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Game Day Manifesto (Game Previews) | The DC Times

The DC Times

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


Cowboys vs Ravens: Key Matchups, What to Watch for Dallas

At NBC, I just posted two breakdowns of the Cowboys’ Week 6 tilt with the Ravens. The first analyzes three key matchups for Dallas:

WR Dez Bryant vs CB Cary Williams

Ladarius Webb is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, allowing only 4.04 yards-per-attempt. I think he’ll cover Miles Austin on the majority of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps, particularly in three-receiver sets when Austin moves into the slot.

That means Dez Bryant will be matched up with Cary Williams quite a bit, and he needs to win that individual battle. Williams has allowed a 70.3 percent completion rate and 10.46 YPA this season, but he’ll try to use his length to press Bryant. If Bryant can’t consistently get off of the line on Sunday, it will be a long day for the Cowboys’ passing game.

Check out the other matchups at NBC.

The second article notes a couple of things to watch during the game, one of which is whether or not Rob Ryan sends a lot of blitzes after Joe Flacco.

Will Rob Ryan blitz Joe Flacco consistently?

It will be interesting to see how Rob Ryan attacks Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco because I don’t think there’s a single “right” way to do it. You’d love to get pressure on Flacco with some regularity since that will of course help out the secondary in a major way. The problem is that Flacco has always been able to beat the blitz; in 2012, he has registered an incredible 109.2 passer rating when teams send five or more rushers.

Head to NBC for the rest of the article.


4 Ways Cowboys Can Beat Seahawks in Week 2

At Dallas Morning News, I just published a Cowboys-Seahawks preview that details how Dallas can take down Seattle.

Don’t blitz quarterback Russell Wilson.

There are two different philosophies to defending a rookie quarterback: 1) blitz him to force mistakes or 2) sit back in a safe coverage and make him beat you again and again. I find myself in the latter camp, especially against Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

One of the reasons that Rob Ryan should dial down the blitzes on Sunday is because the Cowboys are the better team. Although traveling to Seattle is no easy task, the Cowboys are the favorites, and favorites should be in the business of minimizing risk.

Read it all at DMN.


Ultimate Cowboys vs. Giants Preview: DOs and DON’Ts, What to Watch for Dallas

Wow, I can’t believe it’s already here. Tomorrow night’s Cowboys-Giants matchup is about as pivotal as a Week 1 game can get, and it will admittedly be a difficult one for Dallas to win. I’ve published a bunch of content on the game. At DallasCowboys.com, I took a look at how important it is to win the first game of the season:

Teams that make their way into the season’s final game obviously play well late in the year, but they generally start hot, too. Since 1990, the 22 Super Bowl champions have compiled a .773 winning percentage in the first game of the season – higher than the .745 mark they posted in the rest of their regular season games.

While teams that play deep into January generally found success in September, squads that won their season opener have typically performed better than those that lost it. Since 2007, winners in the NFL’s first week have gone on to claim victory in 56.8 percent of their remaining games. With a sample size of 1,200 games, that’s a pretty significant result.

You can read that whole post here.

At NBC, I just published four things to watch in the passing game.

How will Morris Claiborne stack up against Hakeem Nicks?

Claiborne looked great in the preseason, but he wasn’t really tested too often. The Giants’ duo of Hakeem Nicks and VictorCruz will be one of the most formidable wide receiver pairs Claiborne will face all season.

The majority of the time, Claiborne will likely be matched up on Nicks or Rueben Randle because Cruz frequently lines up inthe slot. Actually, 46.8 percent of Cruz’s 2011 snaps came in the slot. That’s good news for the Cowboys, because I think that ifClaiborne struggles in 2012, it will be primarily versus small, quick receivers on whom he can’t get his hands.

Check it out at NBC.

Finally, I just posted five DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas at Dallas Morning News.

DO place DeMarcus Ware on the left side of the defense.

Like Pierre-Paul for the Giants, Ware generally lines up on the right side of the defense; he lined up on the left side only 22.8 percent of the time in 2011. This week, I think the Cowboys should change that around. One reason is that Ware has actually been more efficient rushing from the left side of the defense, generating pressure on 13.4 percent of his pass-rushing snaps as compared to 9.5 percent on the right side over the past three seasons.

Placing Ware on the left side of the defense means Anthony Spencer would generally be on the right side. Believe it or not, Spencer is one of the NFL’s premiere run defenders. He has ranked first, second, and second among all 3-4 outside linebackers over the past three years, racking up more tackles than anyone else over that span.

Plus, unlike a lot of teams, the Giants are more effective running to the left side than the right. Last season, they averaged 4.27 yards-per-carry when running behind their left tackle, compared to just 3.66 yards-per-attempt toward the right edge.

You can read the other DOs and DON’Ts at DMN. More content coming tomorrow.


Cowboys vs. Eagles Week 17 Manifesto: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

With the Cowboys forced to start third-string quarterback Stephen McGee and the Eagles already locked into the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs, this Sunday’s matchup between the teams doesn’t possess the normal magical feel.  Philly is likely to sit some of their starters, particularly quarterback Michael Vick.

Still, it always feels good to beat the Eagles, no matter the situation.  For Dallas to not let a second game against Philly slip away from them this season, this is what they need to do. . .

DO open up the playbook for Stephen McGee.

Normally you would want to protect a young quarterback on the road, but what’s the point?  While winning is always important, there are times when performing sub-optimal tasks in a football game are acceptable.  This is one of them, as placing McGee in unique situations so the coaches can properly analyze his performance is more valuable, in my view, than forcing him to continually throw screens and dump-offs.  What can you really learn about McGee from that?

