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Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Final Film Observations, Player Grades



Jonathan Bales

In case you missed it, check out my Cowboys-Texans post-game observations and “What We Learned” about Dallas in the football game.  Here are my more in-depth film study findings. . .

  • The Cowboys ran a variation of the same play four straight times in the fourth quarter.  They motioned into “Strong” formation and ran a strong side dive.  The only thing that changed was the type of motion.
  • I’m starting to notice that Jason Garrett tends to motion a lot in the beginning of the game, with that trend decreasing as the contest progresses.  The Cowboys have motioned 46 times in the first half as opposed to just 31 in the second half, but seven of those second half motions came in the last nine plays on Sunday (when the ‘Boys already wrapped up the game).  The reason is that the team’s first drive or two are scripted plays.  On the Cowboys’ three opening drives this year, they’ve motioned 14 times (4.7 times per drive).  That’s nearly twice the rate of other drives (2.5 motions per drive).
  • The Cowboys had just five red zone plays on Sunday, but they took advantage of their time in the area.  They ran the ball twice for one yard and a touchdown, and also threw three passes for 32 yards and a score.  Give Jason Garrett props for excellent red zone play-calling all year.

Personnel

Base (TE, 2 WR, RB, FB): Seven plays
2 TE, 2 WR, RB: 18 plays
2 TE, WR, RB, FB: Nine plays
TE, 3 WR, RB: 22 plays
3 TE, RB, FB: One play

Formations

25 formations in Week One, 19 in Week Two, and 19 again in Week Three

3 Wide I (4), 3 Wide Strong Left (2), Ace (3), Double Tight I (3), Double Tight Left/Right I (2), Double Tight Left/Right Strong (2), Double Tight Left/Right Twins Left/Right Ace (2), Gun TE Spread (15), Gun TE Trips (4), Gun TE Trips Empty (1), Gun Trips (1), I Formation (1), Power I (1), Strong (9), TE Trips Empty (1), Trips (3), Twins (1), Twins Right Strong Right (1), Weak Left (1)

  • You may have noticed on television how often Romo checked out of plays at the line of scrimmage.  He’s certainly been given a lot of freedom this season, and he utilized it on Sunday.  He audibled nine times, six times to a run (for 38 yards) and three times to a pass for 14 yards.  Four of the six runs were draw plays.  I noted that last season, 77.27 percent of Romo’s run audibles were to draw plays.
  • Think the Cowboys wanted to run the ball up the middle and to the right?  Check out the chart below.

  • As I stated in my article on What We Learned About Dallas in Week Three, the Cowboys decided to return to an old staple of the running game: the draw play.  After running only six combined draws in the first two games, Dallas ran 10 in Houston for 66 total yards.
  • After throwing 16 passes of 10+ yards against Washington and 13 against Chicago, the Cowboys attempted only nine in Houston.  However, they obviously threw far less passes against the Texans, so the ratio is actually about the same.
  • The Cowboys seven playaction passes totaled just 30 yards.  Five of the seven passes came with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That trend dates back to last year.  Take a look at these numbers.
  • The Cowboys attempted only one screen pass and it fell incomplete.
  • How awesome was Romo?  He threw two passes which I labeled as “off-target” after throwing 12 such passes last week.
  • Of Dallas’ 30 passes, Witten went into a route on 19 of them (63.3 percent).  That’s lower than last year’s rate.  I still think he needs to be in a route more often.

Player Grades

QB Tony Romo: A

Only two off-target passes all day–about one-fourth of his average from ’09

RB Marion Barber: B

Barber’s best game this season; showed some explosion and good field awareness

RB Felix Jones: B+

Still hesitant on some runs, but looks great on draws; appears to be improved in passing game

WR Roy Williams: A

His hands are back, and his releases were tremendous–all about improved quickness

WR Dez Bryant: B+

Hasn’t been asked to do much, but always seems to make a play

TE Jason Witten:  B

Classic Witten–solid in all aspects of the game

LT Doug Free:  A-

Really held his own against Mario Williams without too much aid

LG Kyle Kosier:  C+

Struggled a bit before going down with knee sprain; not as punishing in running game as usual

C Andre Gurode:  B

Cowboys ran behind him often, and he’s seemed to have recovered from Week One pass protection woes

