The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

B.W. Webb Senior Bowl Tape

Second play, beat by Cowboys third-rounder Terrance Williams

 

By Jonathan Bales

Stuff Cowboys Fans Say

No matter how many articles I write, I’ll be a Cowboys fan first and a writer second. How many of these things are you guilty of saying? Here are mine. . .

  • What is the offensive line doing right now?
  • We have the best receivers in the league.
  • Jason Witten runs so slow.
  • TOUCHDOWN! YEAH! Now wait, flag? HOLDING!?
  • We may have the best talent that’s undrafted. Yeah, seriously.
  • That’s what we need Felix! Now, just stay healthy!
  • Redskins are terrible.
  • I don’t know how the Giants keep winning Super Bowls.
  • You don’t just drop the ball on an extra point. Look at the ball, it was shiny.
  • Our secondary is garbage. . .but not anymore!

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Draft LSU Cornerback Morris Claiborne in First: Scouting Report, Highlights

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys gave up their first and second-round selections to move up to No. 6 overall for LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.  A couple thoughts:

  • Even though I love Morris Claiborne, losing the second-rounder is costly.  I’m indifferent right now because I really do love Claiborne.  He was No. 5 overall on my Big Board.
  • What will the Cowboys do now in the secondary?  Brandon Carr and Claiborne play outside, which means Mike Jenkins will need to move into the slot.  Could the team look to trade Jenkins?  He has some value going into the final year of his contract, and no one is going to be trading for Orlando Scandrick.  If Jenkins stays, the ‘Boys would be paying $27 million to a fourth cornerback.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys secured a play-making cornerback who has the potential to be a difference-maker on defense.  I did a scouting report on Claiborne early in the draft process, and I really studied a lot of his film.  Here’s what I had to say:

At 6-0, 185 pounds, Claiborne (#17) has pretty good size.  He could stand to add some bulk to his frame; his strength is only average.  Despite being lean, Claiborne is not afraid to stick his nose in the running game (see the 29-second mark in the first video below).  Claiborne won’t be doing a lot of sideline-to-sideline chasing, as in that clip against Cam Newton, but it shows his athleticism and willingness to tackle.

There is a difference between being willing to tackle and doing it efficiently, and Claiborne is the perfect example.  He misses a lot of tackles because of poor technique.  Although tackling form can be coached, a desire to tackle cannot.  Claiborne will improve at bringing down ball-carriers in the N.F.L.

In the passing game, Claiborne excels at using his body to wall off receivers. On deep balls, Claiborne “boxes out” receivers, all while turning his head to locate the football and avoid pass interference.  His awareness of the receiver’s location is uncanny.

One of the reasons Claiborne plays the deep ball so well is that he’s adept at flipping his hips.  The fluidity he displays from his backpedal to a turn-and-run position is outstanding.  Claiborne’s quick hips allow him to let receivers eat up his cushion before he turns to run if they go deep.  In turn, Claiborne can then squat on routes like comebacks and curls, knowing he has the quickness to recover if the receiver reaches his hip.

You can see an example of Claiborne’s deep ball technique at the 4:01 mark in the video above.  From an off position, he lets the receiver eat up his cushion before flipping his hips, running stride for stride, turning to locate the football and making the interception.  That’s an elite play.

Claiborne is versatile; he’s sharp in both press and off coverage.  He seems most comfortable at the line, however, where he can use his long arms to disrupt receivers as they try to get into their routes.  In the N.F.L., Claiborne will need to limit contact after five yards.  In college, he was physical with receivers well into their routes.  In the pros, that will be flagged, so expect Claiborne to see his fair share of penalties early in the 2012 season.

Claiborne is at his best in zone coverage.  He has a really solid understanding of zone concepts and spacing.  He is constantly coming off his receiver in zone to make plays, all while maintaining his responsibility.  You can see an example of this at the 8-second mark in the Oregon game.  Claiborne is in Cover 2 and recognizes an out-breaking route very early, coming off the receiver already in his zone to get into position for a big hit.  He does this multiple times a game, which is why he will excel in a zone-heavy defense in the pros.

