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A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions Week 11 Game Day Manifesto: What to Watch, DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

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Jonathan Bales

Some members of the media have raised the possibility of the Cowboys finishing the season 7-0 and reaching the playoffs–that following a 1-5 mark over the last six games.

Look, I’ll never give up hope on the ‘Boys, but looking ahead is what got this team into trouble in the first place.  They don’t need to be concerned with the playoffs, or even the Saints on Thanksgiving.  They simply need to worry about having a solid Wednesday practice in preparation for the Detroit Lions.  If the Cowboys can continue to focus on the present, they’ll be fine.

What to Watch for Dallas

Will Dez Bryant officially overtake Roy Williams as the No. 2 wide receiver?

Bryant played more snaps than Williams last week already, but the two split duties as the No. 2 guy based on game situations and play-calling.  Let’s see if Bryant’s out-of-this-world performance against the Giants will propel him into becoming a full-time starter, as he should be.

Will we see any more “Pistol” formations?

Just before halftime last week, the Cowboys ran two plays out of the “Pistol”– a formation that places the running back directly behind the quarterback in Shotgun.

I actually hadn’t seen the look make its way up to the NFL at all until Garrett utilized it.  I love the move, as the defense has no pre-snap indication as to the direction of a potential run.  Let’s see if Dallas goes back to it.

Is Tashard Choice ever going to play more under Jason Garrett?

One snap last week, again.  Some DC Times readers still think Marion Barber should be the guy, but his best days are well behind him.  He has zero explosion and actually isn’t a particularly devastating short-yardage runner anymore.  The only thing he does better than Felix Jones and Choice, in my opinion, is block.

I’ll ask it again: with the Cowboys 2-7 and Barber likely to be out of Dallas next season, why isn’t Choice playing at all?

How will the Cowboys’ depleted defensive line perform coming off of a physical game?

Igor Olshansky and Stephen Bowen started at defensive end for the ‘Boys last week, while Jimmy Saddler-McQueen, Jeremy Clark, and Josh Brent all got significant playing time.  All but Olshansky had fresh legs going into that game.  How will they perform after a week of punishment?

Will the Lions bring pressure on Jon Kitna after watching him torch the Giants’ secondary last week?

I counted only five blitzes for the Giants in the entire game on Sunday.  I was shocked at their refusal to bring extra defenders even after Kitna & Co. beat their “safe” coverages repeatedly.

I would expect the Lions to do what has worked for other squads against the Cowboys–disguise blitzes, run twists, and throw a lot of exotic looks at the Dallas offense in an attempt to confuse the O-Line.  Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis in particular struggle mightily with stunts and other things which force them to move their feet and be agile.

Will the Cowboys’ offensive line continue to provide proper protection for Kitna and drive defenders off the ball in the running game?

The offensive line was dominant against the Giants–by far their best game as a unit all season.  I think part of that was due to the Giants’ lack of aggression, but don’t forget the line also blew defenders off of the ball in the running game.

With Detroit likely to bring more pressure than New York, it will be interesting to see how the ‘Boys respond.  Perhaps one outstanding game was all they needed to regain their confidence.  Or perhaps they’ll fall back onto poor habits when faced with pressure.  As always, it will be the key to their success.

Will the Cowboys run any of their “predictable” plays?

Last week, the Cowboys ran the play below three times.  The formation (“Double Tight Left Ace”) was a completely new one.  If they line up in it again versus the Lions, they better have a new play-call.

Double Tight Left Ace

The Cowboys did a similar thing in the Vikings game with the play below.  This time, the formation is “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace.”  The Cowboys have since added new plays to the formation’s repertoire, but the one pictured below is still a staple.

Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace

And of course we can’t forget about “Double Tight Strong.”  Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive from the formation nearly three-fourths of the 100+ times they lined up in it (including 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into it).  The play basically disappeared early in the season, but it has reemerged since Kitna has taken over (perhaps in an attempt to simplify the playbook).

