Cowboys vs. Vikings Week 6: What We Learned About Dallas PLUS Eight Intriguing Film Observations
If you haven’t already, check out my initial post-game notes from the Cowboys-Vikings game. This post is an analysis of my pre-game Manifesto, plus eight extra film study observations.
What to Watch
How will the Cowboys defend Randy Moss?
Cover 1 all day with a ton of help from free safety Alan Ball. Credit Mike Jenkins and particularly Terence Newman for solid coverage all day, but let’s also give Ball props for properly aiding both cornerbacks with Moss. Yeah, Ball’s job duties this week were rather limited, but we can’t fault him for the game plan.
Can the Cowboys’ offensive line hold up against a defensive line that demolished them in the playoffs a year ago?
The offensive line wasn’t bad. There was definitely some pressure on Tony Romo, but he didn’t get sacked at all. Part of that, as always, was Romo’s ability to evade defenders, but Doug Free, Montrae Holland, and Leonard Davis in particular all played well.
Having said that, the Minnesota defense didn’t come after Romo that much. I showed last week why blitzing Romo is a poor idea. Skip below to check out detailed information on the Vikings’ blitzes.
Will Dallas strive for offensive balance against a Minnesota defense that is stout against the run?
They did, and it meant nothing. The Cowboys ran the ball on 28 of 60 plays (46.7 percent), although only 26 of those were designed runs. Those 28 runs came in the first 54 plays, meaning the Cowboys pounded the rock despite little success (only 3.57 yards-per-rush). Offensive balance DOES NOT win football games.
Will the Cowboys use last year’s playoff loss as motivation to play well?
Who knows? The team definitely executed (minus the penalties), but it was all for naught.
Can the ‘Boys, who have looked rather undisciplined through the first quarter of the season, limit their penalties and turnovers?
Nope. Romo threw two very costly interceptions and the Cowboys were charged with 11 penalties for 99 yards. They also gave up a kick return touchdown that turned out to be the deciding factor in the football game.
Can Orlando Scandrick hold up in the slot against Percy Harvin?
Scandrick actually played really well. Harvin was basically a non-factor on offense, and with Jenkins and Newman focusing on Moss outside, Scandrick was the primary reason for Harvin’s lack of success. It was really a tremendous job for a defense that was clearly focusing on two other players before Harvin.
DOs and DON’Ts
DO focus on stopping Adrian Peterson first, and Randy Moss second.
The Cowboys were really able to do both. They limited Peterson to 73 yards on 24 carries by stacking the box and playing with an obvious run-first mentality. They basically shadowed Moss the entire game with Ball. Like I said, Scandrick really did a nice job on Harvin since he was in man coverage on him nearly the whole contest.
DON’T blitz often.
Although the Cowboys did have more innovative blitz packages this week, they did a nice job of not overusing them. Part of this was because they wanted to keep Alan Ball in deep ceneterfield, which they did all but a couple of plays. However, the Cowboys still were able to play aggressive defense without technically “blitzing” much.
DO run draws and counters at Jared Allen and Ray Edwards in an attempt to stay away from the “Williams Wall.”
The Cowboys ran only three draws for 11 yards and just one counter for two yards. As you can in the chart below, the Cowboys didn’t exactly stay away from the middle of the Vikings’ defensive line with nine runs in the “2 hole” alone. Many of these runs were quick dives and such on 3rd and 4th and short (which were successful).
Still, there is no reason for only one counter play after running five of them last week for 66 yards.
DON’T run many tosses.
Dallas ran only two tosses for eight yards. One was a fourth-down conversion.
DON’T listen to outside concerns about offensive balance–throw the ball early to set up the run late.
The Cowboys’ showed their offensive strategy during the first three plays of the game, all runs. They ended up running on 28 of the first 54 plays.
DO take advantage of Vikings blitzes.
A major reason the Cowboys lost in Minnesota was that they weren’t able to take advantage of the Vikings’ blitzes (something the offense, and particularly Tony Romo, usually does well). The Vikings blitzed 15 times. The Cowboys ran the ball two-thirds of those plays for only 36 yards. They completed two of the remaining five passes for 35 yards and an interception.
When the Vikings showed blitz but then sent seven or more defenders into coverage, they also found some success. They did this five times, with the Cowboys passing each time. Romo completed four of these five passes, but they went for a measly six total yards.
DON’T use three-receiver sets as often this week.
