Kiffin Report: Injuries Leave The Secondary Even More Vulnerable

BY foxsports • October 30, 2013

Yards, yards, and more yards.  The 2013 Dallas Cowboys defense is becoming best known for the propensity to give up a ton of yards - and that was before Sunday.

Well, now that they have shattered a team record for conceding the insane number of 623 yards and breaking the 600 yard barrier for the 1st time in Cowboys history and something that has happened only 12 times in professional football in the last 25 years, we are developing a bit of a reputation here.

Matthew Stafford passed for 488 yards on Sunday - also a franchise record allowed - and marched his team up and down the field with shocking ease (aside from the giveaways that almost cost Detroit the game despite these mind numbing fantasy football numbers).

He joins Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers as players to hit 400 yards passing against the Cowboys this season - a year that is only half over, and a year that still features Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning again, and Jay Cutler ahead in the weeks to come.  They are the first team in NFL history to give up 4 400-yard days in one season and the season is merely half over.

If you drop in Drew Brees and his 446 from last Christmas weekend, that would be 5 400-yard passers in the Cowboys last 10 games (once every 2 games) after allowing just 8 in the first 796 games (once every 99.5 games).

Now, there is some good news - and truth be told, that game was won because the Cowboys defense di its job late in the game.  See, here is the thing about playing defense in this modern NFL, you are not expecting to cut off a team's ability to function, you are hoping - like against Washington 3 weeks ago, that at the moment of truth, you will be able to get a key stop and win the game.  It is a very "NBA Mentality", but it seems like this sport is developing into a sport where defense is more about the timely stop than it is about allowing 170 yards in total offense against.

And, as I have said all week, I think the defense should be commended for its stop inside 2 minutes in Detroit that we thought would have been enough to win the game - had the Cowboys simply taken a knee on that 3rd down rather than what they did which ended in a Tyron Smith holding penalty and an extra timeout which saved the game for the Lions altogether.  Jason Hatcher had a sack, followed by passes defended by Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick, and then Jeff Heath nearly coming up with an interception.  If the Cowboys take a knee, we are championing this defense for making that one stand to win the game and gee, isn't Monte Kiffin doing wonders with this anonymous defense?

But, it did not turn out that way, and now we are fearing the ominous skies that are approaching with each passing injury.  In this week alone, the Cowboys lost more personnel in JJ Wilcox, Morris Claiborne and Barry Church, all starters from the secondary leaving their posts.  That means that of the 11 starters projected during camp, they are down to just 5 left - and that overlooks a guy like JJ Wilcox who has risen to his spot and then been hurt as well.


Spencer Hatcher Ratliff Ware Scandrick Lee Carter Carr Claiborne Allen/Wilcox Church
Selvie Hatcher Hayden Wilber Scandrick Lee Carter Carr Webb Hamilton Heath

Are injuries a good excuse?  That is a very interesting question, in that it did not appear to be a very good excuse for Rob Ryan as he lost a comparable amount of personnel last year - including Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, and Barry Church for the year - and still was fired as soon as the season ended.  It seemed like a firing that had more to do with a personality fit than a righteous evaluation of his job performance, but now we see that the list of players who have had to take snaps only 8 games into the new year is starting to get scary.  They have already had 29 players play 5 snaps or more which leads the NFL according to a statistic that is being passed around this week.

You don't want the team using that as an excuse - rather you want them to adopt the noble "next man up" philosophy that many teams use.  But, as much as I detail the centerpiece of the Kiffin/Marinelli defense being relentless effort, we must admit that there is a reason that all NFL players are not paid equally.  This is not Nascar, where the cars are all inspected to be identical.  In the NFL, every player is unique and paid for the unique talent accordingly.  So, when your reserve of unique and special players is depleted, you are then understaffed and you should expect your team's performance to fall off considerably.

The very good news is that DeMarcus Ware, JJ Wilcox, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne are all returning and at that point we will be back to just an understaffed defensive line which they have at least grown accustomed to what they are dealing with and have added enough bodies that they might at least have a fighting chance.

