The Cowboys are riding high after last Sunday’s takedown of the Eagles, but their secondary can easily be picked apart by Andrew Luck’s Colts ... plus, smart watching for Week 16 and film study revelations
Many are calling the Cowboys’ 38-27 win over the Eagles the biggest victory in Jason Garrett’s tenure. Impressive indeed, but the music will come to a scratchy halt this Sunday when Dallas’s overachieving defense collides with Andrew Luck’s Colts.
Contrary to popular belief, the Cowboys are not operating out of the Cover 2 base that has defined much of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s career. Cover 2 has become for them what it’s become for about 29 other NFL teams: a situational scheme saved primarily for third down or two-minute situations. And like many of those 29 other teams, the Cowboys also dabble in quarters coverage or man-to-man in those situations.
If we have to label the Cowboys’ base defensive scheme, it’s a Cover 3. That is, each cornerback taking an outside third of the field and a single high safety taking the middle third of the field. In the box are four underneath defenders and four pass rushers. In this scheme, Marinelli has also been known to play man-to-man on the outside—the same thing Pete Carroll does up in Seattle.
But the Cowboys are a lesser version of the Seahawks. (With the possible exception of Orlando Scandrick as a nickel slot, every Cowboys’ starter would back up the current Seahawks’ starter.) The Colts, meanwhile, are one of the best “Cover 3 beating” teams in football.
It starts, of course, with Andrew Luck. Because he’s so deft at reading the field, both pre-and post-snap, he’s often immune to the copious disguises that precede many Cover 3 looks. He also plays in an offense that, under coordinator Pep Hamilton, has been superb at exploiting Cover 3 through play design.
It’s quite possible that Marinelli will employ different tactics this Sunday. The Cowboys have been decent in man coverage lately, something the Colts have struggled against. Above all, Cover 3 creates an eight-man box, which is why so many teams play it on first- and second-down. But the Colts’ rushing attack doesn’t warrant an eight-man box. The stiff-hipped Trent Richardson is the worst starting back in the NFL, and Dan Herron—the man who has been taking some of Richardson’s carries but should be getting all of them—is quick but not dynamic.
If Marinelli wants to keep two safeties back deep and play quarters, Cover 2 or “2-man,” he can. This does, however, mean Dallas could only rush four. Typically, Marinelli prefers that. But aside from the occasional splash (usually from 3-technique Tyrone Crawford), the Cowboys’ albeit improving D-line doesn’t generate consistent pressure. Plays can extend late in the down, when few quarterbacks are as good as Luck.
Expect the Colts to work the deep-intermediate levels of the field and challenge the Cowboys’ back seven, particularly safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. With rookie Donte Moncrief supplanting the mediocre Hakeem Nicks in more packages, the Colts have one of the league’s fastest receiving corps. This will be a week the Cowboys defense doesn’t overachieve.
Jumping Out on Film
Panthers rookie guards Andrew Norwell (undrafted) and Trai Turner (third round) have been very stellar the past few weeks after sharp ups and downs earlier in the year, when injuries forced both into the starting lineup prematurely. Norwell is much improved as a run-blocker on the move and Turner has the size and strength to become a mauler. This week they face a Browns’ run defense that, despite good talent along the front seven and one of the league’s best alley-running safeties in Donte Whitner, ranks 31st against the rush.
The Rams’ young defense is finally grasping coordinator Gregg Williams’ eclectic, pressure-centric scheme. Here are two smart tactics Williams has employed over the past two weeks that will become league-wide trends:
1) Using double A-gap pressure with the defensive tackles in the A gaps and the inside linebackers in the B gaps. By flip-flopping these two position groups, Williams gets defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers matched against a guard or center, which are almost always an offense’s least athletic linemen.
2) Using cornerback E.J. Gaines at middle linebacker in Tampa 2 on obvious passing downs. In Tampa 2, the middle linebacker’s coverage responsibilities extend as deep as the deepest middle receiver. It only makes sense to put a natural pass defender in this spot.
Smart Watching for Week 16
Keep an eye on how often the Seahawks split four wide receivers in double-stack positions outside the numbers Sunday night at Arizona. They stole this tactic from Chip Kelly and did it against his Eagles two weeks ago. It forces the defense to send four players to the wide outside regions, leaving only six men to defend the box (assuming the defense keeps a single high safety back, which it usually does). A six-man box is great to run the read-option against, as the QB and RB are both ball-carrying threats behind a five-man O-line, giving the offense a 7 on 6 numbers advantage. The Cardinals have a tough front seven (or, in this case, front six) but in the first matchup against Seattle, they had a mental breakdown or two against Russell Wilson on read-options (most notably young star S Deone Bucannon missing his assignment on Wilson's 40-yard scramble).
The Packers like to toss the ball to Eddie Lacy instead of handing it off, and this quicker approach has helped Green Bay’s rushing attack. But in speaking with guard Josh Sitton on the podcast last week, we learned that there are challenges with the tactic. “Usually with a toss, the linebackers to that side are going to play a little faster,” Sitton said. “You have to be ready for a linebacker to play downhill. We as offensive linemen like to know if it’s going to be toss or not because it definitely affects your block.”
On this week’s podcast Larry Foote, arguably the NFL’s most effective inside linebacker this season, will break down Arizona’s voluminous blitz packages.
10 film study quick-hitters
1) The Dolphins should consider more moving pocket concepts. That’s a way to help their reeling fill-in tackles, Ja’Wuan James and Dallas Thomas. Plus Ryan Tannehill is comfortable on the move, especially going right.
2) A mismatch Philly must be concerned about heading into Saturday at Washington is safety Malcolm Jenkins in man coverage against Jordan Reed. It will be especially perilous when the fluid tight end is detached from the formation.
3) The two best bootleg defenders in football are Terrell Suggs and Justin Houston.
4) Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker deserves to be fired if he has his team play soft Cover 3 against the Lions again.
5) The Falcons defense, minus the Green Bay game, has surrendered only 18.2 points per game since its bye, but they don’t match up well to a Saints offense that’s built for attacking the middle of the field.
6) The Bucs have the NFL’s worst offensive line.
7) On a positive O-line note, Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher is the league’s most improved tackle, and Rodney Hudson has remained a top five center in the second half of the season.
8) Can’t wait to see how Bengals D coordinator Paul Guenther combats Peyton Manning on Monday night. The guess here: Guenther will continue to eschew the blitz and play coverage-oriented concepts.
9) If you’re wondering whether Vernon Davis has looked as bad on film as he has on the surface this year…couldn’t tell you; Davis has been invisible on film.
10) Need a reason to watch Tennessee-Jacksonville on Thursday night? Two surprising fifth-round rookie linebackers who can play fast: Avery Williamson for the Titans and Telvin Smith for the Jags.
For film study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit
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