Claiborne’s route recognition is the best of any cornerback I have studied thus far in the 2012 class.  You can see that during the last play in the video below.

In the clip, Claiborne appears to be in either Cover 2 or Cover 2 man under (both of which give him safety help over the top).  A lot of cornerbacks would play over top of the receiver in that situation, but Claiborne knows he has deep help, so he squats on the route.  Claiborne’s intelligence, grasp of defensive schemes and route recognition translate to a pick-six.

At this point, his biggest weakness is his coverage of in-breaking routes (like slants, digs and so on).  On these routes, he often finds himself on his heels, incapable of breaking quickly on the ball.  Note that on almost all such routes, Claiborne would only follow the receiver in man coverage.  Again, he has a chance to excel for a team that plays primarily zone.

The Cowboys play more man coverage than most teams, and that isn’t Claiborne’s strength.  That’s not to say he’s poor, because he’s the top overall cornerback in this class.  He simply is dominant in zone, but he has the hips to play any scheme.  His long frame will come in handy at the line in press coverage, and like I said above, he doesn’t get beat deep.  Along with Carr, the ‘Boys suddenly because dominant at cornerback.

More to come in a bit.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys 2011 Draft Class Highlight Video

Jonathan Bales

Below, I have pasted a tremendous highlight film of the Cowboys’ eight 2011 draft picks.  Underneath the video, I posted the times of the plays I considered to be each player’s best.  Watching purely highlights can often be misleading, but it will give you a sense of the sorts of things each player is capable of doing.

Tyron Smith, OT, USC

0:50 – Uses intelligence to come off block after recognizing stunt

0:53 – Possesses incredible chop block, but will be asked to do that less in Dallas

0:58 – Best block of all; look at the agility, speed and power

1:11 – Screen. . .wow, he actually hurdles a defender

Bruce Carter, LB, UNC

2:11 – Huge hit

2:33 – Return after interception displays hips and agility

DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma

3:40 – Return ability will be big, but can he return punts?

4:00 – Legit home run ability; 4.40 Combine 40-yard dash, but I think he plays even faster

4:56 – Leap is insane

5:05 – Agility, quickness, and fast-twitch ability all superb; power is there, but inconsistent

6:03 – Receiving ability second-to-none

6:22 – Lowers shoulder and gives devastating blow

David Arkin, G, Missouri State

7:05 – Not extremely athletic, but has ability to get to second level

Josh Thomas, CB, Buffalo

8:16 – Willing tackler

9:13 – Experience as blitzer will help in Rob Ryan’s scheme

Dwayne Harris, WR, East Carolina

10:13 – Dynamite after the catch

11:01 – Special teams value as blocker

11:19 – Special teams value as returner

11:42 – Very difficult to bring down

Shaun Chapas, FB, Georgia

12:56 – Lead blocker through and through

Bill Nagy, C, Wisconsin

No highlights in video (or career)

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Select Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray in Third Round

Jonathan Bales

After a somewhat questionable pick in the second round, the Cowboys continued the trend in the third round by selecting Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray.  Although I predicted the ‘Boys would grab a running back at some point during this draft, I figured it would come on day three.  While I do like Murray, the depth at the running back position made me believe Dallas would hold off on drafting one.  Players like Pitt’s Dion Lewis, Eastern Washington’s Taiwan Jones, Miami’s Graig Cooper, Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter and Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers were all available and all represent value in later rounds I find equal or superior to Murray in the third.

Again, the Cowboys must have jumped on a player who was rated so highly on their board that they could not pass.  Let me say that while I do really like Murray’s game, I don’t agree that his value was tremendous in the third round.  I had him rated as the No. 64 overall player on my 2011 Big Board. You would think the ‘Boys would have liked at least one of the running backs I listed above, all of whom they could possibly secure in the fourth round or later.

Let’s take a look at some of Murray’s tape. . .

