If you watched the Fox broadcast of the Cowboys game against the Eagles on Sunday, you might have been surprised to see how well the Dallas defense ranks in various statistical categories. Even after the loss on Sunday, the Cowboys rank 11th in total yards, 11th in scoring defense, 11th in passing defense, and 14th in rushing defense. Having a defense that ranks just outside the top ten in every category should be pretty nice.
But for fans who have watched every game this year, it certainly doesn’t seem like that’s actually been the case. And in fact it hasn’t been. Coming into the pivotal division matchup, Dallas ranked 22nd in defensive DVOA, which accounts for other factors like strength of opponent, consistency, and value of each play. The Cowboys also ranked 18th in run defense DVOA and 23rd in pass defense DVOA. That they had the 30th ranked strength of schedule doesn’t help out either.
These more advanced metrics point to the truth that the eye test has showed all year long: the defense is bad. Now, there are plenty of reasons to explain this drastic regression from last year’s dominant defense: some relate to scheme or technique, others relate to player performance and injury, and others boil down to coaching. And to that end, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and defensive play-caller Kris Richard have drawn a lot of ire for their unit’s poor performance.
On Sunday, things might have hit a new low. That’s a strange thing to say after a game in which the defense held the opponent to just 17 points. With the Cowboys down 10-6, the Eagles had the ball and had driven down inside the ten-yard line. Rookie running back Miles Sanders took a first down run up the middle to the one-yard line, and then the defense held strong. But on third and goal from the one, this is the defense Richard called:
Even before this ball is snapped, the Cowboys have made things hard on themselves with this play-call. With tight end Dallas Goedert on the left side next to Jason Peters, it’s obvious that the play side is on the left. Yet, Dallas overloads their defensive line to the right side, creating a horrific numbers advantage for Philly. With this play-call, the Eagles have three offensive linemen and a tight end matched up with two defensive linemen and an off ball linebacker. That, in itself, is a recipe for disaster.
There’s probably only one way this alignment actually works as a goal line defense, and it involves Antwaun Woods shooting the A gap and Michael Bennett shooting the B gap with the linebacker in the top left corner of the screen also blitzing the edge. But even that requires at least one player to break through in a tough situation to get penetration. And naturally, the Cowboys did none of those things, and as you can see in the below video, absolutely nobody even so much as sniffed the play side A gap.
At the snap, Woods curls around to take on the center straight up and Bennett gets effectively double-teamed in the B gap, while the linebacker holds a spot in anticipation of an outside run. That leaves a wide open A gap for Sanders to walk in nearly untouched. The only player who even has a shot at stopping this play is DeMarcus Lawrence coming on a backside pursuit angle, but it’s far too much ground to cover and the fact that Lawrence even touched Sanders is a testament to his skill as a run-stopper.
This play leaves you with way more questions than answers. Why is nobody filling the A gap in a goal line situation? Why do you only have four defensive linemen on the field in a goal line situation? Why is the defensive line not matching the offensive line? No answers will be provided, and one has to wonder if there even are answers to be given from a defensive staff that has made more than their fair share of bad calls this year.
While Marinelli deserves plenty of criticism for this, since he’s the coordinator and the defensive line coach, it’s ultimately a play-call that came from Richard, and it shows a disturbing lack of situational awareness as a play-caller. It’s darn near a fireable offense, especially given the in-game implications: a goal line stand and field goal would’ve kept it a one-score game, but the touchdown put Dallas in an even bigger hole.
Of course it was the same defense that allowed the Eagles offense - a severely depleted unit relying on tight ends, rookie running backs, and a quarterback-turned-receiver - to drive all the way from their own 20-yard line to the goal line in the first place. It appears that Richard is in over his head as a play-caller, and a change has to be made.