Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Week 3: What We Learned About Dallas
Breaking down the film last night and today was, as you might imagine, far more enjoyable than the previous two weeks. The Cowboys played an all-around great game, able to protect the ball and, for the most part, limit drive-killing penalties. While it is an awesome sign for the future, it also makes you wonder “Where has this team been?” Read my initial post-game observations for more.
Let’s take a look at my pre-game Cowboys-Texans Manifesto and see how the ‘Boys performed. . .
What to Watch for Dallas vs. Houston
How will the Cowboys attack Matt Schaub? Will they blitz a lot in an attempt to get sacks and force short throws, or will they sit back in coverage as to not allow you-know-who to beat them deep?
The Cowboys decided to sit back in coverage on most plays, and it worked wonderfully. They were able to get adequate pressure on Schaub with just four and five rushers, meaning they could always keep a safety over top of Andre Johnson. Johnson went for just 64 yards.
I’d still love to see the Cowboys disguise their blitzes more effectively, but the rarity of blitzes against the Texans may have contributed to their increased effectiveness.
Will Dallas commit to the run? Will they attack the middle of the Texans’ defense or try to run outside?
Yesterday’s game is a perfect example of why people tend to overvalue the importance of the running game. People usually look at statistics ex post facto, noting the correlation between running performance and winning percentage. The two are certainly correlated, but correlation does not always equate to causation. In fact, passing performance has been shown to be much, much more indicative of a team’s success than success on the ground.
The reason rushing yards are so closely linked to wins is simple: teams that are already winning run the football. That says nothing about how that team came to gain a lead, however.
We saw just this yesterday, as the Cowboys actually had much of their success through the air. Yes, the early efficiency of the running game helped, but it wasn’t until late in the game that Dallas “committed” to the run. Actually, in the middle of the game (with the game still a one-possession contest), the ‘Boys threw the ball on 21 of 28 plays. They racked up a lot of their carries and yardage at the end of the contest, as they ran the ball on nine of the final 10 plays.
How will the ‘Boys exploit the absence of the Texans’ starting left tackle Duane Brown?
Simple: put DeMarcus Ware over him and let him do his thing. Ware racked up three sacks, particularly because the Texans seemed pretty comfortable allowing replacement left tackle Rashad Butler to be on an island. They even tried to block Ware with Joel Dreessen once, and Ware manhandled him.
Will the Cowboys be able to effectively halt the Texans’ rushing attack, allowing them to force Houston to become one-dimensional?
The Texans actually ran the ball pretty well (22 carries for 124 yards). Again, you can see that early rushing success doesn’t necessarily equate to wins, as the Cowboys were content in allowing the Texans to record the occasional big run in exchange for not allowing the really big play. Houston was forced to continually beat Dallas with the running game and underneath routes, and they weren’t able to do it.
Will Jason Garrett dial up more draws?
Running more draws was one of the primary goals in my game plan, and the Cowboys executed that task tremendously. After calling just six total draws in the first two games, the Cowboys called 10 of them against Houtson for 66 yards.
Will Martellus Bennett continue to see a lot of playing time in an effort to effectively block Mario Williams?
He saw an “average” amount of action: 26 snaps. Of those plays, however, the Cowboys threw the ball on just 10 of them. Thus, Dallas obviously thought spreading our the Texans’ defense (likely in an attempt to exploit their weak secondary) was more important than the “extra” protection which Bennett could provide. Kudos to Jason Garrett.
How will the teams’ preseason match-up affect this contest?
The Texans came out with a game plan which was radically different from that in the preseason. In that game, Houston blitzed Romo on an incredible two-thirds of his snaps. This week, they rarely came at all.
I counted just 14 blitzes all game for Houston, and they only “showed” it on half of those. Further, they didn’t show blitz a single time without actually sending pressure. Washington and Chicago had success doing just that, so I’m not sure why Houston chose the game plan that they did.
DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas
DO run more counters and misdirection plays in an effort to get the running game back on track.
Dallas ran only two counters all game for five yards. I thought they could be used effectively against a very aggressive Texans defense, but the ‘Boys obviously didn’t. Note that the “Fail” below is simply representative of their inability to run a lot of counters, not a judgment on whether or not that was a good idea.
DON’T continue to have David Buehler perform directional kickoffs.
I’m not sure if Buehler is having trouble maintaining his distance on kickoffs, but directional kicking has obviously become a part of his repertoire.
DO take advantage of the willingness of the Texans’ safeties to sell out against the run.
I loved Garrett’s decision to implement a lot of playaction passes against the Texans. The Cowboys ran seven of them for just 30 yards, but a few of Romo’s incompletions appeared to still be good play-calls. I talked about one such call in my initial post-game notes. I wrote:
In the second quarter, the Cowboys tried a backside screen to Bennett. It was incomplete due to Bennett falling, but the play looked to be wide open. Interestingly, the Cowboys motioned from “3 Wide Strong” to a traditional “Strong” formation on the play–something they had been doing earlier, but running a strong side power play from that look (below). They faked the power, so it was obviously something they had been trying to set up. Nice call, even thought it didn’t pan out.
DON’T allow Mr. Johnson to beat you.
Check. Johnson’s 64 yards has to be considered a big-time “win” for the Dallas defense. They did it by limiting their blitzes and giving the cornerbacks a lot of help over the top. They were determined to not let AJ beat them deep, and they executed perfectly.
DO disguise blitzes more effectively.
The Cowboys actually started to do this early in the game, but got away from it as the contest progressed. Teams like the Eagles and Steelers have so much success with their blitzes because of how they disguise them.
DON’T punt so often in opponent’s territory.
I loved the Cowboys calls to go for it on three fourth down plays in Texans’ territory. They converted on two of them, including a big 4th and 2 pass to Bryant late in the game to seal the victory. I think the Cowboys are being more aggressive due to their lack of confidence in David Buehler (as opposed to the reason they should be going for it–the math), but I’ll take it.
DO get Tashard Choice on the field more.
I think we just need to realize that, barring injury, Choice isn’t going to be taking many of Barber’s snaps this season. He was on the field for only seven plays on Sunday.
DON’T worry about external points of view–play for each other!
This was the big one–worth more than all of the other “DOs and DON’Ts” combined. The Cowboys are loaded with talent, and yesterday they showed they are capable of cashing in on it. They looked genuinely excited to be playing in Houston, and many of the players even said the game was for Coach Phillips. He passed his father in career victories in the city in which Mr. Phillips (the elder) obtained the majority of his wins. If the Cowboys can continue to ignore outside attention and play smart, fundamental football, watch out.