Football is a pretty simple game when you boil it down to its roots. Sure, we see it present itself in new places with new names every new year, but the basic tenets of football reveal themselves every Sunday in the following way: Blocking and tackling. In other words, can my guys block better than your guys can tackle? Can my guys tackle better than your guys can block?
Well, on Sunday, everyone who followed football knew the Cowboys were going to have their hands full with Julio Jones. He is awesome and maybe the best in the business as of this moment. But, nobody in the world expected the Cowboys, who had just been praised for limiting the Eagles running game to 7 yards on 17 carries, to be beaten into a bloody pulp by Devonta Freeman. Freeman is a talented young player, but up until this day, in 2 seasons in the NFL, he had 87 career carries for 291 yards (3.3 per carry). So, who anticipated 30 carries for 141 (4.7)?
Welcome to the NFL, where you better bring it every Sunday.
And if there is a lesson to be learned from this past week, it is that the league is still interested in challenging the Cowboys with a punch in the face to see how Dallas responds.
Patrick DiMarco is a fullback for Atlanta that I certainly confess to not knowing much about before Sunday. According to Wikipedia, he is the nephew of golfer and Masters runner-up in 2005, Chris DiMarco. He also played for the Chargers in 2011, the Chiefs in 2012, and now the Falcons since 2013. During that stretch of time, he almost never played the 36 snaps that he played against the Cowboys on Sunday, but his effects were felt as the Falcons decided to load up with a fullback in front of Freeman, and attack the Cowboys with some downhill runs - mostly to the edges - to see what Dallas would do about it.
The results were pretty disappointing from Rod Marinelli's standpoint.
And, unfortunately, it didn't replace the attack of Julio Jones; It complemented it. When that happens, when you get spanked on the ground and through the air, well, let's just say we must curb our enthusiasm a bit with regards to the 2015 Cowboys defense.
The following is a chart that represents very bad days. Thanks to Game Finder on Profootballreference.com, it is a list of the 22 occasions in Cowboys' history where the defense had the dubious double of allowing over 400 yards and generating no takeaways. As we discuss on a routine basis, your defense better be good at one or the other - either stop the yard production or take the ball away. Great defenses can do both. Poor squads can do neither. And on Sunday, the Cowboys were a very poor defense:
You will want to pay very special attention to the W/L column on the right. All-time, Dallas is 2-20 when they give up 400+ and get 0 takeaways, and only have 1 win (2009 in Tampa Bay) since Tom Landry walked the sidelines.
It is total and complete domination.
In fact, under Jason Garrett, this team has been at the mercy of the takeaway game quite a bit. Here is a helpful chart to understand how this works:
Record Under Garrett (43-32)
As you can see, if Garrett's Cowboys take the ball away at least twice, they almost never lose. But, if they don't get any - like Sunday - then they simply cannot win (save for Week 1 against the Giants this season).
So, what happened? Well, this isn't complicated. The Cowboys were down a lot on the defensive Front 7 - Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain were key reasons the Eagles struggled up front. Mincey missed this game and McClain will miss the rest of the season. Add those two to the absences of Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, Rolando McClain and you are especially thin. Those that remain include guys like DeMarcus Lawrence and Kyle Wilber - guys who are known for pass rushing, not run stoutness. We saw a ton of Ryan Russell, Davin Coleman, Ken Bishop, and Jack Crawford on Sunday. Are they all NFL players? Yes. Should they be able to step up and "next man up" their opportunities? Yes. Did the Cowboys look like they missed those who were gone as Freeman was storming the castle repeatedly? Yes.
The above one is funny/sad. The Falcons right guard actually goes the wrong way, leaving the Cowboys with a free LB to hit Freeman. It didn't help Anthony Hitchens.
Ryan Russell was untouched and over-ran the play above. Those were only the 1st half runs for Freeman of 7 yards or more. Here comes the killer 3rd Quarter:
Here, the two DTs - Crawford and Hayden look to be on different pages and the hole opens right up.
