Cowboys at Redskins Week 1 Game Plan: How Dallas Can Beat Washington
You guys know the backbone of DC Times is film study and stat analysis. Consequently, I will be posting these weekly “Game Plan” segments which will include tidbits about how I believe the Cowboys can use the same film study and stat analysis which drives this site to win football games.
These will come later in the week after I’ve published the “Game Day Manifesto”–a combination of “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts” for the Cowboys. Although still film-driven and stat heavy, I will try to refrain from too much game-planning in the Manifesto to prevent unnecessary overlap. You can read this week’s Cowboys/Redskins Manifesto here.
Let’s get to the game. . .
1. Throw it early, and throw it often.
I talked about this in my Manifesto:
I actually support a pass/run ratio of about 65:35 (yes, you read that correctly). Of course every game is different and plays should be called accordingly, but over the long haul, passing has shown to be the most important aspect of a football game and the one that is most closely linked to winning (by far).
I think Sunday night in particular is a good game for the Cowboys to come out passing. Washington was eighth last season in passing yards yielded per game, but a lot of that was due to the fact that they were losing in most ballgames. In terms of yards-per-attempt, the Redskins ranked in the middle of the pack–16th.
Further, their rush defense was actually better than advertised. They allowed only 4.9 yards-per-carry last season–good for eighth-best in the NFL.
The most important reason to come out passing, though, is that it could help jump start a stagnant Cowboys running game. We’ve all heard the familiar saying that “throwing sets up the run.” Perhaps that is true, but it goes both ways. Passing can certainly set up the run as well, and when the Redskins are forced to move back into cover 2 because Miles Austin & Co. are beating their blitz, the big guys up front for Dallas should be able to maul the undersized Washington linebackers in the run game.
In speaking with a reader, I thought of two more reasons the ‘Boys should come out passing: Doug Free and Alex Barron. The Cowboys’ starting offensive tackles Sunday night are both athletic, finesse players who are prone to being overpowered in the run game. The Cowboys should be able maximize the effectiveness of both players by not overdoing it on the run.
And I can just see the old-school, traditionalist football fans cringing now.
2. Run double-tight sets in obvious passing downs.
I’ve talked previously about how the Cowboys should run more three-receiver sets this season and why, in this particular game, Dez Bryant shouldn’t be phased into the offense. If he’s ready to play, then play him all the way baby.
In obvious passing downs, though, it might actually be a good idea to go to a more run-oriented formation–double tights. The reason is that backup tight end Martellus Bennett will be able to help block Brian Orakpo (or even Albert Haynesworth when he lines up at defensive end in the Redskins’ 3-4 defense). No matter what you think about Bennett, he’s a tremendous blocker.
Why not use Jason Witten in pass protection? Well, I’ve showed in the past that the 22.9 percent rate at which Witten stayed in to block on pass plays last season was already too much. Dallas is a better team with him in a route (excluding perhaps 3rd and very long).
Plus, stats show the Cowboys should pass out of double-tight formations more in general. Actually, the formation from which they had the most passing success last year was ‘Ace’ (below).
3. Run dive plays out of spread formations.
There are a few reasons for this:
- London Fletcher is a great player, but very undersized. The Cowboys’ interior linemen should be able to blow him off of the ball. This is also Washington’s first season in a 3-4 defense, meaning Fletcher now has just one nose tackle covering him up instead of two defensive tackles, i.e. he will see more blocks from “the big boys” as opposed to fullbacks/tight ends.
- Albert Haynesworth should play, but how effective will he be? He may or may not be in “game shape.” Further, the best way to neutralize a good run defender, particularly a lineman, is to run right at him.
- The Cowboys just need to be sure to not run the dives out of “Double Tight Strong.” Everybody and their brother knows what play is coming from that formation, and the Cowboys have a lot of success when running out of spread formations.
