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

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins Week 15: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

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Jonathan Bales

There are Cowboys fans out there that might be rooting for the team to lose this game.  If Dallas goes down on Sunday, they’d likely finish last in the division, attain a better draft pick, and receive the “last place schedule,” i.e. they’d probably play Detroit, Carolina, and Arizona instead of, say, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco.

I’m not one of those fans who’d like to see the ‘Boys lose.  I’d describe myself as a competitor, and I’d like to think all 53 men on the Dallas Cowboys roster are that way as well.  This is a division rivalry against a team that undeservedly stole the teams’ Week One game.  The Redskins need to be punished for that this Sunday.

DO chip Brian Orakpo with a tight end or running back.

Orakpo isn’t having a “monster” season, but he’s still already recorded 50 tackles and 8.5 sacks.  He’s Washington’s best defensive player (actually, their best player overall), so Dallas needs to monitor him at all times.

If there’s one thing the Cowboys miss about Marion Barber, it’s his pass protection.  Tashard Choice is solid in that area, but Felix Jones needs work.  I’d like to see a lot of double-tight formations with Jones on the field so Martellus Bennett–one of the team’s best blockers–can help out on Orakpo.

DO use unique alignments, motions, and shifts to make blocking Orakpo easier.

Utilizing double-tight sets is advantageous for Dallas because it doesn’t allow the Redskins to make a strength call–that is, they can’t set their defense based on the Cowboys’ alignment.  If that’s the case, Orakpo will probably line up on the right side of the defense (the quarterback’s blind side) where most weak side linebackers are most comfortable.  Thus, Dallas can run double-tight sets (such as “Ace”) with Bennett on the left side of the formation so he’s already in position.  If Orakpo chooses to line up on the left side of the defense in “neutral” offensive formations, the ‘Boys can simply switch Bennett’s alignment.

If all of that doesn’t work, the Cowboys can utilize motions and shifts to put themselves in optimal situations.  For example, suppose the offense comes out in “Double Tight Right Ace” (below).

In that case, Orakpo will line up over Doug Free on the right side of the Redskins’ defense.  A simple motion of Bennett to that side, however, would put the Cowboys in a perfect situation to block Orakpo.  The ‘Skins wouldn’t switch their strength call, and Dallas would have their best-blocking lineman and tight end on Washington’s top rusher.

Actually, the Cowboys might then want to take some shots down the field in that particular situation.  They’d be in “Ace” formation (below).

This formation was Dallas’ second-most productive passing alignment in all of 2009.  Actually, I published a preseason article on why the Cowboys should pass more out of “Ace” in 2010.

The team ran only 29 plays out of “Ace” in 2009, and 24 were passes (82.8 percent).  They averaged 11.46 yards-per-attempt on passes from the formation, but even more impressively, they threw the ball downfield.  12 of the 24 passes went for 10+ yards, while five went for 20 or more.

Despite the success, Dallas is running the formation about as often this year (25 times–1.92 per game) as they did in ’09.  Look for “Ace” and more balanced formations like it on Sunday.

DO run right at linebacker London Fletcher.

Fletcher is a great player and under-appreciated, but he’s too small to take on the Cowboys’ massive interior linemen.  Washington’s new 3-4 defense isn’t helping him, as he now has just one lineman to cover him up instead of two (and many times that lineman–Albert Haynesworth–was playing outside of the scheme anyway, before he got suspended, that is).  You can see the results in Fletcher’s numbers, as he’s on pace for the fewest tackles since 2001.

DON’T blitz too often, but do stunt.

From my Week One Cowboys-Redskins Game Plan:

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.

Zone blitzes, such as the one shown above, lower the risk of giving up a big play and can confuse a quarterback, often taking away his ability to "throw hot" against the blitz.

Some things have changed since Week One, but the basics of this idea have not.  Make McNabb use his arm to consistently beat you.

DON’T respect the Redskins’ running game–just focus on No. 89.

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous “DON’T.”  The Cowboys are the better team.  Favorites shouldn’t take a lot of chances.  The only way Washington can win this game, in my opinion, is to do it like they did in Week One–secure quick, fluky scores.

