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No way the Dallas Cowboys defense can be a top 10 unit. Or can it?

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The Cowboys have been better against the big play than you may think.

Indianapolis 500 Champion Takuma Sato Visits Texas Motor Speedway
Indy 500 Champion Takuma Sato thinks the Cowboys can be a Top 10 defense.
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway

You probably didn't know this, but last year the Cowboys had the number one defense in the NFL. At least in terms of passing yards allowed per completion (10.1 yards).

At the same time, they also were ranked dead last (tied with Tampa) in the league with the most pass completions allowed (371).

So much for that No. 1 defense, right?

Depending on your outlook for 2018, you'll likely dismiss one of these stats and accept the other. Cherry-picking your stats to make your point about the Cowboys defense isn’t hard. In fact, it’s quite easy, because the 2017 Cowboys defense was ranked all over the place. Some examples:

  • 1st in yards per completion (10.1)
  • 8th in total yards allowed (5,089)
  • 10th in percentage of drives resulting in scores (31.6%)
  • 14th in points allowed (332)
  • 15th in sacks (38)
  • 15th in yards allowed per play (5.1)
  • 16th in first downs allowed (312)
  • 24th in interceptions (10)
  • 26th in defensive passer rating (94.6)
  • 28th in opponent completion percentage (66.4%)
  • 32nd in completions allowed (371)

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.

Which is why today we'll look at a stat that ties a lot of the individual stats above together and should help to better understand why the stats above are all over the place, and why the Cowboys could well field a Top 10 defense in 2018, even as measured by some of the more conventional stats.

Importantly, because of the particular scheme employed by Rod Marinelli and his (mostly) no-name defense, not all of the stats above are relevant in assessing the Cowboys defense.

Some still believe the Cowboys employ a Tampa-2 scheme (switch off the sound the next time you hear that nonsense) 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 Marinelli's tenure:

Stop the big play, force the opposing 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 last year. “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 (21 takeaways in 2017, ranked 16th).

But instead of complaining about the lack of takeaways, let's 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 2017, the Cowboys gave up 62 pass plays of 16+ yards, the 6th fewest in the league, and allowed 39 rushing plays of 12+ yards, only the 29th fewest in the league. Combined, those 101 big plays allowed last season ranked the Cowboys 10th in the league.

Here’s how that compares over the last five seasons:

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Big plays allowed passing: 111
(32nd)
74
(8th)
78
(10th)
76
(9th)
62
(6th)
Big plays allowed rushing: 45
(29th)
35
(18th)
33
(21st)
25
(6th)
39
(29th)
Total league rank 31st 8th 12th 7th 10th

For all their limitations in getting takeaways recently, the Cowboys have been a borderline top 10 defense the last four years against the big play.

And defending the big play with such consistency over four years is not the result of a powerful offense (where did that go in 2015 and 2017?). It is the result of scheme, it is the result of coaching, and it is the result of quality talent.

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 linebackers who can drop back in coverage - which is why you should be happy to have Leighton Vander Esch potentially patrolling centerfield in 2018; Jerry certainly is.

Jerry Jones said Will McClay repeatedly told him this about Leighton Vander Esch: “This guy will get us some turnovers. He has that kind of instinct and that range.”

And fellow rookie Cedric Wilson adds this about his time with Vander Esch at Boise State:

“In most days, he shut down our offense in practice,” Wilson said. “I don’t know how you do that at linebacker.”

Why are we making such a big deal of Vander Esch here? Because he can potentially plug the biggest hole on the 2018 Cowboys defense: Sean Lee missing games due to injury.

Last year, Sean Lee missed five games (vs Rams, vs Packers, @ Falcons, vs Eagles, vs Chargers). The Cowboys lost all five games and allowed 32.4 points per game. In the 11 games Lee started, the Cowboys were 9-2 and allowed an average of just 15.5 points per game. Had the Cowboys maintained that 15.5 average over 16 games, they'd have been the No. 1 ranked defense ahead of the Vikings (15.8), Jaguars (16.6), and Chargers (17.0). Think about that.

