Thursday, October 16, 2014

Xs and Os - 3 Things to Examine from Week 6 - Seattle


Here is today's Xs and Os post at the Dallas Morning News - 






BaD Radio Sports Movie of the Month

Sports Movie Of The Month

2014

Jan - Big Fan - Audio Here
Feb - Cool Runnings - Audio Here 
Mar - Glory Road - Audio Here 
Apr - Bad News Bears - Audio Here
May - Mommie Dearest - Audio Here
June - Victory - Audio Here
July - A League of Their Own
Aug - Mrs Doubtfire
Sept - The Replacements - Audio Here
Oct - Heaven Can Wait
Nov -
Dec -

2013

Jan - The Waterboy - Audio Here
Feb - Die Hard - Audio Here
Mar - Teen Wolf - Audio Here
Apr - Eddie - Audio Here
May - The Sandlot - Audio Here
June - Bye month - no movie reviewed
July - The Natural - Audio Here
Aug - Remember the Titans - Audio Here
Sept - The Program - Audio Here
Oct - Varsity Blues - Audio Here
Nov - JFK - Audio Here
Dec - Christmas Vacation - Audio Here


2012

Jan - Blue Chips - Audio Here
Feb - Any Given Sunday - Audio Here
Mar - Goon - Audio Here
April - Days of Thunder - Audio Here
May - Major League - Audio Here
June - Rocky - Audio Here
July -  Bye month - no movie reviewed
August - North Dallas 40 - Audio Here
September - Brian's Song - Audio Here
October -  Point Break - Audio Here
November - Necessary Roughness - Audio Here
December - Rudy - Audio Here

2011

March - Hoosiers - Audio Here

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 6 - Seattle

Click here to check out today's post at my new home - The Dallas Morning News.

http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2014/10/decoding-linehan-week-6-seattle.html/

Dallas Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan (left) talks with wide receiver Dez Bryant during the first half of their game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, October 12, 2014 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash. (G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News)
On Tuesdays, we give the offense a thorough examination in a series that started in 2008 called "Decoding Linehan".  Of course, it was once called Decoding Garrett and then Decoding Callahan, but you get the idea.  This is an exercise in analyzing the offensive performance from a number of angles as well as a discussion on whatever game theory topics affected the game. 
To continue on yesterday's theme, it should be stated how uncommon it really is for a team or an offense to change its identity with merely an offseason where the only personnel change was the drafting of a right guard.  Zack Martin's upgrade over Bernadeau is clear, but we won't suggest that Martin was the tipping point at all.
We continue to feel, as we wrote back in August, that the identity actually changed during last season's bye week (after the debacle in New Orleans).  In that piece we previously linked, you can see all of the many theories, including the most obvious one - that they simply have to do a better job protecting their defense with common sense play-calling from the offense - but they changed their ways before Week 11 against the Giants.  Since then, the Cowboys have played 12 games which is 75% of a full season and the confirmation that the Cowboys transitioned from the worst rushing team in the NFL to the best - almost overnight - is flat out stunning.
Over those 12 games, they have run for 1,696 yards (1st in the NFL) at 5.03 yards per carry (1st) and 141.3 yards per game (2nd) for 91 1st Downs (1st) and 49 10-yard runs (3rd).
What makes those numbers absurd is the fact that the 26 games previous to that from Week 1 of 2012 through Week 10 2013, Dallas ran for 2,035 yards (31st), at 3.67 yards per carry (29th), 78.3 yards per game (31st), for 115 1st Downs (29th), and 45 10-yard runs (31st).  That is right, if it wasn't for Jacksonville being worse, the Cowboys flipped a switch and went from worst to nearly first in pretty much every category.
And keep in mind that the personnel is largely the same (but we must account for the time invested for maturity and continuity), when we ponder philosophical changes having the most likely affect on the proceedings.  If you think about it from the standpoint of last year's bye week, Scott Linehan is no longer the Albert Einstein of this operation, but rather the specialist who helped further implement the existing idea.  If the final 6 weeks of last season are not that dissimilar in the ground game to the first 6 games of this season, then we are wondering if it was more a conscious (and obvious) decision rather than an accident.
So what happened?  As I wrote in the piece back during training camp, there are several things: 1) a clear controversy in the play-calling department as many speculated that Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan were at odds and that Garrett took the play-calling duty from Callahan.  2) DeMarco Murray returned to full health during the bye of 2013. 3) the Cowboys had a new Right Guard after they lost Brian Waters in Detroit and Mackenzy Bernadeau took over.  4) Tony Romo's health concerns and the Cowboys Run/Pass versus Minnesota (9 runs/51passes) were real issues and 5) on December 3, the Cowboys signed their first fullback of the entire year, Tyler Clutts.
Surely a few of those have nothing to do with the big decision, but to go from league-worst to league-best overnight without any other significant developments is difficult to fully understand.  Is it possible they had the pieces for a running game before this and just never "committed" to it?
Which brings us to the latest test, a mauling of the most difficult opponent to run against in football in their stadium where teams don't run.  37 carries for 162 yards was a thing of beauty.  There were several runs that went nowhere, but as a whole, the Cowboys marched the ball right down the throat of the Seahawks with enough ease to make you think that if this is the supposed toughest test for this offensive line, Dallas is going to win a lot of games.
They ran the ball primarily from power groupings, but did get 8 carries for 58 yards from 11 personnel (under center) which was aided by Joseph Randle's big 38 yard run early.  11 Personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) is something that Dallas has almost never done from under center before 2014, but has already run 43 times this season for 219 yards out of this set. This is a major improvement over their productivity in previous seasons and is now a weapon that teams are taking seriously.  11 Personnel forces a defense into nickel and generally keeps the safeties back, so the run can really put an opponent in a bind.
But, now for the power.  One of my favorite personnel groupings over the years has been "22" personnel.  22 personnel is the essence of the ground and pound and it declares to the entire stadium that with 2 RB and 2 TE on the field, the plan is to run the ball down your throat.  The defense will usually take off a corner and put on another LB to deal with all of the muscle in the offensive huddle and then they will often counter with 9 men in the box.  This is power on power.
In 2013, the Cowboys didn't even employ a FB for 12 weeks, and ran only 5 plays all year out of this set for 26 yards.  All year!  Well, Sunday, against the big, bad Seahawks, they ran it 11 times for 62 yards. All 11 times this personnel was on the field, they ran the ball.  They declared run, then they did run.  And Seattle did not come close to stopping it.  If you love power football, it almost brought a tear to your eye.  The Power Cowboys may exist again.
Behold - the final 3 plays of the game winning drive:
Above, the play is simple "Power Right" with the pulling RG 70-Martin and the FB 44 Clutts clearing the path for DeMarco after the Tight Ends Witten and Escobar block in and hold off the Seattle Linebackers.  Until DeMarco makes Earl Thomas miss 10 yards down the field, you could have had anyone at RB on this play.  The final 14 yards though are from DeMarco being so physical that Thomas tries the arm tackle, which hurts less late in a game.

