As the Rams come into Dallas to take on the Cowboys in Week 3, Dallas' overarching game plan should be pretty simple: get wide receiver Dez Bryant the ball, stop quarterback Sam Bradford through the air, and close out the game with running back DeMarco Murray. But within that general strategy are all sorts of little battles the 'Boys will need to face.
Offensive coordinator Callahan needs to do a much better job of utilizing his weapons. His offense has come out extremely conservative—and flat—to start the season. He needs to open up the offense and let quarterback Tony Romo be himself. Romo doesn't need to be reckless, but the same style of play that leads to his interceptions also results in big plays for the offense. There needs to be some sort of balance.
Defensively, the Cowboys have their hands full with a revamped St. Louis offense. The Rams drafted wide receiver Tavon Austin and brought in free-agent tight end Jared Cook, and both moves have already paid off. Monte Kiffin might need to bring the heat to force the issue on Sunday.
In any event, let’s take a look at some "DOs" and "DON’Ts" for Dallas in this contest.
DO back-shoulder wide receiver Dez Bryant.
In my article on how Romo can get back on track, I showed how the back-shoulder fade can be the Cowboys' best friend. Namely, they can use it any time a cornerback is playing in a press position (or really anything other than a soft coverage), even if there's a safety over the top. And trust me, there's a safety over top of Bryant on most plays.
Even if the safety isn't stacked directly on top of Bryant, he typically slides that way after the snap. That's what happened on the Cowboys' first play of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
But it didn't matter. Romo gave Bryant a chance to make a play, and the safety couldn't do anything about it. We need to see more of that.
DO utilize the entire field.
Romo has attempted five passes of at least 20 yards all year. That represents just 5.5 percent of his attempts—the second-lowest mark in the NFL behind only this week’s opponent in Bradford, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Bryant outside, it just makes no sense why Dallas wouldn't attempt more deep passes. It realized its mistake last year, getting the ball to Bryant downfield starting in the seventh game.
And the shift in Bryant's numbers was pretty obvious.
Games 1-6: 63.7 yards, 0.33 TDs per game.
Games 7-16: 100.4 yards, one TD per game.
Why does it seem like the Cowboys always need something to go wrong before they make a change?
DON’T double-team defensive end Robert Quinn.
Quinn is one of the top up-and-coming pass-rushers in the NFL, currently just a half-sack behind Mario Williams for the league lead. It’s not a fluke, either, because Quinn has been dominant for a while in terms of quarterback pressures.
But there are two reasons the Cowboys can’t double him. First, Quinn has lined up on the right side of the Rams line on 98.7 percent of his pass snaps. That means he'll be lined up solely on left tackle Tyron Smith. The Cowboys should at least see how Smith performs one-on-one before trying to help him; the left tackle hasn’t been dominant in 2013, but he’s been a lot better than last year.
Second, opposite Quinn is defensive end Chris Long, who actually led the entire NFL in pressures last year. That means St. Louis probably has the most underrated pass-rushing duo in the league. Long will be lined up almost exclusively over right tackle Doug Free, and that's a much bigger disadvantage for Dallas than Quinn on Smith.
DO attack cornerback.
Finnegan is a quality cornerback, but he's struggling thus far in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, he's allowed 10 completions and 156 yards on 11 targets—a 90.9 percent completion rate and 14.2 yards per attempt.
Part of the reason for the poor numbers is that Finnegan is playing the slot when teams use three or more receivers, and that’s naturally a more challenging job than playing outside. The Cowboys place wide receiver Miles Austin in the slot, and he can use his big body to take advantage of Finnegan. The same goes for Bryant on the outside, although the Rams might stick cornerback Janoris Jenkins on him.
DON’T throw late on cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
Speaking of Jenkins, he's not a player to test underneath too often. Jenkins, who allowed only 6.9 YPA in 2012, is known for playing aggressively and jumping routes. He's not a defender the Cowboys should mess around with on a consistent basis.
But Jenkins has historically been susceptible to double-moves, so that's an area where the 'Boys might attack. They'll need adequate protection, obviously, so it might be best to max-protect on the plays when they want to take a shot.
DO run more play-action passes.
Another way to get Jenkins out of position is to run play-action passes since he tends to look into the backfield. Romo had a 109.1 passer rating on play-action passes last year, yet no one in the league ran them more infrequently than Dallas (just 10.0 percent of dropbacks). And this year, the rate is up to only 13.4 percent.
It seems "obvious" that you need an effective running game to use play-action, but that's not true. There's little correlation between rushing success and play-action success; last year, five of the top 10 quarterbacks in play-action efficiency were on teams that ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in rushing.
DON’T start Anthony Spencer.
Although it looks like he'll play, Spencer is still a little banged up.
Practice report: Anthony Spencer misses practice but expects to be back tomorrow http://t.co/HwZzWMGRJq— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) September 18, 2013
It makes sense to give Spencer another light workload since defensive end George Selvie is playing so well. In the preseason, I wrote about why Selvie might be special.
And through two games, Selvie has more pressures on fewer snaps than DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. So yeah, he's doing okay.
DON’T put safety Barry Church on tight end Jared Cook.
Church has been outstanding thus far in Monte Kiffin's defense, tied with linebacker Bruce Carter for the team lead in tackles. His primary area of weakness in the past has been his coverage, and Kiffin has done a nice job of covering that up.
Church might be able to hang with Cook underneath at times, but he’s going to struggle in the red zone and downfield. Cook is a 6'5', 254-pound tight end with 4.49 speed. He’s a mismatch for Church because he can use his big body to fend him off near the goal line and use his speed to get separation between the 20s.
Instead, I’d use a combination of players to defend Cook, primarily Carter. The linebacker is a similar weight-speed freak, so he should be able to hold up just from a physical standpoint.
DO blitz quarterback Sam Bradford.
Although Kiffin typically play a lot of zone coverages, he’ll still blitz when necessary. If the 'Boys can’t get decent pressure with four rushers, this week might be a good time to send extra defenders. Using stats at Pro Football Focus, take a look at Bradford’s career success against the blitz.
The quarterback has improved against the blitz over the past three seasons, but that's just because he's gotten better as a quarterback. He's still been much better against three and four-man rushes, so Dallas could find some success attacking Bradford—one of the league's less mobile passers.
DON’T worry too much about wide receiver Tavon Austin.
Austin is an explosive athlete and certainly a fun player to watch. But if the Cowboys are going to game-plan to stop one player on the Rams offense, it should be Cook. He’s the player who can more effectively get the Rams up the field and, more important, get into the end zone.
Austin is a versatile player, but players as small as him usually don’t remain relevant in the red zone. And as much as he can look "electric" in the open field, we're kind of already seeing Austin's game in St. Louis; he's been targeted 19 times and has 12 catches for 88 yards—7.3 yards per catch and 4.6 yards per target. That’s bottom-dwelling efficiency.
Playing primarily in the slot, Austin will be matched up a lot with cornerback Orlando Scandrick. Although he’s not a fan favorite, Scandrick is perhaps the most underrated player in Dallas, and he's at it again this year, allowing just 4.9 yards per attempt.
Here's a bold prediction for this game: Scandrick & Co. will hold Austin to under 50 yards and no scores.
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