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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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“Grading the ‘Boys”: Preseason Week Four, Cowboys vs. Chargers

Jonathan Bales

I’ve already posted initial post-game notes, “DOs and DON’Ts analysis,” film study observations, and what we learned from the Cowboys/Texans game.

Today, I will grade the players.  In my first three “Grading the ‘Boys” segments, I explained that it would be impossible for me to study every player as closely as I deem necessary for grading.  Instead, I watch a select group of players in great detail and report back to you on their performance.

Alan Ball: D

Didn’t look good in any aspect of the game; poor hips and awareness in coverage; got beat deep in Cover 1; missed a plethora of tackles

Alex Barron: C+

Looked over-matched in the run game; did decent in pass protection; better fit at left tackle

Robert Brewster: B-

The “bizarro” Alex Barron; did a solid job at left tackle but skill set better suited for right side

Travis Bright: B-

By far best game of preseason; still getting overpowered, but has shown improvement

Phil Costa: B

Eight Shotgun snaps with no errors; played much better than Gurode

Chris Gronkowski: C+

Gaining momentum from media, but I don’t see what they like; poor lead blocker whose pass-catching ability will make people think he’s better than he is

Andre Gurode: F

Worst game as a pro; two bad snaps; terrible stunt/twist recognition; unbalanced at times and beat with speed

Michael Hamlin: C-

Not making enough plays; looks tentative and afraid to make mistake

Bradie James: C

Good in pass coverage, but over-pursued on a number of occasions and got caught inside on others

Sean Lee: D

Blown backwards on most plays; long way to go as a run defender; not showing instincts

Akwasi Owusu-Ansah: B+

Really promising on returns; great decisiveness and explosion

Tony Romo: C-

Missed a few throws he normally makes; failed to score in three quarters

Orlando Scandrick: C-

Got beat by every receiver he covered; really improved in run support and tackling receivers after catch

Roy Williams: B-

Misread one Romo back-shoulder throw, but otherwise looked solid; appears to finally be playing with confidence