Can Orlando Scandrick put together back-to-back impressive games?

Scandrick played his best game of the season last week.  He was all over the place in coverage and even flew up to make some hits in run support.  I think he benefited from the absence of Steve Smith and (ironically) the injuries to Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman.  It isn’t brought up much, but I believe Scandrick plays far superior when lined up out wide.

Playing in the slot is completely different than playing outside, and although Scandrick does have speed and quickness, he always appears to be just one step late when playing the nickel.  I raised the question last week of whether it is time to move Newman into the slot in nickel situations.  Now is a better time than ever to experiment with it.

Is it time to leave Jason Witten in to block more often?

Last season, the Cowboys gained nearly two yards more per pass with Witten in a route as compared to when he stayed in to block.  Despite the fact that Witten was out in a route on 77.1 percent of pass plays, I urged for that number to increase in 2010.

Well, I have since changed my tune.  Even though the offensive line was magnificent last week, their overall level of play has diminished considerably from last year.  A lot of times, it seems like leaving Witten in to aid with the opponent’s pass rush is superior to having him in a route.  What good is his skill as a pass-catcher if the quarterback has no time to deliver the football?

Plus (and I know I’ll get a lot of crap for saying this), Witten’s talent has diminished.  He’s still an outstanding tight end and one of the premiere pass-catching/blocking combination players in the league, but his receiving skill set isn’t what it used to be.  He appears slower than ever this year, and with the emergence of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, there are better options in the passing game.

On top of all of that, the Cowboys have had a lot of success with throwing the ball downfield.  I can honestly say Dez Bryant has already shown me he has some of the best ball skills I’ve ever seen.  Just throw it up to him and let him make a play.  As you can see to the right, Dallas already obtained more big plays last season with Witten blocking.

It seems Garrett has caught on.  This year, Witten is going out into a route a bit less–72.5 percent of pass plays.  Last week, the Cowboys gained an astounding 140 yards on the five pass plays during which Witten blocked.

DOs and DON’Ts

DO run some twists and conceal intentions pre-snap on defense in an effort to get DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer rolling again.

It seems the Cowboys have come out with a few exotic blitzes to start games recently (with much success), but then they stray away from it.  New defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni needs to overhaul the mindset of the defense–from limiting big plays to creating some of their own.  That starts with disguised pressure, zone blitzes, and so on.  Plus, this could aid the Cowboys’ two outside linebackers who are in a bit of a rut.

DON’T place Keith Brooking or Bradie James on Jahvid Best.

This is pretty obvious.  James has been okay in coverage this season, but Brooking has been awful.  I’d prefer to see Gerald Sensabaugh on Best during most plays, or even Barry Church (during nickel situations).  Both matchups will be easier if the Cowboys play this coverage. . .

DO implement the same defensive mentality which worked against the Vikings–Cover 1.

Before the Cowboys-Vikings game,  I wrote:

I personally think the Cowboys should play a lot of “Cover 1.”

Cover 1 is basically man coverage underneath with a free safety deep.  That safety (Alan Ball) should shadow Moss during basically every play.  With Terence Newman or Mike Jenkins underneath and Ball deep, the ‘Boys should be able to limit Moss’ big play potential.

Cover 1 also allows a defense to be very flexible with their pre-snap alignment.  The Cowboys can bring eight guys into the box without much risk while in Cover 1 in an effort to be ready to stop Peterson.  Peterson should be the No. 1 priority, and if Dallas stops him, they can stop Moss as well.

Finally, there’s very little downside to playing man coverage underneath against the Vikings.  Not only are the Cowboys’ cornerbacks suited for man-to-man, but Brett Favre isn’t going to be running anywhere.  The idea of a bunch of defenders with their backs turned to the quarterback isn’t as scary as if, say, Michael Vick was at quarterback.

