Conversations about the Cowboys defense tend to quickly devolve into a Miller Light-style back and forth (“Great taste” - “Less filling”) where a stat purportedly showing how good (or bad) the defense was is quickly countered by a stat pointing out the opposite.
“The Cowboys defense ranked fifth in points allowed!”
“But they ranked 27th in interceptions!”
Cherry-picking your stats to make your point about the Cowboys defense isn't hard. In fact, it's quite easy, because the Cowboys defense is ranked all over the place. Some examples:
- 1st in rushing yards allowed
- 5th in points allowed
- 8th in goal-to-go percentage
- 13th in sacks
- 14th in total yards allowed
- 17th in defensive DVOA
- 18th in yards allowed per play
- 22nd in first downs allowed
- 24th in defensive passer rating
- 27th in interceptions
- 31st in opponent completion percentage
Taken by themselves, the stats above may help you make a point in an argument, but they don't help much in painting an accurate overall picture of the defense.
More importantly, not all of the stats above are relevant in assessing the Cowboys defense because of the particular scheme employed by Rod Marinelli and his (mostly) no-name defense.
Some still believe the Cowboys employ a Tampa-2 scheme (switch off the sound the next time you hear that) when they've employed a Cover-1 scheme for quite a while now. But regardless of the specific scheme (they also use Cover-3 and Cover-2 looks occasionally), the defensive objective has been clear throughout:
Stop the big play, force the offense to drive the ball, and don't give anything up for cheap.
"The one statistic that doesn't come out, that nobody ever talks about or nobody ever keeps, is hustle, hitting and discipline," Marinelli said recently. "Those are the ones that are important to me.”
If you can stop the big play, you force opposing offenses into long drives, and the chances for an offensive mistake increases with every snap. Sometimes this results in a lot of takeaways (the Cowboys had 31 takeaways in 2014, ranked No. 2 overall), sometimes not so much (20 takeaways in 2016, ranked 19th).
But instead of carping on the lack of takeaways, I'd like to look at how the Cowboys have defended the big play over time.
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.
In 2016, the Cowboys gave up 76 pass plays of 16+ yards, the 9th fewest in the league, and 25 rushing plays of 12+ yards, the 6th fewest in the league. Combined, the 101 big plays allowed in 2016 ranked the Cowboys 7th in the league.
Here's how that compares over the last four seasons:
|Big plays allowed passing:||111
|Big plays allowed rushing:||45
|Total league rank||31st||8th||12th||7th|
For all their limitations in getting takeaways the last two seasons, the Cowboys have been a borderline top 10 defense the last three years against the big play.
And defending the big play with such consistency over the last three years is not the result of a powerful offense (where did that go in 2015?). It is the result of scheme, it the result of coaching, it is the result of quality.
Unlike 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 happy to have Byron Jones patrolling centerfield, excited about Jourdan Lewis and a healthy Orlando Scandrick in the slot, and why you should pray for Jaylon Smith to get healthy).
A defense built to defend the big play will not always look good on the stat sheet. The defense will give up a lot of underneath yardage (the Cowboys allowed 254 pass completions of eight yards or less, more than any other team in the league), will give up a lot of passing yards (26th in the league), and will have a lot more stats that don't look great in fantasy football.
But by forcing the opponent to dink-and-dunk the ball up the field, this defense achieves its ultimate goal, preventing the other team from scoring. And in the end, that's all that counts.
Despite a significant turnaround in personnel, there's no reason to believe the basic configuration of this defense will change in 2017. Rod Marinelli will still prioritize defending the big play, and while that may not always look great on the stat sheet, it should be effective in preventing opposing offenses from scoring. Plus, this year's defense offers a potential upside over the 2016 defense: perhaps all the new faces brought in will help the team generate more takeaways.
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).
|2016||Offense: Big Plays per game||Defense: Big Plays per game||Big Play Differential|
|Team||Pass||Rush||Total Offense||Pass||Rush||Total Defense||Total Team|