The defense can certainly be proud of making some key plays at key moments on Sunday. As we constantly discuss in this space, at the end of the season, the NFL standings do not ask "how?", but rather they ask "how many?" in terms of the number of wins a team accumulated rather than the way they went about doing so.
Sunday was a very courageous result for the Cowboys to put in the win column, but if you believe that there are always clues and characteristics of winning football, I would ask you to not examine the Bengals win very closely. This game will puzzle historians for years on the issues of how the Cowboys pulled a win out of there. Almost any and all metrics point to the theme that the Bengals will kick themselves for months if this game costs them the playoffs because they simply should not have lost it by any stretch of the imagination.
The pregame chatter revolved around the idea that the strengths of the Bengals appeared to be the weaknesses of the Cowboys. And, on film, we see that they were exactly that. And yet, the Cowboys made some major, major plays on 3rd Down on each side of the ball, and somehow won the game despite having to defy the Xs and Os that they faced snap after snap.
One of the major plays was a 3rd Down sack on the Bengals final offensive snap. Of course, they were in "11" personnel and needed only 5 yards to move the chains and begin to milk the clock in a classic 4-minute drill opportunity with a 19-17 lead.
Before we look at the play, we should offer the context of the personnel selections. Jay Ratliff has played almost as sparingly as Tyrone Crawford has this season with only 269 snaps due to a number of injury issues. Ratliff is 31 years old and after being an elite-level defensive tackle when he burst on the scene in 2007-2009, he has slowly seen his production diminish each year since. 2008, he had 7.5 sacks and 51 tackles. 2009 it was 6 sacks and 40 tackles. 2010, it was 3.5 and 31. 2011, just 2 sacks and 38 tackles. And this year, where he has barely played (by his standards), we sit at 0 sacks and 16 tackles.
We would like to think that he has some useful years left and the Cowboys did sign him for 7 years before the 2011 season which would take him all the way to 2017, but those non-guaranteed years start showing up here next season and we just don't know how the incident in the locker-room with Jerry Jones from the Philadelphia game might affect things. Basically, Jay Ratliff should no longer be assumed as the reason why defensive tackle is squared away. And I shouldn't have to elaborate on the Josh Brent's effect on the depth chart either - what was a promising piece of the future one week ago, must now be fully erased from plans moving forward as well.
That would seem to suggest that defensive tackle joins defensive end as real positions of need moving forward. Sean Lissemore, Jason Hatcher, and Crawford are fine, but Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman are at the end of their usefulness, too, it seems, and the Cowboys just lack for bulk against the run in the middle of their defense as we begin to look "big picture".
Now, back to the key play from Sunday. The Cowboys 3rd Down pass rush package for the last several years has settled in as Ware-Hatcher-Ratliff-Spencer if they are all available. Of course, when they are not, there are alterations that have been tried with minimal impact.
However, it is worth noting that there is a player on the roster who has exceptional pass rush skills (and maybe little else that is exceptional) and seldom factors in to the plans for trying to apply pressure on 3rd Down. That has been Victor Butler. Butler was picked in 2009 and still is trying to get a consistent opportunity, mostly because teams see him as an attack point in normal down and distance situations to run directly at (see the games which Spencer missed earlier this year).
But, I congratulate Rob Ryan for thinking outside the box here - perhaps out of necessity, and building a front 4 in this passing situation of Ware-Hatcher-Spencer-Butler. This accomplishes a few different things, including getting 4 strong pass rushers on the field at the same time. It moves Spencer inside where he can isolate against a guard and use his quickness to get around him into the face of Andy Dalton. It also allows Butler to try to get the edge which he seems to be able to do as well or even better than Spencer.
Not sure this is a front-4 that can be used on a regular basis against "11", but in this particular spot, it might make the Cowboys tougher to block than even if Ratliff is available. At least it does give you options.
Let's take a look at the "Splash Plays" from Week 13 vs the Bengals:
Splash Plays are key impact plays from the defense. Usually, they are obvious, but there are some that blur the line. I have listed time and play of each one for those who want to double check my work.
For more, read a detailed explanation of this study here: What is a Splash Play?
WEEK 13 vs Cincinnati
One thing about finding and charting splash plays is trying to forget preconceived notions about how many there are in a game. I don't want to stretch the definition due to the result of the game or the idea of whether or not the defense played well in the entire game.
Basically, we want to treat each play as its own separate entity, and judge it that way. There have been disappointing days with 15 splash plays and there have been great days from a result standpoint that will yield fewer than 10. And that is not a problem.
I say that because oddly, this game only found 7. Which might be the season low. I think most of the Bengals issues on offense were self-inflicted wounds such as dropped passes. There is no defensive credit given on those plays, and thus, a very small number of splashes are accumulated.
Q-TimeDDYdPlayerPlay1-2:1734D5HatcherSack2-13:24110O38SpencerRun Stuff 2-12:08110O50CarrInterception3-9:342GD12SensabaughBig Hit Pass Defense 4-11:1427O37LissemoreHolding Penalty Drawn 4-10:22312O32WareSack4-4:4235O36SpencerSack
Here are the season totals through 13 games and we have a new leader for the first time since I started this study at the start of the 2011 season - Anthony Spencer:
Very good news as the Cowboys conceded just 3 explosives all day against a dangerous Bengals offense and only one was a passing play, so good improvement there.
Q-TimeDDYdPlayRushers1-7:45110O49Jones End Around, 37-- 4-12:28110O6Green Ellis Right, 28-- 2-5:3437D47Dalton to Gresham, 254
Meanwhile, there were several positive plays, and although the Cowboys brought more pressure than usual, just the Hatcher sack was a result of a blitz. Meanwhile, the Ware sack came on a 3-man rush on 3rd and 12 that could be called a coverage sack for once.
Q-TimeDDYdPlayRushers1-2:1734O5Hatcher Sack5 2-12:08110O50Carr Interception44-10:22312O32Ware Sack3 4-4:4235O36Spencer Sack4
Pass Rushers Against Cincinnati- 37 pass rushblitz situations:
Pass Rushers1st D2nd D3rd D4th DTotal3 Rush502074 Rush41140195 Rush5140106 Rush001017 Rush00000
And, here are the full season numbers to date:
D4th DTotal3 Rush15 -
1020 - 1329 - 231- 14654 Rush102 - 6795 - 6270 - 554 - 572715 Rush31 - 2034 - 2219 - 152 - 28866 Rush4 -
38- 6016 Totals1521531267438
The game by game pressure numbers:
Wk 1 - NYG: 1137 - 30
Wk 2 - SEA: 1026 - 38
Wk 3 - TB: 1232 - 37
Wk 4 - CHI: 1227 - 44
Wk 5 - BAL: 1027 - 37
Wk 6 - CAR: 939 - 23
Wk 7 - NYG: 231 - 6
Wk 8 - ATL: 537 - 14
Wk 9 - PHI: 743 - 16
Wk 10 - CLE: 436 - 11
Wk 11 - WAS 330 - 10
Wk 12 - PHI 636 - 16
Wk 13 - CIN 1137 - 30
Totals: 102438 - 23
As you can see, for whatever reason, the Cowboys elected to try to get after Andy Dalton a bit more than any QB they have seen since September. Maybe, it was nothing more than tricking tendencies, since the Bengals look at film would have revealed almost no Cowboys interest in bringing pressure at this point of the season.
Ryan changed things up quite a bit with 3-man and 5-man pressures on 1st down way more than usual where he is predominantly just a 4-man guy on that down it seems.
It was not pretty, easy, or even explainable, but it was a moment of clutch play that got the Cowboys a fine result on Sunday.
Now, Pittsburgh is next.