Well, the Cowboys did play Cover 1 against the Vikings (actually nearly every play), and it worked wonders.  Substitute the Lions’ skill position players (Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best, and Shaun Hill) in for those in Minnesota, and my thoughts are the same.  Both Johnson and Best are dynamic football players who can break open a game at any moment–don’t let them beat you!

Johnson has incredible ball skills–much better than those of the Dallas cornerbacks.  The Cowboys need to shade him with Ball and be aggressive in the box with eight defenders.  Shut down C.J. and J.B. and take your chances with Nate Burleson or Brandon Pettigrew.

DON’T run too often up the middle.

Ndamukong Suh is only a rookie, but he’s a beast.  Corey Williams, the Lions’ other starting defensive tackle, is also quite underrated.  Even with the mammoths the Cowboys have inside, I think they’ll have trouble moving Suh and Williams.

Instead, the ‘Boys should find success running powers, counters, and tosses.  Detroit’s outside linebackers, Ashlee Palmer and Julian Peterson, aren’t very stout against the run either.  When the Cowboys do run the football, they need to focus on getting Felix Jones to the edge of Detroit’s defense.

DO test the Lions’ secondary.

This goes hand-in-hand with a “DON’T”–DON’T worry about offensive balance as much as running efficiency.  People want to talk about the Cowboys’ offensive balance in their two wins, but that only came as a result of already gaining a lead.  The fact is the Cowboys threw the ball at a slightly higher rate than normal in those two games before running the ball to work the clock.

Against New York, only 12 of the team’s first 33 plays were runs (36.4 percent), while the ‘Boys had a stretch of 21 passes in 28 plays during the middle of the Texans game.  The reason the Cowboys won the two games they did isn’t because of rushing attempts.  Rather, the higher rushing attempts are a result of winning.  Instead, it is rushing efficiency that matters (and really insofar as it draws up the defense to allow for big pass plays).

DO attack cornerback Alphonso Smith with fades.

Smith has been really good since getting traded to Detroit from the Broncos.  He was simply in the wrong scheme in Denver.  However, Smith is only 5’9” and can get abused by bigger receivers.  Well, say hello to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Roy Williams.  All three guys excel on fades.  Throw a lot of ‘em, Garrett.

DO force Shaun Hill to beat you before bringing heavy pressure.

While I expect the Cowboys to be aggressive in their Cover 1 looks, there’s no reason to bring an exorbitant amount of heat until Hill proves he can beat the ‘Boys in their safer zone coverages.  If Dallas can get adequate pressure with just four or five pass-rushers, why send more?

DO continue to throw the ball out of two and three-tight end sets.

The Cowboys implemented three or more receivers on only 14 offensive plays last week.  That’s a season-low.  In the past, I’ve explained why passing out of running formations is successful.  Combine that with Witten and Martellus Bennett’s superb pass protection ability and the deep threat posed by Austin and Bryant, and you have the makings of a lot of “surprise” deep passes.  Now, if Garrett would just call a few after playaction fakes. . .

DON’T look ahead to the Saints.

As I stated in the opening to this article, the Cowboys get in trouble when they look too far into the future.  They need to focus on the task at hand, which is playing a disciplined, dominant game against the Lions.  To me, this is the perfect game on which to judge Garrett as a head coach.  The ‘Boys probably would lose this game under Wade Phillips.  A more detail-oriented coach shouldn’t let that happen.  Let’s see if Garrett can get this team to win the games they should win.

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9 Responses to Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions Week 11 Game Day Manifesto: What to Watch, DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

  1. john coleman says:

    I too think Witten has lost a step. He is never open anymore with good seperation. Improved play on the outside should take some of the focus off of him. I’ve said all along he should be a security blanket and not a priority option. I don’t recall any team winning a Superbowl with a TE as their leading receiver. In our glory days the PLAYMAKER was called that for a reason. Novacek was a very good TE who was the check down security blanket. I think you are right on with that assessment and any flack is undue. I will say as in other players cases that he could be playing at less than a 100% health. He is the type of player to do that sort of thing. BTW I’m not saying trade the guy, just shift the focus.