The "Madden" view of the same run.

Above, here is the very next play.  Do you like it?  Because it is the exact same "Power Right" play.  This time, Travis Frederick gets to Bobby Wagner and helps secure the 8 yard gain.  Otherwise, more physical running from a Dallas front that may not pass again.
And now, the kill shot. This time, a simple zone stretch with a Full Back taking on any penetration.  Keep in mind, Doug Free was lost on the previous play, so Jermey Parnell is #78 and Clutts goes to assist him on this play.  Look at Ronald Leary's massive cut block on 50-KJ Wright.  Wow, I bet that got cheering in the film room at Valley Ranch yesterday.
Bottom line, we wondered how they would do against an elite defense on the road with this new running game.  Many of us hoped for a draw - some good moments and some bad - but leave with your pride and optimism intact.  Well, this was no draw.  All the judges scored the fight easily in Dallas' favor.
What an amazing identity change for this offense.
Offensive Participation: Finally, the 7 with perfect attendance on the Cowboys offense (9, 82, 77, 65, 72, 70, and 68) dropped to 6 as it looks like Doug Free will not be in the lineup next Sunday.  It is too early to know for sure, but now all of the years and checks the Cowboys have given Jermey Parnell are likely to be on full display.  He should be ok, out there as he is a physical player, but I am sure that is where the Giants will look for a soft spot.  Beyond that, we saw a huge dose of Lance Dunbar (14 snaps) and major impacts as he moved the chains 3 different times in that 2nd Quarter.  Also, lots of Cole Beasely (31) and more Gavin Escobar (24) than we have seen all year.  All snap numbers courtesy of PFF and they include all snaps including plays that were not official because of penalties.
STATS FOR WEEK 6 AGAINST SEATTLE
10 3rd Down conversions?  In Seattle?  Who are these Dallas Cowboys?  This was their achilles heel in 2013 and now, they are the #1 team in the NFL in 3rd Down conversions - and looked like it on Sunday.  Also, and I can't believe this: They are #1 in 3rd Down conversions on 3rd and 10+.  8 for 18 on the season for 3rd and really long, including that 3rd and 20 gem to Terrance Williams.  Pinch yourself.
PASSING CHART
This season, we're attempting to track both passing and drive progression. John Daigle has designed a fantastic chart.  Each color, for instance, represents the possession number listed in the key. The numbers are separated by the half. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 6 Summary
There is no color scheme for the final possession of the game because quite frankly, the passing chart doesn't display 22 personnel. The last attempt of the game, however, came during the Cowboys ninth possession and was specially designed as white for our purposes.
This play, of course, is simply known as the Terrance Williams catch.
DRIVE STARTERS - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here -
Wk 1 - San Francisco: 5 Run/5 Pass - 50% Run
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 8 Run/3 Pass - 72% Run
Wk 3 - At St. Louis: 7 Run/2 Pass - 77% Run
Wk 4 - New Orleans: 9 Run/2 Pass - 81% Run
Wk 5 - Houston: 8 Run/3 Pass - 72% Run
Wk 6 - At Seattle: 7 Run/3 Pass - 70% Run
2014 Total: 62 Drives - 44 Run/18 Pass - 70% Run
As you can see the Cowboys are starting 70% of their drives with a run play.  They are not hiding their intentions, which makes play-action all the more dangerous moving forward.
2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
SHOTGUN SNAPS
Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated.
This year, less shotgun is clearly the focus.  And so far, so impressive.
Wk 1 - San Francisco: 41 Shotgun/63 Total Plays - 65% Shotgun
Wk 2 - At Tennessee: 30 Shotgun/76 Total Plays - 39% Shotgun
Wk 3 - At St. Louis26 Shotgun/50 Total Plays - 52% Shotgun
Wk 4 - New Orleans: 26 Shotgun/62 Total Plays - 41% Shotgun
Wk 5 - Houston: 42 Shotgun/75 Total Plays - 56% Shotgun
Wk 6 - At Seattle: 32 Shotgun/69 Total Plays - 46% Shotgun
2014 Total: 197 Shotgun/395 Total Plays - 49% Shotgun
2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS
(Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.)
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Balance.  Every week.  It is almost now assumed that this is the new identity.
PLAY-ACTION PERFORMANCE
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
2014 Total: 17/29, 58 Cmp%, 297 Yds, 2 TD, 3 INT, 12 FD, 3 Sack
They have to be careful with protection on play-action, because some teams tell their LBs that if they take a false step on the fake, just keep coming on the rush.  This means that Romo is starting to feel heat on play-action passes, but they still hit on a long ball to Williams off this, so overall, they have to be pleased about that result.
BLITZING ROMO
Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 33 Pass Situations vs Seattle
Seattle and San Francisco just don't blitz much.  Seattle didn't get to blitz hardly at all once the Cowboys started driving at them.  Not a factor this week. But, look at the season numbers - run more, get blitzed less.
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: TEN Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47%
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34%
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26%
Wk 6: SEA Blitzed Dallas 5/33 - Blitzed 15%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 51/203 - Blitzed 25%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%

