Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Bucs, Week 15: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas
The Cowboys head into Tampa on Saturday night fresh off of a heartbreaking loss to the Giants in which the team saw their playoff hopes diminish from 90+ percent with a win to around 40 percent with the loss. I posted a pretty cool look at the most pivotal plays from the game, the most important of which (aside from the blocked field goal) were the long completion to Laurent Robinson and a 15-yard pass to Mario Manningham on 4th and 3. In reality, Dallas had a multitude of ways to win Sunday night’s contest and they let it slip through their fingers.
It will be easy for this Cowboys team to come out deflated on Saturday night, but they need to remember they still control their own destiny. While the loss to New York was a big letdown, being in control of your playoffs hopes with three games to play isn’t a horrible situation. Despite what others are reporting, I am still standing by my analysis that the Cowboys get into the playoffs with a win over the G-Men in Week 17 and a win over either Tampa or Philly. Here is how Dallas can maximize their chances of taking down the Bucs this weekend. . .
DO attack the right side of the Bucs’ offensive line.
Right guard Davin Joseph is normally stout, but has yielded 20 pressures on the season–ninth most of any guard in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood has been horrendous, allowing an insane 43 pressures–by far the worst in the NFL. It’s miracle he has allowed only three sacks.
Meanwhile, left tackle Donald Penn has been Tampa’s most consistent offensive player, especially in run blocking. Left guard Jeremy Zuttah has been average, but superior to Joseph. When the Cowboys get pressure on Saturday, it will come primarily from the left side of their defense. Lining up DeMarcus Ware on the right side might actually be smart, as he can get pressure anywhere, and it will give Anthony Spencer and Victor Butler a chance to get singled up on Trueblood.
DON’T let the Bucs run to the left, however.
The Bucs average 5.2 yards-per-carry when either Penn or Zuttah are at the point-of-attack, compared to 3.6 when they run behind Joseph or Trueblood. Both Ware and Spencer are solid run defenders, so their placement in regards to Tampa’s ground attack shouldn’t matter much. It might affect the team’s pass rush, though. If Rob Ryan blitzes the left side of Tampa’s offense, it could help bottle up the run and allow whoever is on the left side of the defense to get isolated on Trueblood. It could also help Ware get some single-teams as well. The Cowboys just need to be cognizant of Tampa slipping screen passes behind their blitzes.
DON’T respect Tampa Bay’s passing offense.
I’ve explained before there are two strategies when facing a poor passing team: play safe coverages and make them beat you over and over, or attack the quarterback to force the issue. This week, I’d opt for the latter strategy.
Quarterback Josh Freeman has regressed in a major way in 2011, due in large part to insufficient protection. When he is blitzed, Freeman has generated a passer rating of just 60.3, compared to 78.4 when the defense sends four or less rushers. The blitz came back to bite Rob Ryan last week, but that’s not a reason to abandon it this week. Attack baby!
DO force Josh Freeman to stay in the pocket.
If the Cowoys do decide to blitz a lot, they need to be mindful of both screens and Freeman’s legs. Although Freeman has not run that often this year, he does use his legs to scramble behind the line of scrimmage and set up big pass plays. Dallas needs to be aggressive with their blitzes, but in a controlled manner that forces Freeman to stay in the pocket. Freeman is not a highly-accurate passer, as evidenced by his 61.9 passer rating when throwing to the right side of the field this season (his rating is 72.9 overall).
DON’T take the Bucs’ defensive line lightly.
Tampa Bay’s defensive line is undoubtedly the strength of their team, led by rookie defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, along with second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Bowers splits time with Michael Bennett, who may actually be the team’s best pass-rusher in 2011, and newly-acquired defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is also in the mix.
Clayborn leads the team in pressures with 25. Check out my pre-draft scouting report on Clayborn, who I really liked:
At 6’4”, 285 pounds, Clayborn was a monster defensive end in college. In the Cowboys’ scheme, however, he’d be on the small side. As I’ve stated in the past, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. While the job description of a 3-4 defensive end certainly entails stopping the run, Clayborn has plenty of size and athleticism to do that. It is his pass-rushing ability that could really aid the Dallas pass rush.
Clayborn is a player who has stood out to me while I’ve been studying film on other players. He has a tremendous speed rush (for his size) and an overall high motor. His strength is incredible and he uses it to get to the quarterback and ward off defenders in the run game. When he isn’t in position to make a play on the ball-carrier, he has the speed to chase him down from behind.
To me, Clayborn’s only negatives are his hand placement (he sometimes allows blockers to get their hands in on him and neutralize his athleticism, but this isn’t a consistent weakness) and the lack of a dominant second move. He has relied so much on his strength in college that he hasn’t needed to use counter moves, but that won’t be the case in the NFL. Clayborn’s future success will depend on his ability to adjust to facing blockers who are even stronger than him.
Although Clayborn is a run-stuffing 4-3 end, he’s been able to reach the quarterback in his rookie season. Still, I think rookie Tyron Smith will be able to handle him. Remember, due to a medical condition, Clayborn only plays the left side of the line. That leads us to the next “DO”. . .
DO help Doug Free at all times.
Although Clayborn has the most pressures on Tampa’s defense, he has also played the most snaps of any defensive linemen. Bowers and Bennett actually have superior pressure rates, and they could (will) cause problems for a struggling Doug Free. The Cowboys should allow Smith to go heads-up against Clayborn, as I think Smith will be able to contain the rookie. That will allow them to protect Free with double-tight sets, left-handed formations, aid from Felix Jones, and so on. It has gotten to the point that if the ‘Boys want to throw the ball downfield, someone better be by Free’s side.
DO attack the Bucs through the air and from every angle.
The Bucs are equally poor all over their secondary. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber are both yielding over eight yards-per-attempt, and Barber is allowing a 66.2% completion rate. Safeties Tanard Jackson and Sean Jones have been below-average, with Jackson already missing an incredible 17 tackles and Jones yielding well over 12 yards-per-attempt and an astounding 23.9 yards-per-catch. Dallas will be able to throw all day on Tampa, especially if they get the run going. . .
DO use Felix Jones on counters, draws and powers to set up playaction looks.
DeMarco Murray’s absence doesn’t mean the Cowboys should stray from the run. Jones looked amazing on Sunday night, so Jason Garrett should feed him the ball early to see what he’s got. Of course “finesse” runs like counters and draws are always preferred with Jones and the Cowboys’ transforming offensive line, and the efficiency of these run types will hopefully allow Garrett to limit this.