Although I thought the Cowboys should have retained defensive coordinator Rob Ryan following the 2012 season, I wasn’t opposed to bringing in Monte Kiffin, either. The reason? Takeaways.
Kiffin’s Cover 2-based scheme—one that emphasizes a lot of defenses other than a true Cover 2—is built around generating takeaways without playing so aggressively that you also give up a ton of yards.
The Cowboys have indeed forced a lot of takeaways in 2013, ranking fifth in the NFL with 25 of them. The problem is that those takeaways haven’t even come close to making up for the yardage Dallas has allowed; they’ve yielded the most passing yards and fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL.
Another issue for Dallas is that takeaways are highly volatile. Although some teams and schemes are certainly better at forcing turnovers than others, interceptions and fumble recoveries, especially, are very random as well. That’s bad news for the ‘Boys, who have the second-most fumble recoveries in the NFL—nearly one per game, which isn’t going to hold up.
With that said, let’s take a look at the top four reasons Kiffin’s defense is struggling in Dallas.
4) Quarterbacks are better than they were a decade ago.
When Kiffin was dominant during his time in Tampa Bay, the overall level of quarterback talent wasn’t near what it is today. Nowadays, even rookies come into the league prepared to provide meaningful contributions.
That might seem like it would hurt every defense equally, but I don’t think that’s the case. Kiffin’s defense is founded upon a “bend but don’t break" mentality through which he’s willing to give up yards and just wait for offenses to make mistakes.
Well, they don’t make as many mistakes as they used to. Kiffin’s defense can still collect a lot of takeaways, but that’s primarily just because they’re on the field so much. They’ve faced 896 plays—more than all but five teams—while giving up the second-most yards per play in the league.
The Cowboys are generating takeaways, which is awesome, but when they don’t, they’re giving up a whole lot of points. And since takeaways are volatile, the defensive results can be disastrous when the takeaways don’t come (see Monday night’s loss in Chicago).
3) The defense doesn’t disguise their intentions.
The Cowboys don’t do a whole lot to hide their defensive intentions. On any given play, this is the sort of alignment you’re likely to see from the Dallas defense.
It’s the same four down-linemen, all of whom rush, along with cornerbacks and linebackers who show a certain look (man or zone) and then indeed play what they showed pre-snap. When the Cowboys played a 3-4 defense, there was at least a little built-in confusion for offenses since they didn’t always know if Anthony Spencer or another outside linebacker would be rushing,
One of the aspects of play-calling with which the Cowboys always struggle is game theory—choosing plays with the opponent’s probable moves in mind. They don’t think one step ahead of the competition.
Offensively, for example, the Cowboys have too frequently used two-tight end formations to run and spread looks to throw. That might be advantageous in a vacuum, but it’s sub-optimal in practice, because defenses adjust to your actions.
When you bring a third receiver on the field, the defense typically implements nickel personnel, for example. If that nickel cornerback holds an advantage over the extra receiver, the net result is negative for the offense, even if passing with three receivers is “ideal” in some theoretical sense.
It’s the same idea on defense. Stacking the line with potential rushers might not be optimal in a vacuum if they need to drop into coverage, but it’s advantageous in reality since it can confuse the offensive line and quarterback.
The Cowboys need to stop doing the things they do best and start doing the things that create the biggest net advantage for them—their strengths minus the opponent’s weaknesses.
We can say all day long that every team suffers injuries and you need to respond to them, and while that’s true, it’s not like every team’s injury fate is equal. Some teams will just be more unlucky with injuries than others in a given season, and that obviously hurts their ability to produce. There’s a reason the starters are starters.
This season, 40 players have played at least one snap on the Dallas defense, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Forty!
While the result is all that really matters for Dallas, the team’s ability to achieve the desired result is hampered when players like Caesar Rayford and Jarius Wynn are receiving significant playing time.
1) There’s no pressure.
The top reason that Kiffin’s defense isn’t working in Dallas, hands down, is that the Cowboys haven’t been able to generate much pressure. Take a look at the pressure rates for their top three rushers—defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and defensive ends George Selvie and DeMarcus Ware.
I marked the Cowboys’ wins with an asterisk. You can see the Cowboys’ pressure rates dropped from the beginning of the season to the midpoint—a stretch during which they lost to the Lions and barely beat a poor Vikings team. The pressure rate was at its highest against the Raiders and Giants—both games the Cowboys won.
While the Cowboys have been pretty lucky with takeaways this year, the best way to keep them coming is to get pressure. The correlation between defensive pressure and takeaways is astounding.
There’s not much the Cowboys can do about their injuries, and it’s not like Kiffin is going to dramatically alter his scheme at this point in the season. One things the ‘Boys can do to improve, though, is disguise their looks. They need to do something to create confusion for offenses.
Second, they absolutely need to find a way to get more pressure, even if it means blitzing more. It’s a high-risk strategy, but the Cowboys aren’t good enough to play conservatively and consistently beat good teams. They need to press the issue and just hope the ball bounces their way.
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