RG Leonard Davis:  B

Two false starts (only one called), but great at point-of-attack

RT Marc Colombo:  B-

Still not as high on him as others, but he brings a nastiness to the line

OLB DeMarcus Ware: A+

Only Troy Polamalu may be a better defensive player

OLB Anthony Spencer: C

Similar start as in 2009; sacks will come with consistent pressure

ILB Bradie James:  B+

Still stout against the run but has really come on in pass coverage

ILB Keith Brooking:  C-

Poor day for Brooking, who looks lost in pass coverage lately; team needs to find a true nickel LB

NT Jay Ratliff:  B+

Hustle on Arian Foster fumble was incredible

S Alan Ball: B+

Gets a good grade due to one thing–no big plays

CB Terence Newman:  B+

Jenkins is a bigger play-maker, but Newman is the better all-around cornerback right now.

CB Mike Jenkins: B-

Great coverage, but his tackling is becoming a problem

K David Buehler:  A-

Want to see same distance on kickoffs as in ’09, but have to be thrilled with two long field goals


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Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Week 3: What We Learned About Dallas



Jonathan Bales

Breaking down the film last night and today was, as you might imagine, far more enjoyable than the previous two weeks.  The Cowboys played an all-around great game, able to protect the ball and, for the most part, limit drive-killing penalties.  While it is an awesome sign for the future, it also makes you wonder “Where has this team been?”  Read my initial post-game observations for more.

Let’s take a look at my pre-game Cowboys-Texans Manifesto and see how the ‘Boys performed. . .

What to Watch for Dallas vs. Houston

How will the Cowboys attack Matt Schaub?  Will they blitz a lot in an attempt to get sacks and force short throws, or will they sit back in coverage as to not allow you-know-who to beat them deep?

The Cowboys decided to sit back in coverage on most plays, and it worked wonderfully.  They were able to get adequate pressure on Schaub with just four and five rushers, meaning they could always keep a safety over top of Andre Johnson.  Johnson went for just 64 yards.

I’d still love to see the Cowboys disguise their blitzes more effectively, but the rarity of blitzes against the Texans may have contributed to their increased effectiveness.

Will Dallas commit to the run?  Will they attack the middle of the Texans’ defense or try to run outside?

Yesterday’s game is a perfect example of why people tend to overvalue the importance of the running game.  People usually look at statistics ex post facto, noting the correlation between running performance and winning percentage.  The two are certainly correlated, but correlation does not always equate to causation.  In fact, passing performance has been shown to be much, much more indicative of a team’s success than success on the ground.

The reason rushing yards are so closely linked to wins is simple: teams that are already winning run the football.  That says nothing about how that team came to gain a lead, however.

We saw just this yesterday, as the Cowboys actually had much of their success through the air.  Yes, the early efficiency of the running game helped, but it wasn’t until late in the game that Dallas “committed” to the run.  Actually, in the middle of the game (with the game still a one-possession contest), the ‘Boys threw the ball on 21 of 28 plays.  They racked up a lot of their carries and yardage at the end of the contest, as they ran the ball on nine of the final 10 plays.

How will the ‘Boys exploit the absence of the Texans’ starting left tackle Duane Brown?

Simple: put DeMarcus Ware over him and let him do his thing.  Ware racked up three sacks, particularly because the Texans seemed pretty comfortable allowing replacement left tackle Rashad Butler to be on an island.  They even tried to block Ware with Joel Dreessen once, and Ware manhandled him.

Will the Cowboys be able to effectively halt the Texans’ rushing attack, allowing them to force Houston to become one-dimensional?

The Texans actually ran the ball pretty well (22 carries for 124 yards).  Again, you can see that early rushing success doesn’t necessarily equate to wins, as the Cowboys were content in allowing the Texans to record the occasional big run in exchange for not allowing the really big play.  Houston was forced to continually beat Dallas with the running game and underneath routes, and they weren’t able to do it.

Will Jason Garrett dial up more draws?

Running more draws was one of the primary goals in my game plan, and the Cowboys executed that task tremendously.  After calling just six total draws in the first two games, the Cowboys called 10 of them against Houtson for 66 yards.

Will Martellus Bennett continue to see a lot of playing time in an effort to effectively block Mario Williams?