DO run some designed rollouts.

In the beginning of the season, I thought we’d see more designed rollouts from the Cowboys.  That hasn’t been the case, particularly since Jon Kitna took over as the starting quarterback (and rightfully so).

McGee has shown tremendous mobility, however, and seems to throw pretty well on the run.  He appears to have a skill set that more closely resembles that of Tony Romo as compared to Kitna.  Plus, designed rollouts could aid a struggling offensive line, i.e. a struggling Marc Colombo.

DO blitz more often than in the first matchup.

A few weeks ago, it was difficult for the Cowboys to blitz much because playing man coverage against Michael Vick can be deadly.  With the defenders’ backs turned to the quarterback, he can run wild.

Vick is unlikely to play in this game, however, and Kevin Kolb is nowhere near as nimble as Vick.  He can beat you with his legs, but not to such a degree that it makes man coverage impossible.

As always, blitzing the defensive backs could create problems for Philly.  Last night, they had tons of problems blocking the Vikings’ nickel back.  Orlando Scandrick has found a lot of success on blitzes this season, so Paul Pasqualoni should dial up those exotic blitzes even more often than usual (which wasn’t near enough in the first place).

DON’T place Alan Ball anywhere except over top of DeSean Jackson.

It’s unknown how long Jackson will play or if he will even suit up at all, but if he does, he’s got to be the defense’s top priority.  Jackson single-handedly beat Dallas a few weeks ago, even when the ‘Boys were in rather safe coverages.  There’s not much else you can do other than place a cornerback on him and a safety over top, so the secondary needs to mentally rise to the challenge this week in Philly.

DO double-team Eagles defensive end Trent Cole with tight ends and running backs.

From my Cowboys-Eagles Week 14 Preview:

In my view, Cole is far and away the Eagles’ top defensive player.  He creates havoc in the opposition’s backfield whether defending the run or the pass.  He’s consistently one of the most underrated players in the NFL.  I place him on par with guys like Dwight Freeney and even Ware (but no, I wouldn’t prefer Cole to Ware).

If the Cowboys leave Doug Free on an island against Cole, he will get abused.  Free has been the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman all season, but I don’t think he’s up for that sort of challenge just yet.  Look for the Cowboys to run the same “Gun 5 Wide Tight” formation they created for last week’s game in Indy to help Free and the always helpless Marc Colombo.

DON’T start Marc Colombo.

Last week, Colombo played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen an offensive lineman play.  I attributed four sacks to him, but he got beat on virtually every snap.  Starting Colombo would signal to the team that awful play is acceptable.

DON’T leave Colombo on an island (assuming he does start), unless you want McGee to die.

I’m guessing Colombo will still start, even though he shouldn’t.  If he’s left on an island, Trent Cole and Juqua Parker will absolutely dominate him.  It’s getting to the point where the Cowboys need to be concerned about the health of their quarterbacks.  Look for a lot of “right-handed” formations with Martellus Bennett helping Colombo.

DO place Colombo at quarterback and let him see how it feels.

Last one.  I swear.

DON’T call two plays in the huddle as often as normal.

As you probably know, Jason Garrett loves to call two plays at a time.  The offense plans to run the first one called unless the quarterback sees something from the defense he doesn’t like and issues a “Kill” call.  The offense then switches into the second play.

This week, the Cowboys should back off from that approach a bit.  In Week 14, the Eagles really confused Jon Kitna and the Dallas offensive line with their defensive looks.  They often blitzed without showing it and dropped out of alignments that appeared to be blitzes.

Actually, Philly blitzed only 12 times, yet disguised them so well that the Cowboys mustered only 38 yards on those plays (all passes).  Kitna generated just a 60.4 passer rating on Eagles blitzes.  Meanwhile, Philly showed blitz five times but then backed out, and Dallas gained only 17 total yards on those plays.

To counter the Eagles’ unique pre-snap alignments, the Cowboys could benefit from implementing a “dummy” snap count.  This would force the Eagles to show their intentions prematurely, providing McGee with a better idea of where to go with the football.  To use a “dummy” snap count, however, the offense needs time on the play-clock.  That time is severely limited if the Cowboys call two plays in the huddle.

Plus, I don’t trust McGee’s ability to correctly check into the correct play as much as that of Romo or Kitna, so a “dummy” count cold provide more value to Dallas than “Kill” calls.

DO throw plenty of screens.

In the first contest, the Cowboys found some success on screen passes against the Eagles, running five of them for 44 yards.  I think you could see more than 12 blitzes this week from Philly, so the screen pass (specifically to Felix Jones) could be of use.

DO run more counters.

In general, the Cowboys should run far more counters.  Thus far this season, they have run only 24 of them, yet gained an astounding 202 yards (8.42 yards-per-carry).

Counters are particularly useful against ultra-aggressive defenses, which is exactly how I would describe the Eagles’ defense.

DON’T be so nonchalant at the end of the half.

The Cowboys’ lack of urgency in hurry-up situations is a product of coaching.  It all starts in practice, and it is clear the ‘Boys need to dedicate quite a bit of practice time to their two-minute drill.  Sometimes, it appears as though Garrett is content just getting into field goal range instead of pressing the issue and getting the offense in position to take some shots at the end zone.

DON’T keep making poor decisions on fourth down–be aggressive!

