Dallas Cowboys vs. New Orleans Saints Thanksgiving Post-Film Study Review

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Dallas Cowboys vs. New Orleans Saints Thanksgiving Post-Film Study Review
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

If you haven’t read my initial post-game notes/observations, please do. I uncovered a lot of interesting information after reviewing the Cowboys-Saints film this week, so enjoy. . .

  • Marion Barber is out for at least a week or two. I never want players to get injured, but this is one of the best things that could happen to the Cowboys. Barber looked awful again on Thanksgiving, stumbling on an incredible three handoffs before even getting touched. He tries to run around defenders now instead of through them, but he doesn’t possess the agility to do that effectively. His only above-average quality is his pass protection ability.
  • Tashard Choice will be the recipient of an increased workload during Barber’s absence. I can say with full confidence that you’ll observe a noticeable difference between Choice’s explosion, balance, and vision and that of Barber. Choice may not be “incredible” at anything, but he’s really solid at everything. This is his chance to prove he deserves a larger role in 2011, and I expect him to perform well.
  • The Cowboys lined up with an unbalanced offensive line on three plays against the Saints.

 

  • As you can see, the “Unbalanced Right Strong Right” formation above employs Martellus Bennett as the left tackle and Doug Free as the tight end. Bennett is obviously not an eligible receiver on the play, but I still love the look. For one, Bennett is one of the team’s best blockers, regardless of position. Any drop in blocking ability from Free to Bennett is made up for by the fact that the look is confusing to the defense. It can cause alignment problems and just gives a defense more to think about pre-snap.
  • One knock on this formation is that it gives away too much information before the snap. Bennett must stay in to block, and it’s unlikely the Cowboys would ask him to protect Jon Kitna’s blind side by himself. Thus, whatever play the ‘Boys call will almost certainly be a run. Secondly, do you think the team is more likely to run behind Bennett and Kyle Kosier, or Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, Doug Free, and Jason Witten?
  • So how did the Cowboys overcome these issues?  Jason Garrett did an excellent job of using the first two plays from the formation as “set up plays” early in the game. On these plays, the Cowboys ran just where you’d think they would: in the “4 hole” behind all of the big boys.  On the third and final play, however, the Cowboys faked the lead to Felix Jones and handed the ball off to Miles Austin on an end-around. The result? A 60-yard touchdown run. Tremendous design and execution.
  • The illegal shift penalty called on Dez Bryant (the one over which he was fuming) was the correct call.  He mistakenly lined up off of the line of scrimmage, leaving the right tackle uncovered.  When he noticed it and moved up, Sam Hurd was already in motion and never came to a stop (if he had, Bryant’s movement would have been a legal shift).
  • The Cowboys ran a season-high 74 offensive plays on Thanksgiving.
  • Dallas had 14 plays in the red zone–five passes for 26 yards and nine runs for 12 yards and two touchdowns.
  • 33 of the Cowboys’ plays came out of Shotgun, although many of those were out of necessity (the team’s final 11 plays were from Shotgun).
  • Garrett obviously tried to confuse the Saints before the snap. The Cowboys motioned on exactly half (37) of their offensive plays, a rate much higher than the 30.3 percent clip at which they came into the game. That included 21 of the first 31 plays.
  • Kitna again showed he can recognize a defense’s weaknesses and check into the proper play.  He did so four times—two runs for eight yards and two passes for 27 yards.
  • The Cowboys got lucky with Reggie Bush. Even though his production was nil, he was open a few times and either didn’t get targeted or dropped the ball. Perhaps Dallas knew something I didn’t, but placing Sean Lee on Bush never seems like a good idea.
  • Dallas attacked the middle of the Saints’ defense on the ground.  One of the guards (either Kosier or Davis) was at the point-of-attack on 22 of the team’s 26 designed runs (84.6 percent). It isn’t uncommon for a guard to be at the point-of-attack, but that rate is unusually high.
  • In my pre-game notes, I predicted the Cowboys would run a lot of draws, counters, playaction passes, and screens to take advantage of the aggressiveness of New Orleans defense. They did all four quite often. They dialed up eight draws for 24 yards and four counters for 67 yards.  Kitna also faked a handoff on an incredible 11 passes (for 90 yards) and threw a screen eight times for 42 yards. All in all, 29 of the Cowboys’ offensive plays (39.2 percent) were either a draw, counter, playaction pass, or screen.
  • We saw the return of the dreaded “Double Tight Right Strong Right” formation (or a variation of it, such as “Double Tight Left Strong Left” or “Double Tight Right I”). Garrett called it 12 times, and all but three were strong side dives. Those nine plays went for 12 total yards. Meanwhile, the three non-strong side dives from the formation (two passes and a toss) went for 23 total yards. Unfortunately, the toss play was the early fourth down attempt to Barber that went for no gain.

 

Read my full analysis on the formation here.

  • With the abundance of screens and playaction passes came few downfield throws. Remember, the Cowboys rarely throw the ball downfield following a playaction fake (of their 83 playaction passes last year, only FOUR were thrown 20-plus yards). Of Kitna’s 42 passes against the Saints, only FIVE traveled 10-plus yards, and only one went 20-plus yards. Meanwhile, 26 of the passes traveled five yards or less. I’m by no means an expert on NFL offenses, but I think the Cowboys should probably throw the ball 10-plus yards more than 11.9 percent of their passes (and 6.8 percent of all plays).
  • Kitna really had an up-and-down game.  He only had 12 incompletions, but nine of those were the result of off-target passes.  Nine off-target passes are way too many when you’re asked to throw the ball downfield only five times all game.  He also failed to throw a touchdown.
  • Of the team’s 47 called passes, Witten was in a route on 34 of them (72.3 percent), which is about average for him.  Dallas gained only 53 total yards on the 13 plays he stayed in to block, and 24 of those yards came on one play.
  • Garrett obviously made a conscious effort to “protect” struggling right tackle Marc Colombo.  Of the 66 plays with a tight end lined up next to one of the offensive tackles, 44 of them (66.7 percent) were “right-handed,” i.e., the tight end(s) was next to Colombo.  I realize Dallas is a right-handed team, but it’s clear an effort is being made to “hide” Colombo.
  • A reader pointed out that, after the game, Drew Brees stated he was able to beat Terence Newman deep because the Cowboys played the same coverage a bunch of times in a row and he knew it was coming. His claim seems truthful since the Saints had the courage to throw the ball deep on a crucial 3rd-and-1 play. Although Paul Pasqualoni has done a nice job of employing some unique looks and more zone coverage to help the secondary, I thought his play-calling on Thursday was unoriginal and predictable. The Saints obviously agree.
  • I was shocked that the Saints didn’t blitz Dallas early in the game.  Of the Cowboys’ first 64 offensive plays, New Orleans blitzed only eight times. I was even more stunned by their strategy late in the game, as they blitzed on the final 10 plays. They weren’t just simple A-gap blitzes either, but unique, exotic blitzes in which defenders came from unexpected places.  I’m positive the Saints had a “two-minute defense” installed for this game that was radically different from their approach in the first 58 minutes of the game, as they weren’t running the same play, even as Dallas was in a no-huddle offense.  What an incredibly innovative and unexpected move.
  • Despite the blitzes, I thought Garrett’s play-calling on the final three plays was horrible. Bryant was targeted on all three passes despite not recording a reception all game. Further, the Cowboys had just burned the Saints over and over by slipping Witten into the flat.  With the offense needing only five yards or so to give David Buehler a realistic field goal look, why not go to Witten again?  I watched Buehler’s missed field goal again and again, and I think it would have been good if it was from 54 yards instead of 59.

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