Scouting Report

Murray has solid agility and start-and-stop ability.  His quickness and long speed are both really, really good.  He ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine and he really does possess home run ability.  While I don’t like the timing of the pick, I think there are only a few runners in this draft who are better for Dallas than Murray.  He’s an insurance policy against a Felix Jones injury, which was really an underrated “hole” for the ‘Boys.

If you haven’t done so yet, check out Murray’s career numbers.  I don’t look at stats when I look at film because 1) they could potentially cloud my judgment and 2) I don’t particularly care.  At the running back position, though, you always want to see a guy produce no matter the circumstances.  Murray had a ridiculous 63 total touchdowns in his career and, more important to me, 157 career receptions (including 71 alone in 2010).  Running backs must be able to catch the ball nowadays, and Murray is a natural receiver.

Murray is a continuation of what appears to be a revised draft plan for the Cowboys.  He’s a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game.  Tyron Smith is a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game.  Bruce Carter is a versatile player who will be especially useful in the passing game.  See a trend?

Murray’s vision is solid and he makes very quick decisions with the football.  You won’t see Murray dancing in the backfield.  He isn’t great after contact, however, and his legs sometimes die after he gets hit.  He isn’t particularly effective in short-yardage situations either.  Due to his upright running style and carelessness with the football, I think he could be prone to fumbles at the next level.

A major reason I think the ‘Boys had Murray rated so highly is that he has value as a returner.  The Cowboys don’t want Dez Bryant on returns again and it’s unclear what Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Bryan McCann can do, so Murray’s return ability could be useful as soon as 2011.

You can also bet that Marion Barber is finished in Dallas, which is a nice feeling.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys LB Bruce Carter Scouting Report

Jonathan Bales

In my post on my initial reactions to the Bruce Carter selection, I noted that if the Cowboys envision Carter as an edge-rusher, I think they could have found value at a position of greater need.  One of the reasons for that is my high opinion concerning the Cowboys’ current outside linebacker corps.  I graded the position as the Cowboys’ second-strongest and gave the following grades to DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Victor Butler:

1. DeMarcus Ware: A (94.0)

  • 2009 Grade: A (94.0)

2.  Victor Butler: B+ (89.8)

  • 2009 Grade: C (76.0)

3.  Anthony Spencer: B (84.6)

  • 2009 Grade: A- (92.0)

The idea that Spencer had a “horrible” year is absurd.  He played average but most of the media criticized him because of incredibly high expectations.  He still had 11 more tackles than Ware.

Butler is one of my favorite players on the team and I think he has potential to be a very, very solid all-around outside linebacker.  His run defense improved immensely, and his rush off the edge is elite at times.  Butler actually recorded a quarterback pressure on 11.8 percent of rushes last season–greater than Ware’s 11.0 percent.  And no, that wasn’t because Butler played on only passing downs since his 39.5 percent of snaps against the run was highest of any outside linebacker.

I explained why people should hold off on thinking Carter will stay at outside linebacker in Dallas, and all of the above pushes me to believe the Cowboys envision Carter as an inside linebacker with pass-rush versatility.  I can’t say that makes me agree with the pick, but it certainly softens the blow.  I would have been fine with Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson, whose skill set is similar to that of Carter.  The ‘Boys simply had Carter rated where I had Wilson.

After watching as much readily-available film of Carter as possible, here is my more in-depth scouting report. . .

Scouting Report

At just 241 pounds, Carter will have to put on some weight if he is truly set to be an outside linebacker in Dallas.  More likely is that he will stay at inside linebacker for awhile, with Rob Ryan finding creative ways to utilize Carter’s skill set.  Against the run, Carter takes very good angles.  He uses “inside-out” leverage, using the sideline as help when possible.  He will sometimes use the ”wrong” shoulder to take on blockers, allowing the ball-carrier to find a cut-back lane.  His overall play recognition is solid, though, and he seems to diagnose screens particularly well.