How many times is the defensive end going to fall for this? Russell again. And Hitchens? Oh, my.
I wish we were done. Now, the 4th.
DeMarcus Lawrence with a free shot.
10 runs of 7 yards or more. From Devonta Freeman. The Cowboys made him famous in one afternoon.
It sure looks like the inexperienced defensive ends caused plenty of this with falling for the inside movement and then losing contain. I assume Mincey would have dealt with this much better. But, again, that is the sport. Who can play has to play well.
Do you blame the Falcons for simply looking at the personnel, seeing the Cowboys were light up front (in numbers and in run stoppers) and decided to attack with muscle and a fullback? Pretty sharp idea from Atlanta that I am sure future opponents will make note of very carefully.
Pretty much across the board, the Cowboys defense was not good enough on Sunday and the stats on the left here demonstrate it rather loudly. 64% on 3rd down. 80% in the red zone. 3rd downs were all 3rd and manageable, it seemed, and you just can't do much good if you are giving up 5 yards a carry over and over to a backup RB.
Again, there is nothing wrong with Freeman, but the Falcons don't think he is a starter and that is why they invested in Tevin Coleman. But, on Sunday, both sides saw how deep Atlanta appears to be a that spot.
Now, similarly, what was the plan with stopping Julio Jones? Well, the Cowboys decided to mix coverages and try to figure out ways to slow Matt Ryan and Jones down. Of course, the Falcons deal with this issue every week and laugh at your plan, because the reason Dez Bryant and Julio Jones are who they are is because they can make NFL defenses look like small college defenses with these unstoppable weapons. Health is the only way to slow them down, and unlike Dez, Julio appears to be in pretty good shape at the moment for destroying coverages.
The Cowboys mixed things up, but the Falcons threw 20 balls to Julio Jones. Here is map for how that happened. They simply and happily force the ball into him.
Here is the damage from an individual standpoint as the Cowboys show some level of stubbornness about "traveling" corners. Instead, they pretty much remain in their individual spots and the Falcons can move Julio around to get the matchups they want. Again, so much of the Cowboys defense is from Seattle, so this shouldn't surprise us, but you do wonder if there should be exceptions made to make sure that when they are in a man-coverage, the Falcons don't get him against a little corner like Tyler Patmon.
We will break down some of the coverage breakdowns, tomorrow.
A very small list of impact plays were made on Sunday as you might imagine. our leader for the game is Nick Hayden, which with no offense to Nick, is probably never a good thing.
I do believe and enjoy in this splash play tabulation each week, but it should be noted that a flaw in the system is for defensive backs who generally accumulate those splashes when they are being picked on or attacked. On Sunday, there is little question that Morris Claiborne was being targeted and I believe he saw more action than he has in just about any game of his career. On one drive alone I believe Ryan threw 8 balls in his direction. He held up pretty well, but he did have a shot at an interception deep in Cowboys territory that might have swung the game, but Julio Jones timed a hip check to break up the play.
On the right are the season totals for the Splash Plays through 3 games.
It has been noted by many of you that DeMarcus Lawrence is having a disappointing start to his season. I would certainly agree. Many of us hoped his playoff performances would launch him into Year 2 with great ease, but his growing pains are likely normal. That said, on a day like Sunday, they needed him to take the game over a few times, and he showed no signs of doing that and was actually at fault a few times on those run plays we showed above.
To nobody's surprise, the Cowboys weren't bringing the rush very much on Sunday. They knew they needed a populated secondary, but in doing so, they hardly pressured Matt Ryan at all. It was definitely a case of picking your poison. Below is the season total which again shows just a 14% clip for bringing pressure (league average is about 32%). That is VERY low. Even lower than last year so far for Rod Marinelli - and that says something.
There is no question that this defensive effort will be looked at as a cautionary example of declaring problems fixed too soon. We believe the 2015 defense is much more talented than its predecessors, but that is predicated on many talented players making a difference and most of those "difference makers" were not present.