 Thanks to John Daigle for his work on the charts and graphs.
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:  There is a lot of information here for sure and it can be a bit much to the new reader (welcome DMN new readers!), but take it slow and we will try to walk you through anything that is confusing.
The bottom line is that the Cowboys have answered every single offensive concern so far.  We wondered if they could run the ball.  They can.  We wondered if they can run the ball against really good defenses (SF and Sea).  They can. We wondered about 3rd Downs and whether they can sort that mess out.  They can.  We wondered if they can have a healthy season from Tony Romo and if he can make the same plays he has always made when they need him (ala, John Elway late in his career when the Broncos found a zone running scheme to take the load off his shoulders).  So far, so good.
Now, they must demonstrate this new-found might against divisional rivals who must prepare for the "Same Ol Cowboys".  I wonder if they are using any of their old reels or if they are discarding anything pre-2014 and starting new.  Surely, they know that this Cowboys offense is not what they have dealt with in the past, but when we talk about these last 12 games and the new identity of the offense, we must remember that those 12 games only have 3 NFC East games.  With New York and Washington next, we wonder about the ability to grind those teams into powder with this physical style and what they can do about it.
The Seattle game can give this offense all manner of confidence, but in the big scheme of things, the season has only just begun.  6 NFC East games are ahead, and the quest for a division title is just starting.  If they must play 3 weeks without Doug Free, this will be their first offensive health challenge of 2014.
Somehow they have created a brand new identity with largely the same pieces.  Now, we challenge them to maintain it with the 11 who can take the field.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 30, Seahawks 23 (5-1)

You can now find my Cowboys' blogs at the Dallas Morning News.  This blog will merely provide archives of my writing 48 hours after it has been published over there.  Thanks!

Here is the 1st one:

http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/2014/10/the-morning-after-cowboys-30-seahawks-23-5-1.html/

