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Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions Week 11 Initial Post-Game Notes, Observations

Jonathan Bales

These post-game reviews are always so much more fun after the ‘Boys win.  Although they came out of the gate slowly today, Dallas was able to secure enough big plays in the second half to allow fans to breathe easy late in the fourth quarter.  Here are some points of interest I wrote during the contest:

  • It may be getting old, but I don’t understand why Marion Barber is still starting.  Jason Garrett dismissed talk of Barber breaking the team’s new dress code last week, but his absence from the starting lineup then and presence now leads me to believe the former was punishment and not a shakeup of the lineup.
  • I counted three or four times when the Cowboys ran weak side out of ‘Double Tight I’ (below).  As I’ve mentioned before, they tend to do this after motioning Jason Witten across the formation (they start in ‘Double Tight Left/Right I’).  Witten’s motion is probably a decoy because they run to the spot he just vacated.  This run would clearly work best when the Cowboys are anticipating man coverage (as the linebacker/safety assigned to Witten would likely follow him).

  • On the first drive, the Cowboys ran a playaction pass on 2nd and Goal from the one-yard line.  I really didn’t like the call, as running the ball from that position on the field is generally better than passing (see chart below).  After the play was unsuccessful, Jon Kitna checked into a fade to Dez Bryant on 3rd and Goal for a touchdown.  I generally loathe fades by the goal line, but Bryant’s ball skills are forcing me to alter my views a bit.  I’ll have to do a study on the effectiveness of such play-calls.

Courtesy of AdvancedNFLStats.com

  • If I was the coach (which probably only has, like, a five percent chance of happening), David Buehler would be cut.  With his game-changing kick power gone, are we really supposed to believe there isn’t a free agent kicker who couldn’t be as effective as him?
  • Orlando Scandrick is playing really well of late, and the difference in his game is confidence.  It is the top trait a cornerback must possess and his body language alone is a strong indicator that he’s regained his swagger.
  • I loved the Cowboys’ defensive looks in the first half.  They gave the Lions a lot of exotic looks, including a bunch of fake blitzes, which never happened under Wade Phillips.  They also blitzed the “unexpected” guys like Scandrick.  When they do that, good things tends to happen.  Blitzing a nickel cornerback isn’t inherently optimum, of course, but it works because offenses really don’t prepare their protections for it.
  • Jason Hatcher had perhaps his best game as a Cowboy.  He recorded a sack, but more than that his energy and disruption allowed some other guys to make plays.  This was what I was expecting when I made a prognosis about Hatcher in my 2010 Dallas Cowboys bold predictions.
  • You probably noticed that the Cowboys used Anthony Spencer much more often in a traditional 4-3 linebacker spot (as opposed to the usual 3-4 edge position for an outside linebacker).  Spencer (and even Ware a couple times) lined up over the center quite a bit.  You can bet the offense notices this and likely doesn’t prepare much for it during the week.  How would you like to be a center and look up to see Jay Ratliff and Spencer lined up over you?  This unique defensive alignment is something we didn’t see much under Phillips.
  • Late in the first quarter, Spencer sacked Shaun Hill and the Lions were called for holding.  The Cowboys accepted the penalty instead of taking the sack, which looked to be about a five-yard loss.  I have no idea what Garrett was thinking.
  • Any fans still want to talk smack on Kitna?  We can all thank Brad Johnson’s presence a few years ago for Kitna’s now, as the Cowboys put a priority on securing a high-quality backup after witnessing Johnson’s play.
  • Wow, the Cowboys are lucky to still have Bryan McCann.  He followed up his 101-yard pick-six last week with a 98-yard punt return touchdown this week.  I know you’ve all seen the play, and I was most impressed with McCann’s intelligence on it.  The rookie knew that after a Lion touched the ball, nothing bad could happen.  I mean that literally, as even if he fumbled the ball and lost it, the ‘Boys would still retain possession at the spot at which it was initially touched by Detroit.  The kid simply looks like a playmaker. . .but what’s with getting tackled by the kicker in the open-field?
  • I love Bryant’s effort after making catches, but there are times when he simply needs to go down.  The upside of his run-after-catch ability is limited when there are three guys surrounding him.  Once he’s wrapped up and there are other defenders around, he should end the play.  It isn’t giving up–it is playing intelligently.  He could risk injury, a fumble, or lose forward progress (which has already happened a handful of times).  Again, love the effort and attitude, as long as it is implemented in an intelligent manner.
  • The Cowboys weren’t faced with any crucial 4th down plays, but the Lions were, and they did Dallas a favor.  With a 4th and 1 in Cowboys territory, Detroit punted.  I’m not sure of their exact position, but no matter where it was, the decision was a poor one (for Detroit).  See the chart below.

  • I don’t have specific evidence of this, but it seems like Kitna uses a hard count more often than Romo.  He drew the Lions offsides a couple of times today in pretty crucial situations.
  • Felix Jones’ fumble just before halftime was a killer.  That cannot happen in that situation, as the upside of the drive is very limited inside your own 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining.  It’s a shame it took that and an injury to Jones for Tashard Choice to receive snaps.  I thought Choice displayed good vision, quickness, and balance when he did get in.
  • At this point, Marc Colombo is a huge detriment to the Cowboys.  He must be one of the league’s worst starting offensive tackles.  He’s slow-footed, horrible in pass protection, and not particularly devastating in the run game.  Dallas will need to move on from him in 2011.
  • Sean Lee played pretty well today.  He took nice angles to the ball, using “inside-out” leverage in the open-field to not allow runners to cut back.  He also forced a big fumble in the third quarter.
  • Despite his late interception, Terence Newman had his worst game of the season.  He displayed poor hips on a bunch of plays and once again missed a potential interception just before halftime (which ended up being a touchdown to Nate Burleson).  He even took poor angles and didn’t break down when trying to tackle.
  • The Cowboys gave up a sack on a play in which Barber lined up at fullback, Bryant motioned to tailback, and they faked the ball to both players (a dive to Barer and a toss to Bryant).  I loved the play-call, even though it didn’t work.  The ‘Boys have handed the ball to Barber basically every play he’s lined up at fullback this season, so I think they can come back to the look at a later time.  They used a similar play last year against the Giants and it went for a touchdown.
  • Keith Brooking really isn’t a starting-quality linebacker anymore.  He’s been awful all season in coverage.  It’s Sean Lee time, in my opinion.
  • We saw the Ratliff of old today.  He was incredibly disruptive, utilizing his quickness to terrorize the Lions’ interior linemen.  Perhaps some of his success came from Spencer’s presence behind him on a plethora of snaps.
  • What are the chances of Kitna running for a 29-yard touchdown?  10,000 to 1?  That was awesome.

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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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