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What was Wrong with... The Dallas Cowboys?

 
by jeff beyel

One season 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 mean?

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 yards.

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 passing situations.
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.
 

 

 
 
 
 
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