One reporter on TV Sunday night claimed that the Cowboys win in Seattle was at "arguably the toughest place to play in the NFL."  I assume he said arguably because it made his paragraph flow better or he needed another word to fill out the assigned time of his piece.  But, allow me to assist:  There is nothing at all to argue.
The Cowboys win on Sunday in Seattle was as difficult a place to play and against as difficult an opponent as the 2014 NFL has to offer.  There is no way to crank that degree-of-difficulty any higher between now and the playoffs.  To beat the defending Super Bowl Champions in their "house of pain" without sneaking in there as a bad team on an "any given Sunday" ambush routine, and without a series of fluke plays to aid the victory - well, let's just say that the Cowboys were most pleased with the series of events.
What makes the game particularly pleasing, for those of us who never thought it would come to this, was the way in which it was earned.  They had found success as an upstart this year by changing their identity completely.  If you want to know why so many people who cover football for a living picked this team to win 5 or 6 games - and I am more than happy to admit to a 6-10 mark - look no further than the simple truism that tells us teams aren't capable of changing unless you overhaul the whole thing.  At least not on this level.
You don't just go away for an off-season after years of finesse offense and then get back together the next September and suddenly maul teams up and down your schedule.  For that to be possible, it generally requires a team to fire everyone and bring in a brand new administration to try to reshape what your franchise is all about.  This is not merely about the Cowboys, it is true throughout the sport.  And the history was clear.  Nobody had less success running the football in the last 3 seasons combined than the Cowboys.  Nobody.
They, attempted fewer runs than everybody in football over that span, and gained the 29th most yards with the 29th most touchdowns.  The league leaders had tripled their totals and were so far off in the distance that the comparisons were pointless.
And now, this?  The Cowboys suddenly have an identity of smash-mouth football where they take your fighting spirit away over the course of 3 hours of "ground and pound" and make you look dominated?  You must forgive those of us who were taking a while to see if the sample size needed to grow before we believe what we are seeing.  It was great to do this to Tennessee and St Louis, but there is still a pretty clear suspicion that the Seattle Seahawks will be sitting and waiting for you to try that at their house.  They will surely have some answers to your difficult questions.  Just wait.
And that is what makes the events of Sunday so difficult to believe.  They played to their new identity almost perfectly.  They ran the ball, kept their offense on the field, and took the crowd's energy away from them.  They responded to body blows and countered them all day long.  And maybe, most uncharacteristically of a Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys team?  They committed, for the second week in a row, errors that are normally fatal and then figured out a way to overcome them and still emerge with a victory.
If you don't mind me asking, "who are these guys?"
The Seahawks are the Super Bowl Champions who are used to the big game scene and to physically intimidating their opponents.  And, by the way, they do it to everyone on their schedule, as you are well aware.  Whether it is the San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers, or another so-called heavyweight of the conference, this Seahawks team has made a nice living following their recipe of eliminating your run offense and then ganging up to scare your passing game into submission.  They don't allow you to stay balanced because if you want to run on the Legion of Boom, you will face a 3rd and 12 against that defense and their crowd and right after that your punt team will come on to the field.
Then, their defense gets the ball back at advantageous spots on the field for their well conceived and stocked offense to take over.  Seattle absolutely has a scheme that favors their personnel and with the Cowboys defense, it was easy to see why they should not have much trouble picking apart their opponent in this match-up.  Their scheme which plays off the power of the offensive line and the zone read option to hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch is made lethal by the counters off of that concept which include a QB who makes the right decision almost all of the time and terrifyingly fast skill position players.  The second an opponent decides to over-align to stop the power, the speed is unleashed.  But, if you sit on the speed too much with too many, well, then the power just marches down the field.  And, the moment you think you have both covered, then Russell Wilson fires a pass downfield to a target who you gave a step and the consequences are lethal.
So, if you thought for even a moment that the Cowboys defense was prepared to eliminate all of those threats - even if Bruce Carter is unavailable - then you are one optimistic loyalist.  But, for everyone else, it was a matter of just trying to compete on this afternoon and to keep your team as healthy as possible for the upcoming home stand.
Moral victories would have been allowed in this setting.  It is at Seattle.  A place where they have lost just 1 home game in 3 seasons.
Seattle scored just 3 points yesterday by driving the ball from their territory.  Those 3 were on the opening drive of the game which would be the only drive of the game in which they would accumulate more than 39 yards.  I hope you realize how insane that truth really is.
They also, of course, tried to hand the game to Seattle via special teams.  The special teams of the Cowboys have generally been a positive unit under 2nd year coach Rich Bisaccia, but he will have plenty of extra homework for his guys this week as they surrendered a punt block for a touchdown in the 1st Quarter followed by a 3rd Quarter muffed punt by Dwayne Harris that set up the Seahawks to take over the game when they badly needed a lifeline.
The blocked punt looked like the start of a very long day as Doug Baldwin snuck to the left flank and nobody accounted for him off the edge.  He had such a great run at punter Chris Jones that he almost blocked the punt with his stomach.  From there, Mike Morgan scooped it up and ran it in for a Touchdown to make it 10-0 Seattle, in a moment made all the worse since Tony Romo looked like he was injured on the play before by Bobby Wagner.  This meant that Romo would have no time to catch his breath before he had to go right back onto the field and faced a double-digit deficit.
What happened next shaped the day - and who knows right now if it will shape the entire season?  Down 10-0, they simply cranked up their running game and marched down the field with contributions from seldom-used pieces Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle, and Gavin Escobar.  They showed might, determination, and power as they took a bonkers stadium and an amped up opponent and quieted everything down despite having a QB who looked like he might be more seriously hurt than he showed.  It was a response that seemed to send a clear message that they weren't going to go quietly into the night.  The Cowboys were here for a serious battle and that drive sent the message loud and clear.
From there, the methodical nature of this Cowboys victory is difficult to properly appreciate, except to say it is more of the same that we have seen in 2014.  More, difficult to conceive football that has most of us who were in Oxnard at this past training camp trying to check our notes to see what we missed.
Is it the new coordinators that have made it all work?  Is Scott Linehan this much of a football genius that he is able to see the solutions to problems that have existed for years and years?  Is Rod Marinelli taking 11 ordinary defenders and deploying them in a way that allows them to overcome any talent deficiencies?
And where do we credit Jason Garrett in all of this?  I think it is fair to say that as a head coach, Garrett should be credited for how his team responds on Sundays to adversity that arrives.  And, for that, he has found a way to get his team to shake their identity through 6 weeks of being the team that would always find a way to lose.  Whether it is the Houston game last week, or this now famous win in Seattle, the team seems to shake off a horrific moment and still keep working.  And there were plenty to choose from yesterday.
The blocked punt.  The Harris fumble.  The Travis Frederick-Romo shotgun debacle that Seattle recovered.  Even the opportunity Kyle Wilber had for a Pick-6 on that ensuing drive were all moments where we could have been pointing to this morning about the Cowboys not being mature enough to win a game like this.  They gave away 17 points and lost the turnover battle in Seattle to a team that routs teams that make mistakes.
And they still won.
When you go back and view this game carefully a 2nd time (why wouldn't you do that?) you will see that the Cowboys passed nearly every test you could ever ask of them in a Week 6 clash with the defending champion.  Can you run the ball physically?  37 runs for 162 yards (4.4 per carry).  Can you keep your defense off the field?  Dallas 70 plays, Seattle 48.  Can you control the clock?  Dallas 37:39, Seattle 22:21.  Can you win 3rd Downs?  Dallas converted 10 3rd Downs, Seattle 5. Can you win in the Red Zone?  Dallas 3 TDs in 4 trips.  Seattle, 1 in 3.
And that is what strikes me this morning as I sift through the details.  There is almost no direction you can view this game from and not come away impressed by this upstart squad.  They went into Seattle and demonstrated on the largest of stages that they are the real deal and a team to take seriously this year.  The narratives are going to be written by whoever wishes to write them, but this team is not winning because they are getting less from their QB.  Tony Romo is putting some of his best performances out there in this last month.  He is transforming before our very eyes (at an age where QBs seldom transform) into an efficient, yet lethal, play-maker.  That 3rd and 20 play to Terrance Williams is just another fantastic, jaw-dropping play from the QB in as many weeks.
And maybe that is why this season is starting to feel different than so many before it.  This finally looks like a team around Romo.  Ironic, I am sure, that it was proven yesterday on the same field where he was given his reputation by the national press back in 2006 for being a "choke artist".  Also, ironic, I am sure, that it was the same field where Seattle and Dallas crossed paths in 2012 as Seattle was emerging as an NFC power while Dallas was still running in place.
Where do they go from here?  Well, the script is still being written and I am sure it will have many twists and turns.  But, it now appears clear that the Cowboys ceiling is much higher than first thought by many (including me).  They are capable of beating any team on their schedule in any setting.
They proved that much yesterday.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Xs and Os - Week 5 - Cowboys Offensive Line vs JJ Watt

Late in the week, we finally get a chance to "look at the tape" as Jason Garrett likes to say and examine some plays that we cannot fully digest on TV.  I can't promise that every week we will be able to do this, but honestly, this is my favorite exercise of the week because only here can you fully appreciate how advanced and complex the NFL game can be sometimes.

Here, we are not looking to call anyone out, and we surely want to leave open the possibility of our eyes deceiving us and more than anything, I want to admit that I don't have the benefit of the coaches telling me what coverage they were in.  So, sometimes, this diagnosis will be "pretty sure" rather than "100% sure" even though I am trying to get it right.  I will make calls and try to hunt down the right answer, but I will just admit right here that we will try our best to be accurate but invariably, I will see something wrong.

But, let's pick 3 plays that are interesting but not played out by this point of the week and have some fun talking Xs and Os.  Feel free to tweet me @SportsSturm when a game shows you a play that you would like broken down and I will attempt to include it in this post.

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This week, at the risk of throwing this entire format off its axis, I decided to do many more than 3 plays, but perhaps with fewer words per play.  I believe I have selected 13 plays below all under the exact same theme - which is, "How Did the Cowboys do in their challenge of dealing with JJ Watt?"