He saw an “average” amount of action: 26 snaps.  Of those plays, however, the Cowboys threw the ball on just 10 of them.  Thus, Dallas obviously thought spreading our the Texans’ defense (likely in an attempt to exploit their weak secondary) was more important than the “extra” protection which Bennett could provide.  Kudos to Jason Garrett.

How will the teams’ preseason match-up affect this contest?

The Texans came out with a game plan which was radically different from that in the preseason.  In that game, Houston blitzed Romo on an incredible two-thirds of his snaps.  This week, they rarely came at all.

I counted just 14 blitzes all game for Houston, and they only “showed” it on half of those.  Further, they didn’t show blitz a single time without actually sending pressure.  Washington and Chicago had success doing just that, so I’m not sure why Houston chose the game plan that they did.

DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

DO run more counters and misdirection plays in an effort to get the running game back on track.

Dallas ran only two counters all game for five yards.  I thought they could be used effectively against a very aggressive Texans defense, but the ‘Boys obviously didn’t.  Note that the “Fail” below is simply representative of their inability to run a lot of counters, not a judgment on whether or not that was a good idea.

Result: Fail

DON’T continue to have David Buehler perform directional kickoffs.

I’m not sure if Buehler is having trouble maintaining his distance on kickoffs, but directional kicking has obviously become a part of his repertoire.

Result: Fail

DO take advantage of the willingness of the Texans’ safeties to sell out against the run.

I loved Garrett’s decision to implement a lot of playaction passes against the Texans.  The Cowboys ran seven of them for just 30 yards, but a few of Romo’s incompletions appeared to still be good play-calls.  I talked about one such call in my initial post-game notes.  I wrote:

In the second quarter, the Cowboys tried a backside screen to Bennett.  It was incomplete due to Bennett falling, but the play looked to be wide open.  Interestingly, the Cowboys motioned from “3 Wide Strong” to a traditional “Strong” formation on the play–something they had been doing earlier, but running a strong side power play from that look (below).  They faked the power, so it was obviously something they had been trying to set up.  Nice call, even thought it didn’t pan out.

Result: Pass

DON’T allow Mr. Johnson to beat you.

Check.  Johnson’s 64 yards has to be considered a big-time “win” for the Dallas defense.  They did it by limiting their blitzes and giving the cornerbacks a lot of help over the top.  They were determined to not let AJ beat them deep, and they executed perfectly.

Result: Pass

DO disguise blitzes more effectively.

The Cowboys actually started to do this early in the game, but got away from it as the contest progressed.  Teams like the Eagles and Steelers have so much success with their blitzes because of how they disguise them.

Result: Fail

DON’T punt so often in opponent’s territory.

I loved the Cowboys calls to go for it on three fourth down plays in Texans’ territory.  They converted on two of them, including a big 4th and 2 pass to Bryant late in the game to seal the victory.  I think the Cowboys are being more aggressive due to their lack of confidence in David Buehler (as opposed to the reason they should be going for it–the math), but I’ll take it.

Result: Pass

DO get Tashard Choice on the field more.

I think we just need to realize that, barring injury, Choice isn’t going to be taking many of Barber’s snaps this season.  He was on the field for only seven plays on Sunday.

Result: Fail

DON’T worry about external points of view–play for each other!

This was the big one–worth more than all of the other “DOs and DON’Ts” combined.  The Cowboys are loaded with talent, and yesterday they showed they are capable of cashing in on it.  They looked genuinely excited to be playing in Houston, and many of the players even said the game was for Coach Phillips.  He passed his father in career victories in the city in which Mr. Phillips (the elder) obtained the majority of his wins.  If the Cowboys can continue to ignore outside attention and play smart, fundamental football, watch out.

Result: Pass



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Dallas Cowboys vs. Houston Texans Week 3 Initial Post-Game Notes, Reactions



Jonathan Bales

Finally!  The Cowboys took down the Texans 27-13, but the game wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.  At last, Cowboys fans have something over which to rejoice.  The Giants also lost, so it’s a good day.

