Dallas Cowboys vs. Baltimore Ravens: Sketching out a Game Plan for Dallas
The Dallas Cowboys have had nearly two weeks to prepare for one of the fiercest defensive fronts and one of the best all-around teams in football. On top of all that, the Baltimore Ravens have won 31 of their last 36 home games, dating back to 2008. That's a ridiculous home winning percentage of .861.
So the Cowboys' chances aren't great, but on any given Sunday blah blah blah, and Dallas has the talent to make this happen. Let's take a look at the best method by which it can secure a road upset to get back on track.
Load up the slot and force one-on-one matchups on the outside
The Baltimore defense hasn't been quite the same this year without Terrell Suggs, Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson, but you'd still have to be insane to overlook what it can do. The run defense is giving up only 3.5 yards per carry, which is the same number it posted last year in that category, and it's actually on pace to increase its takeaway total by 42 percent (27 to 38).
Considering that Dallas has already turned it over 11 times in four games and has gone nowhere on the ground due in part to offensive line issues, this is a terrible matchup for the Cowboys offense.
But the one advantage Dallas almost always has is that Tony Romo has the ability to utilize so many different options in the passing game. It just so happens that in the only game the Ravens faced a similarly deep group of pass-catchers this season, they gave up 24 points in a loss to the Eagles.
In fact, neither Philadelphia nor New England were able to establish the run against Baltimore, but they still combined to score 54 points in back-to-back weeks against the Ravens by spreading the ball around.
In both cases, those teams were able to experience success by utilizing the slot quite often. Baltimore doesn't have a strong group of corners, so the idea is to force all three onto the field often. With Lardarius Webb forced to move inside to deal with Jason Avant or Wes Welker (or in this case, Miles Austin), that gives the quarterback some prime opportunities to exploit Cary Williams or Jimmy Smith on the outside.
Should Dallas bother trying to establish balance?
Throw in Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray as addition options inside or underneath and you're bound to pull a safety in to free up either Dez Bryant or Kevin Ogletree. Williams was beaten often by DeSean Jackson in Week 2 and destroyed by Brandon Lloyd in Week 3.
Obviously, in order to accomplish this, you need three things. One is a deep group of wideouts and tight ends capable of actually forcing defenses to account heavily for who's in the slot. The second is an experienced quarterback who can quickly recognize where the safety help is going. And the third is an offensive line that can buy said quarterback time to get to that read. Dallas has the first two, and Baltimore will at least make things easier for the third factor because the team's pass rush has been tepid without Suggs.
Ogletree has been on the field more and more each week to start the season. The Cowboys should increase his snap count again Sunday in an attempt to stretch Baltimore's secondary thin.
Stay home on defense to contain Baltimore's fast receivers and to let them make the mistakes
There might not be a bigger deep threat in the game right now than Torrey Smith. Baltimore loves to toss it up to Smith down field, and he's already come down with a league-high seven catches of 20 yards or more.
The good thing is that Dallas doesn't have to over-compensate to hold Ray Rice in check up front. It should be able to do that without loading the box because Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Josh Brent, Sean Lissemore, Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears are good enough in run defense to keep Rice from exploding.
There's also no use blitzing Joe Flacco with frequency. He has an unbelievable 109.2 passer rating when blitzed this year, according to Pro Football Focus. It'd be foolish to sacrifice key run and pass defenders on ill-fated blitzes when Flacco has struggled more against strong coverage than strong pass rushes. Flacco hasn't faced a secondary this deep yet, and Dallas can probably afford keep four or even five guys out of the box for much of this game.
With that being the case, the Cowboys should be able to commit coverage fully geared toward ensuring that Smith doesn't make any big plays. Brandon Carr will likely deal with Smith with a safety always providing support, while Orlando Scandrick should have his hands full with Anquan Boldin, but should have help fairly often, too.
Rob Ryan can have a fluid approach to how he uses Morris Claiborne, Mike Jenkins, Gerald Sensabaugh and Danny McCray depending on how often the Ravens use Rice as a receiver in comparison to their tricky tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and their other speedy third wide receiver, Jacoby Jones.
The key is that, unlike most defenses, the Cowboys don't really have to pick their poison. They have the personnel to keep Rice in check, the natural pass-rushing ability to apply some pressure on Flacco without blitzing and the secondary to limit Baltimore's talented group of receivers.
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