Watt is widely thought of as the best defensive lineman in all of football and in 3 NFL seasons, he was 2nd-team All Pro in his rookie season of 2011, 1st team All-Pro in 2012 and 2013.  He was Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 - nearly unanimously - before his 2013 finished 6th which I am sure had a little stain on it since they went 2-14.  

He is a match-up nightmare, and his 2014 was supposed to be his best season yet because the Texans decided to make it unfair when they drafted Jadeveon Clowney #1 overall this spring.  Clowney should take tons of the attention off of Watt when healthy, but since Clowney was hurt in Week 1, that went off the script a bit.

However, in watching Watt destroy Washington by himself in Week 1 and nearly do the same to Buffalo in Week 4 (9 QB hits in 1 game!), it seemed to be fair to call this the key of the Week 5 matchup in Arlington and the best test for whether the Cowboys offensive line is really ready for prime time.  They have stood up well to San Francisco already, but here comes Watt.  How would they do?

Well, the stats say he hit Romo one time, hurried him twice, and he had 4 tackles.  Also, the Cowboys won, so, that might be all we need to know.  But, let's look at a dozen or so snaps to see what actually happened.  Watt, of course, is #99 and often best identified by his massive arm brace.

1Q-13:33 1/10/D10


First snap of the game, and you see an inside zone play to Murray where Ron Leary is on his own against JJ Watt.  Watt does what he does best which is an inside swim move right around Leary to make the Cowboys first run of the day a no-gainer.  Leary is a strong kid, but the strength/quickness combo of Watt is what makes him special and the Cowboys did not try that very many more times.

=====

1Q-12:58 2/10/D10


Very next play and the Cowboys want to pass on 2nd and 10.  You can see here that in pass protection the idea is to counter the Texans desire to make him an outside DE by having Leary help out Tyron Smith.  Then, Murray turns the opposite direction of Frederick in a 3x3 protection scheme, meaning that since Watt is the only player rushing from that side that the Cowboys will have 3 players on Watt.  Also, Romo was helping all day by getting the ball out quickly.  

=====

1Q-10:25  2/5/D39


2nd possession, the Texans are trying to bring 5 here, which means that the Cowboys are 5 on 5 because they are empty.  I have always said that if I am playing against Dallas and they are going to go empty, I am blitzing every time.  5 n 5 means that Watt is 1 on 1 against Leary.  Romo is looking right the whole way (throwing away from the ball batting machine) and getting it out.  Leary looks like he is having trouble dropping anchor and at the last second, Watt sets up Leary outside and actually beats him inside but his dive to Romo's feet is in vain.

====

1Q-6:33 3/13/O36


6 plays later, here is Watt lined up outside Leary again, but they are going to try an inside stunt where Watt will circle around and try to beat Travis Frederick.  Romo holds the ball longer here to buy his receivers some time and there are 6 Texans rushing.  But, look at Romo's pocket and watch 72 casually pick up Watt and seal him off before 99 can get north.  The Cowboys have a real good center and one who has worked against Watt for years, going back to their time at Wisconsin.

=====

1Q-4:37 3/1/O12



Here is one way to deal with Watt - run the other way.  He still is a threat with the backside tackle (as we will see later), but even when he beats Tyron off the snap here, he is still not likely to affect the play.  Just watch his explosion off the snap to beat a wonderfully capable left tackle.  This is silly and it perhaps alerts us to Tyron needing a little work at being the first out of his stance at the snap.  Several times, Watt was way ahead of him, and although he clearly beat Smith to the inside here it did not ruin this play.  DeMarco's fumble did that.

=====

2Q-13:38 3/5/D23


This is a pretty weird play from Houston's standpoint.  I am almost positive that Houston did not mean to just rush 2 here - the best hint is all of the guys dropping into coverage running into each other - but because they did not look organized, that left Smith and Leary to take turns pushing Watt back and forth and far from Romo.  Rushing 2 versus 6 means Romo has all day.  Easy 1st Down.  I don't Romeo wants to talk about this play.

=====

2Q-11:06 2/8/D46


5 plays later, the Texans bring 4 and Tyron is again beat badly by Watt.  I am not sure how we would all be acting about Doug Free if his first 5 weeks had this Tyron performance, but I am absolutely guilty of cutting Tyron enormous amounts of slack for what has not been a great start to his 2014 - by his standards.  It seems every week he has a few moments where he doesn't look himself, and Watt should not beat you with this simple inside-outside move.  Then, we see young 21-Randle's best effort which almost gets Romo killed.  Romo bails for self preservation and they actually end up with a 4-yard gain here.  But, Tyron doesn't look himself at moments like this.

=====

2Q-4:48 1/10/D20


This one is hard to see, but the other angle of this play is useless.  This is late 2nd Quarter and Watt has moved over to Zack Martin.  He beats him to the inside and Tyler Clutts is supposed to chip a bit better.  Luckily, Watt gets tripped up and falls before he gets to Romo, leaving a clean look for Romo to his Williams for 28 yards.  The trend here is on 1-on-1s, Watt is not getting blocked much.  This is why Clowney is such an addition.

=====

3Q-14:24 2/7/D23



Here, Tyron looks much better.  Shuffle steps out to Watt, waits on his move and is comfortably on balance for what he knows is a quick drop and throw.  Watt senses it as well and looks to get in a passing lane as he almost concedes to Smith on this play early in the 3rd Quarter.  Much better.

=====

3Q-12:33 2/5/D35


Here is how you deal with JJ Watt when he lines up at DE outside your tackle.  You ask Tyron to beat his first move and then get it out before he can put those giant mitts in the air to knock it down.  Romo's throw is obviously wide of his target, so, you wonder how much 99 affects the throw without even touching it.  Is Romo trying to get the ball outside Watt and then sails it out of bounds?  Just don't leave your LT on an island too long without help.

=====

3Q-6:18 2/4/O43



You have already seen this play 100 times, but this is Watt destroying Tyron again - some would say he was offside, but I don't think it was anything more than the man jumping the snap like DeMarcus Ware used to.  That said, you can see the issue with a silent count.  The particularly astute defender can time your snap very easily if you are not changing it up.  Let's just all be happy that this was not the end of Romo's season here, because lesser crimes have had harsher punishments in the NFL.  Watt from the blindside with a full sprint?  Mercy.  The fact that this ended up being a touchdown is mind-boggling.

