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Grading The Cowboys Defense Against The Titans

The performance by the Dallas D looked very good. Do the grades match that perception?

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The defense was getting it done for the Cowboys against the Titans.
The defense was getting it done for the Cowboys against the Titans.
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

It is safe to say that the biggest surprise about the Dallas Cowboys this season, at least for fans and the media, has been the solid performance of the defense. Although it was somewhat suspect given the game situation, the second half against the San Francisco 49ers offered hope. The Tennessee Titans game, particularly the first half, showed that it may have been more than just facing a team trying to cruise home with a big lead. While there hasn't been a major test for the defense so far this season (the 49ers mainly won on turnovers), this does look like a significantly improved unit compared to 2013.

Based on the final results, you would expect the grades from Pro Football Focus to show some improvement, and they certainly do. Only one player on the defense had a significantly negative score, with five in the green, or very positive. For this week, I am taking a look at how the scores match up with those from last week. Although the quality of the opponent is a factor, PFF attempts to evaluate how well each player performs his job on each play. It is not a perfect system, but does offer some insights.

Here, broken down by unit, are the scores for each player over the first two games.


Player Position 49ers snaps 49ers grade Titans snaps Titans grade
Brandon Carr LCB 57 -4.0 51 0.1
Morris Claiborne RCB 47 -2.7 47 -0.9
J.J. Wilcox SS 58 -2.6 45 -0.4
Barry Church FS 51 1.2 47 -0.8
Sterling Moore SCB 39 -0.3 47 2.7
Jeff Heath SS 7 0.1 10 0.1

While Barry Church had a drop off, and Jeff Heath tread water in limited use, everyone else saw significant improvement. Carr's was the biggest jump, indicating that the use of more man coverage played to his strengths. But Claiborne and Wilcox also looked a lot better. Moore is the standout of the group, and has made a significant case that he should be ahead of Claiborne in the depth chart, or be considered for work as a safety ahead of Wilcox.


Player Position 49ers snaps 49ers grade Titans snaps Titans grade
Rolando McClain MLB 44 2.7 49 1.3
Bruce Carter WLB 48 -1.6 51 0.8
Anthony Hitchens SLB 5 -0.4 10 -0.3
Justin Durant SLB 47 0.2 DNP
Kyle Wilber SLB 4 0.1 12 -0.1

The improvement here is not as significant, with Carter's improvement being at least somewhat offset by a decline in R. McClain's grade. However, R. McClain's lower score comes from him getting a -2.3 in run defense. Yet he shows up as the highest ranked linebacker for run stop percentage, at 22.2%, in PFF's signature stats. No, I cannot explain how that works.

Wilber is still listed as a SAM linebacker, but according to Bob Sturm in his latest Decoding Marinelli post, he actually was rushing as a nickle defensive end. I'll leave him here for now.


Player Position 49ers snaps 49ers grade Titans snaps Titans grade
Tyrone Crawford DLE 33 -2.6 28 4.8
Nick Hayden DLT 33 0.7 27 1.3
Henry Melton DRT 26 0.9 26 2.8
Jeremy Mincey DRE 43 3.0 36 -0.4
George Selvie DLE 27 -1.6 23 0.2
Terrell McClain DLT DNP
19 -0.2
Davon Coleman DRT 33 -1.2 20 -0.9
Jack Crawford DRE DNP 13 -2.3

Here is where things start looking significantly better, particularly for the first four names listed, which are the starters. T. Crawford had the biggest jump, obviously, and the numbers indicate that, although the Cowboys only got two sacks in the game, they were bringing quite a bit of pressure on Jake Locker, and they were holding up well against the run. Even with Mincey's falloff, he and T. Crawford give Dallas the number 10 and 11 4-3 defensive ends in the league.

Henry Melton is at number nine for defensive tackles, which is really good for someone coming off surgery like he is, but to me, the biggest story of the defensive line, and one that is almost completely overlooked, is the drastic improvement of Nick Hayden. Last year, he was ranked 68th out of 69 DTs in the league. Now, he is 18th out of 68, or in the top third. That is absolutely huge, and proves that what many people - uh, including me - were saying about the team needing to part ways with him was, well, premature.

The big takeaway from all this: As a unit, this much-maligned defense is getting better week to week. This was a big jump from the first game, and they were not horrible then. The St. Louis Rams are up next, and they are just behind the Tennessee Titans in their offensive score at PFF. We should expect the numbers to remain similar for that game.

PFF numbers, as I stress, are a tool, not a universal answer. What they are showing right now is that the Cowboys defense is looking better, and on a positive trend. If this continues, it could mean good things in the future for Dallas.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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