Facing a 10-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys defense faced the tall task of stopping the Eagles offense. Philadelphia had scored on their previous two drives and the Dallas offense had struggled to close the deficit. If the Eagles score on this drive, it’s likely the game is put too far out of reach.
Fortunately for the team, Terrell McClain made a huge play to spark the Cowboys and inspired their comeback.
Philadelphia is in 12 personnel (two tight ends and one running back) with both tight ends to the left side of the formation and the wide receiver to that side also brought in close. The Eagles are clearly telegraphing a run to the strong side but they could choose to run a play-action fake. They are in the area of the field where coaches like to take riskier chances, usually deep shots down the field.
Dallas doesn’t overreact to the heavy formation. Marinelli has them in a 4-3 under-like front with Damien Wilson, who usually plays SAM linebacker, down at the line of scrimmage. Normally, the down linebacker in a 4-3 under is to the strong side of the formation. The goal of the front is for the linebackers and defensive lineman to funnel the ballcarrier to the weak side (WILL) linebacker.
Instead Wilson is down at the line of scrimmage on the weak side. This puts Dallas at a disadvantage in this situation as Sean Lee becomes the effective SAM linebacker. His job thus goes from knifing through the mess to get the ballcarrier to taking on blockers to free up other guys. Luckily for the team, it doesn’t come back to bite them.
As the play starts, Philadelphia reveals they intend to run behind the pulling right guard to the strong side. The non-pulling linemen block down and the hole should either be between the tight ends and the right guard or to the outside.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, the play design allows the Cowboys best defensive lineman to shoot the gap left by the pulling right guard. McClain is untouched as he penetrates through the line and has a straight shot to running back Wendell Smallwood.
Making matters worse for Philadelphia, Tyrone Crawford has absolutely abused rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The veteran end simply bulls his way through the younger linemen knocking him to the ground. Had he maintained his legs, Vaitai might have been able to block Crawford down into McClain, slowing both up and giving Smallwood the time to get outside.
Instead, McClain meets Smallwood almost immediately and with a single swipe knocks the ball from his grasp. The rest of the Dallas defenders converge and Crawford recovers the fumble.
Until the forced fumble, the Cowboys defense had its share of struggles trying to contain the Eagles offense. After? They forced three straight punts and provided enough opportunities for the offense to find its rhythm. Unlike 2015, the 2016 Dallas defense can be counted on to win games.
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Marinelli ReportToday's topic, as we discuss defense, revolves around the simple question of: "How many points is a reasonable amount to allow in a game?"
It is important to remember that this is a league in which the margins are very close and every opponent has some exceptional talent on it. If you want a level of football where you play several games against completely incompetent opponents, the NFL isn't for you. This is the highest level of the sport and therefore, even the worst teams have many unreal football players on it. Parity. It is what this league is founded upon.
And for that reason, expectation levels for any defensive coordinator need to remain in the realm of reasonable rather than fantasy. Of course, you would prefer to give up no yards and no points, but let's understand that most of the time, even the poor teams are able to eat up statistics.
The NFL has a pretty constant "average points per game per team" number in the past several seasons. It sits at about 23 points per team.
So, as a defense in this league -- especially a defense that is in Dallas and doesn't seem to ever get its fair share of resources (premium draft picks, salary cap space) -- you are just competing against that number. In other words, you realize that having the best defense in the league is not reasonable without investment. But, the plan on this side of the ball has always been -- to steal a phrase that I like -- "trying to get to average."
If you want to be a top team in this league and in the mix for a Super Bowl every January, I would contend that very rarely does a team come along that is "top five" in offense and defense. If there is, it is usually for just a flash. Instead, you want to get one side of the ball to "elite" and the other side to league average. This seems to put you in the mix for a Super Bowl.
With that in mind, the Cowboys are trying to get under that 23-points-per-game barrier. And they have done a nice job of it with Rod Marinelli. You can tell it is easier when the offense is what it was advertised to be (elite). But this season the level has dropped substantially, in a good direction, and after two weeks of facing supposed playoff offenses -- to which they allowed 30 points over two games -- optimism is bubbling over.
