Week 5 Preview: Dallas Cowboys vs. Tennessee Titans Game Day Manifesto, Game Plan
During the preseason, I formulated two separate articles called “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas” as game previews for the upcoming contests. During the regular season, I will combine these two features into a single, more all-inclusive article known as a “Game Day Manifesto.” You’ll be able to find the “Manifesto” category under the “GameDay” tab above.
This week’s Manifesto also contains my Game Plan for how Dallas can beat Tennessee this Sunday.
Now on to this week’s Manifesto. . .
What to Watch for Dallas vs. Tennessee
How will the Cowboys’ defense attack a rather one-dimensional Titans offense?
The Broncos did a fair job in exposing the lack of diversity of the Titans’ offense. Chris Johnson and Vince Young combine to form the league’s top rushing attack, but that’s all they have. Young is a sub-par pocket passer and receivers Nate Washington, Justin Gage, and Kenny Britt are, well, bad (relatively speaking, of course).
So how will the Cowboys attack Tennessee? There’s really two schools of thought here. They can sit back in safe coverages while still maintaining an aggressive, run-first attitude, or they can blitz early and often, knowing that it will be difficult for Young to beat them with his arm. Let’s see what Coach Phillips has in store.
Will the Cowboys approach this game as if their backs are against the wall?
It’s quite obvious the Cowboys play their best when they believe they are the “underdog.” Well, they are going to be favored to win this game. It will be crucial that they remember they are still just 1-2 and a loss could be debilitating. If their mindset is that of an underdog, they should be fine.
Will Kyle Kosier, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant all be ready to roll?
Kosier and Witten both sprained their MCLs last week, while Bryant is suffering from a multitude of ailments. It looks as though all three will be ready to go for Dallas, though, which would give the team a big boost.
If only one of these players could play for Dallas, however, I would actually take Kosier. Witten and Bryant are superior players, but there is more depth at both tight end and wide receiver than left guard. The dropoff from Kosier to Holland is rather large, in my view.
Can DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer dominate what is perhaps the league’s top offensive tackle duo in Michael Roos and David Stewart?
Roos and Stewart are tremendous tackles and really the cornerstones of the Titans’ rushing offense. It takes a dominant offensive line to run the ball effectively when the other team knows it is coming, and Tennessee has the ability to do just that. Ware and Spencer will need to maintain a run-first mentality this week, which should be no problem. If they can do that and force the Titans to throw the football, they should be able to eventually put some pressure on Young.
Will Dallas spy Vince Young?
The Cowboys may opt to designate a player (such as safety Gerald Sensabaugh, for example) as a “spy” on Young. That player would simply shadow Young’s movements and make sure he doesn’t get far on the ground, allowing the defense to play man coverage without worrying about the cornerbacks running all the way downfield.
I personally don’t like using a spy. It really limits the defense’s flexibility and many times the spy isn’t even as athletic as the player he’s trying to shadow. Instead, the Cowboys would be better off playing sound, yet aggressive defense.
DOs and DON’Ts vs. Tennessee
DO blitz up the middle.
As I stated above, Roos and Stewart are two of the NFL’s best offensive tackles. Tennessee is still strong in the middle of their offensive line, but there is definitely a dropoff. The Cowboys may be able to exploit it by running some innovative blitz packages right at the Titans’ guards at center. Plus, Ware and Spencer are usually capable of holding down the fort outside.
DON’T worry about anyone other than Chris Johnson and Vince Young (running).
The Cowboys’ defensive philosophy will be insanely simple: stop the Titans’ rushing game. That’s it. Of course, that’s easier said than done. While I do think the Cowboys should blitz up the middle when they bring extra defenders, I also believe the team would benefit from limiting their blitzes in general. They can still put extra defenders in the box to stop Johnson and Young, and playing a little more zone coverage than usual will make it easier for the defense to diagnose Young’s scrambles.
DO run quite a few playaction passes.
Tennessee’s run defense is stout–they’ve allowed just 92.0 yards-per-game despite playing run-oriented teams like the Steelers and Jets. I’ve watched two of their games on film, and while their secondary is certainly talented, the mindset of the defense seems to be to stop the run first, particularly early in the game.
The Cowboys may be able to take advantage of that by running some playaction passes. As always, early success on the ground will aid in effectively completing that task.
I also think the Cowboys should take some shots down the field following playaction looks. Jason Garrett seems to be trying that more often this year, as 25 percent of the team’s 24 playaction passes have been thrown 15+ yards.
Want to know how radically different the Cowboys’ playaction approach is from last season? Check out these numbers. Through three games, Dallas has attempted one less pass of 20+ yards off of a playaction look as all of last season!
DON’T run the ball inside often–get it outside with tosses, counters, and powers.
The middle of the Titans’ defense is really talented. Tony Brown and Jason Jones are really underrated defensive tackles, while Stephen Tulloch is a force against the run at linebacker.
The Cowboys have already shown they are going to run the ball outside far more often than in 2009, and they should maintain that strategy this week. I would particularly like to see more counters, of which Dallas has run just FOUR all season. Felix Jones alone averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on a ridiculous 22 counters last season. Check out my in-depth counter stats here.
DO disguise blitzes more effectively.
I love Coach Phillips as a defensive coordinator, but his blitzes are painfully obvious. Teams such as the Packers employ innovative “Psycho” packages that implement just one linemen and a bunch talented edge rushers who move around chaotically pre-snap. The defense works wonders in passing situations, as the offense has no idea who will be rushing.
