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Cowboys vs. Rams, Preseason Week 3: Game Plan for Dallas

Over at Dallas Morning News, I just posted my first “DOs and DON’Ts” feature for the Cowboys’ Week 3 preseason tilt with the Rams. Here’s a preview:

DO run a lot of double-tight sets.

Through two preseason games, the Cowboys’ first-team offense has run just six double-tight end sets, representing only 29.0 percent of their plays. It will be interesting to see if the loss of Martellus Bennett equates to fewer two-tight end formations during the regular season.

On Saturday night, however, I’d place both John Phillips and rookie James Hanna on the field at the same time on numerous occasions. I know those guys aren’t Jason Witten, but the Cowboys’ offensive tackles are going to have their hands full with perhaps the league’s most underrated defensive end duo. That tandem is led by Chris Long, who pressured the quarterback more often than any player in the NFL last year.

Plus, double-tight sets with max protection could allow the ‘Boys to take some shots downfield—something they should be doing more often anyway.

Check out all of my DOs and DON’Ts here. I’ll once again be doing these throughout the regular season.

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Week 5 Preview: Dallas Cowboys vs. Tennessee Titans Game Day Manifesto, Game Plan


Jonathan Bales

During the preseason, I formulated two separate articles called “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas” as game previews for the upcoming contests.  During the regular season, I will combine these two features into a single, more all-inclusive article known as a “Game Day Manifesto.”  You’ll be able to find the “Manifesto” category under the “GameDay” tab above.

This week’s Manifesto also contains my Game Plan for how Dallas can beat Tennessee this Sunday.

Now on to this week’s Manifesto. . .

What to Watch for Dallas vs. Tennessee

How will the Cowboys’ defense attack a rather one-dimensional Titans offense?

The Broncos did a fair job in exposing the lack of diversity of the Titans’ offense.  Chris Johnson and Vince Young combine to form the league’s top rushing attack, but that’s all they have.  Young is a sub-par pocket passer and receivers Nate Washington, Justin Gage, and Kenny Britt are, well, bad (relatively speaking, of course).

So how will the Cowboys attack Tennessee?  There’s really two schools of thought here.  They can sit back in safe coverages while still maintaining an aggressive, run-first attitude, or they can blitz early and often, knowing that it will be difficult for Young to beat them with his arm.  Let’s see what Coach Phillips has in store.

Will the Cowboys approach this game as if their backs are against the wall?

It’s quite obvious the Cowboys play their best when they believe they are the “underdog.”  Well, they are going to be favored to win this game.  It will be crucial that they remember they are still just 1-2 and a loss could be debilitating.  If their mindset is that of an underdog, they should be fine.

Will Kyle Kosier, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant all be ready to roll?

Kosier and Witten both sprained their MCLs last week, while Bryant is suffering from a multitude of ailments.  It looks as though all three will be ready to go for Dallas, though, which would give the team a big boost.

If only one of these players could play for Dallas, however, I would actually take Kosier.  Witten and Bryant are superior players, but there is more depth at both tight end and wide receiver than left guard.  The dropoff from Kosier to Holland is rather large, in my view.

Can DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer dominate what is perhaps the league’s top offensive tackle duo in Michael Roos and David Stewart?

Roos and Stewart are tremendous tackles and really the cornerstones of the Titans’ rushing offense.  It takes a dominant offensive line to run the ball effectively when the other team knows it is coming, and Tennessee has the ability to do just that.  Ware and Spencer will need to maintain a run-first mentality this week, which should be no problem.  If they can do that and force the Titans to throw the football, they should be able to eventually put some pressure on Young.

Will Dallas spy Vince Young?

The Cowboys may opt to designate a player (such as safety Gerald Sensabaugh, for example) as a “spy” on Young.  That player would simply shadow Young’s movements and make sure he doesn’t get far on the ground, allowing the defense to play man coverage without worrying about the cornerbacks running all the way downfield.