That may sound like an excuse, but if the Cowboys were featuring Ryan Russell and Jack Crawford high on their depth chart in August, nobody would have forecasted a force to be reckoned with. But, reinforcements are coming. When they do, the product should be better.
In the meantime, we do wonder about the Cowboys coverage plans moving forward. After being a base "Cover 3" team last season, it seems the Cowboys are more determined to play more "Cover 1" this season, but without Orlando Scandrick, do they have the corners to do that?
The bottom line is the bottom line. The Cowboys got whipped up front on both sides of the ball in the 2nd half on Sunday - and for large parts of the entire game. This was a 12-4 team that we believed had switched their identity to a team that is known for being strong in the trenches. Unfortunately, in their latest game, they looked like the 2nd most physical side against Altanta. The Falcons might be this years surprise, but nobody expected them to be able to do that with a smash-mouth attack.
They did, and now the Cowboys try to pick themselves up off the mat. Because New Orleans is a game they need to win and then the reinforcements arrive for Marinelli and his squad.
On Tuesdays, we attempt to exhaustively break down the offense, both the objectives and the performance in carrying out these game-plan objectives in the latest Cowboys game.
Unfortunately, since we do this exercise each and every game - regardless of who is on the field for the Cowboys - we must do some autopsies of some pretty ugly corpses, and the 2nd half performance of the team against the Falcons was quite ugly on both sides of the ball. We will get to the defense and their issues tomorrow, but the offense did not get it done by any stretch of the imagination after the half.
That, of course, presents the retort, "if you score 28 with a backup QB, that ought to be enough to win the game." Nobody debates that. Of course, four touchdowns from a Brandon Weeden-led offense should be enough to win the game. But, each game is different and the circumstance change with it. If, for instance, the Cowboys could have managed just 5 first downs in the 2nd half (2 more than they had, 3 more than they had before garbage time), it might have been enough to keep the defense off the field slightly longer. They were out-snapped by a healthy 37-19 margin in the 2nd half, and as we know, a tired defense cannot stop anyone. With the injuries the Cowboys defense had, they were thin in the Front 7. Well, this is where the offense needed to offer a helping hand. The defense held the Falcons down pretty well in the first 7 drives. But, gave up touchdowns on each of the last 3. Perhaps the time of possession beat-down bill came due. The levee broke. And with it, so did the Cowboys chance to win the game.
And that comes back to the offense. And more specifically, the offensive line.
We would call the total of 347 yards of total offense to be in the "acceptable" zone (below 320 is unacceptable, 321-399 is considered acceptable, 400+ exceptional), and the 28 points would also fulfill the pregame goals. If you offered 347 yards and 28 points without the benefit of any significant defensive or special teams contributions, you would have taken it.
But, 52 yards in the 2nd half, 3 first downs, and 0 points would have to be considered beyond unacceptable for the 2nd half. And that is where this train went off the tracks.
This will lead us back down the road of adjustments. What alterations were there to the game plan as the game developed? For the Falcons, it was to dedicate more up front to sit on the Cowboys zone stretch plays. There is no doubt the Falcons have an aggressive posture to their defense and play in that Seattle Cover 3 with the safety down in the box on a regular basis. This means that the 1st down plan was going to run into some very stiff fronts which were going to swarm to the edges.
Meanwhile, based on the throws from Brandon Weeden in the first half, the throws were all underneath. Only 3 of his 14 1st half throws were to Wide Receivers, and those were all under to Cole Beasley. The field was shrinking. The Falcons knew this and became even more attack-oriented.
This takes us to two concepts that must be presented on a day like today.
1) - Unless the defense feels vulnerability over the top, you are going to be running into fronts that are loaded and aggressive. You simply have to back the linebackers and safeties off with the occasional flirtation with something behind them. The Cowboys were really unable to do that all day. It was 100% in front of them at all times.
2) - Unless the offensive line plays at the top of their game, you cannot have success running into fronts that have no hesitancy about your intentions.