And even better, we must also report on the one saving grace of this defense - and that is that they are getting takeaways - the great equalizer.  They now, thought just 8 games, have 19 takeaways - 11 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries - after only 16 last season all year.  The Cowboys high in takeaways for the last decade has been 30, but Monte Kiffin defenses have been near the 40 takeaway make quite a bit - and if they can continue this run, they will win their division and host a playoff game.

We don't know exactly how one "coaches turnovers" as we assume that every coach emphasizes it, but Kiffin has a trick and it seems to follow him just about everywhere.  That can go a long ways in covering up some issues with the yardage.

Let's check the Splash plays -


First, a reminder of what a splash play is

What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, 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 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. 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.

For the Detroit report, I always look at these and wonder how in a game that badly, I see so many splash moments, but I assume it is a function of how many snaps the Cowboys are facing this year. As we mentioned in the Decoding Callahan piece, the Cowboys are not good at putting long drives together.  They seem to have the gift of the big play, but not the 12 play meat-grinding drive.  Well, according to Sean Lee leads the defense with 581 snaps while the offense is led by Travis Frederick, Doug Free, and Jason Witten who have all played 521 snaps.  60 extra plays for the defense is about 8 more per game and thus, more opportunity for good plays and bad plays alike.

Q-Time D/D/Yd Player Play
1-14:22 3/7/O23 Carr Pass Defended
1-3:21 1/10/O10 Nevis Run Stuff
1-2:28 1/G/D3 Lee Run Stuff
1-1:48 2/G/D2 Lee Run Stuff
1-1:05 3/G/D2 Church Big Pressure
2-14:26 2/3/D42 Carr Pass Defended
2-14:26 2/3/D42 Lee Interception
2-11:56 1/10/O40 Wynn Tackle For Loss
2-4:26 1/10/O31 Claiborne Big Tackle
2-2:08 1/15/D37 Wynn/Scandrick Tackle For Loss
2-1:51 3/5/D27 Lee Interception
2-0:29 3/10/O49 Selvie Big Pressure
3-9:58 1/10/D44 Heath Fumble Caused
3-9:58 1/10/D44 Durant Fumble Recovered
3-4:57 1/10/D47 Austin Run Stuff
3-4:16 2/9/D48 Church Fumble Caused
3-4:16 2/9/D48 Carr  Fumble Recovered
4-14:49 1/3/D3 Church Tackle For Loss
4-2:24 1/10/O33 Hatcher Sack
4-1:33 4/12/D31 Carter/Scandrick Pressure/Pass Defended


Here are the final results for 2011 and here are the final results for 2012.

Sean Lee had a monster game in Detroit and continues to open his lead on the group.  I have been keeping this stat since 2011 and the record is DeMarcus Ware's 39 in 2011 followed by Anthony Spencer's 38 in 2012.  As you can see, Lee has a good chance to break 40 this season and if he stays healthy - always the key with him - that contract signed in August (6-year, $42million) is going to look like a real bargain.

Player Splashes
Lee 21
Selvie        16.5
Hatcher 15.5
Church 14
Carr 13.5
Ware 10
Carter 8
Claiborne 7
Scandrick  6
Wilber 5
Hayden      3.5
Allen 3.5        
E. Jones 3
Wilcox 2
Durant  2.5
Sims 1
Rayford 1
Nevis 2
Wynn 2
Heath  1          
Austin        1            
Team Totals  139


Pass Rush/Blitzing REPORT

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB.  We have spent a good part of the offseason talking about Monte Kiffin's philosophy that, like so many of the great 4-3 schemes, is based on using blitz as a weapon, not a necessity.  If you use the blitz as an ambush weapon that is always threatened but only used at the perfect times, you can often get free runs at the QB.  If, on the other hand, you must use the blitz because your normal pressure is not getting it done, then the offense usually is waiting for you and prepared - so even 6 rushers don't accomplish much.

Clearly, the blitz did not help here, but the explosives put up by Stafford and Megatron are historic in this study.  To break them each down individually would take all day, but the throw chart reveals that they were not even slightly concerned about the safety play of the Cowboys.


