Hold off on the obituaries: The Cowboys are back in the mix as a title contender, and they have their vastly improved defense to thank for it.
Led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeMarcus Ware, the defense is transforming America's Team into a squad that should be feared heading into the postseason. The much-maligned unit has found its identity and is ranked ninth in total defense heading into Saturday's pivotal game against Baltimore. In the past seven weeks, the Cowboys are only allowing 268.3 yards and 16.1 points a game. They've held their last four opponents to less than 80 yards rushing, and unleashed a pass rush that has been punishing quarterbacks at an alarming rate. Dallas has made at least five sacks in each of its past four, increasing its league-leading total to 53.
With the defense finally showing the promise that many expected heading into the season, many are pointing to Wade Phillips' increased involvement as the reason for the unit's improved play.
"Wade Phillips is doing an outstanding job and our defense is motivated," Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones told USA Today. "He is utilizing our talent exceptionally."
After spending the first half of the season sparingly blitzing opponents due to concerns about their inexperienced and banged up secondary, the Cowboys have aggressively started pressuring the quarterback with more five- and six-man pressures. With Ware used extensively as a rusher, the Cowboys have used overload pressures to consistently harass quarterbacks in the pocket. The results have been staggering as the team has 33 sacks and 13 forced turnovers since Phillips reportedly took over the play-calling duties.
But one of the biggest changes the Cowboys have made in recent weeks has been the use of more "press" coverage. By allowing their cornerbacks to get more physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage, the Cowboys are letting their top defensive backs go back to basics. Terence Newman, Anthony Henry, Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick and Adam Jones were all "bump and run" corners in college, so they are most effective when allowed to aggressively jam receivers. With Phillips dialing up more pressure, the decision to play "press" on those downs reduces the quick throws available to the quarterback to defeat the blitz and allows the Cowboys' rushers more time to get home.
In addition, the increased use of man coverage has significantly reduced the amount of blown assignments that had plagued the Cowboys earlier in the year. With each defender clearly aware of his assignment and role, the Cowboys' defense has looked faster and more aggressive.
However, all the talk about the pass rush would be rendered moot if the team hadn't shored up its leaky run defense. A unit that had allowed three 100-yard rushers during the first half of the season has stiffened considerably in recent weeks. The Cowboys rank as the seventh-best run defense in the league, only allowing around 93 yards a game on the ground. With opponents unable to muster a consistent running game, the Cowboys have been able to aggressively load up against the pass in long yardage situations.
"You have to stop the run," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff told USA Today. "That makes a team one-dimensional. Then they have to open up the offense. Once they do that, we can pin our ears back and get after it."
The Cowboys entered the season as perennial favorites to win the Super Bowl because of their star-studded offense, but it is becoming more apparent that a resurgent defense will be the key to their title hopes.
In a year in which trickery and deception has become the norm, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is creating a buzz with his effective use of the unbalanced line in Baltimore. While the formation lacks the sizzle of the "Wildcat" set that took the league by storm, it has transformed the Ravens' offense into a smash-mouth juggernaut this season.
"We think that we're creative," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "We think that we have a chance to be an exciting offense."
The unbalanced line, which gained its popularity as part of the myriad of Single Wing formations used in the early-1920s, aligns an extra offensive lineman to the strength of the formation with the tight end lined up beside the weak side guard (Picture the formation looking like this: TE-G-C-G-T-T) to give the offense an advantage in the running game. With the side with the "tackle over" considered the power side, the offense has the ability to bash the ball on the ground behind three 300-pounders on one side of the formation. The Ravens had sparingly used the formation during the Brian Billick era as part of their goal line sets with perennial Pro Bowler Jonathan Odgen featured as the "tackle eligible."
However, Cameron has expanded on the package to feature multiple variations of the unbalanced line in the Ravens' game plan. Taking advantage of the presence of three starting tackles on the roster, Cameron has unveiled a "super" unbalanced formation with Willie Anderson, Jared Gaither and Adam Terry aligned on the same side (Picture this formation: TE-G-C-G-T-T-T). With the three bruisers comprising a mammoth wall on the strong side, the Ravens have the ability to pound the ball relentlessly to the strength of the formation. The added bulk has increased the confidence in the running game, which has translated into a more physical and aggressive frontline.
"The main thing is it allows you to be a physical offensive line," said Anderson. "We're winning games with it because this offensive line is playing very physical."