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  3. You’re right on, John. What scares me is defenses HAVE shifted their focus away from Witten of late and he still isn’t producing as he used to. He’s clearly lost a step, but he can still be productive for a couple more years. I do want to see more of Bennett in the passing game, but Austin/Bryant need to be the focal points. Any “extra” balls can go elsewhere, but if the ‘Boys focus on getting their top players the ball as much as possible, thing should open up for Witten.

  4. Michael says:

    Great stuff, as always Jonathan.

    I’ve seen some Pistol from Charlie Weis and the Kansas City Chiefs this season with the McCluster guy and Jamaal Charles and I think it’s a good change of pace for the Cowboys to give defenses different looks.

    I loved the two- and three-tight end sets last week and would love to see some max-pro play-action passes, similar to what the Eagles did on the first play on Monday night. I’ve always like the 12 and 22 groupings and wished Garrett would call more out of those groups than his overwhelming love for 11.

    Quick question: Do you think Garrett’s using more two- and three-tight sets to keep Gronkowski out of the game? I haven’t seen much of him since Romo’s injury. And also, how much Shotgun did Dallas run on Sunday? I know you’ve mentioned Kitna works better under center and I wonder if Garrett’s play-calling aligns with the current QB’s preference.

    Thanks for all that you and your crew do. Love the site!

  5. Thanks Michael. I didn’t see the Chiefs run the Pistol, but that makes sense since Weis spent some time defending it at ND. Agree whole-heartedly on the max pro passes, particularly of the PA variety. I liked the way the Cowboys attacked the Giants last week. How big is it having a guy like Dez who can get the majority of jump balls?

    I do think the Cowboys are limiting Gronkowski’s snaps. I think Garrett overestimated the kid’s ability to fill in for Anderson initially. Even though Bennett can’t lead block like a FB, his skill level is light years ahead of Gronk’s and I would want him on the field the majority of the time if deciding between the two.

    The Cowboys ran only 12 plays out of Shotgun on Sunday, and five of those came in their (semi) hurry-up offense prior to halftime. I think you’re seeing Garrett work to Kitna’s strengths, which should have been done earlier IMO.

  6. john coleman says:

    With Garett being the man he has the freedom to do thing like play to Kitna’s strengths. Anytime you have somebody looking over your shoulder things are different. I’m not a fan of the shotgun anyway. It should be used situationally and not as a huge part of the base. The QB under center keeps the defense guessing a little more. Running out of the shotgun is effective only because of deception. To me it makes very little sense to risk the negative play from a back being five yards deep when he gets the ball.

  7. JC–Let me ask you this then: what do you think of the Pistol formation we saw from Dallas on two plays last week?

  8. JJ says:

    As each game goes by, it becomes more and more interesting to find out more about players and Garrett. There is a reason that Barber is playing and Choice is not. I just cannot figure it out. Jonathan, you brought up the nickel and coverage by ILB. I posed the question to another “Cowboys expert” a few weeks ago and wondered why not Church at LB in the nickel. He can tackle and should be better in coverage. Is there not a better cover LB than Brooking?

    While I was pleased with the line play last week and happy that Ball made an INT, I certainly hope this does not blind Jerry to the fact that his OLine and Secondary are in need of help. Even if Newman were to take the slot, he is aging and Scandrick does not appear to be the heir apparent to take his spot. Due to depth issues at CB coupled with below average safety play, it makes the secondary a high priority this off season (of course add in OL, DL, ILB).

    I’ll be watching the front 7 of the Dallas D this week to try to understand why Spencer and Ware seem to be fairly tame and if the front 3 can produce any pressure.

  9. Well Church has played some snaps at nickel LB if you’ve noticed, and he’s done well. I’d say every ILB on the roster is better in coverage than Brooking.

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