=====

4Q-15:00 1/10/O20



Remember earlier when we talked about Watt running down plays from the backside?  This is why you don't ask your Tight End - yes, even one renowned for his blocking - to take on the Defensive Player of the Year very often without help.  Witten knows everyone is blocking right, so he has to beat Watt to where Smith is standing at the snap or this play is destroyed.  But, Watt is so good at what he does that he uses this anxious intent from Witten against him.  He let's Witten win to the inside and pushes him past and then has the athleticism to run down DeMarco Murray before Murray gets to the hole.  This is crazy and something very few players can do against the zone to the opposite side at almost 300 pounds.  Absurd.

=====

4Q-12:00 1/10/O30


Now, here is one to love.  The Cowboys are saying our strength is the zone stretch.  Let's run it right at Watt, because when that happens, we can get a G-T combo block and run him right out of the lane. Look at Martin and Doug Free getting Watt going in the wrong direction.  On the combo block, all you need from the guard is just a shove to start the stone rolling, and then he moves on to the LB, 57-Tuggle.  Wow,  Jesse Tuggle's son is in the league?  I missed that.  Anyway, Free seals Watt out easily and Murray outruns 94-Pickett who beats Frederick to the inside and almost runs down this play.  Timing is everything on the zone stretch.

=====

So, some good and some not so good as the coach might say.  But, anytime you avoid catastrophe both on the scoreboard and in the training room you take your Win and tell JJ Watt goodbye for 4 years.  Let someone else figure out Watt and Clowney together.

On to Seattle.  Hope you enjoyed this departure from the format.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Marinelli Report - Week 5 - Houston

As we go through a season evaluating and discussing the work of Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli, it is a good exercise as we go to ask ourselves to consider what they are dealing with.

In this particular case, if Houston and Ryan Fitzpatrick are coming to town, how will we handle him as a defense?  For instance, how will the challenges that he offers differ from those that New Orleans brought to the table?  With Houston, you see a team that has trouble doing too much offensively, despite solid WR personnel and a real good (but maybe not fully fit) RB.  It seems they have a QB who is pretty pedestrian and is not a threat to use his legs.  

So, the conclusion that we come up with is to bring pressure.  But, we are also facing a game without Bruce Carter at LB, meaning plenty of rookie LB Anthony Hitchens.  So, how do we bring pressure without dedicating too many numbers to pass rush and then have to live with poor man-to-man coverages behind them that might not fit our personnel?

Zone blitzing.  Or, as Jason Garrett referenced: 
"Obviously we have not had huge sack numbers, but I do think we are affecting the QB and making him uncomfortable.  We didn't have the big losses but we were around him.  You affect him with individual pass rush and you affect him with dogs and blitzes you might bring, and I think were able to do that even though we didn't have many sacks."  
So, when he says something like that, I think it is important to know what that means on the film.  

Anyone can use the Madden approach (and find out why NFL coaches don't think like Madden players very often) and sell-out blitzes that expose you for big plays, but what about these "dog" concepts?  Well, the dog is just an interchangeable coaching term for zone blitzes that obviously have now been in our game for a very long time.  They once were the new play-toys that Dick LeBeau dazzled so many with, but now, this is without question the easiest ways to try to create confusion and some chaos as you design a defensive game plan with the idea of "attacking without exposing."

Bring pressure and still play safer zones behind it.  

Let's look at an example of confusing pressure with only 4:


So, now you are Ryan Fitzpatrick.  It is 3rd Down and 10 of the 1st drive.  Look above without cheating by looking at the picture below.  You see the pressure options as Marinelli has lined up 7 players across the line of scrimmage.  The offense looks it over and has to identify which spots are most likely to rush.  From left to right, Wilcox-Spencer-Melton-Durant-McClain-Crawford-Mincey.

So, who is blitzing?  How many?


The answer is 4.  All 4 on the defensive left, 0 on the defensive right.  In fact, if you go back to Frame #1, you will see that 55-McClain was on the right, now handles the left part of the shallow zone.  Mincey, the DE is now zoning opposite of McClain on the right.  And who has the TE in man to man?  How about Tyrone Crawford - your defensive tackle???  Fitzpatrick is looking at him and waiting for him to shake loose, but what he doesn't see is 27-Wilcox sneaking around and about to hit him.  Or affect the passer.  Incomplete pass - punt.

So, they didn't "blitz" - just a 4 man pass rush.  But, they did make the offense do mental gymnastics to set protection and they did get to the passer in a complex and interesting way.  That is coaching and scheme and making the most of what you have.

You better not do it again like that much, because Houston is now looking at punishing you for putting DTs on TEs, but you got away with it on 3rd and long.

Now, this one.


Look above, Cowboys look like a very basic 4 man front on 2nd and 2.  This is 2 snaps before the Scandrick interception.  So, who is rushing and how many?


Well, this time, it is a 5-man rush, but Hitchens is coming from off the screen on the left, while Mincey is again dropping to get the slot WR who just happens to be Andre Johnson (are you brave enough to throw this idea out at the coaches meeting?).  55-McClain is going to try to shoot the B-gap once Hitchens draws the RT and Selvie engages the RG.


Look at Fitzpatrick in every frame.  He can't believe they are doing this again.  And he is waiting for Johnson to expose Mincey with the middle now vacated by McClain.  So there is the defensive decision.  Do we rush 4 and leave McClain to help in the middle, or do we blitz McClain and hope Mincey can hold on as long as it takes 55 to get home?


Look above at what is happening.  McClain is free.  Fitzpatrick has his arm cocked.  Mincey is trying to stay with a veteran WR and Johnson is trying to figure out what is going on.  This is the beauty of football chess.  Fitzpatrick is guessing how Johnson will see this and leads him into space.


Johnson disagrees with that idea and the ball falls to the ground with nobody even close to it.  