Others argue that Carter is weak in coverage, but I think he will be fine.  He kind of reminds me of Bradie James in pass coverage in that he does not always seem totally natural, but he uses his skills well to get the job done.  He has lots of experience in zone coverage in particular.  In my opinion, the Tar Heels really utilized Carter poorly, dropping him into coverage far too often and not developing his pass rush.  This has led to a very weak pass-rush repertoire.  He has some upside as a rusher or blitzer from the inside position, but he is raw.

Carter seems a bit robotic and stiff-hipped at times, despite his incredible athleticism.  Whereas a player like Sean Lee last season lacked some athleticism but played “instinctually,” I am afraid Carter is the opposite.  I need to watch more tape, but he sometimes appears to be thinking too much or sticking to exactly his assignment instead of reading, reacting, and making a football play.

The major issue I have with the selection of Carter is that he is unlikely to make a major contribution right away.  He won’t start at either linebacker spot, so he will be relegated primary to special teams duty in his rookie season.  Carter did block six kicks at UNC, so he has some value there.  Still, special teams ability isn’t really on the top of my priority list in the second round.

Overall, Carter is a good kid and a hard worker who should improve in Dallas.  If you are less than thrilled with this selection and need positive spin, remember that Carter has very good athleticism, tremendous upside, and potential versatility.  Or, just look at the 22-second mark against LSU.

By Jonathan Bales

DCT’s Exclusive Interview with Troy WR Jerrel Jernigan

While the Cowboys are pretty set at receiver in 2011, they could surely benefit from acquiring a talented slot receiver for the future.  Roy Williams, Miles Austin, and Dez Bryant are all suited to play outside, and when defenses take away Jason Witten over the middle, the ‘Boys are frequently left without a reliable Wes Welker-esque target on 3rd and short to medium.

With so much money tied up in the receivers already, however, the Cowboys won’t place a high priority on securing another playmaker at the position during the draft.  That makes Troy’s Jerrell Jernigan, whose recent 4.32 40-yard dash at his Pro Day figures to vault him into the second or third-round, a somewhat unlikely prospect for Dallas.

Crazy things can happen come draft day, however, and if for some reason Jernigan would slide, his quickness over the middle and ability to convert third-downs could make him an option for the ‘Boys.  If the team places an emphasis on securing a top-notch return man, Jernigan’s value could soar for Dallas.

DCT correspondent Justin Shoemaker recently spoke with Jerrel about his draft prep and NFL idols, among other things.

Q: How is your draft prep going?  What have you been doing since the Combine?

A: It’s going well.  I recently took a brief break for spring break, and it was much-needed.  I have been training and doing some private workouts, including with Atlanta.  I also have a workout scheduled with Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and New England.

I also just signed a deal with Adidas, so I’ve had photo shoots and other things like that.  It’s very hectic, but I’m enjoying it.

Q:  What sort of things did you do for Atlanta?

A: They had me catch balls from the Jugs machine and do some other punt return drills.

Q:  Were you satisfied with your Combine performance? Is it a relief now that it’s all over?

A: I was happy with my broad jump and vertical.  I also didn’t drop any balls in the receiver drills and I ran the deep routes well.  I got a lot of compliments on the deep catches, which is important for me.

Q:  Were you able to sleep the night before your on-field tests?  How nerve-racking was the experience?

A: I was nervous, but I had a lot of former teammates call to relax me.  The entire Combine was very business-like.  They break up your schedule and try to throw you off from your normal workouts.  One day he had to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to go weigh in.

Q:  What were your Combine interviews like? What was the strangest question you were asked?

A: I’ve heard of a lot of strange questions, but for me they were pretty basic.  I thought I prepared well and did a nice job with the interviews.  Nothing was too crazy or off the wall.

Q:  Were you happy with your 4.32 40-yard dash at your Pro Day?

A: Yes, I was very happy and excited about that.  I thought it represented my true speed.

Q:  Do you know where you’ll be watching the draft?

A: In my hometown–probably at my Grandma’s house.

