Are you impressed with the Cowboys defense? Well, you should be. While people are attempting to downplay their performance that held the New York Giants to just three points, the level of play on Sunday night cannot be disregarded. Yes, the Giants offensive line is terrible. Yes, New York’s most explosive offensive weapon, Odell Beckham Jr., was not playing. Those two factors alone are going to make it hard for the Giants to win games. But we’re not just talking about beating the Giants. We are talking about shutting them down.
Mickey Spagnola pointed out these interesting stats about the Cowboys defense prior to the Giants last drive in garbage time where the game was essentially over. The Cowboys led 19-3 with just under two minutes to play in the game. The Giants would dink and dunk their way to midfield, but before that drive, the numbers show utter dominance.
Total yards: 173
Eli Manning passing yards: 160
Rushing yards: 36
First downs: 10
Third down conversions: 3 of 10
The Cowboys suffocating defense was a collective effort on Sunday. They got pressure from their defensive line, great patrolling by their linebackers, and a secondary that clamped down on the receivers.
1. Zone Coverage - the right way
Rod Marinelli has had a lot of success in his career with the zone coverage scheme, but it’s been a struggle at times in Dallas. Part of that has to do with the tools he’s had available to him. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne were brought to Dallas before Marinelli showed up. They are physical corners and fit better with man coverage schemes. So the Cowboys eventually adjusted their scheme to fit their players strengths.
But those guys are no longer the Cowboys starting cornerbacks. Gone with them could be a lot of man coverage game plans.
Eli Manning said the Cowboys played less man coverage tonight than in 2016. Said Dallas had a good plan.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 11, 2017
There were several times where Eli’s passes would be thrown just outside his receivers catch radius. On the surface, it looked like Manning was just off with his throws. Upon additional review, what you saw was Cowboys defenders clouding his throwing lanes. He was trying to fit the ball in a tight window, but had to adjust his passes to avoid them getting picked. Sean Lee is such an amazing run stopper, but he did a remarkable job playing coverage.
Even on the one interception Manning threw, it wasn’t out of carelessness. Anthony Brown actually tricked Eli by making him think he was heading to the outside to cover Sterling Shepard, but then quickly bounced back inside to jump ahead of the pass.
And anytime passes were completed, the Cowboys had defenders right there to wrap them up. There were no big yards after the catch that typically are seen from the Giants receivers when they beat their defender in man coverage.
Brown, Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, and Orlando Scandrick (for the nine snaps he played) - all deserve a lot of credit for sticking their assignments. The only big passing play the Giants really had was when Roger Lewis found space between Carroll and Kavon Frazier on a deep out route during their opening drive of the second half.
Manning was under pressure a lot on Sunday night, but some of that had to do with him just not having an open receiver to throw the ball to.
2. Speed kills
Jason Garrett always preaches how they’re always striving to get better, not just from a talent perspective, but from the coaching staff as well. The performance of Chidobe Awuzie validates this theory. The team has cycled out older middling corners with younger guys with a higher ceiling who can be coached up to be strong players. And the coaches are using them to their strengths. The Giants first-round tight end, Evan Engram, was expected to be a matchup nightmare. But he had a relatively quiet night, and a lot of that had to do with how the Cowboys defended him.
33 as the dime backer covering engram... smooth pic.twitter.com/Sg2YhCgT7Q— ✭FootballSzn Lando✭ (@McCoolBTB) September 12, 2017
Back in June, I wrote a piece about how the Cowboys new coaching staff in the secondary (new last season) could be the secret ingredient to a Super Bowl caliber defense.
The loss of Carr, Claiborne, Church, and even Wilcox may seem a little concerning considering how well they all performed last year, but that’s too much of a coincidence to just give all these players full credit. The coaches had something to do with it as well. If it’s true that the Baker/Jackson combo is now the winning ticket in Dallas, then you have to love their chances with so many young players with potential.
Were the Cowboys really just that lucky with sixth-round pick Anthony Brown or is it possible that he was coached up to play at the level he played? Too many things went right for the Cowboys secondary to call it a fluke or chalk it up to chance that so many mediocre players elevated their game to a level we hadn’t seen before.
The Cowboys got strong play from their secondary players last season. It's not a coincidence. There are two big reasons for that. pic.twitter.com/Db2EtQpsMc— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) June 19, 2017
So here we are again and the Cowboys secondary looks pretty impressive with different guys in the mix. The Cowboy finally have the right defensive game plan going and the players around who can execute it.
3. The New Look
So much is made about the how the Cowboys remodeled their secondary after the departure of four veteran free agents. But it doesn’t stop there. While the changes haven’t been sudden, the Cowboys have been plugging away at getting new pieces in place for their defense. VAfan did a nice job breaking down the defensive snap counts and if you look closely at the players, it may come as a surprise to you how many new faces the team relied on Sunday night. Here are the percentages of snap counts played by experience on the team.
One thing to note, Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper are counted as first-year players since they each made the NFL debut against the Giants after missing last year recovering from an injury. So over a third of the defense snaps were made up by guys playing in their first regular season game as a Cowboy. And essentially 3/5 of the snaps on defense were handled by newly drafted players and free agents brought in over the last two years. Even Byron Jones, who played on every defensive snap, is only in his third year.
And the veterans that are out there - they are playing well and you can see why the coaching staff has kept them around. Sean Lee makes a play on almost every down. Orlando Scandrick and Byron Jones are the best players at the corner and safety positions respectively. And even DeMarcus Lawrence, who was the only 3+ years player on the defensive line in the top five in snap counts, had a phenomenal game with two sacks.
All this cycling through the organization is doing appears to be working.