They called 5 run plays in the 2nd half and totaled negative-four yards. Horrendous.
And the simple reality is this - through 3 weeks, the offensive line has not played to its abilities.
If everything is built around the fact that this offensive line is so good that you can put any Running Back back there, then we are going to hold them to a higher standard than what we have seen in these 3 weeks. It is easier to blame a backup QB than it is to ask your 1st round picks what their deal is, but the fact is there have been too many blown blocks and penalties from this group to be throwing roses at their feet when the offense has stuttered in September. Sure, Dez Bryant and Tony Romo would be a great quick fix, but if everything in this offense is built on the strong foundation of this front, then let's see it.
Here are a few examples of the disappointing showing from the OL:
1st play of the 2nd half, zone stretch right - 12:35, 3Q:
Frontside, Doug Free just can't get his helmet around 50-Schofield. If Free can finish his man to the inside, there is something here. But, if the edge is not going to be secured, then we start to look for a cut-back lane. The trouble is that there is no real cut-back lane until late in the play. Frederick is getting pushed back by 95-Babineaux, not leaving much room for Randle. Not sure where he is supposed to go here. The Falcons are crowding the line.
7:05, 3Q. Here is the next zone stretch. 72-Travis Frederick and 70-Zack Martin are over-run here. 71-La'el Collins is assuming 96-Soliai is on Frederick, because he cannot reach him. Frederick is hoping Collins has him because he is looking to go get the LB. Meanwhile, 97-Jarrett knows what play is running and he beats Martin to the spot. Now, you are Joe Randle. What do you see. What is your plan? It looks like the front side has promise, but there is nothing here. The OL is not blocking this well.
3Q, 4:39. Well, the zone plays aren't working. Let's try some man-blocking. How about a pulling block from Martin with a FB running behind him to open up something to the edge?
This play is blocked. When Randle gets to the hash, everything looks fine. But, 54-Stupar, gets off the block from Martin, then gets off of Clutts, and then makes the tackle? Meanwhile, Doug Free has no leverage against the Middle LB 55-Worrilow and is about to hold him if he doesn't let him go. So, a play that was fine is now a disaster. Again, what is Randle supposed to do with this? If Free gets his block and Martin gets his, then Clutts can go get the safety and this play goes. It isn't close. Negative play.
One more critical moment that has nothing to do with Weeden or even Randle.
3rd and 3, 10:04 4Q. Cowboys go empty and depend on their front 5 to give Weeden a chance to move the chains. And here, Vic Beasley beats Tyron Smith.
It is 3rd and 3. You have to give Cole Beasley a chance to run his option route. This cannot be a sack. Unfortunately, the wrong Beasley makes a play here.
So, there you go. Just 4 plays from that 2nd half and I think we named every lineman as having a bust. This is the Falcons defense, not the Seahawks. This isn't going to work.
DATA - WEEK 3 - ATLANTA
Here you can see some very confusing numbers. They had 7 yards per play and 8 yards per pass. That is good enough and numbers Romo will get. Yet, they converted 1 3rd down and only had 52 2nd half yards. They scored on every red zone possession and yet were shutout in the 2nd half.
This is why sometimes statistics are only good if you look at them in the proper context. I think the Cowboys were productive for sure, but the Falcons just waited them out, saw what the Cowboys were doing - and more importantly, not doing - and decided to adjust and bet on the idea the Cowboys could not keep up with them.
They were right.
Below, please find the Brandon Weeden throw chart.
You might agree that Weeden never looks comfortable in the pocket. That is why he is throwing the ball quick and short so often. Now look at this throws. The two "deep" shots were the interception - that he only threw long by accident - and the seam he sailed to Witten. The Wide Receivers were props.
Was this by command or QB decision? In the end, it doesn't matter. The Falcons knew the WRs were just running routes and by the end of the game, the WRs were just going through the motions. In 2 games, Weeden has not thrown a downfield pass of substance to the left. He hasn't thrown downfield at all. This is "Check-Down Charlie".
