It’s the battle of the playoff-hopeful 4-3 squads as the Dallas Cowboys travel to take on the Detroit Lions in Week 8. Considering the Cowboys’ upcoming schedule and their standing within the NFC East, it’s a vital game for them. If they lose, the 'Boys could fall back into a tie for first in the division. With the Saints on deck in a couple weeks, the Cowboys would then likely enter their Week 11 bye at just 5-5.
If they come out victorious, however, Dallas could potentially extend their lead on the division to two games. And despite the fact that quarterback Tony Romo isn’t a choker, it sure would be nice to have the NFC East wrapped up by the time Week 17 rolls around.
To do it, the Cowboys will need to play their best ball against an explosive Lions team. Here are the “DOs” and "DON’Ts” for Dallas against Detroit in Week 8.
DO force quarterback Matthew Stafford to his left
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Stafford has thrown only 48 passes to the left side of the field this year—16.6 percent of this throws. He’s struggled on those plays, completing only 28 passes (58.3 percent) for 229 yards (4.77 YPA). That’s pretty horrible considering he’s completed 62.0 percent of all other throws, totaling 7.85 YPA.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin should do everything in his power to get Stafford to throw to his left. That includes trying to flush him out to the left and rolling coverages so that he’s forced to go that direction when throwing.
DON’T blitz Stafford too often
One of the big changes Stafford has made in 2013 is getting the ball out of his hands quickly. He’s taken an average of just 2.33 seconds to throw—the fastest of any quarterback in the NFL. You can see how Stafford’s release time has shifted as compared to the past couple years.
While Stafford hasn’t been out of this world against the blitz, he’s generated some big plays. Of his 91 throws against five or more rushers, Stafford has thrown a touchdown eight times. That’s an 8.8 percent touchdown rate, compared to just 3.5 percent when defenses send four or fewer rushers.
Unless the Cowboys get down big and need to increase play-to-play variance, they should probably take a more conservative approach on Sunday. Plus, unless they zone blitz, sending extra rushers could mean single coverage on you-know-who.
DO double-team wide receiver Calvin Johnson
Well, this is pretty obvious, right? Johnson needs to be double-teamed, but I’d take it as far as saying the Cowboys should double him on every play. Although defenses always pay extra attention to Megatron, he’s generally not doubled on every snap.
By doubling Johnson on every play, the Cowboys will force another player to beat them. Running back Reggie Bush is a threat, but you have to like the Cowboys’ chances against wide receiver Kris Durham and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
DO play Cover 1
When an offense has one primary receiving threat coupled with a playmaker in the backfield, Cover 1 can work wonders. It’s a simple concept: man coverage underneath with a safety playing free in the middle.
In this case, the free safety would shade over top of Johnson on every play. That would basically give Dallas a Cover 2-esque look over Megatron and true man coverage elsewhere. It would also allow safety Barry Church to roam around in the box—where he’s most comfortable—in an effort to contain Bush out of the backfield.
DO use a hard count
The Lions are loaded on the defensive line with defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley inside and defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and Willie Young on the outside. All of those players have the potential to be extremely disruptive in all facets of the game.
Part of their success comes because they’re all effective at jumping the snap. It seems like the Lions coaches teach their players to do just that, too, because they have more pre-snap defensive penalties than any other team in the league. They ranked second in 2012 and third in 2011, so this is a recurring trend.
Quarterback Tony Romo has improved his hard count over the years, and it could work well this week against the ultra-aggressive Lions defensive line.
DO attack cornerback Chris Houston
All of the Lions cornerbacks have been poor in 2013, each allowing at least 1.30 yards per route. That number ranks all the way down at 50th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, showing you just how bad they’ve been.
And as bad as cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Bill Bentley have been, Chris Houston has been much worse. He’s allowed 522 yards—the second most in the NFL—on 45 targets (11.6 YPA). The Cowboys could find massive success on Sunday just by targeting the receiver covered by Houston.
DON’T run for the sake of running
The Cowboys might not seem like a running team, but the truth is that they come out of games looking to establish balance. They’ve actually run the ball on 53.7 percent of their first downs in the first quarter.
Balance in the final box score is good because it signifies late running, which is of course correlated with winning. But the way to achieve final balance isn’t always to be balanced early. Instead, the Cowboys should generally be passing early in games, especially on first down, and then running it late once they’ve acquired a lead.
DON’T forget about play-action...again
I’ll stop talking about play-action when the Cowboys run it more often. Through seven weeks, Romo once again ranks last in the NFL in play-action pass rate, having attempted one on just 10.5 percent of his dropbacks. He ranked last in 2012, too, by a wide margin.
Again, you don’t actually need to run the ball a whole lot (or even effectively) to utilize play-action. There’s no correlation between rushing efficiency and play-action passing success, as evidenced by Romo’s 109.1 passer rating on play-action in 2012. This year, Romo is even better on play-action with a 131.1 passer rating.
Ranked second in the NFL in play-action rating, it’s just mind-boggling that the Cowboys haven’t used the look more often in 2013.