The Dallas Cowboys defense is where snap counts tend to be the most interesting, because defense tends to use more substitutions and rotations than you have on offense. We’re going to break it down by position group to see what’s going on. This is for week nine, a game where the offense was needed for a 35-30 victory at Pittsburgh.
Overall, the defensive snap counts were way up, with Pittsburgh often operating in a no-huddle attack. The defense played 74 snaps, up from 44 against Cleveland. The yardage surrendered was a season-high 448, or almost double the 223 they held Cleveland to. Pittsburgh converted four of 10 third downs. Dallas got one sack, but no turnovers, when Byron Jones couldn’t grab a bouncing Steelers’ fumble forced by DeMarcus Lawrence.
It should have been the ninth consecutive game the Cowboys have not allowed a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver, but Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown put up 55 empty yards in the last nine seconds of the game. Le’Veon Bell had 134 combined yards, but only 57 yards on the ground, for 3.4 ypc. Overall, Dallas is third best in rushing yards per game surrendered, though this may be a factor of all the leads Dallas has had.
Dallas slipped from fourth to eighth in points per game at 18.9, but leads the NFL in points per game differential at 9.8.
The Defensive Line
The starting four were the same: Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Maliek Collins, and Jack Crawford. Here are the overall counts (out of 74 snaps):
- Tyrone Crawford, 57 snaps. No stats.
- DeMarcus Lawrence, 49 snaps. Four tackles, one sack, one additional tackle for loss, one quarterback hit, one forced fumble.
- David Irving, 41 snaps. One tackle.
- Maliek Collins, 33 snaps. No stats.
- Terrell McClain, 33 snaps. Three tackles.
- Jack Crawford, 25 snaps. One tackle.
- Cedrick Thornton, 22 snaps. No stats.
- Ryan Davis, 18 snaps. No stats.
- Benson Mayowa, inactive.
What happened to Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton, and Ryan Davis in this game? DeMarcus Lawrence and Terrell McClain seemed to be the only guys up front making plays. Yet Pittsburgh wasn’t able to run the ball, with a total of 48 net yards on 19 carries.
This week, Sean Lee missed a play for 99%, Justin Durant played 51%, Anthony Hitchens played 47%, and Damien Wilson appeared in 11% of the plays. Kyle Wilber got into one play. The other linebackers only played on special teams. Last week, it looked as if Hitchens was the solid #2 guy, over Durant, with Wilson coming on. This week it looks like it reverted to the previous balance.
- Sean Lee, 73 snaps. Nine tackles, two tackles for loss.
- Justin Durant, 38 snaps. Two tackles, one QB hit.
- Anthony Hitchens, 35 snaps. Five tackles.
- Damien Wilson, 11 snaps. Two tackles.
- Kyle Wilber, 1 snap. No stats.
Sean Lee remains the playmaker at linebacker. It appears as if he also took out Orlando Scandrick with another friendly-fire concussion.
No Mo Claiborne or Barry Church for the second game in a row. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 408 net yards and three touchdowns, though in fairness, 55 of those yards came in the last nine seconds of the game when a Cowboys’ victory was assured. Without those plays to Antonio Brown, Dallas would have kept it’s streak of games without 100-yard receivers alive for another week.
Cracks appeared in the secondary, especially after Orlando Scandrick went out under the concussion protocol. As mentioned above, it appears that Sean Lee hit him on a co-tackle. Leon McFadden was forced to play 17 snaps, and was left one-on-one for the fake spike TD pass to Antonio Brown that might have sealed the game for Pittsburgh with 42 seconds left.
The defensive player of the game was Byron Jones, who also played all 74 plays.
- Byron Jones, 74 snaps. Twelve tackles, one tackle for loss, one fumble recovery attempt that slipped through his hands.
- JJ Wilcox, 73 snaps. Eight tackles, one pass defense.
- Brandon Carr, 72 snaps. Three tackles.
- Anthony Brown, 63 snaps. Five tackles.
- Orlando Scandrick, 57 snaps. Five tackles. Went out in the fourth quarter under the concussion protocol.
- Jeff Heath, 22 snaps. Two tackles.
- Leon McFadden, 17 snaps. One tackle.
Two-point conversion failure
One of the most bizarre parts of this game was that Pittsburgh went for two after each of its four TDs, and failed every time. This certainly had an effect on the late-game strategy/pressure, as Dallas was never behind by more than a point in the fourth quarter. Dallas also failed twice to convert two-point tries, which left Pittsburgh within five. Had the game been “normal”, the scores would have been:
- Pittsburgh 7, Dallas 0
- Pittsburgh 7, Dallas 3
- Pittsburgh 14, Dallas 3
- Pittsburgh 14, Dallas 10
- Pittsburgh 14, Dallas 13
- Pittsburgh 17, Dallas 13
- Pittsburgh 20, Dallas 13
- Pittsburgh 20, Dallas 16
- Dallas 23, Pittsburgh 20
- Pittsburgh 27, Dallas 23
- Dallas 30, Pittsburgh 27
- Pittsburgh 34, Dallas 30
- Dallas 37, Pittsburgh 34
On both fourth quarter drives, Dallas would have been down four points, needing a touchdown, with a field goal not enough. On the first drive, there was plenty of time to secure the lead. But what about the last drive? One would expect Pittsburgh would have left some safeties in the middle of the field, and Dallas wouldn’t have run the ball.
So, if you are thinking the defense didn’t have it’s best game, remember the two-pointers that all failed.
There are six special teams: field goal kicks and blocks, kick off returns and coverage, and punt returns and coverage.
Field Goal Kicks and Blocks
These teams are made up mostly of offensive and defensive linemen and tight ends, plus the long snapper, holder and kicker, and some speed guys for the edge. I mostly want to focus on the other teams.
Kick Off and Punt Returns and Coverage
Bob Sturm broke down the kick off teams for the Giants game, complete with screen shots of the coverage and return units. It is largely the same guys on the punt return and coverage groups.
- Jeff Heath, 25 snaps
- Damien Wilson, Kyle Wilber, 24
- Andrew Gachkar, 22
- Anthony Brown, Leon McFadden, 14
- JJ Wilcox, Byron Jones, Keith Smith, 12
- Kavon Frazier, 11
- Gavin Escobar, Lucky Whitehead, 10
Special teams played a significant role in this game. Dan Bailey hit three field goals, including a 53-yard field goal, one of the longest ever at Heinz Field.
Lucky Whitehead had a 39-yard punt return that set Dallas up for it’s third quarter touchdown to take the lead. He also returned a kickoff for 30 yards.
Chris Jones out-punted his Pittsburgh rival, 48.3 to 43.5, with a 41 to 32.5 net. Dallas’s coverage was okay. Anthony Brown had a 22-yard punt return, and Pittsburgh had a 33-yard kickoff return.