James D. Smith/AP

Credit the Cowboys’ coaching staff for getting the most out of their roster and turning the team into the season’s biggest surprise. But will it last? Plus, dissecting a smart play by the Eagles and 10 more notes off film study

By Andy Benoit
October 29, 2014

Monday night’s loss notwithstanding, most would agree the Cowboys are the NFL’s biggest surprise here at the midway point. I am now getting regular tweets from people reminding me that I predicted them to finish 5-11. My only solace is I know I’m far from the only one.

What’s baffling is it’s not like the Cowboys have had an eruption of unexpected breakout players. Aside from first-round rookie right guard Zack Martin, it’s the same offense it was a year ago. There were personnel changes on defense, but most of which were downgrades—including the loss stars Sean Lee (ACL injury) and DeMarcus Ware (released).

Which means we have to point to Jason Garrett and his staff in finding a reason for this team’s ascension. That’s even more surprising than the team’s 6-2 record. Remember, this past offseason, the Cowboys had a very awkward adjustment to their offensive coaching staff. Coordinator Bill Callahan was stripped of his play-calling duties and, for all intents and purposes, demoted to “offensive coordinator/offensive line coach." Scott Linehan was brought on as the “passing game coordinator” and given the play sheet.

Callahan took the high road, saying in May via the Dallas Morning News: “I just take on the mindset that things happen for a reason. I live with that and I move on. I make the best of each situation I’m in."

True indeed. Under Callahan, the Cowboys’ gifted but youthful offensive line is flourishing across the board. Martin is having the best rookie season of any guard in the past eight years. Tyron Smith is the best left tackle in football and Travis Frederick should be the All-Pro front runner at center. Most telling: Ronald Leary has gone from being a marked weakness at left guard to a bona fide Pro Bowler contender.

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Heading into the Monday night contest against Washington, this line had given up only 12 sacks on the season. Most of the pressure on Tony Romo on Monday night was a product of the quarterback failing to read Cover 0 blitzes. You can’t blame an O-line for an unblocked defender out of a Cover 0 blitz; the D will always have one more than the O can block. In other words, this is still a good pass-blocking group.

It helps that this line is run-blocking on 49.5 percent of the snaps, second most in the league behind Houston (50.9 percent, according to Pro Football Focus). Credit Linehan, who has always been more of a pass-first guy, for instilling balance. And in doing so, he hasn’t watered down the passing attack, either. Tony Romo’s beloved 3 x 2 spread empty sets are still a staple; and Dez Bryant is being moved around.

On defense, 74-year-old Monte Kiffin, coming off his worst statistical season as a defensive coordinator (and one of the worst of all-time, by many measures) moved to “senior defensive assistant" and was replaced in-house by Rod Marinelli, a longtime coordinator and former head coach. Kiffin has seen his close friend not just keep a middling group of players afloat but actually help most of them swim.

Schematically, Marinelli is more diverse than people realize. He rarely runs the Cover 2 that served as his foundation at previous stops. In its stead are more versatile Cover 3 concepts, with both man and zone techniques from the cornerbacks outside. And while he’s been effective with highly selective blitz designs, mostly Marinelli runs traditional, straightforward concepts that get his men playing fast and hard.

Playing “fast and hard” is a mere prerequisite for defense in the NFL, of course. Historically, succeeding with a scheme like Marinelli’s also requires talented playmakers. The Cowboys, however, have managed to thrive on the sheer strength of their energy and effort. That only happens when players are fundamentally sound and well-schooled on their opponents, the two most obvious signs of good coaching (and not just at the top, but at the position coach levels, where the nuts and bolts of football are taught). Based on all this, Dallas is neck and neck with its Week 8 opponent, Arizona, for being the NFL’s best-coached team in 2014.

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The question is whether this first-half success can carry on through November and December. Personally, I’m of the belief that at some point, talent wins out. The Cowboys’ lack of talent on defense—specifically in edge-rushing—will become a problem. Perhaps Demarcus Lawrence’s eventual return from a broken foot can change that, but now we’re talking about relying on a rookie who missed virtually all of training camp.

