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Cowboys vs Chiefs: Game Plan for Dallas

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At Bleacher Report, I posted my “DOs and DON’Ts” for Dallas:

DON’T leave Doug Free on an island.

Free played admirably in Week 1, so there’s hope that he’s a new player on the right side. But this week will be one of his toughest matchups all year. Free will face off primarily with outside linebacker Justin Houston, who lined up on the right side of the Kansas City defense just 6.3 percent of snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

And Houston is really one of the league’s most underrated players. Still just 24 years old and coming off of a season with 10 sacks, Houston erupted for three sacks against the Jaguars last week. He’s an explosive athlete, as evidenced by his 10’5’ broad jump, who can beat defenders with speed or power.

But his defining trait is his long arms. Although he’s just 6-3, Houston has ridiculous 34’5’ arms. I’ve found that, although teams seek tall pass-rushers, the correlation between height and success is really just because taller players tend to have longer arms. So Houston’s “small stature” doesn’t hurt him on the outside; actually, it helps him because he can maintain a low center of gravity while still using his arms to fend off blockers and maintain leverage.

I think the Cowboys match up pretty nicely with the Chiefs’ front seven, but this battle is really where they could struggle. If the ‘Boys leave Free on an island against Houston on a consistent basis, he’s going to get eaten up.

DO run right at Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.

One of the ways to slow down the Chiefs’ formidable pass-rushing duo of Houston and Hali is to run right at them, for a few reasons. First, the Cowboys are just a much better rushing team when they get the ball outside. I tracked the offense as running a straight dive up the middle on 57.2 percent of their runs in 2012, yet they gained only 3.27 YPC on those plays. Meanwhile, they have one of the better young run blockers in the game in Tyron Smith. DeMarco Murray averaged 6.4 YPC when Smith was at the point-of-attack in Week 1.

Second, the Chiefs’ run defense is stronger up the middle with nose tackle Dontari Poe. While I don’t think that Kansas City’s three down-linemen will give the Cowboys major problems in pass protection, Poe, Tyson Jackson, and Mike DeVito could cause problems in the running game. The ‘Boys should continue to use the stretch plays that we saw on Sunday night.

DO keep it on the ground to move the ball.

When I say “keep it on the ground to move the ball,” I mean using the running game as an actual offensive weapon as opposed to just mixing it up. The Cowboys aren’t a great rushing team and I typically don’t advocate that they run the ball much early in games, but I think they’re going to find some rushing success in this contest.

That’s because we know the Chiefs are going to mimic the Giants’ game plan, which involved playing two deep safeties on nearly every snap. If that’s the look Dallas sees, they’ll need to change their offensive approach—one that resulted in Tony Romo’s lowest single-game YPA since 2009.

And there’s not much reason to think Romo substantially improve in Week 2. Using the Game Similarity Level Projection app at rotoViz, we can look at how quarterbacks really similar to Romo have performed in recent matchups with defenses comparable to that of the Chiefs—a really good way to project players moving forward.

And looking at Romo’s 25 closest comps, the average in matchups like this one has the following stat line: 21-for-38 (55.3 percent) for 232 yards, 1.52 touchdowns, and 0.8 interceptions. Not great. The truth is that this is a very underrated Chiefs defense that is going to give Romo looks with which he struggled in Week 1.

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