In recent weeks, the Cowboys have punted the ball on fourth down in opponent’s territory far too often.  When at the opponent’s 40-yard line, for example, an offense should statistically go for it all the way up until 4th and 15.  The Cowboys have been punting in situations such as 4th and 3 in that area, however.

DO play with pride.

In my opinion, this game will be an excellent test for Garrett.  It’s easy to get a team with playoff hopes to play hard, but how about a team that underachieved incredibly all season and is on the road with “nothing” to play for in Week 17?  If Garrett can get the team to fight on Sunday, it will go a long way in letting Jerry Jones know Garrett has what it takes to properly motivate a football team.

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Cowboys vs. Arizona Cardinals Week 16 Manifesto: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

I decided to post this week’s game preview today because 1) the game is on Saturday and 2) I will be traveling for the holidays.  I’m not sure how much content I will be able to post later in the week, but I will definitely take a look at an accuracy comparison between Tony Romo and Jon Kitna, as promised.

On to the DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas. . .

DO focus on stopping Larry Fitzgerald.

This is quite obvious.  While Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower, and Steve Breaston are all solid players, none of them will take over a game like Fitzgerald.  He does everything for Arizona: he goes over the middle, he catches deep passes, he blocks, and so on.  There’s no doubt that Paul Pasqualoni’s No. 1 priority on every play should be putting the defense in the proper position to adequately defend Fitzgerald.

I actually think the Cowboys are up for the task.  Although the secondary has struggled, the defense has done a fair job taking away an offense’s top option, i.e. Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, and (usually) DeSean Jackson.  It will be interesting to see if Pasqualoni plays a lot more safe zone coverages, such as Cover 2, to make sure the cornerbacks always have help over the top.  I don’t think Cover 2 is necessary if the Cowboys simply shade Alan Ball over top of Fitzgerald, although you could argue that Breaston is enough of a threat to warrant safety help on the other side of the field as well.

DON’T blitz often, but do fake it.

John Skelton is the Cardinals’ starting quarterback.  John Skelton.  In my opinion, the only way the Cardinals can win this game is to obtain a few “easy” scores–plays such as return touchdowns, pick-sixes, and bombs to Fitzgerald.  Although blitzing Skelton could create problems for the rookie quarterback, I find it highly unlikely he’ll be able to sit back and consistently beat the Dallas defense underneath.  It’s much easier to limit quick scores if you don’t blitz.

I still want to see more creativity out of the Cowboys’ defense, however.  Just because you aren’t blitzing doesn’t mean you have to show the defense what coverage you’re in.  I’d love to see Pasqualoni give defenders more freedom to roam around pre-snap, giving the quarterback less of an idea of who is rushing and who is dropping back.

DO blitz defensive backs when you do bring pressure.

You can’t play the same coverage all game, of course, so there will be times when a blitz is needed.  Have you noticed how much more successful the Cowboys have been this season when rushing defensive backs (particularly Orlando Scandrick) instead of their inside linebackers?  Bradie James and Keith Brooking just aren’t made for blitzing, and the 3-4 scheme doesn’t help them much.

Offenses have trouble accounting for blitzing defensive backs.  If the running back misses his assignment, the defender usually has a clear shot at the quarterback.  Plus, even though a player such as Scandrick isn’t going to deliver a knockout shot, I like his chances of chasing down a quarterback better than that of, say, Brooking.

DO continue to throw the ball downfield.

Last week, the Cowboys finally threw the ball downfield.  14 of Kitna’s passes traveled 10+ yards in the air.  That’s 37.8 percent of the passes he attempted–less than one-quarter of Kitna’s passes entering that game traveled that distance.

That strategy clearly paid off for Dallas, as the Cowboys gained 148 total yards on those plays and Kitna acquired a 118.8 passer rating.  There will be opportunities for big plays in this game, and Dallas needs to take advantage of them.

DO run to the outside, particularly to the weak side, with powers and counters.

Cardinals nose tackle Darnell Dockett is one of the most underrated players in the league.  He reminds me so much of Jay Ratliff in that he uses his speed and athleticism to make plays against both the run and pass.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have a weak link (against the run) outside in Joey Porter.  Porter is a pass rush specialist who will fly upfield in search of his next sack before adequately playing the run.  The Cowboys can take advantage of this by running right at him with powers and counters.  Tosses may not work as well since they would lead the running back right into Porter’s path.

DO utilize motion to alter the defense’s strength call and secure optimal match-ups.

The Cowboys did just this last week to neutralize Brian Orakpo.  This week, they can do something similar against Arizona.  They’ll have to be careful because the Cardinals “other” outside linebacker (and the better one) Calais Campbell is pretty good.  The offense will definitely want to run a lot to the weak side of the Cardinals defense to stay away from Campbell.

Of course, the “weak side” can quickly turn into the “strong side” with unique motions.  If the Cowboys line up with two tight ends on one side, Campbell will follow, leaving Joey Porter on the weak side.  A simple tight end motion would put the Cowboys in a balanced formation, forcing Porter to fight off the block of either Jason Witten or Martellus Bennett.  I like those odds for Dallas.

DO take advantage of the aggressiveness of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

DRC is a highly athletic player who can change the course of a game in a heartbeat.  Kitna will need to make sure he isn’t late on routes such as hitches, comebacks, and so on, or else it could be six-quick for Arizona.

DRC’s strength, however, can quickly become a weakness if the Cowboys properly exploit it.  I thought the Cowboys could have won the Eagles game if they had taken some shots downfield, particularly on double-moves.  This week, Garrett will be able to redeem himself by using Rodgers-Cromartie’s aggressiveness against him.