Offensively, there has been concern about DeMarco Murray’s workload. That’s not unfounded. Recall that injuries shelved Murray for two games last year, six games in 2012 and three games as a rookie in 2011. If he goes all 16 this year, it will be his first full slate as a pro. History says the Cowboys at some point will have to rely on their aerial attack in a critical game. That’s not the worst thing. Romo has won shootouts before. And with Terrence Williams gaining more experience opposite superstar Dez Bryant, there are enough viable weapons.

But the Cowboys’ success this year stems from a ground game that’s kept a questionable defense off the field and made Romo more of a complementary player. Regardless of how the formula holds up in the second half of the season, it’s already been an impressive year in Big D. After all, they could lose four straight and it’d still be justifiable for the Twitter trolls to remind me that I underestimated this team.

Jumping out on film

Phillip Gaines has been phenomenal since being injected as Kansas City’s fulltime nickel slot two weeks ago. Without Gaines’s stifling man coverage, the Chiefs probably don’t beat the Chargers in Week 7. In Week 8 against the Rams, Gaines was on the field for 75 percent of the snaps and was hardly noticeable (often not a bad thing for a cornerback). The third-round rookie looks much thicker than his listed size of 6-0, 190 pounds and he has the ability to run with receivers downfield. He’s just what Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton needs in order to get back to his full arsenal of pressure packages. 

Smart watching for Week 9

Carolina’s offense at times looks like a house of straw, relying too much on gimmicks, particularly in the ground game. The Saints defense has run hot and cold this year (more cold than hot) but they don’t have an easy front to run against. (It currently ranks 10th, allowing 101 rushing yards per game.) On Thursday night against the Saints, there will be multiple situations that call for Cam Newton to make standard dropback passes from the pocket. This is an area where the fourth-year quarterback can still be choppy, as he at times lacks a great feel for reading coverages before the snap, making for a subtle lack of anticipation to his passing. How much stability Newton can muster dropping back Thursday night will go a long way towards deciding whether it’s Carolina or New Orleans taking the NFC South lead. 

Impressive Coaching

Jeremy Maclin’s 21-yard touchdown last Sunday at Arizona was a prototypical Eagles play. Here’s the breakdown:



Podcast Spotlight

This week we’ll talk with the Raiders’ Khalil Mack, already a Pro Bowl caliber force who has had arguably the most dominant zero-sack first half to any season in NFL history.

10 film study quick-hitters

Odell Beckham and Preston Parker (Elsa/Getty Images) Odell Beckham and Preston Parker (Elsa/Getty Images)

1. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is trying to turn the Giants into a new version of the Packers. But one key difference between these offenses: the Giants receivers are static. Rueben Randle typically lines up on the left, Odell Beckham lines up on the right and, with Victor Cruz out, Preston Parker lines up in the slot. One thing that makes the Packers lethal is their receivers can line up anywhere.

2. A concern about Rams QB Austin Davis: he doesn’t play big in the pocket. He has a small case of Jimmy Clausen syndrome.

3. The Chiefs have two very movable chess pieces: De’Anthony Thomas, who is starting to see more than just gadget-type snaps, and Travis Kelce, who gets touches even as an X-iso receiver, where he can beat safeties and sometimes corners.

4. The Cardinals have a budding star in first-round rookie safety Deon Bucannon. His speed and quickness as a linebacker in Todd Bowles’s predominant dime package has made the entire defense faster.

5. Mark Ingram could rush for 1,200 yards if he ever becomes The Guy somewhere.

6. Seahawks left guard Chris Carpenter had a great start to the season but has hit bumpy roads as of late.

7. When the Chargers played the Dolphins last year, Mike Wallace caught four balls on the first two drives and then was shut out thanks to double teams over the top. It will be interesting to see if San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano employs that same tactic against Miami’s new system.

8. The Paul Posluszny injury devastates a Jaguars defense that was getting tactically defeated earlier in the year but had recently started to bog down.

9. The Vikings haven’t missed Adrian Peterson all that much. Jerick McKinnon is no Peterson but he more than suffices in Norv Turner’s offense. McKinnon’s best trait is his quickness through the hole coupled with his ability to get skinny through those cracks.

10. The Ravens have often been comfortable with Ladarius Webb guarding Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown one on one. They may not be able to do that Sunday night, though. With Jimmy Smith out, Baltimore has gone with a four-safety dime package, with Matt Elam covering the slot. Webb has been forced to stay outside. Look for Pittsburgh to put Brown inside regularly.

For Film Study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit

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