In an effort to get a little bit more inside the game, Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, will give us his insight on the intricacies of the game. Look for his analysis before each game.
BREAKING DOWN THE COWBOYS' OFFENSE
The majority of offenses in the NFL are similar because coaches are conservative. Every week, they are fighting for their job, and one mistake could cost them. Because of this, the NFL has been labeled a “copy-cat” league, as coaches take ideas from each other to help win games. It is no different with the Dallas Cowboys, where coach Jason Garrett is in charge of running an offense that has a lot of similarities to other NFL offenses.
Garrett has a background in the Air Coryell offense, which was made famous by legendary coach Don Coryell in the eighties with the San Diego Chargers and has had a significant influence on all offenses today. Garrett likes to use different personnel groupings, such as 11 (one running back, one tight end), 12 (one running back, two tight ends), and 13 (one running back, three tight ends).
In the running game, the Cowboys use zone run concepts known as inside and outside zone, which are used by just about every team (including the Patriots). Garrett will also mix in Toss, Power and Counter Trey. These five run concepts are used by Garrett very often and will likely be seen on Sunday. Despite these various concepts, the Cowboys have struggled to run the ball this year, ranking 26th out of 32 teams. The reason for these struggles has been the offensive line, which has struggled at the point of attack and failed to create running lanes for the tailback.
The Cowboys are giving up 1.8 sacks per game, which is seventh best in the league, but are allowing a lot of pressures on QB Tony Romo. The Cowboys are starting inexperienced players at the center and right tackle, and the only protect with five blockers. They will also go to a six man protection, with the running back or tight end having a built in check-release option.
Despite the protection issues, the Cowboys rank third in passing and have a plethora of weapons: WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, as well as All-Pro TE Jason Witten. Garrett, who is also the signal caller, likes to use motion and shifts, mainly with the TE, pre-snap. Post-snap, he uses a lot of play action and screen passes, to the tight ends, flankers and running backs. He also mixes in three- and five-step drops with intermediate routes ran by pass catchers. Those include digs, seam-reads, deep slants (double slants concept), and shallow crosses. These routes, at the intermediate level of the field, help make up a lot of Hi-Lo concepts, which attack a defender with two routes ran at different depths by pass catchers. The routes force the defender to choose to cover one of them, thus leaving the other open.
- Hard/Freeze Count - The Cowboys love to use a hard count (or sometimes called a freeze count) to make the defensive lineman jump early and force a penalty, which shortens the down and distance for the offense, allowing it to be more unpredictable.
- Screen passes - The Cowboys use a variety of screen passes to their RBs, WRs and TEs on first down. They like to throw a tight end screen to the weak side of the formation, for example.
- LT Doug Free and RT Tyron Smith - Both OTs are very talented, but both have issues with technique. They will sometimes fail to get their hands off their hips, leaving them susceptible to a bulrush. Moreover, they will kick slide too far out and leave an inside path open for the pass rusher. This was seen against the 49ers a couple of weeks ago when defensive end Justin Smith picked Free apart.
- TE Jason Witten’s movements and alignments - The Cowboys like to line up Witten out wide and then bring him down the line of scrimmage to crack block a safety for a run outside. Also, they will line him up in the backfield at the traditional fullback spot and often run the ball out of this set. The play of choice in the last two years out of this set has been the Counter Trey.
BREAKING DOWN THE COWBOYS' DEFENSE:
The Cowboys defense is led by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who is the brother of Rex Ryan. Both have similar defenses, and like Rex, Rob comes from the 46 defense that was introduced over two decades ago by his father, Buddy. Today, Rob Ryan features various fronts in his defense, such as an Okie front (Center and Tackles covered with Guards uncovered), a reduced three-man front, as well as a one man front. These fronts are used to move the pass rushers all around the field in hopes of finding a mismatch and to cause confusion for offensive lineman in sorting out who their assignment is.
One of the pass rushers that is frequently moved around from gap to gap and technique to technique is OLB Demarcus Ware. Ware can be seen in a ghost (stand-up) five technique or moving around in the A gaps. The problem with this is that the offensive line is not sure if Ware is going to be blitzing the Cowboys sometimes drop him in coverage underneath or into the flats.
In the defensive backfield, the Cowboys will use various coverages. Some of the coverage’s that they play include combination coverage’s, such as Quarter-Quarter-Half which is pictured below, as well as Cover 0, Man-Free (Cover 1), Tampa 2, Cover 3 and Quarters (Cover 4).
The Tampa 2 coverage that Dallas has used has been very interesting to analyze, as they run it differently than other teams. What the Cowboys will do is play this out of their base 3-4 package as well as their nickel package and drop eight in coverage, as opposed to the usual seven. They will play five underneath zone defenders while having three deep, which are the two safeties and middle linebacker splitting the field in thirds. The Cowboys drop NT Jay Ratliff in coverage to the hole underneath the middle linebacker. The reason they do this is because it is a soft spot in the Tampa 2 coverage, as the middle linebacker is usually dropping 15 to 18 yards down the seam. They have had plenty of success with this, as seen against the Washington Redskins earlier this year. Interestingly enough, star middle linebacker Sean Lee has had all of his interceptions in this coverage. An example of one against the Washington Redskins is pictured below.
(Credit: Football In Depth)
- Tampa 2 - The Cowboys like to go to this coverage on obvious passing downs, which is typically third down and long for them. MLB Sean Lee does a great job of covering the seam.
- All-Out blitzes - Like his brother, Rob Ryan is not afraid to leave his defensive backs in man coverage while sending everyone else after the quarterback. But the middle of the field will open up since there is no one in coverage.
- Penalties - The Cowboys are very aggressive and will sometimes get caught offsides or encroaching. The Patriots should look to exploit this with hard counts.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- Patriots up-tempo offense vs. Cowboys defense - The Patriots up-tempo offense has caused trouble for defenses at times this season. In the previous game, the Detroit Lions ran an up-tempo offense at times, which left the Cowboys scrambling to figure out their assignments.
- Patriots TEs vs. Cowboys OLBs - The Cowboys will sometimes walk OLBs Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer out to matchup with TEs and slot WRs in coverage. They have not had a lot of success doing this, as the OLBs have been beaten in coverage because of their inability to quickly change directions. Patriots TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez could pose real problems for the Cowboys defense if they choose to drop their OLBs in coverage.
- Patriots crossing routes vs. Cowboys DBs and LBs - The Cowboys like to play man coverage and because of this, they will have issues covering crossing routes by WRs. Their cornerbacks have issues getting out of their breaks and ILB Keith Brooking lacks the ability to quickly change directions.
- Patriots WR Wes Welker vs. Cowboys nickel CBs - Defensive back Alan Ball is very physical and high-cut, which means he struggles getting out of his breaks as well as planting and driving. He’s also had issues in the past with being too physical, as he likes to get his hands on the wide receiver. This could be an issue for the Cowboys because Welker is very quick footed. CB Orlando Scandrick is back from injury, so he may draw Welker. Scandrick is a good athlete.
- Cowboys TE Jason Witten vs. Patriots LBs/DBs - The Patriots have faced some good tight ends this season, but Witten may be the best. Witten can do everything, and the Patriots will have their hands full. I expect some bracket (double) coverage from them.
- Cowboys WRs vs. Patriots CBs - The Patriots have struggled in the defensive secondary and now face WRs Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Both receivers are big, physical and fast so this will be a big test for the Patriots CBs. They have to tackle well and be physical because the Cowboys will surely throw some screens to the receivers.