Q:  How would you feel about being a Cowboy?  Have they contacted you at all?

A: I would love to be a Cowboy since they have a great Troy player already in DeMarcus Ware.

Q:  Do you have a good relationship with DeMarcus?

A: Yes, sir.  DeMarcus has visited Troy several times and we’ve talked a lot and become friends.

Q:  Which NFL team did you root for while growing up in Alabama?

A: Atlanta was the closest, so I grew up a Falcons fan.

Q: Who were some of your favorite NFL players as a kid?

A: Michael Vick, L.T., Randy Moss, and Peyton Manning.   Michael Vick was always number one, though, because of what he brings to football.  I’m still a Michael Vick fan now, even with him in Philly.

Q:  In addition to Troy, who else recruited you out of high school?

A: Well, my top two choices were Troy and Auburn.

Q:  What made you choose the smaller school?

A: Auburn was really high on me from the beginning, but they backed off just a little at the last minute.  Troy was really interested the entire time, and it just felt right, so I chose Troy.  I’m happy with that decision.

Q:  What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t playing football?  What was your major?

A: I majored in Criminal Justice. If I wasn’t playing football, I think I would be in a juvenile detention center working with kids, most likely.

Q:  Do you pay attention to the hundreds of mock drafts on the internet or draft analysis on ESPN or the NFL Network?

A: I try to not pay too much attention because it can drive you crazy, but it’s always on.  Even if I turn off the TV and go online, I can’t get away from people talking to me about the draft on Facebook and Twitter.

In most mock drafts, I see myself in the middle or late part of the second-round.  I’d be happy with that, but you never know.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys, NFL News and Notes: The Future of Akwasi Owusu-Ansah

Cowboys News

  • ESPN recently took a look at the future of Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.  As many of you know, I love this kid.  I had the opportunity to see him play live twice, and I think he possesses the ball-hawk mentality the Cowboys need in their secondary.  I think it might be a stretch to expect him to compete for a starting job this year, but I think he’ll eventually be a solid starting free safety in the NFL.  At worst, he should be the Cowboys’ return man in 2011.  Here was my initial scouting report on AOA.
  • Scout.com is claiming Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo is raising his draft stock with a strong Senior Bowl performance, while Colorado tackle Nate Solder is doing just the opposite.  Yesterday, I posted a scouting report on Solder and why I think he’s a third-round talent at best.

Around the League with Vince Grey

  • I think there are two legitimate schools of thought on the Jay Cutler controversy, but I’ll say that I have to agree with those who question his decision.  If I’m Cutler, doctors orders or not, the Bears are going to have to physically restrain me from going back in this game.  If I can walk, I’ll play quarterback.  Period.  It’s going to take some winning to get past this one for Cutler.
  • The Jets live (last week against the Patriots, second half of the game on Sunday) and die (first half on Sunday) on emotional play.  They’re going to have to learn to moderate that emotion a bit in order to win multiple playoff games against top competition.  That, or win enough regular season games to get a bye.  This Jets team reminds me so much of the Eagles of the Buddy Ryan era.  Dominate for awhile, then terrible.  There’s just one major difference: Instead of streaky “me, me, me” quarterback Randall Cunningham, I really think they have a winner in Sanchez.  That might be enough next season, but they really need a pass-rusher.
  • I have to give the Steelers credit where it’s due, but color me a huge Packers fan for this Super Bowl.  Other than the 49ers (forever and always tops on the must-despise list) and Eagles (naturally), there’s no team I dislike more than Pittsburgh.
  • There’s so much about the media to dislike these days.  My main pet peeve at the moment is their “group think” mentality and a habit of taking a talking point and beating it to death.  Case No. 1:  Now, suddenly, Tom Brady is “overrated.”  Why?  Because he had the audacity to lose a few playoff games in a row.  Even CHFF has started in.  Brady’s now the guy who “barely” won three Super Bowls and didn’t have the best quarterback rating in those games, winning mainly because of his defense.  Excuse me?  Isn’t that the exact thing Big Ben’s getting praised for today?  Winning, despite bad stats, on a team with a strong defense? And how many quarterbacks won Super Bowls without a strong defense, or, at least, a defense playing great at that time?  Get out of here with that nonsense.  Tom Brady is a GREAT quarterback and one who’s usually clutch.  He’s just not perfect.  Hey, even Joe Montana lost playoff games.  Badly.  Troy Aikman was all but unbeatable for a long time, but he lost a few at the end, and played poorly in those losses.
  • And how about Peyton Manning?  Poor guy, he’s lost more playoff games than he’s won.  He only has one Super Bowl championship.  What a loser!  Did anyone else, besides me, consider this: how many games each year would the Colts have won without Manning?  I seriously doubt any of those Indy teams would have finished above .500 and more likely well under .500. Rather than blast the guy for losing so many playoff games, I stand in awe that he carried the Colts to those playoffs and won many of them.

