Cowboys vs. Chiefs: Breaking Down Dallas' Game Plan
Of the 24 times the Dallas Cowboys have started a season 2-0, they’ve reached the postseason on 21 occasions. This week’s game with the Kansas City Chiefs is a really important one for Dallas, for a number of reasons. Starting with a pair of wins obviously significantly increases the odds of making the playoffs, but the Cowboys need this just to improve their psyche. The team’s worst enemy over the past few seasons has been themselves; this matchup represents an opportunity to overcome their demons—to win a contest everyone thinks they “should win,” taking down an inferior opponent after an emotional win.
But are the Chiefs really inferior to Dallas? The guys in Vegas don’t seem to think so. No one understands the NFL better than them; they have all kinds of cash riding on the outcomes each week, so it’s in their best interest to get it right. And the Cowboys-Chiefs line is currently at -3, as in the Chiefs are three-point favorites. That means the world’s sharpest sports minds think that Dallas is the underdog by a full field goal.
Yup, this contest is going to be about as difficult as one could be against a team coming off a 2-14 season. But this is a revamped Chiefs team, led by a familiar face in head coach Andy Reid. Reid’s first task as coach was finding a capable quarterback, and he did just that with Alex Smith. While Smith might not be able to continually beat Dallas downfield, he can do just enough that, when combined with Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles and the Kansas City defense, the Chiefs have an excellent shot of being the team to come out of Week 2 at 2-0.
To ensure that doesn’t happen, here’s what Dallas needs to do.
DON’T leave Doug Free on an island.
Free played admirably in Week 1, so there’s hope that he’s a new player on the right side. But this week will be one of his toughest matchups all year. Free will face off primarily with outside linebacker Justin Houston, who lined up on the right side of the Kansas City defense on just 6.3 percent of snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
And Houston is really one of the league’s most underrated players. Still just 24 years old and coming off a season with 10 sacks, Houston erupted for three sacks against the Jaguars last week. He’s an explosive athlete, as evidenced by his 10’5" broad jump, who can beat defenders with speed or power.
But his defining trait is his long arms. Although he’s just 6'3", Houston has ridiculous 34’5" arms. I’ve found that, although teams seek tall pass-rushers, the correlation between height and success is really just because taller players tend to have longer arms. So Houston’s “small stature” doesn’t hurt him on the outside; actually, it helps him because he can maintain a low center of gravity while still using his arms to fend off blockers and maintain leverage.
I think the Cowboys match up pretty nicely with the Chiefs’ front seven, but this battle is really where they could struggle. If the ‘Boys leave Free on an island against Houston on a consistent basis, he’s going to get eaten up.
DO run right at Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
One of the ways to slow down the Chiefs’ formidable pass-rushing duo of Houston and Hali is to run right at them, for a few reasons. First, the Cowboys are just a much better rushing team when they get the ball outside. I tracked the offense as running a straight dive up the middle on 57.2 percent of its runs in 2012, yet it gained only 3.27 yards per carry on those plays. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have one of the better young run-blockers in the game in Tyron Smith. DeMarco Murray averaged 6.4 YPC when Smith was at the point of attack in Week 1.
Second, the Chiefs’ run defense is stronger up the middle with nose tackle Dontari Poe. While I don’t think that Kansas City’s three-down linemen will give the Cowboys major problems in pass protection, Poe, Tyson Jackson and Mike DeVito could cause problems in the running game. The ‘Boys should continue to use the stretch plays that we saw on Sunday night.
DO keep it on the ground to move the ball.
When I say “keep it on the ground to move the ball,” I mean using the running game as an actual offensive weapon as opposed to just mixing it up. The Cowboys aren’t a great rushing team and I typically don’t advocate that they run the ball much early in games, but I think they’re going to find some rushing success in this contest.
That’s because we know the Chiefs are going to mimic the Giants’ game plan, which involved playing two deep safeties on nearly every snap. If that’s the look Dallas sees, it’ll need to change its offensive approach from the one that resulted in Tony Romo’s lowest single-game YPA since 2009.