I understand the Cowboys want to maintain their gap responsibilities, but I think situations such as 3rd and medium to long are times to get more creative. Even showing blitz five or 10 times throughout a game can keep an offense off-balance. It’s worked for the Cowboys’ opposition thus far, anyway.
DON’T attack Cortland Finnegan as much as Ryan Mouton and Alterraun Verner.
Finnegan is an All-Pro cornerback who is as stout against the run as he is versus the pass. He has tremendous ball skills and an incredible ability to make things happen once the ball is in his hands.
The usual starter opposite Finnegan, rookie Jason McCourty, is out with a broken arm. The Cowboys should use unique motions and shifts to make sure the receiver who is the first read on any particular play is covered by either Mouton or Verner (whoever starts) as much as possible. Plus, whichever player doesn’t start will still be on the field for most of Dallas’ three-receiver sets.
DO run a lot of three-receiver sets until the Titans prove they can put heavy pressure on Tony Romo.
I’ve called for the Cowboys to use a lot of two-tight end sets the last few weeks to aid the offensive tackles in pass protection. It has actually worked really well, particularly against Houston.
This week, however, the Cowboys don’t face a pass-rusher the caliber of Julius Peppers or Mario Williams. Instead, they have Jason Babin and David Ball. Until those two prove they can beat Doug Free and Marc Colombo, the Cowboys should line up in a lot of three-receiver looks to spread out the Tennessee defense. It would also force the Titans to bring cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Ryan Mouton on the field. Advantage Dallas.
DON’T overdo it on draw plays.
In the preseason, I called for Dallas to limit their draw plays. I asked for them to bring it back in a big way in Houston, and they did (with much success).
This week, I think they should attack Tennessee with other types of runs. The reason is that the Tennessee defense possesses both discipline and a run-first attitude. They aren’t going to go flying into their pass drops the moment they see Romo drop back into a short pass set.
Throw the kitchen sink at Tennessee immediately.
The Cowboys have been notoriously slow starters on offense in recent years. I just did a study on their early performance this season, and while they’ve improved coming out of halftime (as compared to ’09), the team could really benefit from putting up a few points early in ballgames.
To do that, the Cowboys should save nothing this week. Whatever “money” plays Garrett has concocted for Tennessee should be called in the first few drives. Early scores will force Tennessee to do what they don’t want to do: throw the football.
Keep running it to the weak side.
Less than one-in-five Cowboys running plays in 2009 was to the weak side of the formation. This year, the Cowboys have nearly doubled that rate and they are still seeing more success on those runs. I have drawn up what I consider a “perfect” run play for Dallas this week (below).
There are a few reasons I love this play (which the Cowboys certainly don’t label as I do). . .
- It is a weak side run (see above).
- There is a pre-snap motion opposite the play-side into TE Trips Left–an overloaded formation.
- As I stated earlier, the Cowboys need to run more counters. They’ve run only four all year despite a ton of success on them last season. Expect about that many on Sunday alone.
- The key block on this play would be right tackle Marc Colombo on Titans OLB Jamie Winborn. Yes please.
- Running out of “passing” formations tends to be quite effective.
- And lastly, the Cowboys need to mix up their play-calling with certain personnel on the field. More on that below. . .
Mix up personnel-based play-calling.
In a recent study on the Cowboys’ play-calling with certain personnel packages, I noted that Garrett has displayed a run/pass imbalance in a variety of personnel packages. While we would expect the numbers to be skewed due to game situations (the Cowboys certainly won’t run much in 3rd and long or pass much in 3rd and short) and matchups (you usually want to bring Dez Bryant on the field to throw the football), the percentages could still be a bit more comparable.
Plus, game theory dictates the Cowboys should run more out of spread formations, and pass out of tight ones. Remember, for everything the Cowboys do, the defense will counter. That’s why versatile players, such as well-rounded tight ends, are so valuable.
By the way, Bob Sturm has a good bit about the Cowboys’ use of Felix Jones over at his blog.
Press the Titans’ wide receivers.
I think the Cowboys’ cornerbacks should press more often in general. Against the Titans, I think the duo of Nate Washington and Justin Gage are too small (Washington) and slow (Gage) to get off of press coverage. Note that Gage will be questionable with a hamstring injury, in which case Kenny Britt would get the start.
The Cowboys don’t press much in zone coverage, but I think this week is a good one to do so. The primary reason is the next component of my Game Plan.
Don’t blitz too often, but try to zone blitz when possible.
I’ve already stated I think the Cowboys should blitz primarily up the middle against the Titans. Not only can they take advantage of the weakest component of the Tennessee offensive line, but it will also get linebacker Keith Brooking out of coverage (where he has struggled).
Nonetheless, I don’t think Dallas should bring heat too often. First, blitzing to the “wrong” side and missing Chris Johnson could spell disaster for the ‘Boys. They need to do everything possible to limit the big play. That play would almost certainly come from CJ2K.
Second, blitzes generally force defenses to play man coverage. With a quarterback as mobile as Young, defenders with their back turned to the passer can be big trouble for a defense.
There is a way to blitz and still be in a fairly safe coverage: the zone blitz. Here is an example of a zone blitz the Cowboys used against Houston.
Plus, if the Cowboys combine this idea with the previous one (pressing the Titans’ receivers), they could potentially confuse Young as to their coverage.
Be really creative with motions and shifts to create favorable matchups on offense.
The Titans’ defense is strong, but it isn’t without its weaknesses. If the Cowboys can find ways to get Miles Austin on Alterraun Verner or Jason Witten on Jamie Winborn, they could do some damage.