The Redskins’ biggest opportunity for quick scores on offense is Santana Moss.  If Dallas limits him, it will be difficult for Washington to score enough points to win the game, barring another disastrous pre-halftime play.

Here is more from my previous Game Plan on how the ‘Boys can limit 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 the ‘Skins No. 2 receiver.

DO attack cornerback Carlos Rogers.

I’ve always thought cornerback DeAngelo Hall is overrated.  He’s a playmaker, but he’s traditionally yielded a lot of big plays as well.  That hasn’t been the case this year, as Hall has been superb.

Rogers, on the other hand, has not.  Garrett should do whatever he can to isolate Miles Austin on Rogers.  If the Cowboys’ line can give Jon Kitna enough time to get the ball downfield, it won’t be such a wonderful day in the neighborhood for Mr. Rogers.

DON’T put Felix Jones on the field on third down.

Not only would it but “stealing” from Tashard Choice’s already limited snaps, but Jones has shown he still has a long way to go to become a complete running back.  He’s whiffed on blocks quite a few times this season, but even more alarming, he’s missed recognizing his blocking assignments again and again.  He got Romo killed, and now he’s doing the same to Kitna.

When Jones is on the field for pass plays, the ‘Boys should run a lot of double-tight plays (see above) so Bennett and Witten can at least chip.

DON’T neglect Tashard Choice again.

Two weeks ago, Choice torched the Indianapolis defense.  I know the Eagles’ defense is much better, but why did Choice receive only eight touches last week?  Feed him the ball, particularly on third downs and in short-yardage situations.  And how about a Wildcat play or two?

DON’T run a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong,” or at least take a shot deep from the formation using a playaction look.

From my Cowboys-Eagles post-film study notes:

  • The Cowboys ran “Double Tight Strong” eight times, five of which were strong side dives.  Unfortunately, they ran the strong side dive in normal game situations, not just short-yardage.  They went for four total yards.  Nice.
  • On the three non-strong side dives from the formation, Dallas ran once for six yards and threw twice for 26 yards.  Quite a difference.

I have no idea why this formation and play have made their way back into the rotation, but it needs to end.  At the very least, use the predictability of the strong side dive to your advantage by faking it and going downfield.

DON’T resort back to Shotgun unless necessary.

Last week, the Cowboys ran 30 plays (50 percent) from Shotgun.  That’s the rate the team used when Romo was still healthy.  Since Kitna became the starting quarterback, the rate of Shotgun snaps has dipped to around 25 percent, and that decrease has been effective.

Of course, some of the recent increase has to do with game situations.  The Cowboys went into a semi-hurry-up offense before halftime and at the end of the contest on Sunday.  Still, the number of Shotgun snaps in “normal” game situations was too high.  Kitna excels from under center.

DO give Barry Church or Danny McCray time at nickel linebacker.

A reader brought up a point I missed in my post-game analysis of the Cowboys-Eagles game: Church and McCray were nowhere to be found in nickel packages.  Church in particular had been doing an outstanding job in coverage–not outstanding “for an undrafted rookie,” but just outstanding.

DO place Bryan McCann on returns.

When Dez Bryant was healthy, I could (kind of) see why you’d rotate return men.  You don’t want to put Bryant on kick returns all the time for fear of an injury (whoops!), but sometimes you need him for a big play.

Well Bryant is gone, so why is McCann still rotating with Kevin Ogletree?  McCann is clearly the better returner.  Even if the Cowboys don’t see it that way, why isn’t the the player they deem to be the best back there all the time?  Put your top opportunity for success on the field at all times.

Note:  That will be made easier since Kevin Ogletree is likely done for the season with a toe injury.

DO throw the ball downfield!

I wanted the Cowboys to throw a lot of screens and deep passes last Sunday, but they tallied only nine total passes that were either behind the line-of-scrimmage or over 15 yards downfield (in the air).  They averaged 10.3 yards-per-attempt on these nine passes.

The Cowboys attempted twice as many passes (18) in the 0-5 yard range alone.  They averaged half the yards-per-attempt (5.2) on these throws.  This is evidence that the offense needs to get the ball downfield.  Let’s not forget that the simple act of stretching the defense (even on incomplete passes) can open things up underneath and in the running game.  Here is more evidence that Garrett needs to call more deep passes.