So the line is 23 points per game. That is league average for any offense to score, or for any defense to allow. It is early, but getting below 23 has never been easy, and when they have, they barely did so. I cannot stress how impressive the first six weeks have been for this defense. In fact, the season high they have allowed was 23 points to Washington. Nobody has surpassed 23 points even once against Marinelli's crew. Nobody!
Now let's look at it from a perspective of what I would consider "great games." These are games in which you do not allow 21 -- games in which the Dallas defense allowed 20 points or fewer.
Those are all full seasons, you guys (except this year). This year is just through six games! They have 10 games to go. They have allowed 20 points or fewer in five of six games. They have really done well in the bend-but-don't-break defense and pursuit of average. For now, they have flown by average to a point where we'd better start asking whether their plan has really worked brilliantly.
And for that plan to work, they needed big performances from guys you didn't expect and that the league knew nothing about.
Sunday was all about those guys. Look at the names on the splash chart. By the way, the pure number of splashes is the highest since I started keeping this stat -- 21 splash plays! They got to 20 splashes three different times in 2014, but that flurry at the end of this game, when they kept stripping the ball loose, put them in a new place.
WEEK 6 SPLASH PLAYSAnthony Brown, Terrell McClain and David Irving? Who are these guys? Ryan Davis? Benson Mayowa? Is this a no-name defense, or what? I could see it if they were led by Sean Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence or Tyrone Crawford. Instead, many of the biggest plays from this big day at Lambeau Field were made by guys making a million dollars a year or less. Bargain-basement production surely is the key to figuring out how to skin a cat with no resources.
It is also interesting to see how many splashes I had to share between two guys. I try to avoid this, but on many occasions Sunday, two guys arrived at the exact same time on players. In other words, Rod continues to get all these guys to fly to the ball and make plays.
Let's look at the tape, coach:
This is Anthony Brown. Hopefully you are up to speed with his fine work by now, but he is their sixth-round pick out of Purdue (one of several sixth-rounders, actually). This guy has had to fill in for Orlando Scandrick almost every week this season, and given that you haven't seen him make too many mistakes, we should be happy. Now he is getting confident and showing off one of his best attributes -- tackling. That's Randall Cobb in the open field.
Here is Jordy Nelson trying to get to the sticks on third down. Also, notice the three-man rush from the Cowboys. The Packers hate this. Rodgers has all day but is being kept in the pocket. Eight players in zones trying to give him nowhere to go.
Here is Anthony Brown one more time. Not sure what the lead blocker is doing here as he runs by Brown on his way to nowhere, but Brown closes fast and gets a big tackle for a loss. Starting to wonder if this is the best draft class in decades around here. And we haven't even seen Jaylon Smith yet.
There's my favorite defensive player these days. Terrell McClain has just been a pleasure this season. So much so, that I may try to get him signed during the bye week because he already has earned an extension from me. Look at that. He plays it like a linebacker, scraping to the play and then putting a form tackle on Eddie Lacy. Gracious.
Look at McClain blow up the center here and score another tackle for loss. Such a great combination of strength and quickness.
Finally, my other offseason delight was David Irving. I hope you read this during training camp. I still don't know why his snap totals are so low. But, they won't be able to keep them down if he keeps taking over games like this. He just turned 23. And he was unreal in this game with six splashes. Yes, he was given double credit if you can strip a fumble and then recover it.
He is such an active and massive body. And look at him go -- he strips Rodgers, then goes and gets it out of the pile. Awesome stuff, No. 95. And did you see they had Nos. 97 and 95 together inside on that play?
And this is the three-man rush again. But, Irving still gets to the ball to knock it loose. Nobody is open again. This is a coverage sack and the ball comes out.
Those three players -- Brown, McClain and Irving will make a total of $2.1 million combined this year. In a league where Jeff Heath makes $1.9 million, I would say there is some value in that trio.
WEEKLY DATA BOXI realize the Cowboys might have just had to hand the Packers the rope and they would fashion their own noose, but Dallas should not apologize for an awesome four-takeaway performance in which it did not allow Green Bay into the end zone until it was too late and held it under 400 yards and 20 points at Lambeau.
