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2015 Cowboys Defense Was Better Against The Big Play Than You May Think

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Some reports suggest that the 2016 Dallas Cowboys defense will be in dire straits. A deep dive into the numbers shows that may not be the case.

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To my eternal mystification, the Cowboys defense is being given in inordinate amount of blame for last year's 4-12 finish, despite the team featuring a trio of quarterbacks with six left hands in Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore.

Many point to the league-low 11 takeaways as the key reason why the defense should receive a large portion of the blame, and while that certainly had an impact on the outcome of games, Bob Sturm of the Dallas Morning News pointed out last week that teams playing from behind generate much less takeaways than teams playing with a lead.

If we believe that most interceptions and sacks happen when a team is ahead and the other team has to force the issue with determined passes and the defense not worrying about your running game, then we can quickly see that the Cowboys defense was never in this position [to create a lot of takeaways].

Today, instead of carping on the lack of takeaways, I'd like to focus on another aspect of the defensive performance the Cowboys place a lot of emphasis on: big plays.

The Cowboys consider any reception of 16 yards or more a "big play". Any run of 12 or more yards falls into the same category.

"It’s certainly been a big point of emphasis for us," Garrett said. "That’s one of the things we believe wins and loses games in the National Football League. The ball is critical with turnover ratio, but certainly big plays are really a close second to that.

"If you look at drives in this league, when you make big plays, typically you score. If you prevent big plays, it’s hard for teams to score against you."

When the Cowboys switched to the 4-3 defense in 2013, then defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin told his players to go watch film of the Seahawks defense, because that was what the Dallas Cowboys’ new 4-3 defensive scheme would look like. Cowboys fans at the time hustled to read up on the Seahawks defense, and one of the bookmarks I kept from that time was to an article that detailed Pete Carroll's defensive priorities. The top item on that three-item list of 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A recent unpublished NFL Study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game, and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on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 Cowboys 31st in the league. Those 156 big plays translated into 9.8 explosive big allowed per game.

In 2014, the Cowboys allowed 74 big passing plays, the eighth fewest in the league. They allowed 35 runs of 12+ yards, ranked 18th. Combined, the 109 big plays, or 6.8 per game, ranked the Cowboys eighth overall.

So how did the defense fare in 2015?

Looking at last year's defensive performance, we see that the Cowboys allowed an almost identical number of big plays as they did in 2014 (111 total big plays). Here are the details:

  • Big plays allowed passing: 4.9 per game (78 total), ranked 10th
  • Big plays allowed rushing: 2.1 per game (33 total), ranked 21st

For all their limitations in getting takeaways, the 2015 Cowboys defense did just as well against the big play as it did in 2014, allowing just two more big plays all season than the year before. Their 6.9 big plays allowed per game ranks them 12th overall in 2015.

The top two teams in the league last year were the Broncos (5.4 big plays per game) and Seahawks (5.6), which brings us 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, 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 and you need a middle linebacker who can drop back in coverage (which is why you should be excited about Byron Jones, hope that Rolando McClain stays clean, and pray for Jaylon Smith to get healthy).

In 2015, the Cowboys defense maintained its position as a borderline Top 10 unit against the big play - for the second year in a row. That's a good place to be in heading into the 2016 season And if the offense can hold up its end of the bargain with a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, along with one of the league's best O-lines and a RB room fortified with the fourth overall pick in the draft, the takeaways will come for the defense.

Because here's the other side of the coin: While 2014 offense ranked fourth overall with 8.3 big plays per game, the 2015 offense dropped to 20th overall with just 6.9 big plays per game.

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And for those of you curious about such things, you can play around with the big play 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).

2015 Offense: Big Plays per game Defense: Big Plays per game
Team Pass Rush Total Offense Pass Rush Total Defense
Arizona 6.0 2.7 8.7 4.9 2.1 6.6
Atlanta 5.4 1.9 7.4 5.0 1.7 6.7
Baltimore 5.6 1.8 7.4 4.9 1.3 6.3
Buffalo 4.4 3.3 7.7 5.6 1.9 7.5
Carolina 5.1 2.6 7.7 4.8 1.6 6.3
Chicago 4.7 1.5 6.2 4.8 2.0 6.8
Cincinnati 5.3 1.9 7.2 4.8 1.6 6.3
Cleveland 5.1 1.6 6.7 5.3 2.5 7.8
Dallas 4.5 2.4 6.9 4.9 2.1 6.9
Denver 5.1 2.1 7.2 4.0 1.4 5.4
Detroit 5.8 1.3 7.1 5.5 2.1 7.6
Green Bay 5.3 2.1 7.3 4.7 2.4 7.1
Houston 4.6 2.1 6.8 4.6 1.8 6.4
Indianapolis 4.6 1.4 6.1 6.1 2.6 8.7
Jacksonville 6.2 1.8 8.0 5.9 2.1 7.9
Kansas City 4.2 2.4 6.6 5.3 1.6 6.9
Miami 5.1 2.1 7.3 5.4 2.4 7.8
Minnesota 4.9 2.4 7.3 4.7 1.9 6.6
New Orleans 6.7 1.6 8.3 5.4 3.3 8.7
New England 5.9 1.4 7.3 5.6 1.8 7.3
NY Giants 5.1 1.5 6.6 6.7 1.9 8.6
NY Jets 5.9 2.4 8.3 5.3 1.8 7.1
Oakland 5.2 1.7 6.9 5.4 1.9 7.4
Philadelphia 5.2 2.0 7.2 5.8 2.4 8.2
Pittsburgh 6.3 2.0 8.3 5.8 1.8 7.6
San Diego 5.4 1.2 6.6 5.4 2.4 7.8
Seattle 5.3 2.6 7.9 4.9 1.1 5.6
San Francisco 4.3 1.9 6.2 5.8 2.0 7.8
St. Louis 3.3 2.8 6.1 5.0 2.7 7.7
Tampa Bay 6.1 2.6 8.7 5.2 1.9 7.1
Tennessee 5.1 1.6 6.6 5.1 2.0 7.1
Washington 5.5 1.4 6.9 5.4 2.3 7.7