With the Ravens experiencing so much success from their "super" unbalanced formation, it leads to the question: Why is it so successful?
First, the formation gives the offense a numerical advantage at the point of attack. The "tackle over" side in the "super" unbalanced set features four massive offensive linemen on one side of the ball and defenses are outflanked when they take their normal alignments against the formation.
Secondly, the formation places a better blocker on the strong side by substituting an additional offensive lineman for the tight end. Most tight ends, including Todd Heap, are not great blockers in the running game, so using an additional lineman gives the team a bigger and more physical presence on the edge. With offensive tackles typically enjoying a significant weight advantage over linebackers and undersized pass rush specialists, the offense is able to move defenders off the ball and give runners ample room to roam on strong-side powers and zone runs.
Lastly, the formation causes confusion when used in conjunction with pre-snap shifts and motions. The quirky offensive formation requires defenses to abandon their normal alignment rules, and the uncertainty is intensified when the offense shifts from a normal offensive set to the unbalanced look. If defenders are not on top of their keys and adjustments, the unconventional set can expose cracks and lead to big plays.
Although the use of the unbalanced line hasn't been solely responsible for the Ravens' sixth-ranked rush offense, the formation has helped a team without a true No.1 runner field roll up almost 142 yards a game on the ground. Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain have taken turns battering defenses out of the formation, and the Ravens' ability to wear down opponents with their physical running game has the decision to incorporate the unconventional formation into their game plan look like a wise one.
"We're not going in trying to gimmick anybody, we're not trying to trick anybody," Cameron said. "We think anything we do gives us a better opportunity to win."
"They'll step up."
With that confident proclamation, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher revealed his expectations for the cast of youngsters who will replace injured Pro Bowl defenders Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch for the remainder of the regular season. Unheralded subs Jason Jones, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford will attempt to fill the void, and their ability to man the job could decide the Titans' postseason fate.
Ball and Ford already have successfully filled in for Vanden Bosch during his four-game absence this season. The duo has combined for 10.5 sacks and provided the same energy the Titans are accustomed to seeing with Vanden Bosch crashing off the edge. Though neither possesses the individual skills to permanently replace Vanden Bosch for the long haul, the tandem has adequately demonstrated it is up to the challenge when required to play bigger roles on the defense.
Jones, the team's second-round pick from Eastern Michigan, has the unenviable task of filling in for Haynesworth at tackle. Haynesworth has been the league's most dominant defensive player the past two seasons, and the Titans' defensive game plan has been built around his versatile set of skills. The two-time Pro Bowler not only dominates the line of scrimmage as a run stopper, but also is one of the league's top pass rushers from his interior position.
His ability to generate a rush up the middle forces teams to use double and triple teams inside, which frees up the Titans' defensive ends on the outside. With the defensive line accounting for 26 of the team's 38 sacks, Haynesworth's absence threatens to alter the Titans' standing as one of the league's best teams.
Last season, the team sampled what life was like without the star when he missed three games down the stretch with an injury. The Titans went winless, surrendering 97 points.
With that as a backdrop, it is no wonder Jones has the biggest role to fill down the stretch. The rookie has shown flashes of being a solid starter while filing the role as the team's third defensive tackle. He has 40 tackles and a half sack. Though he is still raw as a run defender, his athleticism makes him a viable threat as a pass rusher.
The former collegiate tight end has good first step quickness and movement skills to be a decent rusher up the gut. While he won't command the double team that Haynesworth demands, Jones could win his share of one-on-one match ups with his finesse skills. In addition, the Titans have the option of using Ball as an interior defender as well. Though he is not a natural interior player, Ball's non-stop motor gives him a chance to be a reliable inside player in spots.
With two of his top defensive players out of the lineup, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will be tempted to abandon his normal four-man rush scheme to incorporate more five- and six-man pressures. The Titans have been able to suffocate opponents with their zone coverage because the pressure from the front four has been exceptional, but the absence of Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch will make it more difficult to generate heat with only their defensive line. Therefore, look for Keith Bulluck and Stephen Tulloch to get more opportunities to rush the passer from their linebacker spots.
In spite of the changes that will take place on the Titans' defense, Jeff Fisher refuses to lower his expectations. "It's no different here than any other place around the league," said Fisher. "When you have stars go down, young players have to step up."