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How Matthew Stafford Can Exploit Dallas Cowboys' Secondary

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How Matthew Stafford Can Exploit Dallas Cowboys' Secondary
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys visit the Detroit Lions this Sunday fresh off a complete shutdown of the semi-explosive Philadelphia Eagles. But don't get carried away with Dallas' performance. There are plenty of holes in the secondary for quarterback Matthew Stafford to exploit.

The Cowboys brought in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's famed "Tampa Cover 2" to turn around a defense that defined mediocrity (19th in total yards allowed and 24th in points allowed).

However, that hasn't been the whole case.

Kiffin has tweaked his defense to fit his square pegs in round holes. His cornerbacks are better suited to running a man-coverage scheme, so the old dog learned a new trick and now features man coverage more often than zone. 

/Getty Images

The change has brought mixed results. While it has allowed well-paid cornerback Brandon Carr a chance to limit some of the game's best receivers, the scheme left others on an island, resulting in Peyton Manning skewering the Dallas defense.

Matthew Stafford isn't Manning, but the two offenses are more similar than you think. That's why, when explaining how the Lions should attack the Cowboys secondary, we'll be focusing on examples provided by the Denver Broncos.

Before we get to any of the plays, there's a very basic premise that must be stolen from the Denver disaster: spread out the Dallas defenders.

In the plays I watched from the Denver game, the Broncos came out with a lot of three-receiver sets that featured the tight end (Julius Thomas) in an upright position a few yards from the tackle. It's exactly the same thesis that the college spread is predicated on: putting your playmakers in space and forcing defenders to cover more ground. 

 

Nothing Wrong with Nickel and Diming

With that said, let's turn to the tape.

The first play featured is a simple tight end out against the Cover 2. The cornerback's responsibility will be the flats, while the safeties will each occupy a deep half. You can see Julius Thomas is lined up just behind the right tackle in a standing position with wide receiver Eric Decker outside of him.

At the snap, Decker is going to head for the seam, slicing vertically between cornerback Morris Claiborne and the linebacker. This will cause Claiborne to turn his hips in an effort to run with Decker. 

Meanwhile, Thomas simply takes a couple strides up the field before cutting into Claiborne's unoccupied flat with Manning already delivering the ball.

Now, Thomas has already picked up three yards with a good chance to grab a few more.

Detroit has used these quick-hitters effectively this season. In fact, that dink-and-dunk approach helped the Lions convert 13 of 19 third downs against the Bengals

Lions fans can't help but feel anxious about Brandon Pettigrew filling this role. But he has performed well in spurts (seven catches against the Bears), and Stafford could turn to Joseph Fauria or even Reggie Bush to handle these routes.

 

Running Backs Roaming Free

The Lions have one notable offensive advantage over the Broncos: Reggie Bush. Knowshon Moreno has been solid, but he can't match Bush in explosiveness or field vision. 

That's why the Lions are a much more lethal team when Bush gets the ball in space, using the plays like the one featured above, screens or flare passes.

However, the Lions can exploit Bush's speed against the Cowboys' linebackers in the downfield(-ish) passing game as well. Check out this easy illustration of a wheel route run by the Broncos.

Manning is lined up in the shotgun with Moreno next to him. Again, Decker is on the outside and his purpose is to clear out the cornerback.

On the snap, Decker bursts off the line, and the cornerback has no choice but to go with his man. 

This creates the space that Moreno will need to operate against the linebacker coming forward to jump any short routes. 

At this point, Moreno easily accelerates past him and Manning unfurls a touch pass that rainbows over the linebacker.

Now, a dangerous playmaker (Bush in Detroit's case) has the ball with a blocker and room to operate nine yards downfield. That's a good situation.

 

Can the Lions Replicate Any of That?

I understand your concern. Stafford wasn't always on point against Cincy, so expecting him to make a touch pass because Peyton Manning can seems like wishful thinking. But don't lose hope due to a few overthrows and close misses. Stafford can make every pass necessary.

For instance, check out this play against man coverage from the Bengals. 

Here, we have Calvin Johnson lined up in the slot against press coverage from cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. I could do another 1,000 words just on Megatron's advantages here, but I'll spare you the obvious. 

Johnson gets a fairly clean break off the snap and runs a basic fly route. Despite the mentioned talent disparity, Kirkpatrick stays right in his hip pocket.

If the last picture didn't do Kirkpatrick's coverage justice, maybe this one will illustrate it better. The difference between this frame and the last one is that Stafford has already thrown the ball. 

And there's nothing Kirkpatrick can do. 

Stafford hits Johnson's outside shoulder with such precision that the ball is already in Johnson's gut before poor Kirkpatrick can do anything, leading to Johnson's first touchdown of the day.

While Johnson's crazy 50-yard jumpball was a more impressive display of his physical prowess, this play exemplifies why the Lions offense can reach an unstoppable level.

The warning is clear. If you want to play man coverage against Detroit, prepare to take some bruises regardless of your best efforts.

 

Towering over the Competition

Finally, I'm not leaving without posting this table.

The Red Zone Matchup
Detroit Receiver Height Dallas Defender Height
Calvin Johnson 6'5" Brandon Carr 6'0"
Kris Durham 6'6" Morris Claiborne 5'11"
Joseph Fauria 6'7" Orlando Scandrick 5'10"
Brandon Pettigrew 6'5" Barry Church 6'2"

detroitlions.com and dallascowboys.com

My co-host on Lions Central Radio and fellow B/R writer, Nick Kostora, pointed out how great of a height advantage the Lions had in the red zone against the Bengals. I wanted you to see the raw numbers regarding that same matchup with the Cowboys.

Obviously, the fact that the Broncos, one of the best offenses in the league, torched the Dallas secondary doesn't mean the Lions are putting up 51 points. Additionally, the overwhelming vertical advantage in the red zone doesn't put any points on the board. 

However, the above illustrates that the Lions will have opportunities to exploit the Dallas defensive backs and linebackers on Sunday. It's all a matter of execution now. 

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