How the Dallas Cowboys Can Correct Defensive Shortcomings

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How the Dallas Cowboys Can Correct Defensive Shortcomings
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Dallas Cowboys rank last in the NFL in passing yards allowed. With 3,130 yards allowed this year, the Cowboys are one of only two teams to have allowed more than 2,600 yards through the air. The 'Boys also rank second-to-last in rushing yards allowed and are in the bottom five in both passing and rushing touchdowns.

The excessive yardage, they say, is a byproduct of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's scheme; the Cowboys are "trading in" yards for takeaways. 

So what has the defense been able to do by emphasizing takeaways? Well, it ranks fifth in the NFL in interceptions (12), second in fumble recoveries (10) and second in total takeaways (22). Not bad.

But is it worth it? 

 

The Math on the Cowboys' Takeaways

To calculate the value of the Cowboys' takeaways, we need to know how many yards each type of takeaway is "worth." The value of an interception or fumble obviously depends on field position and other game situations, but there are still baseline averages with which we can work.

Ultimately, interceptions are typically worth the equivalent of 45 yards, on average. Because fumble recoveries usually allow a defense to give their offense slightly better field position than interceptions, they're worth slightly more.

Based on historical data, per SportsQuant.com, fumble recoveries have been worth right around seven percent more than interceptions. That makes fumble recoveries the equivalent of about 48 yards. 

With those numbers in mind, we can examine the Cowboys' 2013 defense in a different sort of way. Let's assume that the Cowboys had the league average in both interceptions (nine) and fumble recoveries (six).

If we "exchange" each Dallas interception over the average for 45 yards apiece and each fumble recovery over the average for 48 yards each, we're looking at 327 total yards.

The Cowboys have yielded 4,398 yards thus far in 2013, which is last in the NFL. Subtracting those 327 yards from that total, the 'Boys would be looking at 4,071 yards allowed with an average number of takeaways (three fewer picks and four fewer fumble recoveries).

That number (4,071 yards allowed) would rank them 31st in the NFL instead of 32nd. So it's pretty safe to conclude that Kiffin's scheme isn't working, at all, even after adjusting for the takeaways. The Cowboys are simply giving up way, way too many yards.

 

What's wrong with the D?

The Cowboys have had their fair share of injuries, as Stephen Jones pointed out to DallasCowboys.com. And with linebacker Sean Lee now expected to miss up to four weeks, the road to redemption just got a whole lot more difficult.

To improve their defense, we have to know what's wrong with it. Clearly, the bend-but-don't-break mentality isn't working right now. It's great to secure takeaways, but not when they come at the cost of giving up the third-most passing touchdowns and fifth-most rushing scores in the NFL.

The easiest way the Cowboys can help themselves is to get more pressure. I've shown on multiple occasions that defensive pressure is the key to takeaways and an overall healthy defense. But look at this:

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys' pressure rate has been trending downward for a while now. The injuries to defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher have clearly hurt, but both players should be healthy coming out of the Cowboys' Week 11 bye.

And even when healthy, Dallas hasn't been pressuring the quarterback at an elite rate. Let's take a look at an example of that from the Saints game.

On a 1st-and-10 at their own 48-yard line, the Saints lined up in a Tight End Spread formation. The Cowboys had seven defenders near the line prior to the snap, suggesting a blitz.

NFL Game Rewind

As they've done so often this year, the Cowboys backed out of the blitz and rushed only four defenders. Quarterback Drew Brees showed play action.

NFL Game Rewind

After finishing his dropback and looking down field, Brees had all day to throw the football.

NFL Game Rewind

Brees is one of the game's best at getting the ball out quickly, but the Cowboys were nowhere near him even when he hung onto the football on Sunday night.

 

How can the defense improve?

We've seen enough from Dallas to suggest that it's going to be difficult for it to consistently generate pressure with only four rushers. For that reason, the Cowboys need to implement a high-variance defensive strategy through which they force the issue. We need to see more blitzes and, as owner Jerry Jones wants, more man coverage.

The obvious reason for more blitzes is that it's necessary to obtain more pressure. The other benefit of sending extra rushers is that it should increase the Cowboys' win probability by actually making games more volatile.

Let me explain. Blitzing versus rushing four or fewer defenders is very much akin to a pass-heavy versus run-heavy offense. Both a blitz-heavy and pass-heavy plan of attack increase volatility. Defenses that blitz a lot are more susceptible to allowing big plays, but they're also more likely to generate their own big plays, for example.

NFL offenses have come a long way in the past few years, and they're now highly efficient at slowly matriculating the ball up the field. Kiffin's scheme isn't what it used to be because quarterbacks like Brees can slowly work their way up the field in a very consistent way. It's not such a great plan anymore to wait for quarterbacks to make mistakes.

As offenses improve, the value of offensive possessions increases. If offenses theoretically scored on 80 percent of their possessions, the value of stopping an offense (from a defensive perspective) would be far greater than it would if offenses scored only 30 percent of the time. 

Further, with offenses so efficient, it hurts less to give up touchdowns than it did in the past. All of this calls for a high-variance defensive strategy through which the Cowboys attack defenses via the blitz and live with the results.

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