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This week’s contest against the Detroit Lions is one marked by poor matchups for Dallas. The Cowboys really don’t have anyone who can stop Calvin Johnson, so they will need to throw a variety of defenders and looks at him to at least limit his production. The Lions also have a talented young tight end who could give the Cowboys problems over the middle of the field, as well as a shifty running back. The Lions’ secondary is weak, but the ‘Boys are running low on healthy receivers. Running up the middle may not be much of an option this week, and Detroit’s linebackers are solid in coverage.
DO double-team Calvin Johnson on nearly every play.
This will be easier said than done. Neither Terence Newman nor Mike Jenkins can cover Johnson alone, so this will have to be a team effort. You might see a lot of zone blitzes from Dallas on Sunday, as that will be a way to send some pressure without exposing the secondary. That should allow the Cowboys to keep Gerald Sensabaugh deep over Johnson, with either Newman or Jenkins underneath. Look for Anthony Spencer in coverage–if that happens, a zone blitz was probably just called.
In passing situations, I would place Newman in the slot whenever Johnson lines up there. He has experience as a nickel cornerback, and there is no way Alan Ball or any other non-starter can cover Megatron.
DO play a lot of zone coverage and force Detroit to run.
Against teams that have a dominant receiver and a good running game, I like to play a lot of Cover 1. This allows the defense to put eight men in the box, effectively double-team the top wide receiver, and force an offense to throw the ball to their second and third options. This week, however, you might see far more Cover 2 than you normally do from Dallas. This will put a safety much closer to Calvin Johnson (Cover 1 simply means the free safety has no responsibility). Plus, I think Dallas should try to force the Lions to run the ball on them.
DON’T run up the middle.
Rookie Nick Fairley doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to go, but Ndamukong Suh is healthy. He is far and away the most terrifying player for Dallas, and one they will need to double-team often. Phil Costa and Bill Nagy are going to have a tough time.
DO test the Lions’ secondary with a lot of three-wide receiver sets.
In last year’s game in Detroit, the Cowboys lined up with three or more receivers just 14 times all game. A lot of that had to do with Jon Kitna starting at quarterback, but the Lions’ cornerbacks need to be tested. Even with Miles Austin out and Dez Bryant questionable, Dallas will still be wise to get nickel and dime cornerbacks Alphonso Smith and Brandon McDonald on the field.
DO run a lot of Gun 3 Wide Pro.
When Jason Witten is lined up in a traditional tight end spot, he almost always heads out into a route in passing plays. In “Gun 3 Wide Pro,” however, Witten almost always stays in to block. This formation will allow the Cowboys to have two safety valves against Suh’s pass rush, which is just as dominant as his run defense. The necessity of Witten in pass protection is another reason the Cowboys might need to lean on their inexperienced receivers more this week. Gun 3 Wide Pro will force the Lions to put nickel personnel on the field, but also gives them ample pass protection ability.
DO also throw out of double-tight sets, and use playaction passes from those looks.
Throwing from run-oriented personnel packages and formations is optimal because the defense will usually have its base defense on the field (and thus be less capable of defending the pass). Thus, even if the Cowboys aren’t in three-receiver sets, they should still air out the football, particularly on first down. Playaction passes out of run-heavy looks are particularly efficient. Last season, Dallas tested Detroit on eight playaction passes, five of which were thrown 10+ yards down the field.
DON’T expect a ton of blitzes from Detroit.
Last season, the Lions blitzed Dallas just 12 times all game. Perhaps the presence of Romo will change their strategy, but I think they will want to sit back and try to force Dallas to become a run-first team. Romo needs to be most watchful of disguised blitzes, as the Lions showed only three of their 12 blitzes in 2010. When defenses show blitz and retreat or line up in a conventional look and then send pressure, Romo is a far less effective quarterback.
DO run a lot of left-handed formations.
Who would have thought that the Cowboys would need to provide aid to Doug Free over Tyron Smith by Week 4 of this season? That is exactly what needs to happen, though, as Free has been pretty poor this season, and certainly worse than Smith. Whether he is injured or not we don’t know. Either way, look for the Cowboys to run a lot of “left-handed” formations with a tight end right next to Free. In double-tight sets, look for that tight end to be Martellus Bennett.
Week 3 Game Pick Results
Last week, I went 12-4 on straight up picks, 10-5-1 against the spread, 11-5 on totals, and 8-4 on best bets. That brings my season totals to 34-14 on straight up picks, 24-21-3 against the spread, 25-22-1 on totals, and 13-12-1 on best bets.
Week 4 Game Picks
@Dallas 23 (-2.5) Detroit 20 (UNDER 46)
New Orleans 24 @Jacksonville 20 (+7) (UNDER 45)
@Philadelphia 28 San Fran 20 (+9.5) (OVER 44)
Washington 24 @St. Louis 23 (+3) (OVER 44)
Tennessee 17 (-0.5) @Cleveland 16*** (UNDER 39)
Buffalo 20 @Cincinnati 17 (+3.5) (UNDER 43.5)
Minnesota 17 @Kansas City 16 (+3.5) (UNDER 40)
@Chicago 27 (-6) Carolina 17*** (OVER 43)
@Houston 27 (-3) Pittsburgh 20 (OVER 45)
Atlanta 23 @Seattle 20 (+4.5) (OVER 38)
New York Giants 28 (-1) @Arizona 17 (OVER 44)
@San Diego 31 (-7) Miami 17 (OVER 44.5)
@Green Bay 31 (-12) Denver 17 (OVER 46)
New England 27 (-5) @Oakland 20 (UNDER 55)***
@Baltimore 23 (-3) New York Jets 17 (UNDER 43.5)***
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.