AARON RODGERS THROW CHARTThose blue dots on the right were the constant swing passes to safety valves that Rodgers had to continuously settle for, most of them as the Cowboys decided to drop deep into coverage to simply allow things underneath. Rodgers did miss some throws down the field, but the plan was perfect.
And here it is. Give him time, but no options -- here is how Marinelli deployed his pass rushers:
See, don't rush him. Frustrate him with no open spots to throw. Keep him in the pocket with a spy, but flood the zones and make him make perfect throws. Some times, Rodgers can. Right now, he obviously cannot.
SEASON SPLASH TOTALS - AFTER 6 WEEKSIf you expected the leaderboard to look like this, you should gamble. I never imagined it would materialize like this.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONSMany of the statistics should remind us to remain suspicious about whether this model is sustainable. To be honest, we don't fully know how much of their early success is completely "situation-reliant" and a testament to the offense's play right now.
The Cowboys are 23rd in yards per rush allowed and 20th in yards per pass; 23rd in sacks per attempt and 29th on third downs.
A lot of things need to improve and can improve. At the same time, it seems a story is worth telling about this first stretch for the defense beyond just the offense being so great. If you watch the games, it is worth seeing that they fly to the ball and seem to make opposing offenses frustrated.
Honestly, we will need to see more before we offer any proclamations, but they are off to quite a start with a lot of unknown players stepping up.
Many don’t want to talk about it any more, but the Cowboys’ approach to the position in the off-season cycle bordered on passive. Coupled with the four game suspension of the club’s most talented rusher, DeMarcus Lawrence, and 14 game penalty levied toward promising bookend Randy Gregory, the rush the team can muster has been decidedly quarterback friendly. So I grew excited when he wasn’t listed among the inactives.
With each successive defensive snap the Dallas Cowboys took Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, I paused the action to look for his freshly issued number 75.
Why on Earth would I be so interested in the Cowboys debut of a Jacksonville castoff, a 27 year-old defensive end from college football blue-blood Bethune Cookman?
Because Ryan Davis has actual NFL quarterback pelts on the wall of his trophy room. Not a lot, mind you, but with 11 career sacks including 6.5 in 2014, despite never starting in Jacksonville, he is more prolific than either of the Cowboys’ starting defensive ends Sunday night in Tyrone and Jack Crawford. And he did it in far less rush attempts.
Such is the state of the pass rush in Dallas that the arrival of street free agents are heralded with a degree of pageantry and getting home at all is good for a share of the team lead.
While the Cowboys have worked around what amounts to a glaring Achilles’ heel to notch two wins in their first three contests, a rush this anemic is the equivalent of a comeback feature in sports video games. All things are made far easier for clubs looking to snatch victory from the Cowboys’ hands late in games.
Sunday night the team debuted its dumptruck personnel grouping. Not to be confused with the SuperBowl winning, New York Giants’ NASCAR rush package of years gone by, the Cowboys’ starting defensive line now features four players best suited as defensive tackles, Tyrone and Jack Crawford as the ends, and Terrell McClain and rookie Maliek Collins as the tackles.
This is not a master stroke designed to jump start the rush.
Neither of these ends is going to make a living winning against offensive tackles running the arc. Rather it stands as an indictment of the group as a whole, and demoted free agent acquisition and weak-side defensive end Benson Mayowa in particular.
Rather predictably, against a pair of pedestrian Bears tackles, it actually got worse as the Cowboys failed to produce a sack despite leading throughout. With just three sacks in the first three weeks the Cowboys’ front seven have yet to beat an offensive tackle for a sack at all.
Before you cry out the aforementioned Mayowa’s tally against New York, it was the very definition of a coverage sack on a play he was truly and thoroughly stoned on.
The Dallas Cowboys will have to dramatically increase the quality of rushes they are getting or all of their valiant efforts to overcome injuries at key positions all across the offense could go for naught. Losing the club’s three best offensive players in quarterback Tony Romo, receiver Dez Bryant, and left tackle Tyron Smith only increases the risk a “comeback feature” introduces, by eliminating the offense’s greatest conduit to points of their own. For the team to defend what figure to be even thinner leads in a league of razor-like margins of victory, they’ll need to find help inside the building to eliminate the hole in the bottom of their bucket.