And there’s not much reason to think Romo will substantially improve in Week 2. Using the Game Similarity Level Projection app at rotoViz, we can look at how quarterbacks really similar to Romo have performed in recent matchups with defenses comparable to that of the Chiefs—a really good way to project players moving forward.
And looking at Romo’s 25 closest comps, the quarterbacks in matchups like this one have the following average stat line: 21-of-38 (55.3 percent) for 232 yards, 1.52 touchdowns and 0.8 interceptions. Not great. The truth is that this is a very underrated Chiefs defense that is going to give Romo looks with which he struggled in Week 1.
DON’T run from tight formations.
The Cowboys are significantly better when rushing the ball from spread formations as opposed to tight ones. Check it out.
And the situations in which they used those two types of formations weren’t significantly different; the average yards to go on the spread runs wasn’t even a full yard more than the tight ones.
DO continue to run play action.
This will be an interesting game to watch Bill Callahan call plays because we’ll get to see if he will stick with something that didn’t work last week: play-action passes. The Cowboys ran a play-action pass on 15.7 percent of Romo’s dropbacks last week—up from 10.0 percent in 2012 (subscription required). That rate was the lowest in the NFL, and it wasn’t even close.
Yet Romo has always been good on play action, with or without a running game. Last year, he had a 109.1 passer rating on play-action looks. He was just 3-of-7 on them last week, but that’s such a small sample that the Cowboys shouldn’t be deterred from running them even more in the future. Let’s see if Callahan sees it that way, too.
DO force the ball to Dez Bryant, but intelligently.
It looks like Bryant is going to give it a go on Sunday.
Cowboys got good news on Dez Bryant MRI results, per team official, they came back negative and he should play against Chiefs as expected— Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) September 10, 2013
That’s good news for Dallas, but it needs to find a way to get him the ball, regardless of the coverage. You never want to force the ball into a true double-team, but there are ways to avoid dealing with a safety over the top.
As I explained in yesterday’s analysis of how the Giants stopped Bryant, the ‘Boys can throw back-shoulder, line up in bunch formations and stretch the field horizontally as opposed to vertically in order to get Bryant open against safety help. Because if “taking what the defense gives them” again results in 5.4 YPA through the air, Dallas is in trouble.
DON’T blitz Alex Smith.
Defensively, the Cowboys need to be careful in this game. Smith has proven to be deadly against the blitz in the past, compiling a stellar 126.8 passer rating (subscription required) in 2012 when defenses sent five or more rushers. Smith’s primary weapon is his accuracy, so he can really burn the Cowboys if they blitz him and don’t get there right away.
Plus, it’s risky to come after Smith since his running back—the one with the highest YPC for any running back in the history of the NFL—can take any play to the house. It might be best to sit back in safe zones just because blitzing and missing on Jamaal Charles could spell trouble. If there’s no one in the back end when he’s on the open field, look out.
DO be aware of screens.
The Chiefs have a quarterback who loves to throw the ball short, a running back who can catch passes out of the backfield and take them 80 yards in the blink of an eye, and now a head coach who is in love with screen passes. The Eagles were often the league’s best screen team under Reid, and you can bet the Chiefs will whip them out on Sunday. That’s actually another reason to not blitz Smith; screen passes are difficult to execute when the defense is in a conservative zone coverage.
DO double-team Dwayne Bowe.
Who is going to beat the Cowboys defense this week? Charles is the Chiefs’ main weapon, so the ‘Boys need to be prepared for him. I don’t think he’s the type of player who requires an extra safety in the box because he’s more of a straight-line runner. He won’t consistently gash you for five and six yards, but he will change the game in a hurry if you let him get into space.
That means the Cowboys can play with two deep safeties, if they like, and still be okay against the run. Whatever they choose, the ‘Boys should look into doubling Bowe. With all due respect to Donnie Avery and Anthony Fasano, it’s Charles and Bowe who have the ability to beat Dallas on Sunday.
By playing with a safety over top of Bowe in much the same way that the Giants did on Bryant, the Cowboys can stop big plays while also allowing the cornerbacks to play aggressively underneath, taking away slants and other short routes on which Bowe could use his big body to make grabs.
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