Q-Time D/D/Yd Play Rushers
1-2:44 2/10/O10 Stafford to C. Johnson, +87 4
2-3:46 2/10/O31 Stafford to C. Johnson, +21 4
2-0:46 1/10/O20 Stafford to C. Johnson, +29   4           
3-7:05 1/10/O13 Stafford to Bell, +22 5
3-4:16 2/9/O48 Stafford to C. Johnson, +21 4           
4-15:00 1/10/D29 Stafford to C. Johnson, +26 4
4-6:45 1/10/O20 Stafford to C. Johnson, +54   4           
4-0:40 2/10/O37 Stafford to Durham, +40 4
4-0:33 1/10/D23 Stafford to C. Johnson, +22   4           


Q-Time D/D/Yd Play Rushers
2-14:26 2/3/D42 Lee Interception  4
2-1:51   3/5/D27 Lee Interception 4
4-2:24 1/10/O33     Hatcher Sack      4


Red (Incomplete), Black (Interception), Blue (Complete), and Yellow (Touchdown)

It is clear that the Lions are not one of these horizontal passing game offenses.  They are attacking your safeties and your deep middle on a regular basis.  And obviously, 623 yards says they are pretty good at doing it, too.

Here are just all of the passes to Calvin Johnson.  Again, almost nothing was shallow aside from the slants for 87 yards and the other for a touchdown.

Pass Rushers Against Detroit Lions - 49 pass rush/blitz situations:

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 0 0 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 1 12 2 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 2 0 0
Totals 1 14 2 0

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 3 0 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 1 11 1 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 3 0 0
Totals 1 17 1 0

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 1 2 0 1
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 3 1 2
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 1 0 0
Totals 1 6 1 3

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 1 0 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 0 0 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 0 1 0
Totals 0 1 1 0

And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush 7
1st Down 6 - 3% 132 - 83% 18 - 11% 3 - 1% 0
2nd Down 2 - 1% 104 - 90% 9 - 7% 0 0
3rd Down 4 - 4% 61 - 65% 15 - 16% 11 - 11% 2 - 2%
4th Down 1 - 12%  6 - 75% 1 -
Totals 13 - 3% 303 - 80% 43 - 11% 14 - 3%
2 - 1%

The game by game pressure numbers sent by the Cowboys:

Wk 1 - NYG: 7/49 - 14%
Wk 2 - KC:   10/43 - 23%
Wk 3 - STL: 11/57 - 19%
Wk 4 - SD:  4/43 - 9%
Wk 5 - DEN: 6/42 - 14%
Wk 6 - WAS: 8/45 - 18%
Wk 7 - PHI:  10/51 - 19%
Wk 8 - DET: 8/49 - 16%

2013 Totals:  64/379 - 16.9%
2012 Totals:  134/551 - 24.3%

SUMMARY:  It was clear on Sunday that the Cowboys knew that they needed to double team Calvin Johnson but were scared to do too much because A) it didn't seem to matter and B) with BW Webb, Jeff Heath, and Jakar Hamilton all basically seeing their first NFL action in the same game, they knew they could not take the training wheels off them for the risk of a big mistake (see the 40 yard pass to Kris Durham on the final drive where Hamilton is not wide enough).  You wonder what the final drive might have been like if Wilcox was not lost in practice, Church wasn't lost in the final quarter to a hamstring, or even Will Allen wasn't released 2 weeks ago.  But, to say the Cowboys were caught undermanned at safety is quite an understatement.  

They were unable to get enough pressure on Stafford and they were unable to even come close to limiting the damage done by Stafford and Johnson.  They didn't get gashed too severely on the ground by Reggie Bush, but that is tough to say too strongly.  Detroit could have had 48 points if things had happened slightly differently.

Conversely, you could easily argue that in a crazy game like this, the defense did make one valiant final stand but were then asked to make another one because of the coaching staff not having a great grasp of the game situation.  It is silly to defend a defense in a game situation like this, but when you have 3 rookies all playing in your secondary against the greatest pass catcher in the sport today, you certainly don't want to run them back out there again if you can avoid it.  That is likely how I will remember this game, but for the defense in specific, they were asked to do a lot on Sunday.  Help the offense by setting them up with 4 takeaways and get a late game stop.  They did both, but still fell short.

It is clear that they need a bye week and they need their regulars to return.  But, they must play a few more games before they get their break and prepare for their final push.  There is a lot of football to play and the defense's ability to pull themselves back together will be vital.