In both cases, the Cowboys are trying creative ways to steal downs and to not resort to blitzing 6 or 7, but still to get near the QB and try to trick him enough to get off the field.  They never blitzed more than 5, but brought 5 on 11 occasions out of 26 (which is a high number for Marinelli - and as you will see below, they blitzed a ton until they got the lead).  But, in each case, it was a different look with different rushers.  

The basic math is actually simple.  The offense has as many as 5 targets to cover.  So, in turn, your options are limited to your resources.  Send 4, you can cover 5 receivers with 7 in a multitude of ways.  But, if you send 6, now only 5 defenders remain for 5 receivers (man to man).  Therefore, unless you have all superb man cover guys or you don't mind risk all over the field, you have to figure out ways to blitz sparingly and to bring "dogs" the rest of the time.

Or, the obvious solution, have rushers who can get there with 4.  That seems to be the most tried and true solution, but that one costs the same level of commitment that building an offensive line requires.    And if you have been too worried about OL to spend much on DL...Well, you get the idea.

=====

Here is our Gif of the week.  It is JJ Wilcox, a player I am not sold on yet, making the type of play that will sell you on him.  He saves a big play here as the Cowboys are blitzing a corner meaning JJ must get this guy down in the flat.  

There are blockers in front - this could be big.  But, Wilcox splits the blockers and gets DeAndre Hopkins down.  Well done!

=====

Here are a few submissions from Twitter for this week:




Here is another Rod Marinelli favorite - 3rd and long.  What is the plan?  See for yourself:


It is the ever popular 3-6-2 zone.  The Texans need 20, so my line of 6 is at about 15 yards, with some safeties at 25.  If you watch the plays, it ends up looking like a kick return with collisions and bodies everywhere.  I imagine offenses will have a counter to this, but it looks pretty sound strategically as long as everyone swarms when the screen concept which gets many lead blockers out in front of a shifty small back (Darren Sproles/Percy Harvin) in space.  It is not fool-proof (or everyone would do it) but so far it looks like it is confusing the offenses.  

DEFENSIVE PARTICIPATION: No Bruce Carter and no Morris Claiborne means we start to test the depth.  5 defenders played every snap: Durant, Carr, Scanrick, Wilcox, and Church.  The rest rotate throughout (although Rolando McClain is out there all snaps, too, until he aggravated his groin).  Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey are playing the most on the DL with snaps around 45, with Hayden and Selvie around 35, Spencer and Melton around 25, and Crawford and J McClain under 20.  It is tough to fully decipher what is health related and what is role related.  But, I do think it is worth noting that Tyrone Crawford has gone from being a piece to THE piece.  Hitchens played 34 snaps and Kyle Wilber was the only other LB to get a snap and he had 1.  Sterling Moore took 38 snaps and otherwise, no other DB played than those 5.  Thanks, Pro Football Focus for the exact math on the snap counts.

WEEK 5 VS HOUSTON - DEFENSIVE NUMBERS


Run Plays31
Pass Plays25
Avg Starting PositionO26
3rd Down Conversions4-13, 31%
4th Down Conversions1-1, 100%
Yards Per Play5.9
Yards Per Pass Attempt6.2
Red Zone TDs - Drives2-3, 67%
Takeaways1

In a league where 4 teams give up less than 5 yards a play (Miami, Detroit, Buffalo, and Seattle), the Cowboys are 32nd in this stat, surrendering 6.38 yards per play.  When you factor in the opposing QB they have played, this remains troubling.

It can be equalized with 3rd Down defense and Takeaways.  They are basically a league average 3rd Down defense through 5 games (opponents are 43.1% on 3rd (15th) and the league average is 42.1%) and they are tied for 10th in takeaways with 9.

Fingers crossed.

SPLASH PLAYS

First, a reminder of what a splash play is: 

What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, you can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender. An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it. 
I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well. 
Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don't want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea.  
A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let's see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.
SPLASHES VS HOUSTON WEEK 5

Q-TimeD/D/YdPlayerPlay
1-15:001/15/O15Carr/SelvieStop No Gain
1-13:533/10/O20WilcoxPass Breakup
1-11:171/10/D40Scandrick Interception
1-1:232/6/O42T CrawfordHolding Drawn
1-0:542/16/O32ScandrickPass Defended
2-8:031/10/O22CarrPass Defended
2-7:332/15/O17WilcoxBig Hit and Stop
2-5:442/10/D43WilcoxPass Defended
3-6:081/10/O20T CrawfordTackle For Loss
3-5:282/11/O19T CrawfordHolding Penalty Drawn
4-12:463/6/O12McClain3rd Down Stop
4-6:471/10/D39Selvie/DurantRun Stop
4-5:223/9/D38Moore3rd Down Stop
4-2:363/4/D11MinceyBig QB Pressure
5-13:113/2/D48MinceyBig QB Pressure

Lots of JJ Wilcox and Tyrone Crawford this week.  Hurray 2012 and 2013 drafts!

2014 SEASON TOTALS

PlayerTotalPlayerTotal
1. CB Sterling Moore             811. LB Justin Durant3
2. LB Bruce Carter7.512. LB Anthony Hitchens   2.5
2. LB Rolando McClain7.513. CB Morris Claiborne2
4. DT Tyrone Crawford713. DT Nick Hayden2
5. S JJ Wilcox6.515. DE George Selvie1.5
6. CB Orlando Scandrick616. LB Cam Lawrence0.5
7. DT Henry Melton4.516. LB Kyle Wilber0.5
7. CB Brandon Carr4.516. DE Jack Crawford0.5
9. S Barry Church3.5
9. DE Jeremy Mincey3.5
Team Totals                 71

I just tally the totals, I don't explain them all the time.  If you had told me that Sterling Moore would be leading this category through 5 games, I would say the Cowboys are 1-4.  The rest seems to add up a bit better.

Career Totals
2013 Totals
2011 Totals

===========

PASSING CHART

During the Marinelli Report, we attempt to chart how the opposing quarterback fared against the DAL pass rush (unlike Decoding Linehan, when we chart drive progression). The key in the bottom end zone defines how many rushers came during a given throw. Each line entails where the ball was thrown from, trailing to the (general) point where it was caught.  Dotted lines are incomplete passes.

