If I say "that was not a good game for our run defense", will I get an award for understatement of the season? Prior to this game, the Seahawks run D was holding runners to 3.1 YPC and hadn't allowed a single 100-yard game, this game we allowed 5.6 YPC in total and 139 yards at 6.3 YPC to Demarco Murray. We have faced some good rushing offenses, like the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers. But we have also faced a lot of teams playing their backups due to injuries or suspension. Cardinals had to roll with Alfonso Smith, Cleveland with Montario Hardesty, Cincinnati with Bernard Scott. Even the Cowboys were technically running with their backup RB, though I can one would assume he'll promoted to starter now. So, that helps. It also helps that we faced some slow plodding backs that depend on their push and power, which doesn't face up well to our huge defensive line, such as Michael Turner and Frank Gore. I'm not saying I suddenly think our run defense is bad, I'm saying the stats might have painted a rosy picture.
Demarco Murray is possibly the best runner we face this season. He's not better as an all-around back than Ray Rice, obviously, and I may be going overboard with my praise, but I was seriously impressed by his vision, patience and speed out of his cuts. I have little doubt this is a star in the making. But what worried me about him was his freedom once he got into the second level. A lot of that was some really well-designed pull blocking and an all-pro-type day by fullback Tony Fiammetta, who isn't a powerful bruiser but a very intelligent blocker that picks the right block in the right direction to spring Murray nine out of ten times. But that doesn't explain everything.
Corner play is a huge concern for this defense, probably the biggest. The lack of tight coverage allowed the Cowboys to run a lot of quick passes which negated any pass rush we created, and the pass rush wasn't great anyway. The use of the quick pass scared our DC away from calling too many blitzes, which is probably the right call because we were getting gashed on screens and passes into the flats all game long. Tony Romo averaged 9 yards per pass, joining Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger in the "anyone who doesn't dink and dunk can eat up this defense" group.
But I'd like to highlight one concern that has been crying out for attention: our linebacker play. Linebackers aren't too important in this defensive system, but they gained importance compared to last year, and need to be able to cover the flats. I have been impressed by Leroy Hill, who is our most versatile linebacker, and is used to rush the passer, covers the flats well, can cover in man and tackles well. Hawthorne has impressed me less, and I think he's struggling to get off blocks, he's seriously regressed since his outstanding game against the Browns, but he's still doing well playing contain against the run. My most serious concern is K.J. Wright. He's not making me miss Aaron Curry yet, but neither is he a clearly better player than Curry. He bites on hard on fakes, engages blockers directly and is taken out of plays fast, and can look confused about his assignment.
This last part was on display on the Witten TD in the third quarter. Kam Chancellor signals he is in man on TE/FB John Phillips running a go route, and does well there. Witten runs right between Hawthorne and Wright, and Wright even has a hand on him, but for some mind-boggling reason neither one runs back with him. We don't know the assignment so blame either one there. Phillips gets enough of Chancellor and Thomas is too far out to make this catch at the 12 an easy touchdown. I have too many notes on this game already, so I'll stick to the first half and offer some play-by-play thoughts.
One thing that is less than ideal for us is the fact that the same linebackers stay in for multi-DB packages, where last year we'd tend to switch them out with a pass defending specialist in Will Herring, but we lost both Herring and Matt McCoy. Hawthorne stays in on pretty much all packages (though not every snap) right up to the 3-1-7 Bandit formation. He's occasionally replaced by Wright in nickel packages, with Hill the other linebacker in that formation. Our lack of depth and versatility is not helping this situation.
3-11-DAL 19 (13:42) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short right to D.Murray to DAL 28 for 9 yards (D.Hawthorne, R.Sherman). Screen pass.