By Jonathan Bales

The Blonde Side Interviews (Martellus Bennett, Kevin Smith) and ‘Behind the Scenes’ Footage

Check out the videos below of Amber Leigh’s interviews with Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett and former Dallas cornerback Kevin Smith, along with some “behind the scenes” footage of one of Amber Leigh’s photo shoots for “The Blonde Side 2011 Calendar.”

You can buy Amber Leigh’s calendar at www.TheBlondeSideStore.com.  Don’t forget the person who purchases the most by the end of 2010 wins a date with Amber Leigh.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings Week 6 Game Day Manifesto

Jonathan Bales

I’m not one to erroneously label a game as a “must win” unless, mathematically, a team actually must win it to stay alive.

Mathematically, this game is not a “must win” for Dallas.  Emotionally, however, it might be just that.  Can this team truly come back from a 1-4 start to make the playoffs (and not just make the post-season, but win there)?  Of course it’s possible, but realistically, this week’s game in Minnesota is about as close to “must win” as it gets in Week Six.

The Vikings are in a similar position and have the advantage of playing at home.  Can Dallas, who got blown out in Minnesota last year, exceed the Vikings’ intensity and execution?

What to Watch

How will the Cowboys defend Randy Moss?

The big question here is which player the Cowboys’ defense will prioritize: Moss or Adrian Peterson.  Dallas could find themselves in quite a predicament because if they play a safe zone to limit Moss, A.P. could potentially run all over them.  Meanwhile, if they bring an extra defender or two into the box in an attempt to halt Peterson, they risk yielding the quick score to Moss.  This will be the key to the game.

Can the Cowboys’ offensive line hold up against a defensive line that demolished them in the playoffs a year ago?

The Vikings don’t blitz often, and their ability to put pressure on the quarterback with just four rushers is what makes their defense so difficult to attack.  It is actually a poor match-up for Dallas, as Tony Romo thrives against the blitz.  The Vikings will probably drop seven men into coverage on most plays.  They’ll also be likely to fake blitzes, as the Redskins, Bears, and Titans have all found success when confusing Romo pre-snap.

Will Dallas strive for offensive balance against a Minnesota defense that is stout against the run?

I really hope Jason Garrett doesn’t give into the demands of a impatient fan base that is growing restless.  Everybody and their brother wants Garrett to run the ball more.  Well, everyone except me.  The Cowboys need to run the ball efficiently to set up what they do best: throw the football and create big plays in the passing game.

People seek offensive balance and note the correlation between rushing yards and winning percentage, not realizing that a large chunk of rushing yards are acquired only after the winning team has gained a lead.

A perfect example is the Cowboys-Texans game, when the Cowboys came out throwing (and running efficiently), even passing on 21 of 28 plays in the middle of the game.  They ran the ball at the end of the contest only because they had a large lead, and the old-school rushing proponents came out of the woodwork to let us know what “really” wins games.

Well, what really wins games, folks, is effectively passing the football, and rushing the ball only matters insofar as it is able to set up the pass.  ”Offensive balance” is an ex post facto misnomer.