Random Observations

  • I loved the decisions to go for it on fourth down twice on the first drive.  The Cowboys converted once and failed once, but the statistically correct call (even for the 4th and 2 at the 30-yard line) was to forgo the field goal attempts.
  • Late in the first quarter, the Cowboys had a 3rd and 3 in their own territory.  Martellus Bennett caught a pass right at the sticks, got pushed backward, escaped, but didn’t return past the first down marker.  He should have gone down after the initial contact to gain forward progress (which appeared to be past the chains), but it is possible he was unaware of his position on the field.
  • The 3rd and 19 run for a first down by Arian Foster was ridiculous.  The Cowboys overcame it, but the subsequent field goal Houston kicked could have come back to haunt them.
  • On that play, Mike Jenkins completely whiffed on a tackle attempt.  He missed three on the drive.  He really isn’t progressing in run support, and it is becoming detrimental to the defense.  It really makes you appreciate how well-rounded Terence Newman is as a cornerback.
  • The Cowboys had a big screen pass to Felix Jones called back due to a block in the back by Miles Austin.  The play was a tremendous audible by Romo at the line.
  • I will report back on the official numbers tomorrow, but the Cowboys definitely brought back the draw play this week, as I suggested they should.  It really sparked the running game.
  • In the second quarter, the Cowboys tried a backside screen to Bennett.  It was incomplete due to Bennett falling, but the play looked to be wide open.  Interestingly, the Cowboys motioned from “3 Wide Strong” to a traditional “Strong” formation on the play–something they had been doing earlier, but running a strong side power play from that look (below).  They faked the power, so it was obviously something they had been trying to set up.  Nice call, even thought it didn’t pan out.

  • The pass protection was sensational.  Other than one third down play on which Mario Williams came in unblocked, the offensive line, tight ends, and running backs really did a commendable job on Williams and the other Texans defenders.
  • As a team, the Cowboys show poor clock awareness.  There have been multiple plays this year on which players have either stayed in bounds when they should have gotten out, or vice versa.  Marion Barber is the exception.  He always does an excellent job in late-game situations of getting down on the ground to keep the clock moving.
  • Dez Bryant is adjusting well to the NFL, but he got confused on the illegal touching rule in the pros.  The touchdown he scored in the second quarter got called back because Bryant got forced out of bounds before he caught the pass.  It would have been a touchdown in college (because he got forced out), but not so in the pros.
  • The Cowboys didn’t appear to blitz much at all, and I liked it.  They forced the Texans to beat them again and again, and even though Foster had some big runs, the Texans weren’t consistently able to move the football on Dallas.  It also seemed to make the blitzes more efficient when they did bring them.
  • Roy Williams’ first touchdown was beautiful.  He took a hard jab step outside to get an inside release on rookie Kareem Jackson, allowing Romo room to throw the football.  People might start to jump back on the Roy Williams bandwagon, but I’ve been on the whole time.
  • Igor Olshansky was lined up offsides by about a foot on a play late in the third quarter.  I have no idea what he was thinking.
  • Orlando Scandrick still seems to be a step behind everything.  Part of that is the nature of defending in the slot (a lot of crossing routes on which cornerbacks tend to get in a trailing position).  Still, I thought he would take a big step forward in 2010, and while he isn’t playing terribly, he isn’t lighting it up either.
  • I think Keith Brooking is playing too many defensive snaps.  He appears tired at times, and it showed today in his pass coverage.  Whether it is Sean Lee or Jason Williams, it would really help the Dallas defense if someone can win the nickel linebacker job.

  • I know Jason Garrett likes to call two plays (the second of which is run if Romo checks out of the first at the line), but the plays need to come in a little faster.  Romo is consistently snapping the ball with just one second left on the play clock, and it gives the defense an opportunity to jump the snap.  Perhaps Romo can speed up his pre-snap reads as well, although that’s less likely to happen.
  • David Buehler looked awesome today on his two field goals, both of which were fairly long.  One was also in a somewhat high-pressure situation: from 49 yards right before half.  I can’t help but wonder if this is a good thing for the Cowboys, or whether it will simply delay the inevitable.

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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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Week 3 Preview: Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans Game Day Manifesto



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 (solely to me) as a “Game Day Manifesto.”  You’ll be able to find the“Manifesto” category under the “GameDay” tab above.

Also check back later in the week for a new feature called “Game Plan.”  While the weekly “Manifesto” will contain some Xs and Os, the “Game Plan” will feature in-depth game strategy detailing how Dallas can win that week’s game and how they should go about doing it.  There, you’ll find a lot of analysis of formations, personnel, play-calling, and so on.

