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A Tale Of Two Halves? Dallas Defense Versus Atlanta Part 2: The Pass

The Dallas defense appeared to be holding their own against a very potent Atlanta offense. Then it all came unglued, suddenly and without warning. Or did it? What really happened against Atlanta?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 of this article, we took a look at some running plays scattered throughout the game and showed that the results were not nearly as one sided as they looked in either half. Some plays that were stops were poorly defended, but someone made an exceptional effort. Some plays that went for big gains were well defended, but a missed tackle, a player who lost his footing, or an uncalled penalty (which happen both ways-- part of the game) allowed a big gain.

This time around, we'll see some of the passing plays and how the Dallas Cowboys defense did and didn't fare well against the Atlanta Falcons.

Pass 1

This was the sack to close the first series out. Certainly a positive play, but only because of Atlanta's play call. That big red circle is the wide open space Julio Jones, covered by Brandon Carr, has to run in. Bryan Broaddus has always said that Carr's biggest weakness is carrying receivers across the field and this play proves no exception.

Fortunately for Dallas, Jones is the checkdown and not the primary read. Matt Ryan is looking left (red arrow) at his three receiver group and by the time he notices how open Jones is, the Dallas pass rush led by Lee and Crawford has gotten home.

Pass 2

Julio Jones was again open downfield on this third down pass play. DeMarcus Lawrence (blue circle) solidly beats his man, leaving the Falcons' right tackle on the ground and reaching in futility for  the departing Lawrence. The pressure causes Ryan to rush his throw and he misses short.

Pass 3

Left to right, the Cowboys' front seven in this picture is Andrew Gachkar, Ryan Russell, Anthony Hitchens, Ken Bishop, Davon Coleman, Kyle Wilber, and Jack Crawford. All second team (at best) across the board. Surely an entire front seven of backups caused Dallas to fail miserably?

Yes and no. The play is run action to the left, but Gachkar and Hitchens read it beautifully and the linemen all recover well. The four blue arrows are, left to right again, Gachkar, Hitchens, Russell, and Bishop, all of whom beat their blocks and cause what the official description of the play calls "severe pressure". Unfortunately for Dallas, Brandon Carr's inability to carry receivers across the field shows up again and Julio Jones runs all the way across the field to haul in a lobbed ball deep into the defensive right.

Pass 4

So what was the big difference in the halves? In a word, conversions. Dallas stopped the first three third down attempts by Atlanta and four of the first six (would've been five of six had it not been for a very weak holding call against Morris Claiborne). But after that first stop in the third quarter, Dallas never stopped Atlanta again. Instead they did things like the picture above. On 3rd and 3, Julio Jones lines up in the slot and gets a free release from Tyler Patmon (green check). Jones takes his route deep and Matt Ryan is already  winding up to throw for the red circle. Both of Dallas' safeties are caught napping.  J. J. Wilcox (blue arrow) sees Patmon beat but fails to close in time, perhaps expecting Barry Church (blue square) to come back in support as Wilcox has actually been given the defensive right and not a true single-high set up. Church, however, appears oblivious to the entire play and never drops to protect his side of the field at all, despite Jones running right by him and Ryan clearly looking right past him. 45 yard dagger to the heart of the defensive hopes.

Pass 5

And in another game of "shoulda, woulda, coulda," Dallas has successfully stopped two Devonta Freeman runs in a row and Atlanta had 3rd and 6. Tyrone Crawford (blue circle) and Nick Hayden are both pushing the pocket and Crawford has his man arching and turning. Crawford's man performs a sacrifice throw and drags Crawford to the ground with him (no flag... I honestly wish they'd just make holding legal so we could dispense with the inconsistencies) but Crawford gets close enough to flush Matt Ryan out. DeMarcus Lawrence appears to believe he is to run some kind of stunt as he keeps pushing into the middle of the mess. He collides with both Crawford and Hayden (blue arrows) before pushing through the middle. Had he gone ahead and taken a wide loop, Dallas would've gotten a stop and the ball back. Alas, by diving into the middle of the pile, he allowed Ryan an escape route. A horrible miss by Barry Church and Ryan gets 18 yards down the field before Sean Lee runs him down.

Of note, Damien Wilson took snaps as an edge rusher here (blue square) and didn't do a bad job of gaining the corner.

But giving up these third downs killed the Cowboys. The had opportunities to get off the field and prevent touchdowns and through penalty, missed tackles, and poor pursuit in the secondary, allowed Atlanta to continue where they shut down the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants before them.

Long story short, the defense is capable, but they failed to execute consistently. Possibly the least understood thing about the NFL is how much of "greatness" is merely consistency and how much "awfulness" is merely the lack of it. As has become a theme around these parts lately, the main point here is "do your job." This time, in counter-example.


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