Enter the fourth quarter, eight snap Cowboys debut of the 6-foot-2, 260 pound Ryan Davis. Fresh legs notwithstanding, Davis showed among those eight snaps more sound technique and quality rushes than most of his individual line-mates can claim in three games. No, he didn’t get home though he did record a quarterback hit, and no pressures aren’t remotely the value of sacks, but show me the man consistently putting down more quality rushes and you’re showing me the player that will record more sacks over the course of the remainder of the season.
In just eight snaps Davis showed a spin, a speed rush, a bull rush, and a twist stunt inside, all done well. That sort of diversity as a rusher is typically hard earned through Sunday experience and reason for an increased role for this veteran. Based on what we have seen thus far Davis deserves to double his snaps against San Francisco, and I would give him all of the weak side passing down chances possible. He represents possibility in a group that has produced precious little of it when opposing quarterbacks are setting up shop in the pocket.
All hope is not lost. The Cowboys aren’t simply doomed to a fate where they’re devoured in the jaws of the NFC’s quarterbacking dragons. DeMarcus Lawrence returns in week five. Lawerence is coming off back surgery and suspension, but will be counted on immediately. He will walk in to resume his starting role and adding him to Davis, and David Irving, an athletic freak who rushes both inside and out but has yet to turn promise to production, at least offers hope of a rotation that can offer some resistance. Continuing on a pace for 21 sacks isn’t a story that ends any way other than bloodied.
The Cowboys will bear this flaw throughout 2016, and their ability to stem some of the bleeding could determine the ultimate story of this season. In a league continually governed and officiated to favor passing and easy points the pass rush is still the great equalizer and the sack the ultimate expression of defensive dominance and utter offensive failure. We will surely turn over every stone as we scout pass rushing prospects in the 2017 draft class and trust that the Cowboys’ personnel department is doing the same, as that is where the true fix starts. In the interim all eyes will be on the gentlemen Davis, Lawrence, and Irving to see who wants to earn the title of Rushmen.
Defensive tackle Terrell McClain is playing a major role in the Cowboys success in the 2016 season. He has certainly come into his own as a member of Rod Marinelli's Merry Band of Rushman. He got things started off on a positive note during the week one loss at the hands of the New York Giants when he led all Dallas defensive linemen with five stops including one for a loss. On Sunday he improved on that performance. For the second time this season he had a five-tackle outing, but this time he was also credited for 1.5 sacks.
Not only did McClain get his hands on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and help bring him to the ground on two occasions, he made life difficult for the Cincinnati passer all afternoon long. He added three pressures to the mix as well. On a day when the defense turned in a spectacular performance, nobody outshined the 6' 2" 300-pounder out of the University of South Florida.
The quick start to the season stands in stark contrast to the disappointing 2015 season which McClain spent recovering from a toe injury. Last year big #97 was credited with just two tackles before spending the rest of the season on injured reserve. McClain is happy to be back on the field helping the Dallas Cowboys get the job done rather than focusing on his rehabilitation process.
"It felt good to be out there making plays. The past couple years have been frustrating, but you just keep working." Terrell McClain
The team is equally happy to have him out on the gridiron. McClain is in the midst of what is shaping up to be his best season as a professional. Twice in his career he has reached 19 tackles for the season. He is about to reach that plateau again after only five contests. With 11 games left to play Terrell is already credited with 17 tackles on the season.
Having McClain on the roster is a win both on and off the field for the Cowboys. Consider that his base salary is $1 million dollars and his cap hit is just $100,000 more, and you quickly see what a bargain he is. Jerry Jones & Co. are getting an incredible return on such a small investment.
The Cowboys went out and invested fairly substantial money in Cedric Thornton to play the 1-tech, signing him to a four-year, $17 million contract in the offseason. With McClain's injury history the Cowboys decided to bring in someone who was a known quantity. And while Thornton is not playing poorly, he did have a sack on Sunday, it's McClain who is the primary starter in the middle.
By any terms that you want to use, having Terrell McClain on the team has been a boon for Dallas. Outside of the possible exception of Morris Claiborne, he is the best return on investment that the Dallas defense has to offer this season. That value should only become greater as the season wears on.