Dallas Cowboys vs. Atlanta Falcons: Sketching out a Game Plan for Dallas

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 1, 2012

Oct 28, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) runs after a catch in the third quarter against the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

The last time the Dallas Cowboys faced an undefeated team beyond Week 4, Dallas shocked the 13-0 New Orleans Saints and the rest of the world at the Superdome with a 24-17 upset victory in 2009. 

Dallas slayed Goliath in that game with an aggressive, nothing-to-lose approach. The running game wasn't overly effective, but Tony Romo hit on six passes that went for 20 yards or more. Your typical NFL team accomplishes that about three times per game. 

That's how the Cowboys should go about their business yet again as they face the league's last unbeaten team, the 7-0 Atlanta Falcons, Sunday night at the Georgia Dome. 

Here's more on that, along with a suggested approach on defense.


On offense, play like you're behind...even if you aren't

I have to give credit to Tony Romo for this offensive game plan. He told the media Wednesday that he really liked the way Jason Garrett called the game once Dallas was down 23-0 against the Giants last week, and he wants to see more of that approach going forward. 

"We really did a lot of things that I liked," said Romo, per the Dallas Morning News. "I'm pushing coach to kind of get the offense more in that mode a little bit, which is nice. But styles make fights sometimes so we'll look at different opponents and see different things."

The run wasn't working and Dallas went to the air, with Romo having the chance to lock into his favorite targets, Jason Witten and Miles Austin. The two receivers were targeted on a combined 17-of-23 passes during a particularly successful four-drive stretch the quarterback is referring to (per Pro Football Focus).

The thing about the Atlanta defense is it might be just as susceptible in the slot and against tight ends. 

With Brent Grimes out and Dunta Robinson back primarily covering outside receivers, the Falcons don't have anyone who stands out and can deal with Austin in the slot. The Giants faced that same problem last week, and they had a ridiculous amount of trouble with Witten, who had a tight end-record 18 catches.

Ten of Witten's receptions came against linebackers, and it just so happens that Atlanta's best cover linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, will either miss Sunday's game or will be less than 100 percent due to an ankle injury suffered against the Eagles in Week 8.

Stephen Nicholas is capable, too, as are starting safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, but with Dez Bryant drawing safety help often on the outside, there should still be plenty of opportunities for Romo to hit Witten and Austin Sunday night.

I'm not suggesting Dallas ditch the running game, because Philadelphia bailed too early in that respect last week against Atlanta and it cost the Eagles. Plus, the Falcons have given up 5.1 yards per carry this season, which ranks 31st in the NFL. 

But so long as DeMarco Murray is sidelined, the Cowboys' clear strength is throwing the ball. They have to be in desperation mode as an underdog Sunday night, which means they have to continue to attacking the same way they did against New York.


On defense, trust your secondary

The Falcons are actually fairly similar to the Giants on offense, too, which could work to the Cowboys' advantage. Dallas played fantastic defense throughout last Sunday's game. If it weren't for a ridiculous number of turnovers (six), they would have beaten the G-men despite lacking Murray and superstar linebacker Sean Lee. 

The key to stopping the Falcons is slowing down their top two wide receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White. The Eagles couldn't do that with their top two cornerbacks and a tepid pass rush last week, but the Cowboys were lights-out in coverage against Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in Week 8. 

Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are playing great and the depleted front seven is still looking as though it should be able to hold things down against the run. Ahmad Bradshaw was held in check by the Cowboys last week, and Atlanta's averaging only 3.8 yards per carry this season. If Michael Turner comes alive and burns you, so be it. But the odds don't favor that happening. 

I'd have Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr take care of White, who may be moved around a lot, especially if Harry Douglas is still out due to injury. Scandrick can handle him inside with safety help, and Carr should provide coverage on the outside. Then you have Clairborne and/or Mike Jenkins on Jones and force Matt Ryan to beat your spare safety with Tony Gonzalez, or use Turner to challenge a defensive front that is still solid against the run. 

Dallas didn't even think of blitzing Eli Manning most of the time Sunday. Rob Ryan trusted his talented secondary and relied on natural pressure. With DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, that's a good strategy, and Ryan is more vulnerable than Manning against pressure. Both quarterbacks, though, have ratings of 90 or higher when blitzed. 

The Cowboys don't have to be fancy against Atlanta. In fact, fanciness will only hurt them. They have to trust their personnel. If the offense limits the turnovers this time, the D could make a statement.