After two 8-8 seasons with a defense that, despite a lot of talent, couldn't break from the middle of the pack in terms of points and yards allowed, the Dallas Cowboys replaced defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with the venerable Monte Kiffin this past offseason.
Under Kiffin, the Dallas defense ranks 22nd and 28th in those categories. Despite the fact the regular season is only about 30 percent complete, that 31st-ranked Cowboys pass defense has already become the fourth in NFL history to allow three separate quarterbacks to pass for 400-plus yards against it.
The unit has allowed opponents to convert 40 percent of their third downs, and it's recorded sacks on only 6.2 percent of its defensive snaps, ranking in the bottom 10 in both areas. And although Kiffin's Tampa 2 D is supposed to limit big plays, only three other defenses have surrendered more 20-yard completions.
Yes, adjusting to a brand-new defense, especially one with a profusion of zone principles, isn't an easy task. The process takes some time, but it's a little discouraging that the Dallas D seems to be getting worse, not better.
Sunday against Denver, the unit allowed Peyton Manning to complete seven passes of 19 or more yards as the Broncos scored on nine of their 11 offensive possessions, never punting. They took seven defensive penalties, allowing 51 points.
Yes, the Broncos are on pace to shatter offensive records this season and Manning has been tearing apart the league Madden-style, but it's not as though things were much smoother in San Diego in Week 4. Philip Rivers posted a passer rating of 120.3 and completed 83.3 percent of his passes in a 401-yard effort that day.
The Cowboys defense surrendered 17 points in the second half there, which means they've now given up 68 in their last six quarters. That's the exact same total they gave up during the preceding 14 quarters to start the year.
So is it Kiffin? Is the 73-year-old's scheme nothing more than a relic at this point? I mean, there has to be a reason so few defenses adopt the Tampa 2 nowadays. Maybe what worked so well for Kiffin with the Tamapa Bay Buccaneers early this century is no longer stylish because opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators have solved that puzzle.
Or maybe they've just been facing the wrong teams at the wrong time.
Rivers is off to a great start too. In fact, Manning, Romo and Rivers enter Week 6 as the three highest-rated passers in the NFL, and they also rank 1-2-3 in touchdown passes.
I think they've been slow to adopt some of the key tenets of Kiffin's defense, which is why we've already seen Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter lose starting jobs, but I do believe that tough matchups have probably amplified the issues.
The Kansas City Chiefs are 5-0, but they were actually limited to a season-low 17 points in their home opener versus the Cowboys. The St. Louis Rams were also bottled up nicely in Week 3, but you simply can't surrender 112 points in three games against Denver, San Diego and the New York Giants.
The chart below indicates that the 'Boys have probably already faced their stiffest competition, but those first three weeks were about as easy as it gets. They won't get many walks in the park between now and the end of the year, except maybe against the Giants and Oakland Raiders.
Ultimately, if the players aren't executing, they're going to struggle regardless of the schedule and the scheme. The Cowboys aren't executing, making it tough to get a proper read on potential coaching problems.
This defense is all about creating pressure, and a key facet of the Tampa 2 is generating organic pressure with that four-man line. The Cowboys have surrendered 7.22 yards per first down, which, according to ESPN.com, ranks 31st in the NFL. DeMarcus Ware is a stud, but how are he and his cohorts supposed to pin their ears back when opponents are never challenged by second- and third-and-long situations?
Ware made less than a nominal impact against Manning and the Broncos, recording just two hurries on 32 pass-rushing snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
So why can't that front seven do a better job on early downs in order to make it easier to execute on later downs? It could be schematic, but it could just be that the Cowboys are pushing a scheme that features a four-man line at a time in which they're short on defensive linemen.
Defensive ends Anthony Spencer and Tyrone Crawford are already on injured reserve, and All-Pro nose tackle Jay Ratliff remains on the PUP list, leaving Dallas extremely thin up front.
Ware himself, who is showing signs of decline at the age of 31, has been bothered by a pinched nerve and a strained back. He also had cramps and needed an IV against Denver, according to ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins. And although he's been productive thus far, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher suffered a stinger and had to take some snaps off against Denver.
In fact, Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPN.com notes that for a few plays on Denver's game-tying fourth-quarter drive, the Dallas D-line was composed of Caesar Rayford, Drake Nevis, Nick Hayden and Kyle Wilber. That quartet has a combined career sack total of five. Spencer and Ware have seven this season alone, and the original four-man starting crew has 193.5 career quarterback takedowns.
So, in Kiffin's defense, the schedule's been a bitch, the execution has left a lot to be desired, and the team has been ravaged by injuries.
Considering that this exact same group was one of the most injured defenses in the league last season, according to Football Outsiders, you have to wonder if it's just snake-bitten. Will injuries make it impossible for the unit to master this new scheme?
It's not overly promising. Remember when the safety position was the primary concern during the offseason? How quickly things change. Starters Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox have played extremely well. The problem is that Claiborne has been insufferably unreliable, Carter has been slow to adjust to his altered role and those front-four issues have made it nearly impossible for everyone else on D to deal with the home runs and the bunts at the same time.
The defense been forced to pick its poison.
"The secondary is staying deep, so we’re not allowing a lot of deep balls, which is good," said Wilcox, per David Moore of the Dallas Morning News. “We just have to rally and see how we can come up and stop these running backs and tight ends."
Ya think? In the last two weeks alone, backs and tight ends have accounted for 38 catches, 459 yards and five touchdowns against this defense. It's made Danny Woodhead and Knowshon Moreno look more like Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook, and it's made Julius Thomas and Antonio Gates look more like, well, Antonio Gates and Antonio Gates.
So you probably can't completely blame the players, and you can't write Kiffin's scheme off this early. Naturally, Kiffin's throwing himself under the bus, as are men who are responsible for making the tackles.
Sean Lee, via Watkins of ESPN.com, for example:
We just haven't been fundamentally sound. It's on us as players to make more plays and we haven't made enough plays and we haven't been able to get off the field. We haven't executed enough and it's squarely on us as players to find a way to get better.
But that may not be completely true. Again, the Tampa 2 might have become unpopular for a reason. And the personnel in place might not be suited for what Kiffin has introduced to them.
You’ll probably never hear this from Jerry, who made Rob Ryan the scapegoat for 8-8, but there is ample reason to fear that the game has passed the 73-year-old Kiffin by. He couldn’t figure out how to stop Pac-12 offenses at USC, and he’s appeared just as befuddled during his NFL return.
This was a dramatic change, but it wasn't supposed to be as painful as it's been. Injuries and the schedule have certainly factored in, and let's keep in mind that before the Denver game Dallas' defense was actually still ranked 11th in points allowed.
Expect things to keep fluctuating for now, but give Kiffin and his guys some time.
It's not as though you have a choice. Just try not to pay attention to what's happening 500 miles east in New Orleans.
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