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Cowboys defense shutting down big plays like it’s nobody’s business

Good luck going deep against the Cowboys this year.

Dallas Cowboys v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

When the Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin in 2013 as defensive coordinator, one of the first things he told his players was to go watch film of the Seahawks defense, because that was what the Dallas Cowboys new 4-3 defensive scheme was going to look like.

Kiffin’s tenure was mercifully short, and once Rod Marinelli (some people still insist on calling him a Tampa-2 coach) took over, Marinelli morphed the defense into a man-heavy Cover 1 defense, but also used a lot of the Seattle-style Cover 3 zone defense.

Now that former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard is calling the defensive plays in Dallas, the Cowboys defense has more than just a passing resemblance to the Seattle defense.

One of the staples of the Seahawks/Pete Carroll defenses has been their success against big plays. In fact, defending big plays is the top item on a three-item list of Pete Carroll’s defensive priorities.


A recent unpublished NFL Study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game, and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on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.

The 2018 Cowboys are living up to Carroll’s directive. So far this season, the defense has allowed just 28 big passing plays, the lowest total of any team in the league. That won’t stop many Cowboys fans from believing the apocalypse is upon us every time the opponent completes a pass of 16+ yards, and that happens on average four times a game, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Cowboys defense is highly effective at shutting down big passing plays.

Just for reference, the NFL average allowed so far this year is 42 big passing plays per team, and the Bengals and Chiefs lead the league with 58 big passing plays allowed.

On the ground, the Cowboys have allowed 14 runs of 12+ yards, which ranks them seventh overall in the league. If we look at the combined number of big plays, through the air and on the ground, the Cowboys are allowing six big plays per game, the third-lowest value in the league behind the Bears (5.6) and Texans (5.9). Here are those those big plays allowed by game:

Big plays allowed CAR NYG SEA DET HOU JAC WAS Per game
16+ yard passes 1 4 4 7 4 4 4 4.0
12+ yard runs 5 0 1 2 1 1 4 2.0
Total Big Plays 6 4 5 9 5 5 8 6.0

The focus on defending the big play has obviously worked so far, as the Cowboys defense is allowing just 17.6 points per game, the second-best value in the league.

A defense built to defend the big play will not always look good on the stat sheet. The Cowboys defense is ranked 26th with a 98.6 defensive passer rating, and when we look at all pass plays that gained less than 16 yards, we get some startling numbers:

  • The Cowboys have allowed 175 completions of 15 yards or less, the second-highest value in the league.
  • They are allowing an average of 6.31 yards on those passes, the fifth-highest value in the league.
  • And those completions lead to the fifth-highest first-down conversion percentage of 43.4.

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.

Unlike takeaways, the ability to defend big plays is something that you can plan and scheme for. You need a defensive line that generates pressure on the passer, 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. And ideally you have two corners that can shut down the deep plays outside. And the numbers suggest that Cowboys have a lot of that in place, even if many observers might not share that assessment.

Per Football Outsiders and their DVOA metric, the Cowboys rank fifth overall on deep passes (deep passes go 16 or more yards through the air) and 30th on short passes (passes going up to 15 yards through the air). By direction, they are outstanding on deep passes to the left where they are ranked number one (thank you Byron Jones), they are okay on deep passes to the right where they are ranked 13th (keep grinding, Chidobe), and suck on deep passes up the middle, where they are ranked 29th (helloooo Earl Thomas in 2019?).

Despite the ongoing transition from Rod Marinelli to Kris Richard, there’s no reason to believe the basic configuration of this defense will change going forward. The Cowboys will continue to defend 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.

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