|by jeff beyel
ago the Dallas Cowboys were on their way to an NFC East
Division crown finishing with a 10-6 regular season
record. The defense was among the best in the NFL led by
a duo of young, athletic, and very fast linebackers:
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Van Der Esch. Now, one year
later, these very same Cowboys are in utter disarray,
below .500, likely to miss the playoffs, and will
probably fire long time head coach Jason Garrett.
How did this all happen? Last year, offensive
coordinators could not figure out ways to contend with
the speed of the Dallas linebackers. While playing a
base 4-2 with a single high safety, Dallas linebackers
were able to give run support, short and medium range
coverage responsibilities, and even blitz when called
upon. The defensive success led to a false sense of
security which morphed into a doomed philosophy that
believed no NFL team would be able to solve the riddle
of the Cowboys' defense. And, that very same philosophy
led to a complete lack of evolutionary game scheming.
But what exactly does all this pontificating actually
The Cowboys will normally set up their base 4-2 with two
linebackers about 6-7 yards off the line of scrimmage.
The secondary is a single high safety look which means
they have four corners/safeties and a lone deep safety
over the top, usually in the middle of the field, but
often shading to one side or the other.
The concept is to have the mercurial linebackers
performing various tasks simultaneously and then relying
on that speed to be able to achieve those tasks.
One linebacker, (Jaylon Smith), has the primary role of
playing zone coverage, while sometimes having to cover a
running back out of the backfield. Smith might also be
called upon to blitz, (more on this later in the
article). The second linebacker (Vander Esch or Sean
Lee) has zone coverage but also has the responsibility
of shadowing the quarterback.
Last season, these two positions reeked havoc as OCs
simply could not figure out ways to combat the Cowboys'
ability to use the line backers in such a way.
Not this year...
Teams have have had time to dissect what Dallas does but
perhaps more significantly, what Dallas does not do. The
Cowboys do virtually nothing to mask their scheme. They
just say to the other team "This is what we are doing.
You try to beat it." Sadly, that is precisely what
opposing OCs have done.
Teams now go empty backfield or 4 wideouts with a lone
running back as a standard attack set against Dallas.
The "hashmark" ball setting is the basic determinant for
the formation setting. Hash left means a team overloads
right and vice-versa. The slot receiver on the right
will typically drive down the field about 10-12 yards
being sure to draw the attention of Van Der Esch/Lee
playing zone but watching the QB as per their role. The
slot will usually do a crossing pattern trying to get
behind the linebacker. Now, Dallas usually press covers
the receiver that is going to get the lone safety help
and so the safety almost always slides to the press
cover side and teams have learned to move that receiver
to the opposite side of their attacking play in order to
eliminate him from being able to recover back fast
enough. Meanwhile, the other two receivers on the strong
side usually do a deep side route or a seam route and,
amazingly, sometimes the press covered wide out does not
even move after the ball is snapped in order to keep
that corner in place and unable to assist.
The quarterback will now drop back, but then step up and
through to his right by design and then make very simple
reads. If Van Der Esch/Lee has dropped back and in with
the crossing slot, the quarterback runs as far as he can
before going out of bounds when Vander Esch/Lee and the
other corners get to him. If the line baker reacts up to
the quarterback or even freezes, the pass goes over the
backer's head to the crossing slot who can actually
score since the single safety has shifted over to the
press cover side.
By having the press cover corner staying home and near
the sideline or line of scrimmage, he cannot get into a
help role as the slot crosses. The result is devastating
to the Dallas defense.
The Buffalo Bills utilized this very play on two of
their scores on Thanksgiving Day. In a 5 wide set,
Quarterback Josh Allen stepped up and to the right side
as slot receiver Cole Beasley ran the crossing pattern.
The linebacker froze, seeing that Allen had room to run
and was his responsibility. The press covered wide out
never even moved, freezing that corner and moving the
safety over. Allen easily dropped the ball behind the
linebacker to Beasley who was able to beat the
recovering safety for a touchdown.
Later, the Bills would run the precise same play but the
formation was reversed because the ball was on the
opposite hash mark. Allen would, again, step through,
but the Cowboy linebacker, remembering the earlier
touchdown, this time dropped to cover the slot wide and
Allen ran with the simple read. Touchdown Bills.
The Patriots and Vikings both utilized a similar attack
pattern in beating Dallas with Minnesota taking
advantage to get their star running back, Delvin Cook,
big plays. The Chicago Bears easily whipped the Cowboy
defense with the same formation except they used a lone
running back rather than a 5th receiver but regardless,
the attack patterns were identical.
Now, obviously, teams did not run these simple few plays
every time. No, since Dallas has this setting, it is
obvious when they are going to blitz. Since the backers
normally sit 7-10 yards deep any time they move up
inside that range easily signals a blitz or any time the
Cowboys have more than one press cover defensive back
the odds were near 100% a blitz was coming. Obviously,
if the backer moves up and Dallas then blitzes off the
corner, the opposing quarterback knows the single wide
safety must cover the receiver that was abandoned by the
blitzing DB. Instantly, teams go right over the top as
they know there is no safety there, often leading to one
on one scores, big plays, defensive holding, or pass
interference calls. If the linebackers come up or one
comes up, a blitz is coming, but this blitz wipes out
many of the roles for which a linebacker is responsible.
Again, the quarterback can hit the running back or tight
end on a simple screen and that player will almost
always be wide open for plus yardage before the
recovering backers or a supporting defensive back can
make the tackle.
The Bears used this concept extremely well as did the
Vikings. When Smith moved up inside his normal zone, the
quarterback simply checked out into a screen left to
whoever Smith was covering. Van Der Esch/Lee would be
occupied either by a receiver draw or by the quarterback
simply rolling right a bit, pulling them away from
support. The result: Big time screen plays for a lot of
While the defense is easy to defeat, the offense has
also run into a defensive pattern that is choking them.
Defensive coordinators (DCs) now press-cover one or more
receivers while also stuffing the box and using "run
blitzes to shut down any first down runs by star back,
Ezekiel Elliott. They are then also able to quickly get
after quarterback Dak Prescott if and when he goes play
action or rolls out.
The play action signals a slower developing pattern and
the run blitz forces Prescott out of the pocket almost
immediately. The Patriots, Saints, and Vikings all were
superior in this area. New England added an extra
element by bringing an over load pressure on Prescott's
right (Patriots do this to all right-handed QBs). That
pressure forces the quarterback to his left, eliminating
his ability to throw a deep, across his body throw. This
tactic then allows the patriots to cover a very short
quadrant of the field on the left side.
Teams have also learned that the Cowboys, invariably,
will come back to the running game in every drive. They
will be willing to give up a few short receptions to
players like tight-end Jason Witten in order to stop
that run a few times and force Dallas into predictable
The net result of the Cowboys defense being easily
shredded and diagnosed has led to virtually zero
turnovers as quarterbacks simply are not making
mistakes. Without the take-aways, the Cowboys will often
start drives inside their 20 yard line which of course
means they have to go a long ways to score. A hold,
false start, a few run stuffs along the way and the
drive stalls. The offense, though, is struggling to
solve the scheme they face almost every week now. They
cannot run on first down and do not have much time to
get the ball deep off play action. In the end, Dallas is
left as a sinking hulk with no answers.
A losing record is all but assured. The coaching staff
will be fired and a restructure is in the offing that
will likely take some years to get into place. By then,
this current talented teams will have deteriorated.
In short, more likely humiliation for Cowboys' fans is
on the horizon and beyond.