DON’T start Marion Barber if he’s healthy.

Barber may or may not play this week, but I’ve seen enough of him this season to know he isn’t going to be back in 2011.  Let Felix Jones and Tashard Choice continue to give the team the best chance to win.

DO run a couple more Wildcat plays.

Did you know the Cowboys have run only three Wildcat plays all season?  Two of them were runs for four yards, and the other was last week’s trick pass play that went for 32.  That was the first Wildcat pass in Dallas Cowboys history.

Garrett has shown a willingness to become predictable in short-yardage situations by continually calling strong side dives from the same “Double Tight Strong” formation.  Last week, it nearly cost the Cowboys the game.  If he’s going to be so predictable, why not at least run the ball from Wildcat?  With the ball-carrier taking the snap, the offense can have one extra blocker.

DO allow Victor Butler to play on all obvious passing downs.

Pasqualoni has done a nice job of getting Butler extra reps, even with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer already on the field.  Butler has proven that he deserves more playing time, so I’d love to see him on the field for all third downs–even if it means Spencer is off of it (which doesn’t necessarily have to be the case).


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

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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Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles Week 14: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas and How to Stop Vick

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys’ win over the Indianapolis Colts was a tremendous boost to the team’s confidence, but this week’s matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles contains almost no similarities to that game.  While the Colts can’t run the ball to save their lives, the Eagles are one of the league’s top rushing squads, thanks in large part to Michael Vick.  While the Colts rarely blitzed Dallas, you can bet Philly will be pinning their ears back to reach Jon Kitna.

It will take another magnificent effort from the ‘Boys to take down a hungry Eagles team.  Here’s how they can do it. . .

No. 1-7:  How to Stop Michael Vick

DON’T let Vick roll out to his left.

I saw a stat a week or two ago noting that Vick has a passer rating of over 122 when he rolls left, but under 60 when he rolls to his right.  That’s quite a difference, so Dallas needs to do everything possible to make sure they contain Vick when he attempts to move to his left.

When he does roll right, the southpaw loves to run the football.  While you never want to force the league’s most talented athlete to run the ball, it’s a better option than having him roll left with a run/pass option.  Dallas will need to be extra cautious about Vick’s legs if they force him right (and his arm if he does escape left).

DO blitz from the right side of the defense.

One way to make sure Vick doesn’t roll left is to blitz him on that side.  If he senses pressure in front of him, he’ll be more likely to spin out the backside–to his right.  Of course, the Cowboys can’t blitz too much, as Vick will kill you–either through the air or on the ground–if you send extra rushers and then whiff.

DO place DeMarcus Ware on the left side of the defense.

If you don’t want Vick to roll left, why place the team’s best player on the opposite side of the field?  Here are five reasons it will work:

  • Anthony Spencer isn’t creating much pressure lately anyway, so why not ask him to employ a “cautious rush” in which he makes certain that Vick doesn’t get outside of him?
  • Ware will be free to utilize his entire repertoire of moves instead of trying to contain Vick.
  • Ware will be matched up on right tackle Winston Justice–a huge mismatch.
  • The Cowboys will be blitzing from the right side of their defense to force Vick right–into the waiting arms of Ware.
  • Ware will be coming from Vick’s blind side.

DON’T place a spy on Vick.

To me, spying Vick is wasting a defender.  If that’s the only method you employ to corral Vick, you’re going to get burnt.  A single defender isn’t going to be able to tackle Vick in the open-field.  The Cowboys need to work as a unit to stop him.

DON’T play nearly as much man coverage as usual.

Imagine this scenario: the Eagles run their usual deep routes–DeSean Jackson on a 20-yard dig, Jeremy Maclin on a skinny post, and Brent Celek up the seam.  The Cowboys play Cover 1–man coverage with a single-high safety.  Dallas fails to reach Vick with the rush and he steps up into a sea of green, all defenders 20+ yards downfield.  Uh oh.

You can’t consistently play man coverage and expect Vick to never successfully run, so Dallas needs to implement a lot of zone coverages–something they’ve been doing more anyway since Paul Pasqualoni took over as defensive coordinator.

DO zone blitz often.

“But Jonathan, you said the Cowboys should blitz from the right side of their defense.  Won’t that put them in a lot of man coverage?”

Not if they zone blitz.  I’ve previously talked about why the Cowboys should zone blitz more in general, but this is a game in which I think you’ll actually see them do it fairly often.  The zone blitz can be confusing to the offensive line and quarterback because, often times, there aren’t any “extra” rushers coming.  The defense simply gives the illusion of a blitz, meaning zone blitzes have great upside without much risk.  At worst, they’ll be a tremendous way to force Vick to roll to his right without giving him an entire field to juke defenders.

DO play nickel more than usual.

While the Eagles are one of the league’s top rushing teams, they don’t have a power running game.  Instead, most of their yards come from a combination of Vick’s scrambles and the “fancy” runs–draws, counters, and so on–from LeSean McCoy.  And make no mistake about it. . .a gigantic portion of the running back’s yardage is a direct result of the “Vick effect.”  Backside defenders can’t crash down on handoffs because they have to honor Vick’s arm/legs in the event of a play-fake.

Thus, I don’t think implementing nickel personnel will hurt Dallas in their effort to contain the Eagles’ running game.  In fact, more speed on the field can only help against Philly’s finesse players.  Who would you rather have chasing down Vick–Keith Brooking or Orlando Scandrick?  Mark my words: Brooking will struggle mightily in this game if he’s given too much playing time.

