Whenever we heard from Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan this offseason, there were promises that we'd see a better defense that more fit his philosophy in his second season in the job.
The assumption was that the Cowboys would be turning up the heat on opposing offenses at every opportunity. After all, the Ryan family has never really been much for Cover-2 zone or the bend-don't-break schools of defensive football. The addition of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, in particular, suggested we'd see more risk taking up front.
One game into year two, we aren't seeing that kind of change. We actually saw a less brazen Cowboys defense on Wednesday night than we saw in either of their two losses to the Giants last season.
Don't fret too much. Ryan's still bringing his own heat on the sideline. There's some unsavory language in the post accompanying this video of Ryan using some on the sideline after the Cowboys' big third down stop on a pass to Victor Cruz. But that didn't extend to the defensive calls.
The Cowboys sent five or more pass rushers after Eli Manning on 28.6 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Info. That's down almost 10 percent from how often they blitzed Manning last season and there wasn't any loss in effectiveness as a result.
All three Cowboys sacks came when they blitzed and Manning completed only three of the seven passes he was able to deliver in those situations. That kind of efficiency wasn't part of the profile in 2011 and it was a major part of the reason why the Cowboys struggled defensively.
Why the change? Or, more precisely, why the unexpected change?
Two reasons come to mind. The first is the element of surprise gained by showing your teeth less often. If you let Eli Manning see the same blitzers three or four times, he's going to figure out a way to beat you. Keep him guessing about what you do, though, and the occasional blitz is more likely to succeed.
The second dovetails into the first. A better overall defense is going to force you to go all out less often because you'll be able to find success without bringing the house. Ryan's still going to be aggressive, but blitzing isn't the only way to field an aggressive defense. It has to do with pass coverage, strong recognition and tackling for starters. The Cowboys did those things well on Wednesday, so blitzing only needed to be a side dish.