I personally don’t like using a spy.  It really limits the defense’s flexibility and many times the spy isn’t even as athletic as the player he’s trying to shadow.  Instead, the Cowboys would be better off playing sound, yet aggressive defense.

DOs and DON’Ts vs. Tennessee

DO blitz up the middle.

As I stated above, Roos and Stewart are two of the NFL’s best offensive tackles.  Tennessee is still strong in the middle of their offensive line, but there is definitely a dropoff.  The Cowboys may be able to exploit it by running some innovative blitz packages right at the Titans’ guards at center.  Plus, Ware and Spencer are usually capable of holding down the fort outside.

DON’T worry about anyone other than Chris Johnson and Vince Young (running).

The Cowboys’ defensive philosophy will be insanely simple: stop the Titans’ rushing game.  That’s it.  Of course, that’s easier said than done.  While I do think the Cowboys should blitz up the middle when they bring extra defenders, I also believe the team would benefit from limiting their blitzes in general.  They can still put extra defenders in the box to stop Johnson and Young, and playing a little more zone coverage than usual will make it easier for the defense to diagnose Young’s scrambles.

DO run quite a few playaction passes.

Tennessee’s run defense is stout–they’ve allowed just 92.0 yards-per-game despite playing run-oriented teams like the Steelers and Jets.  I’ve watched two of their games on film, and while their secondary is certainly talented, the mindset of the defense seems to be to stop the run first, particularly early in the game.

The Cowboys may be able to take advantage of that by running some playaction passes.  As always, early success on the ground will aid in effectively completing that task.

I also think the Cowboys should take some shots down the field following playaction looks.  Jason Garrett seems to be trying that more often this year, as 25 percent of the team’s 24 playaction passes have been thrown 15+ yards.

Want to know how radically different the Cowboys’ playaction approach is from last season?  Check out these numbers.  Through three games, Dallas has attempted one less pass of 20+ yards off of a playaction look as all of last season!

DON’T run the ball inside often–get it outside with tosses, counters, and powers.

The middle of the Titans’ defense is really talented.  Tony Brown and Jason Jones are really underrated defensive tackles, while Stephen Tulloch is a force against the run at linebacker.

The Cowboys have already shown they are going to run the ball outside far more often than in 2009, and they should maintain that strategy this week.  I would particularly like to see more counters, of which Dallas has run just FOUR all season.  Felix Jones alone averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry on a ridiculous 22 counters last season.  Check out my in-depth counter stats here.

DO disguise blitzes more effectively.

I love Coach Phillips as a defensive coordinator, but his blitzes are painfully obvious.  Teams such as the Packers employ innovative “Psycho” packages that implement just one linemen and a bunch talented edge rushers who move around chaotically pre-snap.  The defense works wonders in passing situations, as the offense has no idea who will be rushing.

I understand the Cowboys want to maintain their gap responsibilities, but I think situations such as 3rd and medium to long are times to get more creative.  Even showing blitz five or 10 times throughout a game can keep an offense off-balance.  It’s worked for the Cowboys’ opposition thus far, anyway.

DON’T attack Cortland Finnegan as much as Ryan Mouton and Alterraun Verner.

Finnegan is an All-Pro cornerback who is as stout against the run as he is versus the pass.  He has tremendous ball skills and an incredible ability to make things happen once the ball is in his hands.

The usual starter opposite Finnegan, rookie Jason McCourty, is out with a broken arm.  The Cowboys should use unique motions and shifts to make sure the receiver who is the first read on any particular play is covered by either Mouton or Verner (whoever starts) as much as possible.  Plus, whichever player doesn’t start will still be on the field for most of Dallas’ three-receiver sets.

DO run a lot of three-receiver sets until the Titans prove they can put heavy pressure on Tony Romo.

I’ve called for the Cowboys to use a lot of two-tight end sets the last few weeks to aid the offensive tackles in pass protection.  It has actually worked really well, particularly against Houston.