No. 8-14:  How to Beat the Rest

DO place Terence Newman on DeSean Jackson and jam him early.

Newman has struggled lately, but he’s traditionally played well against Jackson and other small receivers like him.  Last year, he caught only seven passes for 79 yards in the three games he played against the Cowboys.

Jackson will surely want to redeem himself this Sunday, so Newman should get in Jackson’s face early.  If Jackson struggles to start the game, it will affect his effort later in the contest.

I think the Cowboys should play a lot of Cover 2 early in the game as well.  That will put the cornerbacks in a great position to get their hands on Philly’s receivers and disrupt their routes. That’s a must when receivers are attempting to get 20+ yards downfield.

With the two safeties deep, Cover 2 is also a safe enough coverage to limit the Eagles’ big plays early.  Plus, with up to nine defenders underneath, it’s about as good of a coverage as exists for halting Vick on the ground.

DO attack the Eagles with downfield throws–especially double-moves on Asante Samuel (if he plays).

I found more evidence this week that Dallas should throw the ball downfield more often.  It hurts that Dez Bryant is gone for the season, but Miles Austin and Roy Williams (yes, Roy Williams–just look here) are big play threats themselves.  Quick scores can change games in a hurry.

On top of that, the Eagles’ cornerbacks are susceptible to double-moves, particularly Samuel.  If he is active, the Cowboys can surely beat him deep on a hitch-and-go or sluggo route.  The key, as always, will be proper protection, so perhaps the Cowboys should implement max protection from a double-tight set when they plan to attack deep.  That look will be most successful if used on 1st down or 2nd and short, as the Eagles will be anticipating a run.

DO throw a lot of screens.

When not taking shots down the field, the Cowboys need to throw a lot of screens.  Last season, Garrett called screens at the perfect times to take advantage of the Eagles’ sometimes overaggressive defense.  Timing is everything, and the Cowboys will gain a big advantage of Garrett can continue to dial up screen passes when Philly decides to blitz (particularly on 3rd down).

So, almost paradoxically, I think the Cowboys can succeed by throwing the ball deep on 1st down or 2nd and short, but throwing short on 3rd and medium to long.

DON’T keep punting/kicking field goals on 4th down.

Last week, the Cowboys made mistakes by punting on 4th and 1 at midfield and  kicking a field goal on 4th and 1 at the Colts’ 12-yard line.  They also decided to kick a field goal on 4th and goal inside the Colts’ two-yard line before the end of regulation, but were bailed out by an Indianapolis penalty.

If Garrett wants to put his team in high-percentage situations, he needs to stop giving the ball away on 4th and short-to-medium.  I know it seems risky to go for it on, say, 4th and 7 at the opponent’s 40-yard line, but the real risky play is punting away the football.

DON’T run a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong.”

From my Cowboys-Colts post-game article:

Nine strong side dives from the 10 times they lined up in the formation?  Only three of those in short-yardage situations?  Five strong side dives from “Double Tight Left/Right I” on 1st and 10?  A 2.44 yards-per-attempt average on the nine runs?  Gigantic fail.

I’m not sure why this play has returned, but it needs to leave ASAP.

DO increase Tashard Choice’s workload just a bit.

Choice received 29 offensive snaps on Sunday and capitalized big-time on his first significant playing time this season.  The Cowboys need to continue to feed Choice because:

  1. Felix Jones can’t consistently handle nearly 50 snaps a game.
  2. Marion Barber should be gone in 2011.
  3. Choice is superior to Jones in pass protection, which will be vital this week.

DO double-team Eagles defensive end Trent Cole with tight ends and running backs.

In my view, Cole is far and away the Eagles’ top defensive player.  He creates havoc in the opposition’s backfield whether defending the run or the pass.  He’s consistently one of the most underrated players in the NFL.  I place him on par with guys like Dwight Freeney and even Ware (but no, I wouldn’t prefer Cole to Ware).

If the Cowboys leave Doug Free on an island against Cole, he will get abused.  Free has been the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman all season, but I don’t think he’s up for that sort of challenge just yet.  Look for the Cowboys to run the same “Gun 5 Wide Tight” formation they created for last week’s game in Indy to help Free and the always helpless Marc Colombo.

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Cowboys vs. Indianapolis Colts Week 13 Manifesto: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

This week’s game against the Indianapolis Colts has a different feel to it because, for the first time all season, the Cowboys are officially out of the playoff hunt.  While hopes of a trip to the postseason were eliminated among most fans weeks ago, there was still a glimmer of hope (in me at least) that something magical could happen.

At eight losses, the Cowboys are now all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.  In my opinion, this means they should now fully focus on producing the best team in 2011.  That means putting Tony Romo on IR.  It also means providing youngsters like Sean Lee with more playing time.  We’ll see which approach Jason Garrett decides to take–doing everything possible to win games now, or making the correct long-term organizational decisions.

Still, we all want to see our Cowboys win.  Even if they “lose” a top 10 pick, I would never root for Dallas to lose a game.  Here is how they can beat Indy this week. . .

DO stay in a nickel defense (or even dime) at all times.

A lot of teams have found success (relatively speaking) against Peyton Manning and the Colts by using a nickel defense as their base personnel package (except in some short-yardage and goal line situations).  Indy runs a three-receiver set as their base offense (although they have been utilizing two tight ends more of late).  Who would you rather have covering a slot receiver: Orlando Scandrick or Keith Brooking?