Here's an overview of the defensive big plays with and without Lee. The rankings show where the Cowboys would have ranked with Lee's availability/unavailability extrapolated to 16 games.

Cowboys Big Plays allowed 2017 with Lee 2017 without Lee
Big plays allowed passing: 34
(1st)
28
(30th)
Big plays allowed rushing: 24
(21st)
15
(32nd)
Total league rank 3rd 32nd
W/L Record 9-2 0-5

The popular narrative is that the disappointing 2017 season is due to some kind of sophomore slump by Dak Prescott, the seeming inability of the receivers to get open, Tyron Smith's absence, or Ezekiel Elliott's suspension. But Lee's absence due to injuries may top all of those.

Of course, it wasn't Lee alone who stopped all the big plays, though he did stop some. Lee is the defensive play-caller and leader of the defense, and the defense wasn't nearly as efficient without his contributions on the field, and opposing offenses took full advantage.

But here's the thing that will have some fans moaning and whining about the 2018 defense even if Lee plays all 16 games: A defense built to defend the big play will almost never look good on the stat sheet.

A big-play defense will give up a lot of underneath yardage (the Cowboys allowed 238 pass completions of eight yards or less, more than any other team in the league), will give up a lot of completions (32nd in the league), and will have a lot more stats that don’t look great for minds conditioned by 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 coaching and player personnel, there’s no reason to believe the basic configuration of this defense will change in 2018. 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 lot of potential upside over the 2017 defense:

  • They addressed their top defensive need (Lee's availability) by drafting Vander Esch. Plus Jaylon Smith is looking very good in OTAs this year.
  • The young defensive backs came on strong towards the end of the season, and should look even better with one more year of experience. Plus switching Byron Jones back to corner may add additional upside, even if that leaves some question marks at safety.
  • The defensive line should be better than last year, even if Maliek Collins suffered a foot fracture that will likely see him miss parts of training camp. Plus, there's the possibility of Randy Gregory returning, which makes the D-line room one of the most crowded on the team.

Dave Halprin recently opined that the Cowboys linebackers could be the strength of the defense in 2018, and if the trio of Lee, Vander Esch, and Smith can live up to expectations and stay healthy, the Cowboys should be easily able to field a Top 10 defense.

You may not want to believe it, but all the pieces are in place for the Cowboys defense to be a top 10 unit. Even without Earl Thomas, though adding him wouldn't hurt.

At the end of the day, it's all about preventing the big play.


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).

2017 Offense: Big Plays Defense: Big Plays Big Play Differential
Team Pass Rush Total Offense Pass Rush Total Defense Total Team
MIN 80 32 112 58 12 70 42
NWE 112 33 145 76 32 108 37
ATL 89 41 130 68 31 99 31
PHI 68 47 115 61 26 87 28
NOR 97 39 136 77 31 108 28
JAX 79 37 116 56 33 89 27
LAC 92 28 120 56 38 94 26
DEN 75 29 104 61 18 79 25
SEA 77 35 112 66 31 97 15
ARI 91 17 108 71 23 94 14
PIT 88 30 118 74 32 106 12
TEN 69 32 101 79 17 96 5
CLE 79 36 115 76 35 111 4
SFO 81 35 116 79 34 113 3
LAR 82 36 118 82 37 119 -1
CHI 60 39 99 73 28 101 -2
DET 93 20 113 84 31 115 -2
KAN 78 38 116 82 41 123 -7
TAM 97 19 116 87 37 124 -8
DAL 52 39 91 62 39 101 -10
OAK 70 25 95 75 31 106 -11
HOU 71 30 101 75 37 112 -11
BUF 57 48 105 76 41 117 -12
CAR 70 34 104 85 32 117 -13
WAS 77 19 96 77 33 110 -14
BAL 51 35 86 79 28 107 -21
CIN 62 24 86 69 38 107 -21
NYJ 65 32 97 91 27 118 -21
GNB 59 31 90 86 30 116 -26
NYG 54 27 81 76 37 113 -32
MIA 62 21 83 82 41 123 -40
IND 56 30 86 94 37 131 -45