This week, however, the Cowboys don’t face a pass-rusher the caliber of Julius Peppers or Mario Williams.  Instead, they have Jason Babin and David Ball.  Until those two prove they can beat Doug Free and Marc Colombo, the Cowboys should line up in a lot of three-receiver looks to spread out the Tennessee defense.  It would also force the Titans to bring cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Ryan Mouton on the field.  Advantage Dallas.

DON’T overdo it on draw plays.

In the preseason, I called for Dallas to limit their draw plays.  I asked for them to bring it back in a big way in Houston, and they did (with much success).

This week, I think they should attack Tennessee with other types of runs.  The reason is that the Tennessee defense possesses both discipline and a run-first attitude.  They aren’t going to go flying into their pass drops the moment they see Romo drop back into a short pass set.

Game Plan

Throw the kitchen sink at Tennessee immediately.

The Cowboys have been notoriously slow starters on offense in recent years.  I just did a study on their early performance this season, and while they’ve improved coming out of halftime (as compared to ’09), the team could really benefit from putting up a few points early in ballgames.

To do that, the Cowboys should save nothing this week.  Whatever “money” plays Garrett has concocted for Tennessee should be called in the first few drives.  Early scores will force Tennessee to do what they don’t want to do: throw the football.

Keep running it to the weak side.

Less than one-in-five Cowboys running plays in 2009 was to the weak side of the formation.  This year, the Cowboys have nearly doubled that rate and they are still seeing more success on those runs.  I have drawn up what I consider a “perfect” run play for Dallas this week (below).

There are a few reasons I love this play (which the Cowboys certainly don’t label as I do). . .

  • It is a weak side run (see above).
  • There is a pre-snap motion opposite the play-side into TE Trips Left–an overloaded formation.
  • As I stated earlier, the Cowboys need to run more counters.  They’ve run only four all year despite a ton of success on them last season.  Expect about that many on Sunday alone.
  • The key block on this play would be right tackle Marc Colombo on Titans OLB Jamie Winborn.  Yes please.
  • Running out of “passing” formations tends to be quite effective.
  • And lastly, the Cowboys need to mix up their play-calling with certain personnel on the field.  More on that below. . .

Mix up personnel-based play-calling.

In a recent study on the Cowboys’ play-calling with certain personnel packages, I noted that Garrett has displayed a run/pass imbalance in a variety of personnel packages.  While we would expect the numbers to be skewed due to game situations (the Cowboys certainly won’t run much in 3rd and long or pass much in 3rd and short) and matchups (you usually want to bring Dez Bryant on the field to throw the football), the percentages could still be a bit more comparable.

Plus, game theory dictates the Cowboys should run more out of spread formations, and pass out of tight ones.  Remember, for everything the Cowboys do, the defense will counter.  That’s why versatile players, such as well-rounded tight ends, are so valuable.

By the way, Bob Sturm has a good bit about the Cowboys’ use of Felix Jones over at his blog.

Press the Titans’ wide receivers.

I think the Cowboys’ cornerbacks should press more often in general.  Against the Titans, I think the duo of Nate Washington and Justin Gage are too small (Washington) and slow (Gage) to get off of press coverage.  Note that Gage will be questionable with a hamstring injury, in which case Kenny Britt would get the start.

The Cowboys don’t press much in zone coverage, but I think this week is a good one to do so.  The primary reason is the next component of my Game Plan.

Don’t blitz too often, but try to zone blitz when possible.

I’ve already stated I think the Cowboys should blitz primarily up the middle against the Titans.  Not only can they take advantage of the weakest component of the Tennessee offensive line, but it will also get linebacker Keith Brooking out of coverage (where he has struggled).

Nonetheless, I don’t think Dallas should bring heat too often.  First, blitzing to the “wrong” side and missing Chris Johnson could spell disaster for the ‘Boys.  They need to do everything possible to limit the big play.  That play would almost certainly come from CJ2K.