Now on to this week’s Manifesto. . .

What to Watch for Dallas vs. Houston

How will the Cowboys attack Matt Schaub?  Will they blitz a lot in an attempt to get sacks and force short throws, or will they sit back in coverage as to not allow you-know-who to beat them deep?

This is going to be a really tough match-up for the Cowboys’ defense.  In the first two weeks, Dallas faced teams that, in theory, could have been forced to become one-dimensional.  That’s not the case with Houston.  They’ve shown an ability to effectively run the ball, and we all know how dominating their passing attack can be.

The question for the Cowboys is if they want to attack Schaub and hope for the best, or sit back in safe coverages to make sure they don’t give up easy scores.  As always, the key will be the amount of pressure they can force on Schaub without blitzing.

Will Dallas commit to the run?  Will they attack the middle of the Texans’ defense or try to run outside?

Everyone is clamoring for the Cowboys to commit to the running game, but Houston is only allowing 31 yards rushing per game this season.  On the flip side, they’re yielding 411 yards passing per contest.

So what are the Cowboys to do?  They certainly need to establish the running game, but that brings us back to the chicken-or-egg dilemma: does the running game set up the pass, or is it the other way around?  It’s probably a combination of both, meaning the ‘Boys should simply find what is working and stick with it.  It sure would be a huge boost to the offense if they can dominate the line of scrimmage in the run game.

Another problem for Dallas arises regarding the location of runs: do you pound it up the middle (right at DeMeco Ryans, one of the league’s premiere linebackers), or run outside (perhaps at Mario Williams, a player I labeled as the NFL’s second-best defensive end in my list of the top 105 players).  The ‘Boys may want to think about running away from both players–right at left defensive end Antonio Smith (who will usually be lined up over right tackle Marc Colombo).  Unfortunately, Smith is no slouch against the run either.

How will the ‘Boys exploit the absence of the Texans’ starting left tackle Duane Brown?

Brown was just suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.  He wasn’t a premiere left tackle anyway, so the Texans have a serious hole at left tackle with Rashad Butler starting.  Dallas needs to exploit it.

While blitzing too often could backfire in a big way with such dangerous weapons outside for Houston (i.e. Andre Johnson), the Cowboys definitely want to find ways to get pressure on Schaub.  One method is to overload the right side of the defense in an effort to take advantage of the Texans’ weakness on the left side of the line.  Throwing stunts and overload blitzes at Butler will help Dallas.  Further, it could force the Texans to keep tight end Owen Daniels in to block.  Even though he’s banged up, that would be a plus for the ‘Boys.

Last week, the Cowboys lined Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware up on the same side of the line.  They may want to try that again this week.

Will the Cowboys be able to effectively halt the Texans’ rushing attack, allowing them to force Houston to become one-dimensional?

While the Texans’ passing attack is their bread-and-butter, the key for Dallas will actually be their ability to stop the run.  If they can do that without bringing extra defenders into the box, they will have a much, much better chance to contain the Texans’ pass-catchers.

Will Jason Garrett dial up more draws?

The Cowboys have run just six draws all season (after averaging nearly eight per game last year) for a total of 13 yards.  The efficiency of those plays will undoubtedly increase as the season progresses, and draw plays could be an effective tool against Houston this week.  Let’s see if Garrett goes back to an old staple of the offense.

Will Martellus Bennett continue to see a lot of playing time in an effort to effectively block Mario Williams?

Bennett was on the field for 24 of the Cowboys’ first 34 passes last week (all of which came with Jason Witten still in the game).  It worked well.  I gave Bennett an ‘A’ grade for the game.

The situation is complicated because Bennett’s presence usually means Dez Bryant is standing on the sideline, but Bryant’s skills are useless without proper protection.  If the Cowboys protect Romo this week, they can surely take advantage of a weak Houston secondary.

How will the teams’ preseason match-up affect this contest?

The Texans dominated the Cowboys in the preseason, although I think that could be a positive for Dallas.  Hopefully it motivates them.  They can also take solace in knowing the Texans basically threw their entire playbook at the Cowboys in that game (Houston blitzed an absurd 66.7 percent of plays with Romo in the game).

Meanwhile, the Cowboys were incredibly basic in their play-calling (even more so than in other preseason games).  They actually called the play below five times.

DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas

DO run more counters and misdirection plays in an effort to get the running game back on track.

The Cowboys ran just one counter last week.  That isn’t going to get the job done.  Felix Jones averaged 10.0 yards-per-carry alone on counters last season.

Further, misdirection plays are the best way to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense.  Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans and safety Bernard Pollard in particular are super-aggressive players who could possibly over-pursue on certain Cowboys’ runs.  Dallas may want to run a few counters away from Mario Williams to exploit their tendencies.

DON’T continue to have David Buehler perform directional kickoffs.

It was obvious that special teams coach Joe DeCamillis told David Buehler to kick to the corners on Sunday.  I don’t know if Buehler was having trouble with his power in pre-game warm-ups, but directional kicking seems to make no sense for a kicker with Buehler’s power.  Does it really matter if a kickoff is down the center of the field if it is nine yards deep in the end zone?  The ball should carry well this weekend in Houston, so boom it baby.

DO take advantage of the willingness of the Texans’ safeties to sell out against the run.

As I just mentioned, counters are one way to do this.  Another is playaction passes, but those will only be effective if the Cowboys can establish some semblance of a running game.  Now, should they set up the pass with the run, or vice versa?

DON’T allow Mr. Johnson to beat you.

It is imperative that the ‘Boys not allow any easy scores.  AJ is obviously the Texans’ best bet at getting deep, so the Cowboys need to do everything in their power to limit his impact.  He’s certainly going to make some plays, but the impact of those can be minimized if a safety is kept over top of him at all times.  Force Houston to continually beat you underneath with Arian Foster and the intermediate passing game before you single-cover Johnson.

DO disguise blitzes more effectively.

I truly believe Romo’s struggles thus far this season are due primarily to the nature of the opposition’s pre-snap alignment.  It is clear on film that he is having trouble diagnosing the defense’s rushers before the snap because they are doing such an effective job in feigning blitzes on one side, then coming from another (or not at all).

Dallas needs to do the same.  They have two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, but it is much easier for an offensive line to block defenders if they know from where they will be coming.  The 3-4 defense naturally makes it more difficult for the offense to call out protections, but it isn’t enough.  If I can usually tell who will be rushing the passer before the snap, you can bet the opposition knows as well.

Perhaps a zone blitz or two is in order. . .

Zone blitzes, such as the one shown above, lower the risk of giving up a big play and can confuse a quarterback, often taking away his ability to "throw hot" against the blitz.

DON’T punt so often in opponent’s territory.

From my Cowboys-Bears initial post-game notes:

Although tough calls, I thought the Cowboys twice should have gone for it on fourth down in Chicago territory–once on 4th and 8 at the Bears’ 37-yard line, and once on 4th and 5 at their 27-yard line.  Not only does the math say go for it in both situations, but David Buehler was struggling.  To me, that makes the calls no-brainers.  The Cowboys ended up punting it into the endzone (gaining 17 net yards) on one and missing a field goal on the other.

DO get Tashard Choice on the field more.

Right now, Barber and Jones are both running tentatively.  They’re dancing behind the line of scrimmage and forcing the offensive linemen to hold their blocks too long.

Detractors of Choice claim there’s “nothing special” about him, but in my opinion, his combination of pass protection, vision, and balance make him very special.  Remember, there wasn’t anything particularly “special” about Emmitt Smith either.

While I’d like to see more Wildcat in short-yardage situations, there are other times Choice can be on the field.  Actually, there aren’t really many situations in which Choice couldn’t be on the field.  At the very least, I think the ferocity with which he hits the hole means he should become the Cowboys’ primary short-yardage back in all situations, effective immediately.

DON’T worry about external points of view–play for each other!

There are eight teams in the NFL who are 0-2.  Ask any football fan to name one of them, and most of the time it will be the Dallas Cowboys.  The increased attention that comes with playing for America’s Team can be a blessing and a curse, and right now it’s the latter.  If you listen to most media outlets, the Cowboys’ locker room is in turmoil and the season is over.

I’m a big believer in winning being a cure-all, though.  Winning football games creates strong team chemistry, not the other way around.  No one was claiming there was locker room turmoil two weeks ago.

For the players, ignoring anyone and everyone outside of the locker room would be prudent.  Teams that draw motivation from such external influences are teams that won’t find much success.  Play for each other, and the rest will take care of itself.


