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Cowboys vs. Saints Thanksgiving Day Initial Post-Game Observations

Jonathan Bales

I began to write this piece last night as I watched the Bengals-Jets game, but I simply couldn’t do it.  The wound was too fresh, so to speak, and it would have resulted in more of a rant than anything else.  I will try to begin reviewing the film today, but in all honesty, I doubt it will happen.  My goal is to have my final film observations posted by Monday.

  • Let’s start with the big one: Roy Williams’ fumble.  They say one play doesn’t decide a football game, but “they” are wrong.  Lots of single plays decide football games.  The more of those that exist in a loss, the tougher the pill to swallow.  There were a lot in this contest, but the fumble was clearly the biggest.  That play cannot happen.  It’s dumb football.  I know Williams didn’t see the defender charging in and he made a hell of a play to get that open in the first place, but at that point in the game, his sole objective should be securing the football.  It isn’t an adequate excuse to “not know” the defender was there.  You must know.

  • To Williams’ credit, he manned up about the situation after the game.  He put the entire loss on his shoulders.  I like that.
  • On the first kickoff the Cowboys received, Bryan McCann should have ran to the sideline, put one foot out of bounds, and then touched the football when it was in play.  That might sound dumb, but the ball would then immediately be dead, ruled out of bounds, and placed at the Cowboys’ 40-yard line.  Later in the game, McCann let a punt bounce near the sideline instead of calling for a fair-catch.  It rolled an extra 10 yards or so.  He needs to realize that the sideline isn’t “hot lava”–you can step on it, Bryan.
  • I should probably apologize for the next note ahead of time.  I’m not actually going to, I’m just recognizing that I should.
  • I think Andre Gurode has Multiple Personality Disorder.  One personality is a Pro Bowl-caliber center who plays intelligently.  The other personality has down syndrome and snaps the ball whenever he feels like it.  Both are fun to watch, but only one helps Dallas win games.  I counted three poor snaps and a non-snap from Gurode No. 2 last night.
  • An early end-around to Dez Bryant was poorly designed.  Perhaps the rookie made a mental error, but he was too far from the ball before the snap to reach Jon Kitna after he faked a handoff to the running back.  There should be short motion on that play, or else Bryant should line up closer to the ball.
  • The Cowboys used a rare “Amoeba” look on defense in which there was only one (maybe two?) down lineman, with the rest of the front seven moving around pre-snap.  That alignment makes it difficult for the offensive line to call out their assignments, as players aren’t in their “usual” spots.  Not surprisingly, it resulted in Drew Brees’ first incompletion.
  • Jason Garrett had to make a lot of difficult 4th down decisions last night.  He was all over the place on his calls.  He went for it on 4th and 1 at the Saints’ 21-yard line, but then later kicked a field goal on 4th and inches inside the Saints’ five-yard line.  As you may have guessed, I liked the first call, not the second.
  • Later in the game, Garrett decided to punt on 4th and 4 at the Saints’ 35-yard line.  That ones a no-brainer–he has to go for it.  Instead, Mat McBriar dropped the snap, illegally kicked the ball, and Dallas gained just 16 yards of field position.
  • Marion Barber’s biggest problem right now is that he’s trying to run around guys instead of through them.  After receiving nearly every handoff, he dances behind the line-of-scrimmage.  He gathers no momentum and is then forced to try to make a move around a guy instead of lowering his shoulder.  He’s not the most nimble player, and lots of times ends up stumbling.  His pre-handoff nosedives are killing this team.
  • Felix Jones’ explosion is back in a big way.  He’s clearly the Cowboys’ biggest playmaker in the backfield and makes up for a lot of the offensive line’s mistakes.  If he came out in a “24” jersey and wore dreads, I would still be able to tell it wasn’t Barber within the first step.
  • Jones’ biggest improvements this year have come as a pass-catcher.  He looks much, much more comfortable receiving the football and does a tremendous job of immediately getting up the field after doing so.  Despite being explosive with the ball in his hands in the past, he was never really a great receiver.  He still needs to work on his route-running, but he’s getting there.
  • I saw multiple plays with guys like Sean Lee and Bradie James on Reggie Bush during crucial 3rd downs.  The Cowboys are extremely lucky he had an off-night.  They should have treated him as another wide receiver, not a tailback.
  • I saw a new wrinkle from Saints coach Sean Payton that I’d love to see Garrett employ.  On about a half dozen snaps, he used an offensive tackle as a tight end, even putting him in motion a few times.  This serves two purposes.  First, it’s an extra blocker on DeMarcus Ware.  Why use a tackle and a tight end on Ware when you can use two tackles?  Second, it allows the tackle to line up in the backfield.  Normally, an offensive tackle must be on the line-of-scrimmage.  They usually cheat back to block speed rushers like Ware, often getting penalized for an illegal formation.  An eligible offensive tackle, however, can line up wherever he wants without a penalty.  Brilliant idea.
  • Garrett’s worst decision as a head coach came before halftime.  The Cowboys stopped the Saints on 3rd and 1 at midfield, but New Orleans was flagged for holding.  Garrett should have declined the penalty and forced Payton to make a very tough decision on 4th down.  With about two minutes left in the half, I’m almost positive that even the ultra-aggressive Payton would have punted.  Garrett accepted the penalty, however, and basically gave New Orleans a free down.  They converted on 3rd and 11, and Garrett rightfully looked like a goat.
  • Who is the primary kick returner?  McCann or Bryant?  How about punt returner?  Choose one please.
  • The Cowboys were able to spring a few long runs because of downfield blocking.  Williams’ blocking, as usual, was superb.  On Miles Austin’s long touchdown run, both he and Jones made key blocks.  Jones ran all the way downfield after a fake handoff to get in the way of the safety.  Austin doesn’t score without his hustle.
  • Garrett clearly had a plan to take advantage of the Saints’ aggressiveness on defense.  You saw a ton of screens, counters, draws, and even end-arounds.  Great game plan from that aspect.
  • Anthony Spencer was lost much of the game.  He ran after the running back on a handful of play-fakes and stormed after the quarterback on draws.
  • This is my last plea.  Can Tashard Choice please take some of Barber’s snaps next week, Jason?  Pleaseee?  Pleeeeeassssseeee?

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

Jonathan Bales

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

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

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

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

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

DON’T play as much man coverage.

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

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

DO play a lot of Cover 2.

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

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

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

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

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

DO continue to be exotic with blitz packages.

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

DON’T run any “predictable” plays.

From last week’s Cowboys-Lions Manifesto:

Last week, the Cowboys ran the play below three times.  The formation (“Double Tight Left Ace”) was a completely new one.  If they line up in it again versus the Lions, they better have a new play-call.

The Cowboys did a similar thing in the Vikings game with the play below.  This time, the formation is “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace.”  The Cowboys have since added new plays to the formation’s repertoire, but the one pictured below is still a staple.

And of course we can’t forget about “Double Tight Strong.”  Last season, the Cowboys ran a strong side dive from the formation nearly three-fourths of the 100+ times they lined up in it (including 85.7 percent of the time when motioning into it).  The play basically disappeared early in the season, but it has reemerged since Kitna has taken over (perhaps in an attempt to simplify the playbook).

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

DO attack Tracy Porter, especially with double-moves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DON’T resort back to Shotgun.

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

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

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

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

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