Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys: Breaking Down the Lions' Game Plan

Jeff Risdon@@JeffRisdonContributor IOctober 24, 2013

The Detroit Lions host the Dallas Cowboys in a meeting of NFC playoff aspirants. 

What: Dallas Cowboys (4-3) vs. Detroit Lions (4-3)

Where: Ford Field, Detroit 

When: Sunday, October 27, 1 p.m ET

Watch: Fox, check local listings

The Lions are coming off a hard-fought 27-24 home loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals won on a last-second field goal from Mike Nugent.

Dallas vanquished NFC East foe Philadelphia, 17-3, to seize control of first place in that division. 

The Cowboys lead the all-time series, 13-11, which includes a 1-1 split in the playoffs. The Cowboys are the only team the Lions have defeated in the playoffs in the Super Bowl era, a 38-6 pounding of Troy Aikman and friends in the NFC divisional round after the 1991 season. 

Detroit also won the last meeting in a little more dramatic fashion. In Week 4 of the 2011 season, the Cowboys raced out to a 27-3 lead in the third quarter and appeared poised to hang the first loss of the season on Detroit. 

Interception returns for touchdowns by Bobby Carpenter and Chris Houston started the rally for Detroit. Still trailing, 30-17, entering the fourth quarter, the Lions capped off one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, thanks to two Matt Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson touchdowns. Detroit won the thriller, 34-30. 

These Cowboys look a lot different defensively than that fateful day two years ago. After years of running a 3-4 front, Dallas made the radical change to the conservative 4-3 styling of Monte Kiffin. He is the father of the Tampa 2 scheme which relies heavily on rushing the front four and playing Cover 2 zone behind it. 

Lions fans will recognize the Dallas defensive line coach. That would be former Lions head man Rod Marinelli. Even though he was miserable as a head coach, I'm sure Detroit fans respect his great work with that position group. 

Lions fans also need to respect the Tony Romo-Dez Bryant connection on offense. Bryant presents a major challenge for the secondary, perhaps even more than the great A.J. Green did a week ago. Green went off for 155 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown.

Bryant has that same sort of dynamic ability. He should be the focus of the defensive game plan, but he's not the only receiver the Lions need to worry about.


Put a Mitten on Witten

Tight end Jason Witten presents a very real problem for the Lions. After last week's appalling coverage work from the Detroit linebackers, this matchup figures to be even more critical to the outcome of Sunday's game.

Witten is the master of the subtle moves to get himself free. He's not fleet of foot, but his body control and his use of footwork are truly artful as he runs routes. 

Dallas does a very good job of forcing isolation coverage with a linebacker or a safety on Witten, and the cagey veteran wins a lot more of those battles than he loses. 

Here's a play from last week's win over Philadelphia designed to free Witten. It worked masterfully, and if the Lions play pass defense the way they did against Cincinnati, it will work once again.


The Cowboys come out with four wideouts, and Witten flexes in the slot. Philadelphia counters by moving a safety up tight, leaving a single high safety deep to help where he sees fit.

The receivers quickly get down the field. Witten tacks inside a bit, and the defender who lined up over him, pre-snap, drifts outside. He's not even looking at Witten as he runs by.

The problem for the Eagles here is that the two other defenders on Witten duty are ignoring him, too. The linebacker closest to him is staring down Romo in the backfield, while the deep safety is backpedaling away from him. 

Philadelphia's linebackers are completely lost here. It's not dissimilar to how Stephen Tulloch looked in coverage last week. He simply doesn't have the speed moving backward to handle Witten. Just as in this play, the linebacker must get reliable safety help.

Unfortunately, the Eagles safety here takes a circuitous route. He's already late to recognize Witten drifting across the field. 

Look at how much room Witten has to make the catch and what a giant throwing window Romo gets to aim for. The Eagles did manage some pressure up front but Romo slid forward and delivered a strike.

After last week's vulnerability in the middle of the field, you can bet the Cowboys will try plays like this—if not Witten as the primary receiver, then Bryant breaking across from the outside behind him. 

Plays like this are defended by good anticipation and field awareness from the linebackers and safeties, as well as disruptive pressure from the front four. Detroit has shown those abilities, but not last week. This week must be sharper.


Red-Zone Paydirt

Dallas is going to score some points in this game; that much is a given. This looks to be one of those games where the Lions are going to have to outscore the opponent more than simply holding them to fewer points. 

That might sound like semantic mumbo-jumbo, but it's a very real concept. The Lions have to maximize scoring opportunities and aggressively chase every point they can get. 

One of the best ways to do that is to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. 

The Cowboys rank 18th in red-zone touchdown defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 56.5 percent of opportunities. By contrast, the Lions rank fifth at 42.1 percent. 

Here is a play Lions fans will instantly recognize, one which has worked well in both the red zone as well as on long third-down situations. 

This is the inside screen to Reggie Bush. Detroit uses this play in some variation in just about every game. This one is from the Cleveland game in Week 6.

