In his press conference prior the second day of minicamp, Jason Garrett was asked a question about Rolando McClain's contribution to the defense in 2014, which Garrett deftly turned into an answer about the team.
Q: When you look back at your defense last year, what's the best thing Rolando McClain did?
Garrett: I think we played well as a defense, and Rolando was certainly a part of that. We improved in so many different areas. I think the best thing we did is we improved in the number of big plays that we gave up, both in the running game and the passing game. So I think collectively, the big throws down the field were minimized, I thought we tackled better, and Rolando was certainly a part of that defense and how we played as a unit.
Big plays are something that Garrett has stressed throughout his tenure in Dallas, and we've occasionally looked at how well the Cowboys have done in limiting big plays (see 2013's "Dallas Cowboys Giving Up Big Plays Like It's Nobody's Business").
So today felt like a good day to look at how good the Cowboys were in limiting big plays last year, partly because Garrett gave us the soundbite, but partly also because it's something the Seahawks also talk about a lot.
When the Cowboys switched to the 4-3 defense in 2013, players were asked to go watch film of the Seahawks defense, and Rod Marinelli built his defense along a lot of the same lines that Pete Carroll did in Seattle. And one of Peter Carroll' defensive priorities is about eliminating the big play, which is the top item on his three-item list of defensive priorities:
|#1 ELIMINATE THE BIG PLAY|
A recent unpublished NFL Study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game, and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on determining the outcome.
Give up either an explosive run or pass play in any given drive and the opposition will score over 75% of the time for the period studied. Conversely, if the defense limits the opposition to 3 big plays in the game or less, the offense will only generate 8.6 points per game on average.
In 2013, the Cowboys gave up 111 pass plays of 16+ yards, the most in the league, and 45 rushing plays of 12+ yards, the third most in the league. Combined, the 156 big plays allowed in 2013 ranked the 8-8 Cowboys 31st in the league, barely ahead of the 8-8 Chicago Bears with 162. Those 156 big plays translate into 9.8 big plays allowed per game.
So how much did the Cowboys improve in 2014?
Looking at last year's defensive performance, we see that the Cowboys allowed a lot fewer big plays, averaging just 6.8 big plays allowed per game, which ranks them 9th overall in the league. Here are the details:
- Big plays allowed passing: 4.6 per game (74 total), ranked 8th
- Big plays allowed rushing: 2.2 per game (35 total), ranked 18th
For all their limitations as a pass defense, the 2014 Cowboys have done really well against big plays through the air. The best team in the league (not surprisingly, the Seahawks) allowed only 3.5 big plays through the air per game.
In 2013, the Cowboys were the 26th-ranked scoring defense, and jumped all the way to 15th in 2014. For some reason, it's become fashionable in some circles to discount that performance as a fluke. Pundits have pointed to the Cowboys 31 takeaways from 2014 as something that's bound to regress in 2015 (probably true) and have used that to infer that the defensive performance in 2014 was a lot of smoke and mirrors and not sustainable going forward (total bollocks).
Back to Pete Carroll and defending the big play::
"Sorry math and stat phobes, USC coaches both track and hang their hat on this notion, and it is the #1 base principle for secondary play. USC annually leads the Pac-10 in not allowing big plays on defense."
Contrary to takeaways, which have a large element of randomness to them, the ability to defend big plays is something that you can plan and scheme for. You need good safety/nickel corner play to defend the big play up the middle (which is why the Cowboys are so excited about Byron Jones), and you need a middle linebacker who can drop back in coverage, which Rolando McClain did very well last year - much to the chagrin of Pete Carroll:
In total, the Cowboys jumped from 31st overall in 2013 to a top ten rank in 2014 in terms of big plays allowed. That is indeed a significant improvement, one that Jason Garrett is rightly proud of. And if the talent-infused 2015 iteration of the defense can improve on that, then great things await the Cowboys this year
And for those of you curious about such things, you can play around with the data via the Game Play Finder on Pro-Football-Reference.com or in the sortable table below (just click on the blue column headers to sort).
|2014||Offense: Big Plays per game||Defense: Big Plays per game|
|Team||Pass||Rush||Total Offense||Pass||Rush||Total Defense|