Second, blitzes generally force defenses to play man coverage.  With a quarterback as mobile as Young, defenders with their back turned to the passer can be big trouble for a defense.

There is a way to blitz and still be in a fairly safe coverage: the zone blitz.  Here is an example of a zone blitz the Cowboys used against Houston.

Plus, if the Cowboys combine this idea with the previous one (pressing the Titans’ receivers), they could potentially confuse Young as to their coverage.

Be really creative with motions and shifts to create favorable matchups on offense.

The Titans’ defense is strong, but it isn’t without its weaknesses.  If the Cowboys can find ways to get Miles Austin on Alterraun Verner or Jason Witten on Jamie Winborn, they could do some damage.

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Cowboys at Texans Week Three Game Plan: How Dallas Can Beat Houston



Jonathan Bales

You guys know the backbone of DC Times is film study and stat analysis.  Consequently, I will be posting these weekly “Game Plan” segments which will include tidbits about how I believe the Cowboys can use the same film study and stat analysis which drives this site to win football games.

These will come later in the week after I’ve published the “Game Day Manifesto”–a combination of “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts” for the Cowboys.  Although still film-driven and stat heavy, I will try to refrain from too much game-planning in the Manifesto to prevent unnecessary overlap.  You can read this week’s Cowboys/Texans Manifesto here.

Let’s get to the game. . .

1. Continue to line up in double-tight end sets in passing situations.

I’ve said it a few times:

In obvious passing downs, though, it might actually be a good idea to go to a more run-oriented formation–double tights.  The reason is that backup tight end Martellus Bennett will be able to help block (insert Pro Bowl pass-rusher here).  No matter what you think about Bennett, he’s a tremendous blocker.

Why not use Jason Witten in pass protection?  Well, I’ve showed in the past that the 22.9 percent rate at which Witten stayed in to block on pass plays last season was already too much.  Dallas is a better team with him in a route (excluding perhaps 3rd and very long).

Plus, stats show the Cowboys should pass out of double-tight formations more in general.  Actually, the formation from which they had the most passing success last year was ‘Ace.’

Lining up in two-tight end sets will also allow the Cowboys to more effectively throw the ball downfield.  Tony Romo has attempted just 10 passes of 20+ yards all season.  With weapons like Miles Austin and Dez Bryant outside, why not take some shots down the field?

2.  Put Miles Austin in the slot a lot more.

The Redskins exposed a weakness in the Cowboys’ offensive line–an inability to effectively block “disguised” blitzes.  When the Cowboys are uncertain from where a blitz may come (including when teams stunt and twist), they have trouble providing ample protection for Romo.

You can bet the Texans are going to duplicate the game plans of Washington and Chicago.  Expect a lot of blitzes, and even a lot of feigned blitzes (showing blitz and backing out, or coming from another angle).

The best way for the ‘Boys to beat this is by “throwing hot”–immediately hitting the uncovered receiver.  Austin spent plenty of time in the slot during the preseason, but we haven’t seen it as much in the regular season.  That needs to return, because Austin is clearly the wide receiver with whom Romo has the most chemistry.  The Cowboys could hit on some big-time plays if they can effectively beat the Texans’ blitzes.

3.  Send overload blitzes to the left side of the Texans’ offensive line.

The Texans will be starting Rashad Butler (who?) at left tackle in place of the suspended Duane Brown.  This is by far their largest weakness on offense and the Cowboys need to exploit it.  I’d really love to see them disguise their blitzes/coverages better, particularly in an effort to take advantage of Butler.  The most effective way the Cowboys can limit the play of Andre Johnson probably starts with Butler–if they can take advantage of him and get to Matt Schaub, AJ can be (slightly) contained.  Remember, no matter how talented the wide receiver, he is still completely dependent on his offensive line and quarterback.