It's 1st-and-10 from the Cleveland 18. The Lions open the play with Bush in the slot and Calvin Johnson lined up next to Stafford in the shotgun. Johnson motions out, and this causes a lot of consternation among the Cleveland defense. 

As a result of the shuffling to help on Johnson, Bush winds up isolated in space on inside linebacker Craig Robertson (No. 53), with safety T.J. Ward (No. 43) providing downfield backup. 

One of the keys to the play is that Bush takes a sharp jab step forward, sending Robertson into a backpedal to create even more room. It's a little subtlety to the play which makes a world of difference.

Ward immediately bails off Bush and sprints to his left to help on the outside receivers and in the direction where Johnson is heading. At the same time, the center, left guard and right guard all release after a token pause to get out in front of the play. This is another small nuance which the Lions execute perfectly.

Robertson actually reads the play and closes quickly on Bush, but left guard Rob Sims beats him to the point of attack. Sims runs him over like a semi hitting a deer. Now the only defender between Bush and the end zone is Ward, who has reacted and posits himself in a straight line about 13 yards downfield from Bush.

But Bush is not alone. Center Dominic Raiola (No. 51) is riding shotgun out in front, and Bush uses him expertly. Even though Raiola, ultimately, whiffs on his attempt to block Ward, he's given Bush enough room to dodge the brunt of Ward's poor tackling attempt. 

The wide receivers help this play with some excellent blocking. Kevin Ogletree locked up one backside pursuer, while Ryan Broyles fights with Buster Skrine for several yards and gives Bush just enough time to get to the end zone. 

This play will work against Dallas as well, though the Cowboys do have an extremely good cover linebacker in Sean Lee and a decent cover safety in Barry Church. It's the attention to detail and effort by the entire Lions offense which makes this a successful play.

If the Lions wind up with the ball between the Dallas 10- and 25-yard line, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can dial this concept up. Too often, the Lions get predictable with the fades to Johnson or Joseph Fauria. This is an excellent way to stress the Dallas defense. 


Play the Action

Dallas is an excellent play-action throwing team. As Nathan Elder, who writes for Cowboys fan sites, noted on Twitter:

Romo's QB Rating on PA throws is 131.1. On non-PA throws, it's 98.3. Despite that massive difference, 30 PA attempts vs. 255 non-PA attempts

— Nathan Elder (@ElderStatsman) October 22, 2013

You can bet coach Jason Garrett is aware of that discrepancy. He will also be aware of how often Lions corner Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis like to bite on double moves.

The Detroit defense is quite vulnerable to good play action. There was never a greater validation of that fact than the long A.J. Green touchdown last week.

This play is proof the play-action fake doesn't even have to be well-executed. 

The player with the arrow is safety Glover Quin, who has inside deep-cover responsibility on Green, the outside receiver at the top. Quin immediately darts toward the line as the Bengals quarterback pulls back from center. 

Dalton's fake to the running back isn't a good one. He only extends the ball out for a brief second, and he's already peeling away for the bootleg before the runner is past him. Quin doesn't care; he's hellbent on crashing the run to the opposite side of the formation, completely ignoring the possibility it might be a trap. 

Of course, Quin's mental error is compounded by Houston coming to a flat-footed stop when Green does a stutter step. The wideout blows past him and has no help. This was an easy touchdown even though Dalton grossly underthrew the ball and nearly allowed Houston to catch up.

Romo is going to deliver that ball more sharply than Dalton, and Bryant might even be faster than Green. 

Even though the Lions rank dead last in opposing rush yards per attempt, they must see the forest for the trees. It's better to give up 5.1 yards a few times on the ground than it is to give up one 82-yard pass. 

Dallas doesn't want to run the ball. They average just 21.1 attempts per game, good for 29th in the league. For those fans who think the Lions don't run the ball enough, Detroit ranks 20th at 25.6 rushes per game. 

Their best running back, DeMarco Murray, missed last week's game and likely won't be at full speed against Detroit. Primary backup Joseph Randle averages just 2.7 yards per carry. 

In short, let Dallas run the ball. It keeps them from exploiting the more costly weakness down the field. Safeties Glover Quin and Louis Delmas must err on the side of being too conservative. Instead of flying up the field at the mere possibility of the run, wait to confirm the running back actually has the ball. 

It's the opposite of the normal admonition to the defensive line, which is "play the run on the way to the pass rush.". The Lions linebackers and secondary need to play the pass on the way to stopping the run.

Dallas might rack up a lot of running yards that way, but they're unlikely to get the back-breaking big play by running in lieu of passing. 

As always, Detroit also needs to avoid the frivolous penalties. That includes the offside calls which have dogged the defense in recent weeks. 

If the Lions can do these things, I believe they can hit the bye week feeling very good at 5-3. 


Stats are courtesy of Team Rankings, unless noted otherwise. 


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