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How The Cowboys Defense Has Done So Well Without A Top Pass Rush

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Despite a lack of pass rush the Cowboys have managed to be viable on defense. Here's how.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Dallas Cowboys finished 22nd in the NFL in sack rate, managing a sack on 5.8% of their opponents passing plays, Through six games in 2016, the team sits 23rd in the league with a sack on 4.6% of the opponents drop backs. While the issues of pass rush futility have at the very least carried over into the new year, the Cowboys defense has managed to surrender only 17.8 points per game, good enough for seventh in the league.

The success of the Dallas' defense has largely been a result of extremely high level play from the members of the back seven of the defense, principally the defensive backs.

With the high level  of play from the defensive backfield, and the lack of productivity from the defensive line, it appears that Rod Marinelli, Matt Eberflus and the rest of the defensive staff have come up with an unorthodox solution that has caused problems for every opposing quarterback through the first six games of the year.  Rather than attempting to put pressure on quarterbacks with defensive line play, or with exotic and creative blitz packages, they have decided to create pressure by eliminating throwing lanes and forcing them to read their entire progression and make very tight throws.

Personnel:

Most teams in the NFL spend a majority of their snaps in nickel personnel, with five defensive backs, and some combination of six defensive linemen and linebackers. The rest is spent in base personnel, with four defensive backs and a "front seven" of defensive line and linebackers, while sprinkling in a sixth defensive back for a snap or two here and there for dime personnel. Dallas, however, has leaned more heavily on their dime personnel group.

Here is the break down of personnel for the Dallas defense (courtesy of BTB's own OCC of course):

Personnel # of snaps in %
Base (4 DBs) 60 16%
Nickel (5 DBs) 213 58%
Dime (6 DBs) 94 26%
Total 367 100%

Within these large buckets there are, of course, smaller breakdowns distinguished by the number of cornerbacks versus safeties etc. One of these sub-groups within the dime defense that the Cowboys have used rather often is a "Big Ruby" group that's a variation of dime which features 3 DL, 2 LB, 3 S and 3 CB.  This puts their most athletic group on the field, and allows them to play their go-to coverage.

When Basic Becomes Creative

The Cowboys base coverage for the last three seasons has been Cover-1 or Man-Free, which simplistically explained, is man-to-man coverage on every eligible receiver, with a free safety in the deep middle of the field, and often an underneath middle player (either a linebacker or strong safety). This year has been no different, except for a small variation.

Here I have illustrated Dallas in their "Big Ruby" package, against 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) offense in a 2x2 formation. The red squares illustrate the man-to-man matchups. One weakness of Dallas' cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr over the last few years has been inside breaking routes. By rushing only three, Dallas is able to play Cover-1 while providing extra help for the corners.

Having three players (2 LBs and a S) in the short middle of the field, the Dallas defense is able to sort out any type of release from the running back without being out leveraged, while still clogging up inside throwing lanes. If the running back were to release to the offenses right, Will linebacker Sean Lee would take him and Barry Church would take over Lee's underneath responsibility.

This is the type of coverage where Byron Jones' unique combination of size, freakish athleticism, and corner-style man-to-man cover skills becomes a huge advantage for the Cowboys. They are able to line him up on opposing tight ends and basically wipe them off the field, eliminating a major weapon in many modern NFL passing games, especially in pure passing situations.

Here's an example of Dallas playing "Big Ruby Cover-1" in the Cowboys Week 6 win over the Green Bay Packers.