I still don’t think the Cowboys should blitz very often, but being creative with their blitzes when they do send them will be imperative.

4.  Don’t stuff the box unless it is absolutely critical.

Texans running back Arian Foster has been sensational thus far this season (I would know–he’s on most of my fantasy teams), but he’s probably not going to gash the Dallas defense for a huge run.  I’d much rather see the Cowboys keep their safeties deep in an effort to minimize the big-play options Houston possesses on the outside, simultaneously forcing Foster and the Houston offensive line to continually beat the them to move the ball.

5.  Use the playaction pass often, including bootlegs off of it. . .but be less predictable.

Last week, I thought the Cowboys should have all but abandoned the playaction pass.  Instead, they ran it 12 times for an unimpressive 80 yards.

This week, I’d love to see it quite often.  I think the Cowboys can take advantage of a Texans defense that can sometimes to over-aggressive.  Further, if they run playaction passes from run-oriented, double-tight end formations (see No. 1), the line should be able to provide enough time for the Cowboys receivers to beat a very underwhelming Houston secondary.

But stop running playaction passes in such predictable situations!  Jason Garrett loves to run playaction with exactly 10 yards-to-go (either on 1st and 10 or after an incomplete pass on first down).  On Sunday, 10 of the Cowboys’ 12 playaction passes were from this distance.  The trend dates back to last year.  Take a look at these numbers.

Finally, use some rollouts.  Two designed rollouts on the season (and zero last week) isn’t optimal.  Not only do bootlegs and other rollouts allow Romo to improvise a bit (which is when I believe he is at his best), but they can also be an effective tool against the blitz and a struggling offensive line.  If Romo simply drops back to the same spot on the field every pass, Mario Williams will be able to pin his ears back and just rush to that spot.

6.  Be flexible!

I think this is the sort of game in which the Cowboys need to be willing to deviate from their game plane to accommodate game-specific situations.  You could probably say Dallas needs to do a better job of that in every game, but this week it is especially true.

The reason has to do with match-ups.  It is obvious the ‘Boys need to run the ball more effectively, but Houston has been tremendous in run defense this year.  Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Amobi Okoye, Bernard Pollard and so on are all really good run defenders.  The Texans are susceptible to the pass, however, yielding over 400 yards-per-game thus far in 2010.

So what strategy is Dallas to employ?  Should they try to establish the run and set up the passing game off of that, or immediately take advantage of the Texans’ weakness in the secondary?  In my opinion, they should simply find out what is working and stick with it.  If they can run the ball early, then pound it and don’t look back.  If the passing game is on fire, then disregard any pre-game commitment to the run and just air it out.

Recognize the flow of the game, adjust accordingly, and bring home a win!


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Cowboys vs. Bears Week 2 Game Plan: How Dallas Can Beat Chicago


Jonathan Bales

You guys know the backbone of DC Times is film study and stat analysis.  Consequently, I will be posting these weekly “Game Plan” segments which will include tidbits about how I believe the Cowboys can use the same film study and stat analysis which drives this site to win football games.

These will come later in the week after I’ve published the “Game Day Manifesto”–a combination of “What to Watch” and “DOs and DON’Ts” for the Cowboys.  Although still film-driven and stat heavy, I will try to refrain from too much game-planning in the Manifesto to prevent unnecessary overlap.  You can read this week’s Cowboys/Bears Manifesto here.

Let’s get to the game. . .

1. Line up in double-tight end sets to pass

There’s a reason I’m listing this objective two weeks in a row–it’s important!  Last week I wrote:

In obvious passing downs, though, it might actually be a good idea to go to a more run-oriented formation–double tights.  The reason is that backup tight end Martellus Bennett will be able to help block Brian Orakpo.  No matter what you think about Bennett, he’s a tremendous blocker.

Why not use Jason Witten in pass protection?  Well, I’ve showed in the past that the 22.9 percent rate at which Witten stayed in to block on pass plays last season was already too much.  Dallas is a better team with him in a route (excluding perhaps 3rd and very long).

