Cowboys splash plays vs. Giants

A breakdown of the key defensive plays that led to the Cowboys' victory over New York.

After several years of picking the offense apart - good, bad, and ugly - we have been asked by many Cowboys' fans to expand the coverage to the defense as well.  This is something that I have been reluctant to do for a few reasons (with time being chief amongst them), but I am going to try to do this during 2012 and see if it works out for us.

There are normal statistics out there in a number of places, but I wanted to track two things this year in this space on a weekly basis.  

I want to look at how Rob Ryan uses the blitz and what happens when he does so.  I also want to track splash plays and actually see if reputations are based on substance or style.  



What is a Splash Play?  

In a short answer, a splash play is a term used in some franchises to describe a defensive big play.  For our purposes, it is an interception, a sack, a tackle for loss, a strip of a fumble, a recovery of a fumble, a stuffed run, a defended pass, a batted ball at the line of scrimmage, or a hit that disrupts a play or a player. Essentially, a play that matters from the defense.

You can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender.

An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it.

I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but not too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well. Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don't want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. In my opinion, some pressures are splash plays - some are not.  If you force the QB into ending the play, I don't think we should ignore that.  

These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea. A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let's see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.


Against New York, I found 15 splash plays, with three occasions where there were 2 splash plays on the same play.  I now also see that there could be a scenario where we give 2 splashes to the same player on one play.  What if the same player gets a sack, strip, recovery, and touchdown?  Is that 4?  Maybe.  Let me know what you think in the comments section.

DeMarcus Ware did plenty of damage as a pass rusher, whereas his often criticized counterpart, Anthony Spencer had just as many splash plays in my estimation.  But, he did it against the run and that isn't noticed as much.  But, it mattered on that goal-line stand.

Meanwhile, Jason Hatcher's sack might have been the defensive play of the game.  It happened in the 4th Quarter and on a 3rd Down, making me wonder if we should sometimes weigh these plays based on when they happen both in the point of a game and the down that gets the team off the field.  Here is the full splash log:

Q-Time D/D/Yd Player Play
1-6:33 2/8/D29 Lee Strip
1-6:33 2/8/D29 Church Fumble Recovery
2-14:55 1/10/D41 Sensabaugh Pressure
2-14:44 1/10/D41 Ware Sack
2-13:36 3/13/D45 Spencer Pressure
2-10:25 1/G/D1 Spencer Run Stop
2-9:55 2/G/D3 Spears Run Stuff
2-9:55 2/G/D3 Brent Run Stuff
2-5:11 1/10/N16 Carter Tackle No Gain
2-0:48 2/10/N30 Ware Sack
3-6:31 2/5/D50 Spencer Tackle No Gain
4-14:55 2/5/N23 Ware Pressure
4-14:48 1/10/N38 Carter Tackle No Gain
4-13:22 3/4/N44 Hatcher Sack
4-5:14 2/1/N30 Carr Pass Broken Up

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So, now, I wish to keep the standings on a week-by-week basis with the numbers below:

Player Splashes Snaps Snaps Per Splash
1. Ware 3 51 17
1. Spencer 3 55 18.3
3. Hatcher 2 43 21.5
3. Carter 2 30 15
5. Lee 1 56 56
5. Sensabaugh 1 56 56
5. Carr 1 54 54
5. Brent 1 23 23
5. Spears 1 18 18
10. Claiborne 0 54 0
10. Lissemore 0 27 0
10. Coleman 0 24 0
10. Church 0 56 0
10. Crawford 0 3 0
10. Conner 0 4 0
10. Butler 0 6 0
10. Silva 0 22 0
10. Scandrick 0 27 0
10. Butler 0 7 0

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Snap Count numbers courtesy of



I heard a wonderful description of the joys and pain of blitzing last week.  The description was that blitzing is wonderful as a weapon, but not as a necessity.  I couldn't agree more.  When a team that gets pressure with 4 is able to mix in the ambush of a blitz, it can turn a game.  But, if it is the only way you ever get pressure, then it is a tool for the opposition to beat you into submission.  

In 2011, the Cowboys were beaten by their own blitz almost as often as they were able to get a big play out of it.  To make sure that we are all on the same page, we define blitzing as any time a team rushes more than 4 players on a given play.  Sometimes, we can argue whether a player is actually rushing, so again, this will require some subjective decisions, but I am trying to be consistent with the rulings.

The Giants had 3 explosives (plays of 20 yards or more).  Only 1 came against a blitz.  They were caught in a 5-man fire zone blitz on the Bradshaw run, but otherwise, were able to force Eli to find plays by throwing into a populated secondary.

Q-Time D/D/Yd Play Rushers
1-10:50 3/5/N18 Manning to Cruz, +26 4
3-6:09 3/4/D49 Manning to Hixon, +39 4
4-5:14 3/1/N30 Bradshaw run, +33 5

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Meanwhile, the Cowboys had 3 sacks.  All 3 came with a blitz.

Q-Time D/D/Yd Play Rushers
2-15:00 1/10/D41 Ware Sack 5
2-0:48 2/10/N30 Ware Sack #2 5
4-13:28 3/4/N44 Hatcher Sack 5

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Here is how Rob Ryan deployed pass rushers, separated by down.  As you can see, Ryan's reputation is to blitz in spots that are not that predictable.  It is not at all uncommon to see Ryan with more 1st or 2nd Down blitzes than 3rd Down:

Pass Rushers Against New York - 37 pass rush/blitz situations:

Pass Rushers 1st 2nd 3rd 4th Total
3 4 2 3 0 9
4 5 5 6 1 17
5 2 5 3 0 10
6 0 1 0 0 1
7 0 0 0 0 0

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To play Eli Manning and that Giants offense on the road and to only blitz 6 players on one occasion is certainly ideal.  Also, to get 3 sacks is something you will take every time, even though you wish you could get there with 4 once in a while.  It should be said that the one time they rushed 6 (with 3:49 left in the game), they were caught in a dangerous spot, but Sean Lee was able to snuff out a WR screen by himself and keep the clock running.  Nothing defeats a blitz quite like a screen away from it.  We saw that again and again last year.

Much like the offensive reports, this Week 1 report is certainly positive from the defense.  Now, their job is to keep it up.