I propose that the Cowboys should actually use their dime package in “regular” game situations, and their nickel package when the Colts bring in two tight ends.  You want to take the ball out of Manning’s hands as often as possible.  The ‘Boys should have “one too many” defensive backs on the field at all times, daring Indy to run the ball.  Don’t let Manning beat you.  If Donald Brown does it, then so be it.

DON’T respect the running game or playaction fakes.

The primary reason Dallas should stay in nickel and dime packages is the lackluster Colts running game.  The Colts are 29th in the NFL in rushing with just 82.6 yards-per-game.  For a team that runs the ball so little, you’d think their rushing efficiency would be at least average, but Indy also ranks 29th in the league in yards-per-carry with just 3.6.

Thus, there’s really no reason to respect their running game.  That means don’t worry about “undersized” personnel and definitely don’t bite up on playaction fakes.  Manning has shown that you don’t need to be a rushing juggernaut to still find success on playaction passes.  Much of that success stems from Manning’s incredible fakes and ability to suck up the defense.  There’s no reason to bite on these fakes, however, as it is unlikely Indy will be able to 1) muster much of a running game, or 2) stick with the running game even if it does work.

DO focus attention on Reggie Wayne.

Wayne is one of the league’s most talented receivers and possesses such great chemistry with Manning.  He’s coming off one of the worst performances of his career, as he dropped a handful of passes on Sunday night.  That won’t happen again, and Dallas needs to be prepared for Wayne’s “A game.”

I expect the Cowboys to play a lot of zone coverage on Sunday, so the safeties need to be sure to keep Wayne in front of them.  When the ‘Boys do decide to blitz and play man coverage, free safety Alan Ball must shade Wayne’s side heavily.  Force Manning to look elsewhere on the field.  Let Jacob Tamme or Pierre Garcon beat you before Wayne.

DON’T blitz too often early, but do disguise your intentions.

Call me crazy, but I think the Cowboys can get pressure on Manning without blitzing. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer (when he’s at his best) are capable of beating Colts offensive tackles Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem.

The key will be forcing Manning to hold onto the ball just a tad longer than usual, as he has one of the quickest triggers in the league.  With seven men in coverage (including five and sometimes six defensive backs), that task is made easier.

Of course, you can’t play the same defense and expect Manning to not figure it out.  The ‘Boys will have to mix in the occasional blitz to throw him off.  More importantly, they’ll need to disguise their defense whether they are blitzing or not.  Don’t let Manning know you’re in Cover 2, or he’ll beat you.  Don’t let him know you’re in man coverage, or he’ll beat you.  Don’t let him know your 2nd grade teacher, favorite food, or social security number, or he’ll beat you.  Got it?

Fake blitzes, line up “normally” when you do blitz, and experiment with “odd” looks.  What is there to lose?

DO hit Peyton Manning whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Despite some reports to the contrary, Peyton Manning isn’t God.  Like the rest of the quarterbacks in the league, he gets rattled after being hit.  His decision-making is so quick that sacks are rare, so the best way to judge the Cowboys’ pass-rushing performance this week is by how often they get in Manning’s face, knock him down, and force errant throws.  As San Diego showed on Sunday, it can be done.

DON’T place Keith Brooking on Colts tight end Jacob Tamme.

Tamme isn’t insanely athletic, but neither is Brooking.  Brooking played very well in coverage last week, but I don’t think he has the ability to do that consistently.  The NFL is all about percentages, and placing Brooking on Tamme (who is basically Manning’s second option of late) is not a high-percentage play for Dallas.

DO twist the defensive ends to create some sort of pressure.

All four of the primary defensive ends (Olshansky, Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher) have been a disappointment this season.  They’ve proven again and again that they’re all very limited in what they can do, and not a single one can seem to generate pressure on his own.  Hatcher has been decent of late, but that play should be expected all the time.

I know Wade Phillips (and now Paul Pasqualoni) don’t like to twist much, but if there was ever a week to do it, this is it.  It’s harder to stop the run if you twist, but as I wrote above, there’s no reason to respect the Colts’ running attack.  Perhaps twisting Hatcher and Ratliff, for example, could benefit each player more than it hurts.

DO realize the Colts love to run behind tight end Brody Eldridge, not Tamme.

Mike Mayock declared Eldridge the best-blocking tight end in this past year’s draft, and he’s certainly lived up to the billing.  The Colts have full confidence when running behind the rookie.  It isn’t a guarantee, of course, but the ‘Boys need to be aware that wherever Eldridge is lined up, a run could soon follow.

You might be asking why I would care about this after just detailing how Dallas should disregard the Colts’ running game.  The tight end alignment could be useful for Dallas’ pass defense, though, as a play-fake is more likely to come on Tamme’s side of the field.  When Tamme and Eldridge are on the field together, it’s far more likely they’ll run behind the rookie.

DO run a lot of double-tight sets to aid Doug Free and Marc Colombo (specifically the latter) against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

In the Saints game, there were 66 offensive plays for Dallas with a tight end lined up next to one of the offensive tackles.  44 of them (66.7 percent) were “right-handed,” i.e. the tight end(s) was next to Colombo.  I realize Dallas is a right-handed team, but it’s clear an effort is being made to “hide” Colombo.

