Breaking Down the Dallas Cowboys' Defensive Collapse

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 11, 2013

USA Today

The Dallas Cowboys defense was already indisputably bad entering Sunday night's road matchup with the New Orleans Saints, and then it surrendered 49 points along with an NFL-record 40 first downs and a franchise-record 625 yards, and now it's officially time to panic.

Since the turn of the century, 17 NFL defenses have given up fewer yards over the course of a 16-game season than Dallas has through Week 10. So things have truly hit rock bottom for Monte Kiffin's squad. 

So what exactly happened Sunday night to take things from bad to worse? It started with the injuries.

  • DeMarcus Ware was far from 100 percent in his return to the lineup. Ware missed three games due to a quad injury, and his first game back was unimpressive. He had a few nice rushes but disappeared far too often. 
  • It didn't help that Ware played the entire game without all three of his fellow starting defensive linemen from the preseason. Anthony Spencer (knee) is on injured reserve, Jay Ratliff is no longer on the roster and Jason Hatcher missed his first game of the season due to a neck injury. Hatcher has been having a career year, and Spencer was coming off of the best year of his career.
  • Two of its three starting linebackers were also injured during the first half of Sunday's game. Sean Lee, whom Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades as the best inside linebacker in the NFL, went down with a hamstring injury in the second quarter, while veteran Justin Durant also left with an injured hammy.
  • And 50 percent of the starting secondary was out. Second-year corner Morris Claiborne missed his second straight game because of—you guessed it—an injured hamstring, while rookie safety J.J. Wilcox (knee) missed his third game in a row.

As a result of all of those bumps, bruises, strains, pulls and breaks, the 'Boys were forced to give significant playing time to rookies B.W. Webb, Jeff Heath and Jakar Hamilton in the defensive backfield, along with Micah Pellerin. Up front, guys like Jarius Wynn, Drake Nevis, Everett Dawkins and Everette Brown were forced to step in.

I won't hold it against you if you don't know who the majority of those guys are. 

So how are you supposed to slow down one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses with scrubs like that at every level? 

You aren't, really, which is why it's hard to pin this on Kiffin. 

Ware simply couldn't beat Charles Brown on the edge. The Saints left tackle entered Week 10 with a minus-5.2 PFF grade, having given up 31 total pressures while being flagged a league-high eight times. 

On this particular first-quarter play, Brown handled him for four or five full seconds without help. These things happen, but the secondary also somehow allowed the Saints' No. 1 receiver to get this open...

With little support and so many issues elsewhere, the Cowboys couldn't afford not to get consistent pressure on Brees, and Ware couldn't get the job done. 

Without Lee, they couldn't stop Saints running back Darren Sproles right when the momentum was shifting. The turning point of this game took place moments after Lee went down. The Saints still trailed by a field goal and were backed up after a penalty. But they converted on two plays after facing a 1st-and-20 by finding Sproles exactly where Lee would usually be.

Seven plays later, they'd be in the end zone to take a lead that they'd never relinquish. 

Inside the red zone on that drive and the next one (both resulted in touchdowns), they went to backs on screens that otherwise might have been snuffed out by Lee.

They'd get the ball back and score yet again before the end of the first half, essentially wrapping it up at 28-10, and on that last-minute drive, it was once again all about working the middle with Graham and Sproles. That gave them the ability to manipulate the defense going forward. After going to Sproles twice in a row, Marques Colston again found himself this open, which is ridiculous with half a minute left on the clock:

That touchdown also came on a seemingly innocent swing pass to Sproles. Don't you wonder where Sean Lee would have been if he were on the field here?

This wasn't a schematic failure from Kiffin. It's easy to throw darts right now, concluding that the game has passed the 73-year-old by and that he's the problem. He's not. In this case, he didn't have the personnel to execute his scheme. 

"We had a lot of young guys out there, there’s no doubt about it," Kiffin said, according to "That’s no excuse. That doesn’t explain it. You still got to play better than that. This is the NFL. If you're on our football team and you're in there, you need to play like a starter. You may not be able to do it because you're on the bench, but still, you can't put on a display like that, it's not good at all, not good."

More than anything, this debacle had to do with Lee's absence. Brees wasn't airing it out a whole lot against that secondary. Instead, the Saints were able to further neutralize Ware and the rest of the Dallas pass rush by taking advantage of the lack of range the Cowboys had in the linebacking corps without Lee. That was how they built up their big second-quarter lead, and it was all gravy from that point on.

This D proved that it can handle not having Ware and Claiborne, and it can probably even survive without Hatcher. But without Lee, it is inoperative.