Week 5 Summary

Though the Blitz Report at the bottom will report an uncharacteristic number of blitzes (or, uncharacteristic as to what we've grown accustomed to this season), blitzes were only sent as a mean to gaining the lead. Through the first three quarters, for instance, the Cowboys blitzed during an uncanny 66 percent (10-15) of their opposing snaps. Once they entered the final quarter with a 10-point lead, however, those blitz numbers regressed to the tune of 9 percent (1-11) for the remainder of the game.



PRESSURE REPORT

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.  We have spent a good part of the offseason talking about Monte Kiffin's philosophy that, like so many of the great 4-3 schemes, is based on using blitz as a weapon, not a necessity.  If you use the blitz as an ambush weapon that is always threatened but only used at the perfect times, you can often get free runs at the QB.  If, on the other hand, you must use the blitz because your normal pressure is not getting it done, then the offense usually is waiting for you and prepared - so even 6 rushers don't accomplish much.

EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED (+20 Yards)

Q-TimeD/D/YdPlayRushers
3-9:342/6/D48Foster Left End, +334
4-1:591/10/D45Fitzpatrick to Johnson, +204
OT-15:001/10/O20Foster Middle, +244

SACKS AND INTERCEPTIONS


Q-TimeD/D/YdPlayRushers
1-11:171/10/D40Scandrick INT                        4

PERFORMANCE AGAINST THE BLITZ

Each week we calculate how opposing quarterbacks fare against the Dallas blitz. Consider this the raw data behind the passing chart.

Wk 1 - Colin Kaepernick: 4/8, 74 Yds, 1 TD, 1 SACK
Wk 2 - Jake Locker: 3/6, 22 Yds
Wk 3 - Austin Davis: 4/7, 42 Yds, 1 INT
Wk 4 - Drew Brees: 6/8, 68 Yds, 1 TD
Wk 5 - Ryan Fitzpatrick: 6/11, 41 Yds, 2 FD

2014 Total: 23/40, 247 Yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 2 FD -  81.9 QB Rating

BLITZ REPORT

Each week we monitor how often the Cowboys send pressure on passing plays.

Clearly, they thought they could turn up the heat on Fitzpatrick and he won't beat you.

Pass Rushers Against HOU in 26 pass rush/blitz situations:

Wk 1 - SF: 9/21 - Blitzed 33.3%
Wk 2 - Tenn: 6/38 - Blitzed 15.7%
Wk 3 - STL: 7/42 - Blitzed 16.6%
Wk 4 - NO: 8/46 - Blitzed 17.3%
Wk 5 - HOU: 11/26 - Blitzed 42.3%

2014 Total: 41/173 - Blitzed 23.6% 

2013 Totals:  140/673 - 20.8%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%


Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6+ RushTotals
1st Down03 -
50%
3 -
50%
06 -
23%
2nd Down05 -
50%
5 -
50%
010 -
38%
3rd Down1 -
11%
5 -
55.5%
3 -
33%
09 -
34%
4th Down01 -
100%
001 -
3%
Totals1 -
3%
14 -
53%
11 -
42%
026


And, here are the full season numbers to date:



Pass Rushers3 Rush4 Rush5 Rush6 RushTotals
1st Down3 -
4%
48 -
70.5%
15 -
22%
1 -
1%
68 -
38%
2nd Down5 -
8%
38 -
64%
12 -
20%
4 - 6%59 -
33%
3rd Down7 -
14%
33 -
70%
4 -
8.5%
3 -
6%
47 -
26.5%
4th Down1 -
33%
2 -
66%
003 -
1%
Totals16 -
9%
121 -
68%
31 -
17.5%
9 - 5%
177


SUMMARY:  Clearly, it would be foolish to write up a report on the defense this week and not reference the extremely troubling situations where Arian Foster did whatever he wanted in the 3rd Quarter, followed by the situation in the 4th Quarter where they were absolutely on the scene when Houston almost hauled off and came all the way back with 2 late scoring drives.  

Add to that just 1 takeaway and 0 sacks again and we can see what Marinelli is trying to scheme around.  It requires a full team strategy (offense, protect your defense) to keep this ship sailing.  

This should remind us that the margins are extremely thin around here, and the simply idea of Rolando McClain leaving with an injury can turn this plucky unit into a mess.  That said, they seem to have better reserves than we have seen in the last few years, and young players are starting to emerge and gain confidence.  The story of Tyrone Crawford is gaining steam each week and now we are wondering if they might prefer him to Henry Melton with all things being equal at that 3-technique.  What a great problem to have.

This defense is based on being assignment-sound, creating confusion and chaos for the opposition without exposing your own weaknesses, and more than anything - flying to the football with all 11.

When you do watch this defense on film - including those plays shown above (especially the Wilcox play) you can see the effort level on all 11 on the field.  That is vital and can assist in making sure any shortcomings in talent is compensated for with effort and fire.  That can only take you so far, but it can take you a bit.  

Seattle will test this defense in extraordinary ways - in particular if Carter and McClain are down (and I don't see how they aren't).  The Seahawks have a real interesting offense that really attacks from sideline to sideline with horizontal principles (lots of jet sweep action and counters combined with zone stretch plays to the strong side behind a massive offensive line).  This makes you respect both, and that stretches your defense from side to side and isolates the weaknesses as well as anybody.  Then, once they soften you up, they cut loose the play action for the kill shots.  They will not throw you to death, as only the Bengals have thrown fewer passes this season.  But, they will make you respect the whole field and it is all built around a QB in Russell Wilson who always keeps that passer rating above 100 and also can kill you with his legs to the tune of 7.2 per carry.   

Everyone always talks about the Seahawks defense, but don't believe the hype.  Their offense is a massive test for the Cowboys defense with speed and concepts that can give them a fine dress rehearsal for Chip Kelly and the Eagles - but with a much better QB1.  

It would be wonderful to see what the matchup would be like with #54 and #55 available (let alone #50), but that isn't how this league works.  Those who can, march on.