Garrett should continue to do this.  Colombo’s job was made far easier last week and Dallas benefited from it.  This week, the ‘Boys certainly can’t expect Free to block Freeney one-on-one all game.  They’ll need to run some double-tight sets and either leave both Witten and Bennett in to block, or use the tight ends to chip Indy’s defensive ends (followed by a chip from the running backs as well).

DO take some shots deep.

This isn’t the same old Colts defense.  They still play some Cover 2, but not nearly as much as in prior seasons.  They are far more aggressive and make more plays, but they also yield more big plays as well.

Awhile ago, I also noted that the teams who throw deep most often generally find more success in the passing game.  Sunday’s game sure would be made a lot easier if Dallas can secure a quick score or two.  It starts with rushing efficiency.  If the Cowboys can run the ball effectively early, they can draw the Colts defense up, using two tight-end sets to provide Kitna with the proper protection to throw deep, particularly following playaction looks.

DON’T punt on 4th down in Indianapolis territory unless it is 4th and 10+.

On Thanksgiving, the Cowboys punted on a 4th and 4 at the Saints’ 35-yard line.  They ultimately gained only 16 yards of field position.

Garrett is usually aggressive in his decisions, but that was a horrible one.  The Cowboys need to attack teams and go out trying to win football games, instead of simply attempting to not lose them.

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.

DO duplicate the Chargers’ game plan from last week.

Last week, you saw a lot of different looks from the Chargers defense.  They did the unthinkable:  confuse Peyton Manning.  A staple of their game plan was the zone blitz–something I think Dallas needs to utilize a lot more.  Zone blitzes this week could trick Manning into thinking more defenders are rushing than is actually the case, forcing him to mistakenly “throw hot” into the waiting arms of a Cowboy.

On offense, San Diego ran the ball a lot more than usual.  It’s no secret that Indy loves to draft “undersized” defensive players who can defend the pass.  This leaves them susceptible to getting overpowered in the run game.  If Dallas can run the ball effectively early (and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to), it will set up big play opportunities later in the contest.

DO be physical early and often–this team doesn’t respond well to getting punched in the mouth.

Manning isn’t the only Colts player who doesn’t respond well to getting hit.  The whole squad is made up of finesse players who use their athleticism and intelligence to beat bigger, dumber players.  Well, if the Cowboys can be big and smart, they’ll have an advantage.  They already have the big thing down. . .so when does the intelligent play come in?

DON’T run a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong,” unless it is in short-yardage situations.

Last week, for whatever reason, we saw the return of the strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong.” The Cowboys lined up in the formation 12 times, and ran the strong side dive nine times.  It’s one thing to do it in obvious running situations (and I still don’t support it then), but it’s a whole different story to run it in “regular” game situations, such as 2nd and 10 at midfield.

By the way, those nine strong side dives gained 12 total yards.

DON’T use Shotgun much unless in hurry-up mode.

I’ve showed before why the Cowboys are a superior team with Kitna under center (as opposed to in Shotgun).  Through Week 10, the quarterback was averaging nearly 1.5 yards more per pass when under center.

Garrett has done a nice job of keeping Kitna out of Shotgun, but last week he got away from it a bit due to game situations.  The ‘Boys need to make sure they stay in situations in which Kitna can remain under center.

Plus, we won’t have to cross our fingers before every Gurode Shotgun snap.

DO give Tashard Choice all short-yardage and 3rd down snaps, at least.

I want to see Choice get a lot of touches this week, but he needs to be on the field for 3rd downs and short-yardage plays, at least.  Choice is a smaller back than Felix Jones, but his balance and vision are uncanny.  On his touchdown run last week, Choice got hit fairly solidly before reaching the goal line, regained his balance, and dove in for the score.  It’s so hard to say what another running back may have done, but I really don’t think Marion Barber would have broken that tackle.

Of course, he may have fallen down before he even reached the defender.

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Cowboys vs. New Orleans Saints Week 12 Thanksgiving Game: DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

Jonathan Bales

Thanksgiving games always have a different feel to them.  In all honesty, they’re a big advantage for the Cowboys.  Not only do they get an extra day of preparation compared to their opponent (due to travel), but they also get 10 days of preparation for the next game.

I think the Cowboys will play well tomorrow, but here are some DOs and DON’Ts which should allow a win to come easier. . .

DO focus on stopping Reggie Bush–with more than one defender.

Bush will be back for New Orleans, and despite his layoff, he should be the focus of the Cowboys’ defense.  It’s sort of a “Catch 22” in that placing too much of an emphasis on Bush is what gets defenses in trouble, but not monitoring the former USC star is even more deadly.

There isn’t a single player on the Cowboys who can defend Bush one-on-one, and that includes the cornerbacks.  Instead, the ‘Boys need to use a variety of defenders to stop him.  One way to make that task easier is. . .

DON’T play as much man coverage.

Playing man coverage will make the Saints’ job easy.  They are extremely effective at using motions and shifts to create favorable matchups.  It will be much easier for Sean Payton to do that if the Cowboys are in man coverage.  There’s no easier way for New Orleans to isolate Bush than to recognize man coverage and run defenders off of him.

Another monumental reason the Cowboys need to play a lot more zone coverage than normal is the Saints’ spread offense.  Drew Brees throws short passes (less than 10 yards) more than any quarterback in the NFL.  He’s deadly accurate and will simply pick defenses apart with underneath throws.  There’s no way Dallas can expect to play man coverage the majority of the time and still defend the short crossing routes, rub routes, and so on that the Saints will utilize.  They need to be in a zone, preferably. . .

DO play a lot of Cover 2.

