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Patriots @ Cowboys Snap Counts: The 3-2-6 Defense And How Offense Lost It On Second Down

The defense unveiled an interesting new wrinkle, while the offense couldn't get anything done on third and second down.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The average number of plays per game in the NFL is 64.2 through the first five weeks of the 2015 season. If you thought the defense was on the field way too long on Sunday, you're right as a matter of principle, but not right as a matter of fact. Here's what Sunday's snap counts look like compared to the previous games.

Cowboys Snap Count by Week
Giants Eagles Falcons Saints Patriots
Offense 71 85 53 61 72
Defense 62 62 74 73 59
Differential +9 +23 -21 -12 +13

Normally, when the offense has a higher snap count than the defense, things have gone well for the Cowboys. Not so on Sunday. The defense had its lowest snap total of the year, and the offense had it second-highest snap count of the year. Yet something went very wrong.

On the topic of what's wrong, on to this week's snap count review of the offense.

Cowboys' Offensive Snap counts vs Saints (72 total snaps)
QB O-Line RB TE WR
Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps
Weeden 72
Smith 72 McFadden 32 Witten 72 Williams 61


Leary
72 Randle 29 Escobar 27 Street 52


Frederick 72 Clutts 6 Swaim
6 Beasley 48


Martin 72 Michael 1 Whitehead 22


Free 72

Mayle 4


Brown 1

Wilcox: one snap as the deep cover back on the kneel down to end the 2nd quarter

Last year, the Cowboys were one of the most successful offenses at converting third downs at a blistering pace of 47.3%, the second best value in the league. An equally important stat, but one that is almost never referenced anywhere, is the second down conversion rate. In 2014, the Cowboys had a 36.7% conversion rate on second downs, also the second-best value in the league.

Importantly, converting on second down allows teams to avoid third downs altogether, and for the 2014 Cowboys, this was a critical component to their high-flying offense: the 2014 achieved 127 first downs from second down situations, but only 96 from third down situations. Keeping drives alive (and avoiding 3-and-outs) hinges on achieving that next first down, be it on first, second, or third down.

Last night, the official stats show the Cowboys with a 4-for-14 third down conversion rate of 29%. That's not good by anybody's standards, but what really hurt the Cowboys was their performance on second downs, where they went 2-for-20 for a conversion rate of just 10%, the worst value any team posted yesterday.

Here's an overview of how the Cowboys achieved their 18 first downs yesterday.

Cowboys first down conversions vs. Patriots

1st 2nd 3rd 4th Penalty
Plays 30 20 14 2 - -
1st down 8 2 4 1 3
1st down %
25% 10% 29% 50% - -

We obviously need to put these numbers into context. The next table shows the conversion rates by down for all NFL teams through the first five weeks of the 2015 season, and also shows the data for the 2014 Cowboys offense, as well as the data for weeks 1-2 (Romo-led offense) and weeks 3-5 (Weeden-led offense).

First down conversion benchmarks

1st 2nd 3rd
NFL Avg. 2015
21.1 31.8 39.6
2014 Cowboys
20.4 36.7 47.8
2015 Romo-led offense (Wks 1-2) 22.4 35.4 43.5
2015 Weeden-led offense (Wks 3-5)
32.1 26.9 28.1

The Weeden-led offense is a little better on first downs, but bogs down significantly on second and third down. The conversion rates on 2nd and 3rd down are significantly below those of the Romo-led offenses (notice how the data for Romo teams is remarkably similar in 2014 and 2015) and below the league average.

Weeden is getting a lot of flak for last night's game, and perhaps deservedly so, but it's the performance of the entire offense that has changed, not just the QB's performance. Where the Romo-led offense was looking to gain big chunks of yardage (through the air or on the ground) regardless of down and distance, the priority over the last three weeks seems to have been to get into manageable third down situations. But that only works if you actually convert on third down, which the have struggled with.

Now on to yesterday's defensive snap counts.

Cowboys' Defensive Snap counts vs Saints (59 total snaps)
Defensive Tackles Defensive Ends Linebackers Cornerbacks Safeties
Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps
T. Crawford
41 Hardy 41 Lee 59 Carr 59 Wilcox 59
Hayden 23 Lawrence 34 McClain 52 Jones 57 Church 52


Mincey 27 Hitchens 10 Claiborne 54 Heath 6
J. Crawford 17 Wilber 3 White 49
Irving 6

This is probably one of the more interesting snap count summaries we've looked at in a while. Notice how the snap counts for the defensive tackles only sum up to 64? The defense saw only 59 plays, so that means the Cowboys were playing with just one DT most of the time. And it's not like the Cowboys simply moved a defensive end inside. The defensive ends only had 125 combined snaps, at 59 plays for the total defense, that's an average of just 2.1 DEs per play. So where's the fourth defensive lineman?

You'll find the answer in the 3-2-6 defense the Cowboys opened the game with. Here's who they lined up on the first defensive snap and in many subsequent snaps:

DT (1): Hayden

DE (2): Lawrence, Hardy

LB (2): McClain, Lee

CB (4): Carr, Claiborne, Jones, White

S (2): Wilcox, Church.

This specific 3-2-6 lineup would play 19 of the 59 total snaps, and the defense would line up in a 3-2-6 formation on at least 23 more snaps. For a defensive coordinator who likes to play a fairly basic defense as much as possible, this is a major step change. But it is also a sign of a lot of faith in the Sean Lee / Rolando McClain combo. Apparently the Cowboys felt good enough about McClain's and Lee's ability to stop the run inside that they simply did away with the second defensive tackle.

Whether this was a specific package designed for the Patriots, or whether this is something we'll see more of going forward remains to be seen, but they certainly didn't have an issue getting pressure on the passer from this formation and looked stout enough against inside runs.

Now if only the offense could find a way to innovate over the next two weeks like the defense just did.

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