4. Fix the fullback’s alignment in ‘Strong’ formations.
I really think this is the type of game where Dallas should limit their use of the fullback, but when Deon Anderson (or even Chris Gronkowski) is in the ball game, they can’t give away the play-call with their alignment.
In the preseason, I noticed that the fullback was often lining up about a yard closer to the line of scrimmage and sideline if he was about to run into the flat. On dive and power run plays, the fullback would line up closer to the tailback.
5. Don’t blitz too often, but do stunt.
I talked about why Dallas shouldn’t send more than four rushers previously:
Ware and Spencer should be able to get a ton of pressure on McNabb. Getting pressure with just four rushers is a huge advantage for a defense because it means they can sit back in zone and force the quarterback to make good reads and accurate throws–again and again and again. There aren’t very many quick scores to be had versus a cover 2 defense.
In fact, the reason the Cowboys were able to dominate the Eagles last season was because they rarely had to blitz. They made McNabb beat them with his arm–and he couldn’t do it.
Even at age 33, McNabb can still beat you with his legs. He can also beat you deep with his arm. But can he consistently beat you underneath with his arm? I’m not so sure.
Although the ‘Boys outside linebackers should be able to beat Washington’s offensive tackles with just a pure speed rush, there are still ways to “trick” Trent Williams and Jamaal Brown. Remember, Williams is only a rookie and Brown is playing a new position in a new system, so Coach Phillips may be able to outsmart them.
One way to do so is a stunt, or “twist” from the defensive linemen. Stunts and twists are generally called in passing situations and are simply a pre-designated adjustment of pass rush lanes. Will Williams and Brown be able to react properly to twisting linemen? There’s only one way to find out.
Another way to confuse offensive linemen is with a zone blitz. Zone blitzes aren’t necessarily “blitzes” at all because the defense still rushes the same number of players. They appear to be blitzes to the offensive line and quarterback, though, because the usual “blitzers”–linebackers, safeties, and even cornerbacks–rush the quarterback. Players from other positions, often the defensive line, take their coverage responsibility.
While the ‘Boys need to be careful not to have Anthony Spencer lined up against, say, Chris Cooley, they could cause confusion among the Redskins’ linemen if they can properly execute the zone blitz. In the diagram below, for example, rushing the weak side linebacker and dropping the weak side defensive end into coverage could be more efficient than the zone blitz which is pictured.
6. Shade Alan Ball to the side of Santana Moss.
This task will become much easier if the Cowboys can get a decent pass rush with just four defenders. Then, Dallas should be able to sit back in Cover 2, which would allow Alan Ball to have less area to cover (see below).
In Cover 2, both safeties have what is known as “deep half,” meaning they simply can’t let anyone beat them deep on their side of the field.
If Dallas can’t get to McNabb with just four rushers, they will need to blitz, meaning a safety (likely Sensabaugh) would have to come up to either play a zone closer to the line of scrimmage or cover a player man-to-man. Sensabaugh isn’t exactly Ed Reed in coverage, so the Cowboys don’t want him matched up with a player like Chris Cooley or Devin Thomas too often.
As Sensabaugh’s responsibility changes, so does Ball’s. The Cowboys like to play Cover 1 (also known as “man-free”) when they blitz, which puts Ball in a centerfield-type position. He is free to roam, but his pre-snap alignment (usually near the center of the field) makes it very hard to cover sideline-to-sideline (as opposed to Cover 2, where Ball only needs to cover from the middle of the field to one sideline).
If the Cowboys do end up blitzing and playing Cover 1, Ball should shade the side of Santana Moss very heavily. Moss is the one player on Washington who can beat Dallas deep (sorry, Devin Thomas) and, as I explained earlier, the ‘Boys cannot give up quick, easy scores on Sunday night. Ball needs to make sure he is in position to stop Moss, regardless of the coverage. . .even if it means leaving the opposing cornerback on an island. I’ll take my chances with either Terence Newman or Mike Jenkins on Joey Galloway.