The Cowboys aren’t big on Cover 2, but I think this is the week to run it.  The coverage allows for maximum defenders underneath, but it’s still a safe coverage deep.  There’s no sense in stacking all your defenders near the line-of-scrimmage if you just let Devery Henderson or Lance Moore beat you deep.

The weaknesses of Cover 2 are the deep middle of the field and the area by the sideline between the cornerback and safety.  The best way to cover up these holes is to not let the offense know your coverage before the snap.  The Cowboys have been doing a better job of this lately, but Brees is the master of pre-snap reads.  The Cowboys really need to disguise their coverages if they expect to win.

DON’T think the Saints won’t bring pressure.

For whatever reason, the Giants and Lions haven’t brought much pressure on Jon Kitna.  They’ve sent only five and 12 blitzes, respectfully, over the past two weeks.

That trend won’t continue on Thanksgiving.  The Saints’ primary objective on defense is to force turnovers, and they do that by getting after the quarterback.  The Cowboys must be prepared for a variety of innovative blitz packages, as Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to send the “unexpected.”

DO continue to be exotic with blitz packages.

The Cowboys should try to beat New Orleans at their own game this week.  As I said above, there’s no way Dallas will win if they let Brees decipher their coverages/blitzes before the snap.  They need to hide their intentions, lining up in base formations and then blitzing from weird angles, or showing blitz and then backing out.

DON’T run any “predictable” plays.

From last week’s Cowboys-Lions Manifesto:

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.

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.

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).

Well, the Cowboys ended up running all three plays against Detroit.  The last was simply used in garbage time (and the Cowboys do have other plays from the formation), but the other two were used in meaningful situations.  I was able to predict the play before the snap, and if I can do that, the other team should be able to do the same.

DO attack Tracy Porter, especially with double-moves.

Porter made a name for himself in the playoffs last season, but he’s still far from an elite cornerback.  Gregg Williams’ scheme allows him to gamble a lot.  Kitna will have to be prepared for that, but it also means Jason Garrett can call a few double-moves on him to try to secure a quick score.  Plus, the Saints’ other starting cornerback (Jabari Greer) is one of the most underrated players in the entire NFL.

DO run a lot of “right-handed” formations.

This is simple.  The Cowboys need to protect Kitna and Marc Colombo can’t do it.  He needs help from a tight end.  Plus, Dallas usually finds success when running to the weak side of the formation, which would be away from Colombo if the tight end is next to him.

DON’T leave Orlando Scandrick in the slot if Marques Colston bumps inside.

Scandrick has put together two magnificent games in a row, but he’s been the recipient of favorable matchups.  Scandrick vs. Colston is not a favorable matchup for Dallas.  Colston won’t even need to get open against Scandrick, as he can simply post up and use his far superior size to fend off the cornerback and make the catch.  The Cowboys may want to look at moving Terence Newman inside when Colston does the same.

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

The Cowboys implemented three or more receivers on only 16 offensive plays last week (after doing so on just 14 plays the prior week–a season-low).  In the past, I’ve explained why passing out of running formations is successful.  Combine that with Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett’s superb pass protection ability and the deep threat posed by Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, and you have the makings of a lot of “surprise” deep passes.  Now, if Garrett would just call a few after playaction fakes. . .

DO leave Jason Witten in to block so you can take some shots downfield to “The Rookie.”

Whether in base personnel or a two-tight end set, Dallas should leave Witten in to block more this week.  The Cowboys could really help themselves by scoring quickly a time or two, and the easiest way to do that is No. 88.  Considering the frequency with which I expect the Saints to blitz, it won’t be so easy for the Cowboys to provide Kitna proper protection unless they have more blockers.  Lots of blitzers means true man coverage, though–a dream scenario for the ‘Boys.

DO use a dummy snap count (and allow Kitna the freedom to check out of plays).

Against the Saints, Kitna will see a lot of different looks, many of which New Orleans won’t “show” until he goes into his cadence.  If Kitna can use a dummy snap count to force New Orleans to show their intentions, it will make his job a lot easier.  By the way, a dummy snap count is used when you hear the quarterback yell “Omaha.”  Before that, the entire cadence is meaningless.  “Omaha” signals to the offense that the snap count is now live.

Once Kitna recognizes the Saints’ defense, he should be allowed the freedom to check into whatever play he chooses.  He’s been outstanding with audibles since the preseason.  Last week, he checked out of three plays, two of which went for touchdowns.

DON’T resort back to Shotgun.

The Cowboys’ lack of three and four receiver-sets of late has resulted in less Shotgun snaps (or perhaps vice versa).  Through Week 10, the Cowboys were in Shotgun on a ridiculous 47.3 percent of all snaps.  Last week, however, Dallas used Shotgun on only 13 of 54 offensive plays (24.1 percent).  This comes just a week after using Shotgun at the same rate in their win over the Giants.  Garrett must have recently realized how much more successful Kitna is under center as opposed to in Shotgun.

DO use the same aggressive mentality that beat the Saints in 2009.

The Cowboys beat the Saints last season because they came out on fire.  They opened up the playbook and played with a sense of urgency.  If they do the same this week, they’ll have a good opportunity to once again take down the defending Super Bowl champs.

That’s all for today.  It may take a day or two for me to analyze this week’s game film due to travel, but it’s a long week anyway, so deal with it.  Happy Thanksgiving to all loyal DC Times readers (I hope the disloyal ones have a really shi**y one).  :)  See ya.

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

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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