Will the Cowboys use last year’s playoff loss as motivation to play well?

Let’s sure hope so.  If the ‘Boys can’t find motivation to play well during this game, there is simply no hope for them.  They are 1-3 and if they lose this week, the season is all but over.  They’re travelling to play a team that, with a 27-3 lead and two minutes left in last year’s playoff game, chose to throw the football on fourth and short.

Go to the 4:00 mark below for a reminder of how classless this Vikings team can be.

Can the ‘Boys, who have looked rather undisciplined through the first quarter of the season, limit their penalties and turnovers?

It’s no secret that the Cowboys are 1-3 not because of a lack of talent, but rather undisciplined play.  Under Wade Phillips, this team has committed the second-most penalties in the NFL.  I know Phillips can only control the players to an extent, but the fact that this trend hasn’t “regressed to the norm” yet makes me believe what we are witnessing, at least under Phillips, already is the norm.

I’m also convinced that Phillips’ defensive scheme, while successful, is one that is not suited to create a lot of turnovers.  It creates an aggressive style of play from the front seven with generally “safe” coverage behind the rushers.  If DeMarcus Ware & Co. can’t force a fumble, it is difficult for the secondary to reel in interceptions when they are so conscious of limiting big plays.

Surely the Cowboys could find more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball as well, and I’m not saying Phillips’ scheme is the “wrong” one, but until the Cowboys create more turnovers, they won’t be a playoff-type squad.

Can Orlando Scandrick hold up in the slot against Percy Harvin?

The Cowboys’ decision to prioritize Moss or Peterson may be the key to the game, but Harvin is the X-Factor.  In my opinion, he stands to benefit most from Moss’ arrival in Minnesota, and you may have seen that with his two touchdowns on Monday night.

Scandrick has struggled this year.  I gave him a “D+” in my Quarter-Season Player Grades–the lowest grade for any player.  He’s going to have to have his best game of the season to contain Harvin.  Whether the Cowboys shadow Moss or put extra defenders in the box to stop Peterson, Scandrick is going to be in a lot of man coverage.

DOs and DON’Ts

DO focus on stopping Adrian Peterson first, and Randy Moss second.

There are a few reasons the Cowboys need to focus on All Day before Moss.  First, Moss still doesn’t know the entire offense.  He was lost last week in the Vikings’ two-minute drill, saying that he was told “when in doubt, just run a go.”  Even with another week in the offense, Moss won’t be 100 percent comfortable with the playbook.

Second, the success of Peterson would eventually create big plays for Moss.  There are ways to defend Peterson without bringing 10 guys near the line of scrimmage, but if the Cowboys can’t stop A.P. with seven or eight players down, they are going to have big trouble defending Moss.

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.

DON’T blitz often.

It will be imperative for the Cowboys to get pressure on Favre with just four rushers.  The old guy can become uncomfortable if he gets hit early, but the ‘Boys can’t risk sending six guys and having Peterson squirt through into the open field or Moss beat them deep for a quick score.

Plus, the Cowboys’ blitzes are way, way too obvious.

DO run draws and counters at Jared Allen and Ray Edwards in an attempt to stay away from the “Williams Wall.”

The Vikings’ pass rush is incredible, particularly on the outside of their defensive line.  Allen and Edwards get a ton of pressure on the quarterback despite the fact that the Vikings rarely blitz.

Some of their success comes because they are very eager to rush upfield, however.  Thus, the Cowboys’ famous draw play could be of use this week, as a pass look could cause Allen and Edwards to get upfield and Jones/Barber/Choice can run right to the vacancy.

The Cowboys have run only 17 draws all year for 80 yards (4.7 yards-per-carry).  That’s about half of the 2009 draw rate, which is a good thing.  I talked previously about how decreasing the frequency of draw plays can increase their efficiency (and despite a lack of overall success on the ground this year, the yards-per-carry on draw plays is up).