By the way, I have some really interesting numbers coming for you tomorrow that deal with the Cowboys’ pass attempts (by distance) with Romo in the game versus Kitna.

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8 Responses to Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins Week 15: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

  1. Willis says:

    How about we try and predict strong side dives, I’m going with 5 again, just because its already so obscene that it wouldn’t suprise me if that number has settled into JG’s subconscious. With a side of ‘not enough playaction passes.’

    You would think we run strong side dive so much out of double tight right strong that we could line up in that formation eight times and throw eight times and have pretty good results. Do you think Jerry gets these stats, because if I were him I would maybe hint to to JG that strong side dive is not a great option midfield.

  2. john coleman says:

    Willis things like the strong side dive scare the heck out of me concernig Garrett. I just don’t see continuing to pound it behind no movement. At some point you have to realize it just isn’t working. Run behind Free and Kosier. At least one of those two can get out of his stance. Maybe we worry too much about what guys look like in practice. It could be that our DEs make Davis look good in practice. That could also explain why we can’t stop anybody. Same thing goes for Columbo/Spencer. I remember hearing early in the year we couldn’t block Spencer. In other words Columbo being terrible has had us WAY overrating Spencer. All at once Spencer performance this year makes sense. The worst RT in the league making an average OLB look all world. Please, please, please make sure to have deep help against the homerun. Washington has no chance is we keep it in front of us and limit turnover on offense. Take the deepball/homerun away last week and we make Philly look average.

  3. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    John,

    Excellet point. I’ve always wondered why certain plays are called game after game when they don’t seem to produce results. It’s gotta be because they work in practice – I didn’t think of that until you mentioned it.

    I would like to see more downfield throws but worry about the pass protection. Kitna doesn’t scramble well (he’s serviceable) and doesn’t throw particularly well outside the pocket – I just hope TC is up to blocking a whole lot to give the receivers time to get separation.

  4. Willis says:

    John,
    Thats a great point. I never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. The media always sells how great people are in training camp, when in reality the real test comes on the field. Some players aren’t great in practice but once gametime comes they switch into a different gear. Gamers. What you said rings true and brings to mind a parralel thought on Jerry’s comment abot T.C. not playing because he’s not good on special teams. In my opinion if they are winning their battles in the game, play them in the game.

    realise it makes sense on paper to run behind ‘Big’ Leonard, but we have seen time and again it is not always effective. Look at the T.C. run on the goalline last week and you will see the reason he gets stuffed is because Leonard Davis totally whiffed on his block. I know its one play, but if we hadn’t scored on the next posession it would have been a huge play.

  5. Haha good idea Willis. I think the Cowboys will go right at Fletcher, so I’m going a little high with seven. I’ll say they line up in the formation about 10 times, gaining 15 yards on the seven dives and 30+ yards on the other three plays.

    John–I think you make an awesome point in terms of the difference between practice/game performance. Some guys simply step up in games–Tashard Choice, Victor Butler, and Bryan McCann are all names that come to mind that reportedly don’t practice all that great but just find a way to get it done in games. Practice is extremely important, but great practices don’t always equal great game performance. I’ll take a gamer over a practice hero.

  6. Tyrone–You’re dead on about pass pro, but at a certain point you have to risk a sack instead of running the same old plays. It is SO obvious that LBs are jumping up on strong side dives from DTRSR, which is why playaction works so well from that formation. If the Cowboys fake that, running a one or two-man route with max pro, it WILL work.

    Willis–see my comment to JC.

  7. John, Excellet point. I’ve always wondered why certain plays are called game after game when they don’t seem to produce results. It’s gotta be because they work in practice – I didn’t think of that until you mentioned it. I would like to see more downfield throws but worry about the pass protection. Kitna doesn’t scramble well (he’s serviceable) and doesn’t throw particularly well outside the pocket – I just hope TC is up to blocking a whole lot to give the receivers time to get separation.

  8. Kitna sure doesn’t throw well on the move, but there are times in the game (particularly 2nd and short to medium) when Garrett tends to run the ball to acquire first downs instead of taking shots downfield. I think he wrongly focuses on getting downfield by obtaining first downs, when his mindset should be how to acquire the largest chunks of yards, regardless of down-and-distance.

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