Combine all of this and you can see that if the run blocking is not good enough and the Cowboys are not interested in stretching the field out, this is the offense for a bit. Troubling.
Here is the offensive production out of personnel groupings. As you can see, the Cowboys did line up a Fullback and broke a big one out of 21 and out of 12 on the ground. Both of those offered promise for a fun afternoon. But, is the predictability of the Cowboys offense right now completely based on the alignment of the QB?
In Week 3, if the QB was under center, they ran 85% of the time (17 of 20). If the QB was in shotgun, they passed 86% of the time (25 of 29). They really might need to make sure that they are not giving away tendencies like this. Weeden is not good enough to offer the Romo treatment to the opponent. You are going to have to cross up more tendencies and pass out of run looks, while running out of pass set-ups.
As you can see, Atlanta was not worried about bringing pressure. They seldom did, doing so on just 3 of 27 pass occasions. They were playing coverage and trying to force Weeden into constant check-downs.
The number one thought is that if you are only getting 4 in a rush, then it seems that there is time for routes to develop down the field. This takes us back to the question about WR routes. Are they getting open? And does it even matter if the Cowboys are trying to run an offense where the WRs are not an option for the QB to even look at?
And if so, are we suggesting that even a WR screen to get them going is a bad idea?
The following are simple screen shots - like the team gets on the sideline - of a play a few seconds after the snap. In other words, when Weeden is throwing the ball, here is a look at the field. Now, this is NOT to suggest that the circled WR is a better option, but rather an argument that perhaps if you attempted to use these weapons, you at least back off the defense a bit. It is a slide show, so scroll through the pictures (courtesy of @TC1310). Are they wide open? Not all of the time, but most pictures show a guy who is "NFL Open" (open by NFL standards). Even if you don't want him to take chances, out-routes and comebacks are pretty standard for any NFL-employed QB.
We can sit here and blame Brandon Weeden for being a backup QB, but that seems silly. We can even blame Devin Street for not being Dez Bryant. But, we knew when these injuries occurred that it would be mandatory for those who remain to put together top-shelf efforts for the team to withstand those injuries.
And after sifting through a lot of the evidence, it seems that this Week 3 performance required the offensive line to be way better. If you add Jason Witten and Tyler Clutts to the offensive line as the run blocking unit, they are responsible for way too many penalties and blown blocks in the last few weeks. On top of that, Zack Martin might have played his worse game in Philadelphia and Travis Frederick might have played his worst game against the Falcons. Tyron Smith gave up a sack at the very worst time and Doug Free has been rather mediocre.
None of this has much to do with who plays left guard, but Collins, Bernadeau, or Leary should all be the 5th best of the 5 linemen.
Let's not kid ourselves. Matt Cassel is not the answer and neither is Brice Butler. They need to put the game in New Orleans on the OL. Make them pass protect long enough to attempt a pass to a WR that isn't a quick slant. Make them run block those zone stretches at 100%. Put the onus on the OL to be what they are said to be - one of the best in the business.
If they deliver, perfect. If they don't, then a lot of people wasted a lot of time praising them in the past year. The play-calling has to call for the OL to stand up. If Weeden gets over-run in the pocket, then it happens, but they have to stretch the field. You could argue the interception started with Frederick getting collapsed right into the QB. You could put the disastrous runs in the 2nd half on Randle and make "meat on the bone" jokes all day. But, simply put, those plays weren't blocked well enough.
I cannot remember ever being frustrated at the offense when they scored 28 points with a backup QB and WR, but I think that 2nd half was beyond poor and while Weeden and play-calling is blamed, I might argue after examining the tape that Linehan did what he should have done. He called plays to eat the clock, keep Julio off the field, and sustain drives behind the "Great Wall of Dallas". He called his bread and butter offense and the OL was beaten. He was beaten with his best pitch. It is tough to blame Linehan for that.