Plus, running outside (with counters, powers, and some draws) will allow the Cowboys to stay away from Pat and Kevin Williams–the league’s top run-stuffing defensive tackle duo (by far).

Finally, the Cowboys should attempt to run away from cornerback Antoine Winfield.  He’s one of the league’s top cornerbacks in terms of run defense, and if all things are equal, running to the opposite side of the field would be prudent.

DON’T run many tosses.

This is related to the above “DO.”  With the Minnesota defensive ends rushing upfield, tosses will not work.  Why lead the running back directly into the path of an angry Jared Allen?

DON’T listen to outside concerns about offensive balance–throw the ball early to set up the run late.

Like I said above, the Cowboys don’t need to be concerned with running the ball frequently, they need to be concerned about running it efficiently.  The running game can set up the pass, but the opposite is just as true.  If the offensive line can provide proper protection for Romo to find some early success through the air, the ‘Boys should find it easier to run the football.  That, in turn, can set up even bigger plays in the pass game later.

DO take advantage of Vikings blitzes.

When the Vikings do blitz, Dallas needs to be prepared.  Minnesota often finds success with their blitz packages because they catch offenses off-guard.  Staying disciplined, as we have seen, is not a strong point for Dallas.

Further, the Vikings love to run twists in place of blitzes.  Unfortunately, the Cowboys have struggled mightily against stunts and twists this year.  Intelligent, disciplined football is a must this week.

DON’T use three-receiver sets as often this week.

I generally support the idea of three-receiver sets, but this week I think Dallas should use a lot of two-tight end looks.  While it is true that Minnesota is weak in the secondary, their nickel cornerback (Lito Sheppard) is nearly as talented as starters Antoine Winfield and Asher Allen.  The Cowboys can find success in the passing game without implementing three-receiver sets.

Martellus Bennett and Jason Witten should be able to take advantage of whoever the Vikings place on them: whether it is linebackers Chad Greenway or Ben Leber, or safety Eric Frampton.

Plus, Bennett offers additional pass protection.  There’s a reason Bennett received one of my highest grades for the first four games.

DO get Keith Brooking off of the field in nickel situations.

I love Brooking, but he’s been horrid against the pass this season.  He struggles to make plays out in space against more athletic tight ends and running backs.

I liked what I saw out of safety Danny McCray last week, and I think he should receive the majority of the nickel linebacker reps.

DON’T call an excessive amount of audibles, unless they are “Kill” calls.

We all saw last year how deafening it can be inside the Vikings’ dome.  True audibles in which Romo calls an entirely new play at the line of scrimmage will be nearly impossible, particularly due to how long the Cowboys take in the huddle.

Instead, all checks will need to be “Kill” calls (which they generally are anyway).  A “Kill” call is made by Romo at the line of scrimmage with one simple motion and notifies the rest of the offense to disregard the first play called in the huddle and to run the second one.

DON’T play so robotically on defense.

I just responded to a reader’s comment with this short note:

I’m not sure what is going on with Phillips either. I am generally a big proponent of maintaining composure and playing smart football (and I think the offense always needs to do that), but I think it would be smart for the defense to come out with an ultra-aggressive “in-your-face” attitude this week. It might just be me, but it seems as though they are playing robotically. Football is a cerebral game, but the studying and calculated behavior needs to be completed during the week so that football players can go out and just play football. They need to regain that fire and just fly around and have a good time.

DO get the ball to Felix Jones–but not at the expense of Tashard Choice.

I’m not sure how many of you noticed, but Choice played all of one snap last week.  That one play was a “Power I” look with all three running backs on the field together.  While the Wildcat might not be a good idea this week against Minnesota’s run defense, Felix Jones’ extra snaps (which are imperative) should come at the expense of Marion Barber, not Choice.

I suggest the Cowboys use Choice as their short-yardage  and “change-of-pace” back.  He’s quick enough to evade the first defender, while Barber’s days of explosive, powerful runs seem to be all but over.  Barber does well in pass protection and as a receiver, so leaving him as a third down/late-game running back would be best.


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