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Preseason Week Four, Cowboys vs. Texans: Initial Post-Game Notes

Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys got their butts handed them tonight.  They obviously played very “vanilla,” running very basic plays on offense and blitzing basically never on defense.  Nonetheless, there is really no excuse for a lack of passion.  Here are my initial reactions from the game:

Offense

  • Tony Romo continues to struggle.  The offensive line isn’t making his life easy, but he’s been off-target on more passes than I can remember.  His interception was a poor decision in which he attempted to fit a ball into very tight coverage.  Still, I’m not at all worried about his ability to be ready for the regular season.
  • It was interesting to see fullback Chris Gronkowski rotating in and out of the first team offense with Deon Anderson.  The Cowboys probably wanted to see if Gronkowski can hold up against a first team defense, but he should probably prove he can play well against the second and third teams first.  So far, he hasn’t.  I don’t see him making the 53-man roster.
  • Andre Gurode had a horrible night–one of his worst I can remember.  He got beat for two sacks, one of which came on a stunt.  He’s really struggled with stunts and twists in the past.  I need to check the film to make sure the defender was his responsibility, but either way, he played very poorly.  He also had two bad snaps (one of which was from Shotgun).

  • The offense ran a few strong side dives from “Double Tight Strong.”  Last week, all seven of the plays from the formation came once the first team left the game.  That wasn’t the case tonight.
  • I have never seen Jason Witten line up in an obvious pass protection stance. . .until tonight.  On a third down play, Witten lined up like an offensive tackle.  I don’t like that design by Garrett because the defense automatically knows Witten isn’t a receiving threat on the play.  That can be a big advantage for a linebacker or safety.
  • People don’t bring this up a lot because he’s so good in other areas, but Witten needs to limit his false starts.  He commits a lot of “dumb” penalties–almost as many as Flozell Adams, believe it or not.
  • The Cowboys continued to run weak side out of “Double Tight I” to make the lead block for the fullback easier than that in “Double Tight Strong.”  I talked about it in great depth last week.

Defense

  • Mike Jenkins needs to improve his tackling.  He had a tough match-up against Andre Johnson tonight, but he still can do more in run support.  His technique is awful right now.  He needs to show vast improvement if he wants to be considered an all-around cornerback.  He missed 14.6 percent of tackles last year.

  • Orlando Scandrick, on the other hand, showed that his tackling has improved.  He doesn’t use textbook form either, but he’s been getting the job done anyway this preseason.  He did give up a touchdown to Jacoby Jones, but it appeared as though he was expecting help over the top from safety Alan Ball.  I’ll check the film, but the coverage appeared to be “Man-Free” or “Cover 1”–man coverage underneath with a “centerfield” safety deep.  Thus, both players were probably at fault.
  • Bradie James’ pass defense has been outstanding this year.  He did take a poor angle or two tonight in pursuit of ball-carriers, but his coverage was once again superb.  He should stay on the field during nickel situations for Dallas.
  • After tackling well last week, Alan Ball struggled tonight.  He overran the ball-carrier on a few occasions, particularly on an 18-yard run by Arian Foster on which he was completely out of position.  His improvement is imperative to Dallas’ success on defense.
  • Rookie Sean Lee got absolutely dominated tonight.  Every play I watched him, he was getting pushed backwards.  He also showed poor pursuit on a screen pass–something I never thought I’d see from him.  He needs to become accustomed to NFL speed.
  • The Cowboys must keep three defensive tackles.  Siavii’s run defense and Brent’s long-term upside are too great to unleash.

Special Teams

  • Akwasi Owusu-Ansah’s kick returns were a rare bright spot for Dallas.  I’m most impressed with his decisiveness.  He sees a seam and hits it full speed.  The Cowboys haven’t seen that from a return man in awhile.  Bryan McCann and Kevin Ogletree also returned kicks.
  • I don’t agree with the team’s decision to put Patrick Crayton back deep for punt returns.  They already know what they have in him.  He doesn’t really need the practice, so why not see more of McCann, ‘Kwasi, or someone else?
  • Cowboys fans should appreciate the special teams trio they have in David Buehler (kickoffs), Mat McBriar, and L.P. Ladouceur.  They are extremely consistent and the effect they have on field position cannot be overstated.



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