Dallas lined up in three-receiver sets on only 10 plays in Minnesota. In comparison, the Cowboys lined up in 26, 25, 22, and 32 three-receiver sets in their first four contests. Clearly Jason Garrett and I were thinking similarly on this point this week. Dallas gained 55 total yards on those 10 plays with one touchdown and one interception.
DON’T call an excessive amount of audibles, unless they are “Kill” calls.
Romo checked into a different play only four times. Two of those were “Kill” calls, while two were designated by simple hand gestures. Either way, the offense did a nice job of refraining from using verbal audibles in Minnesota’s noisy dome. By the way, the four checks included the 15-yard touchdown pass to Roy Williams.
DON’T play so robotically on defense.
What I meant by this was to not be so predictable in blitz packages and coverages. Other teams hide their blitzes quites well against Dallas. Actually, on the plays where the Vikings didn’t show blitz but then sent extra defenders anyway, Dallas managed just 12 yards on five carries, an incomplete pass, and an interception.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys did a slightly better job of mixing things up on defense, but I think that was only because they played so much Cover 1. The blitz packages were much more effective, though, and I think that had a lot to do with the Cowboys’ pre-snap alignments.
DO get the ball to Felix Jones–but not at the expense of Tashard Choice.
Last week, Choice received one snap. This week, he didn’t even manage that. Riding Felix Jones is fine and obviously has its benefits, but why is Marion Barber now stealing all of Choice’s snaps? That doesn’t really make the offense better, in my opinion.
Eight Final Observations
- Did you notice how frequently the Cowboys threw the ball out to Felix Jones in the flat? Jones had 10 receptions, and a bunch of them came on the same play from a formation called “Twins Right Strong Left,” which was a new one for Dallas. They obviously implemented this formation/play specifically for the Vikings and assumed Minnesota wouldn’t be able to adjust quickly enough to stop it. I’ve diagramed the play below.
The Cowboys lined up in the formation eight times on Sunday and ran this play every time. As we will see, it was one time too many.
Jones was the target on four of the eight passes, but he wasn’t actually the primary read on this play. I believe the Cowboys saw something on film that made them want to clear out the two receivers on the “Twins” side to hit Jason Witten across the middle. Witten was actually the intended target on three of the eight plays (and the final one was a scramble). If that wasn’t open, Romo would dump it down to Jones.
The play was working early. Two of Witten’s long receptions–one for 30 yards and another for 17–came on this play. Like I said in my pre-game Manifesto, the Vikings’ linebackers couldn’t hang with Witten or Martellus Bennett.
So how did the Cowboys run this play one time too many? Well, remember Romo’s second crippling interception that was picked off by E.J. Henderson? It came on the eighth and final time the Cowboys ran the play.
It appeared as though Henderson was faking a blitz and at the last moment backed into coverage, confusing Romo. Well, I actually think Henderson was truly blitzing on the play. When he didn’t get a great jump and subsequently realized what play was coming, he dropped back and made the pick.
Apparently you can fool an NFL linebacker seven times, but not eight.
- I thought the Cowboys should have gone for it on 4th and 5 at their own 25-yard line with 2:42 remaining in the ballgame. In my study on 4th Down Attempts and Game Theory, I showed why NFL offenses should be much more aggressive on 4th down. Check out the graph below.
Even in normal game situations, going for it on 4th and 5 at your own 25-yard line is about as good of an option as punting the football. But this wasn’t a normal game situation. The Cowboys were down to two timeouts and would have to hold the Vikings to a three-and-out to have enough time on the clock for a realistic shot at tying the game. They didn’t hold them, and they never got that opportunity.
- Dallas again motioned quite a bit in the beginning of the game. 15 of the first 25 offensive plays utilized a motion, but the Cowboys gained only 56 yards on these plays (and threw an interception). Here is why they might want to motion less.
- Romo was 7/10 for 64 yards on playaction passes against the Vikings. Five of those playaction passes were screens. The Cowboys ran eight true screens overall for 51 yards.
- I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the Cowboys’ passing game be so conservative under Jason Garrett. The Cowboys attempted only THREE passes over 10 yards all game. THREE PASSES! Meanwhile, 18 passes were behind the line of scrimmage.
- Dez Bryant needs more targets. He got only two of them on Sunday, and one went for a 31-yard touchdown.
- Romo threw only five off-target passes on Sunday. That’s below his average, but two of those five were obviously quite costly.
- Dallas dropped back to pass 33 times, and Jason Witten was in a route on 21 of them. When he wasn’t in a route, the Cowboys totaled only 47 passing yards.