Plus, stats show the Cowboys should pass out of double-tight formations more in general.  Actually, the formation from which they had the most passing success last year was ‘Ace.’

Substitute Julius Peppers for Brian Orakpo, and the same holds true for Dallas (even more so).  It will be crucial that they do not allow Peppers to take over the game, and the combination of Doug Free/Bennett or Marc Colombo/Bennett will be the Cowboys’ best shot at containing Peppers.

2. Run outside (powers, counters) from spread formations

The goal is to neutralize Peppers by running right at him.  He’s going to rush upfield no matter the down and distance, so why not run right to the vacated area?  Powers and counters will work well, but tosses won’t.  Think about it. . .27 or 28 toss would send the running back right into Peppers’ path.

Power runs at Julius Peppers are fine. Tosses aren't.

There’s also another reason (or two) to not run inside often: defensive tackle Tommie Harris and linebacker Brian Urlacher.  They’re kind of good, I guess.

3.  Don’t blitz often, but disguise ’em when you bring ’em

Cutler is a strong-armed quarterback with serious talent, but he makes some of the worst decisions of any signal-caller in the NFL.  I think that will still be true even if the Cowboys don’t blitz him.

They key, as always, will be getting pressure with four or five rushers.  The Cowboys blitzed their inside linebackers too often last week and it left them susceptible to the big play.  Well, Cutler’s game is actually similar to Donovan McNabb’s.  Cutler has a stronger arm and is probably a better pure dropback quarterback, but he can also use his legs to make things happen.  He’s extremely athletic, meaning the Cowboys better not send a blitz and miss him.

The best way to do that (other than putting pressure on Cutler with as few rushers as possible) is to disguise blitzes.  The Redskins did a tremendous job of not allowing Tony Romo to  make pre-snap determinations about which defenders were rushing, and you saw how well it worked for them.  The ‘Boys would be wise to copy that approach more often.  You know the Bears are going to do it.

4.  Cover tight end Greg Olsen primarily with a linebacker (when not in nickel)

When in their base defense, the Cowboys should put a linebacker (either Bradie James or Keith Brooking) on Olsen.  It may be a slight mismatch, but let’s not forget that Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz has never been fond of utilizing the tight end.

Plus, leaving James or Brooking on Olsen is better than the alternative–one of them on Matt Forte.  Forte went off for 151 yards receiving last week and figures to be a big-time part of the Bears’ passing attack.  The Cowboys need to do everything possible to limit his production, and placing safety Gerald Sensabaugh on him is superior to an inside linebacker.

There’s a solid chance the Cowboys will be able to effectively halt the Bears’ rushing efficiency.  If that’s the case, they may want to think about playing a lot of nickel, even during early downs.  If they can still stop the run even with the smaller personnel, it would allow for better matchups on Olsen and Forte.

5. Get a press on Johnny Knox and Devin Hester at all times

This will be crucial for Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins, and Orlando Scandrick, whether they are in man-to-man or Cover 2.  Either way, the ‘Boys want to limit the potential for big plays from Chicago, and the best way to do that is to shut down their big play threats. Knox and Hester have game-breaking speed-don’t let them use it.

6.  After acquiring a manageable lead, run 3 Wide Right Liz 26 Power

In my final film observations from the Cowboys-Redskins game, I noticed the Cowboys ran this particular play on more than one occasion.  The Cowboys lined up in a “3 Wide Strong” look with Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett split out wide on the right side.  They motioned Bennett into a traditional tight end position to form the typical “Strong” formation, then running a strong-side power play.

It was one of the few “predictable plays” Garrett called on Sunday night, and I actually think he should do it again this Sunday. . .if Dallas can get a decent lead, that is.  That way, the play will continue to be put on film for future opponents.  When the time is right, the ‘Boys can come back to a playaction pass from the same formation and motion, hopefully for a big play.

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