a picture of how good our players actually are in coverage. Here are how the Cowboys back seven look, compared to an average of the top five and bottom five players at their position, according to PFF's coverage grades.

Name # Coverage Snaps Targets Targets/Snap Receptions Receptions/Snap
Brandon Carr 450 65 14% 39 9%
Orlando Scandrick 353 49 14% 38 11%
Sterling Moore 329 53 16% 34 10%
Morris Claiborne 101 15 15% 10 10%
Avg Top 5 CB 448 63 14% 32 7%
Avg Bottom 5 CB 400 70 18% 47 12%
Name # Coverage Snaps Targets Targets/Snap Receptions Receptions/Snap
J.J. Wilcox 433 22 5% 15 3%
Barry Church 400 22 6% 15 4%
Avg Top 5 Safety 415 27 7% 18 4%
Avg Bottom 5 Safety 369 28 8% 20 5%
Name # Coverage Snaps Targets Targets/Snap Receptions Receptions/Snap
Rolando McClain 266 26 10%
22 8%
Bruce Carter 204 29 14% 22 11%
Anthony Hitchens 179 31 17% 24 13%
Justin Durant 179 28 16% 23 13%
Avg Top 5 LB 392 51 13% 37 9%
Avg Bottom 5 LB 293 43 15% 36 12%

As you can see our back seven is fairly strong here across the board, with the safeties leading the way. Among the corners, both Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick are not targeted very frequently. The only real problem areas here are Anthony Hitchens and Justin Durant, both are below average in giving up receptions.

Giving Up Yards:

So Dallas is pretty decent in actual coverage, especially among the DB's. But even the best coverage gets beat, and when that happens the job of the defense is to minimize the yardage gained. In the Cowboys defensive system that is especially important; the defense trades off short completions in front to stop long gains behind. In Dallas's defense, limiting big plays and limiting yards after catch (YAC) is paramount.

The stats used to measure those two things are fairly straightforward; how many yards, and how much YAC, do receivers pick up per reception? Let's look at Dallas's back five, again with an average top 5 and bottom 5 player for comparison.

Name Receptions Yards Yards/Rec YAC YAC/Reception
Brandon Carr 39 675 17.3 235 6.0
Orlando Scandrick 38 375 9.9 224 5.9
Sterling Moore 34 439 12.9 160 4.7
Morris Claiborne 10 225 22.5 87 8.7
Avg Top 5 CB 32 366 11.4 139 4.3
Avg Bottom 5 CB 47 617 13.1 242 5.1
Name Receptions Yards Yards/Rec YAC YAC/Reception
J.J. Wilcox 15 141 9.4 46 3.1
Barry Church 15 127 8.5 75 5.0
Avg Top 5 Safety 18 186 10.3 93 5.2
Avg Bottom 5 Safety 20 281 14.1 121 6.1
Name Receptions Yards Yards/Rec YAC YAC/Reception
Rolando McClain 22 196 8.9 120 5.5
Bruce Carter 22 173 7.9 90 4.1
Anthony Hitchens 24 237 9.9 130 5.4
Justin Durant 23 213 9.3 111 4.8
Avg Top 5 LB 37 315 8.5 202 5.5
Avg Bottom 5 LB 36 362 10.1 249 6.9

Here's where things start to break down for our defense. The safeties once again are looking good, the corners not so much. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are absolutely horrible, giving up huge chuncks of yardage (I'll talk more about Carr later on). Orlando Scandrick has a reputation as a good tackler but has a below average YAC, although his YPC is really good. Among our cornerbacks only Sterling Moore really stands out at making a stop after the reception.

Putting It All Together:

There are a number of things to take away from these numbers.

  • Brandon Carr is actually pretty good in coverage. He's above average at limiting targets, and does a fairly good job at limiting receptions. His problem is, when he gets beat, he gets beat badly. He lacks the athleticism to recover when beaten, which means he gives up big chunks of yardage.
  • Sterling Moore is the opposite. He gives up a lot of receptions, but they are mostly underneath, and he has the tackling ability to make a stop for limiting additional gain.
  • YAC is killing our secondary. We saw it a lot in the Eagles game; on 3rd-and-long we would force a reception in front of the 1st-down marker, but would allow the receiver to pick up enough YAC to get the first.
  • Whether it's scheme or good play, our safeties are doing a really good job in coverage.
  • Underneath throws against our linebackers are killing the defense. The linebackers are doing a decent job at limiting throws their way, but when those throws are completed they are averaging close to a first down per completion. Bruce Carter has been our best player in that regard, allowing a full yard less than the nearest linebacker, Rolando McClain. Unfortunately, the healthiest linebacker we have had over the past several games has also been the worst in coverage; Anthony Hitchens. The rookie is allowing right under 10 yards per completion, and is allowing a 75% catch rate when thrown at.

Looking at these numbers we see a picture forming. The Cowboys give up too many short passes on the outside, and Brandon Carr in particular can be beaten deep. We do a bad job tackling in the secondary, which is one of the main reasons we do so bad on stopping third down. Even when we force a short pass, we are giving up over five yards after the catch, meaning teams generally can convert. And Anthony Hitchens is being abused in pass coverage, not only is he giving up a large amount of receptions per snap, he's giving up a large amount of yards per reception. Hitchens has played well for a rookie, but he's a liability in pass coverage. Unfortunately, the large number of injuries to our linebacking corps has forced him to be in coverage much more than I'm sure the coaches have liked.

What do you think fellow BTBer's? Do the numbers correlate to the eyeball test, or do the stats lie? And what can Dallas do to improve its pass coverage?