This week’s game against the Indianapolis Colts has a different feel to it because, for the first time all season, the Cowboys are officially out of the playoff hunt.
While hopes of a trip to the postseason were eliminated by most fans weeks ago, there was still a glimmer of hope (in me at least) that something magical could happen.
At eight losses, the Cowboys are now all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. In my opinion, this means they should now fully focus on producing the best team in 2011. That means putting Tony Romo on IR. It also means providing youngsters like Sean Lee with more playing time.
We’ll see which approach Jason Garrett decides to take: Do everything possible to win games now, or making the correct long-term organizational decisions.
Still, we all want to see our Cowboys win. Even if they “lose” a top 10 pick, I would never root for Dallas to lose a game.
Here is how they can beat Indy this week. . .
DO stay in a nickel defense (or even dime) at all times.
A lot of teams have found success (relatively speaking) against Peyton Manning and the Colts by using a nickel defense as their base personnel package—except in some short-yardage and goal line situations.
Indy runs a three-receiver set as their base offense (although they have been utilizing two tight ends more of late). Who would you rather have covering a slot receiver: Orlando Scandrick or Keith Brooking?
I propose that the Cowboys should use their dime package in “regular” game situations, and their nickel package when the Colts bring in two tight ends. You want to take the ball out of Manning’s hands as often as possible. The ‘Boys should have “one too many” defensive backs on the field at all times, daring Indy to run the ball. Don’t let Manning beat you. If Donald Brown does it, then so be it.
DON’T respect the running game or play-action fakes.
The primary reason Dallas should stay in nickel and dime packages is the lackluster Colts running game. The Colts are 29th in the NFL in rushing with just 82.6 yards-per-game. For a team that runs the ball so little, you’d think their rushing efficiency would be at least average, but Indy also ranks 29th in the league in yards-per-carry at just 3.6.
Thus, there’s really no reason to respect their running game.
That means don’t worry about “undersized” personnel, and definitely don’t bite up on play-action fakes. Manning has shown that you don’t need to be a rushing juggernaut to still find success on play-action passes. Much of that success stems from Manning’s incredible fakes and ability to suck up the defense. There’s no reason to bite on these fakes, however, as it is unlikely Indy will be able to: 1.) Muster much of a running game, or 2.) Stick with the running game even if it does work.
DO focus attention on Reggie Wayne.
Wayne is one of the league’s most talented receivers and possesses great chemistry with Manning. He’s coming off one of the worst performances of his career as he dropped a handful of passes on Sunday night. That won’t happen again, and Dallas needs to be prepared for Wayne’s “A game.”
I expect the Cowboys to play a lot of zone coverage on Sunday, so the safeties need to be sure to keep Wayne in front of them. When the ‘Boys do decide to blitz and play man coverage, free safety Alan Ball must shade Wayne’s side heavily. Force Manning to look elsewhere on the field. Let Jacob Tamme or Pierre Garcon beat you before Wayne.
DON’T blitz too often early, but do disguise your intentions.
Call me crazy, but I think the Cowboys can get pressure on Manning without blitzing. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer (when he’s at his best) are capable of beating Colts offensive tackles Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem.
The key will be forcing Manning to hold onto the ball just a tad longer than usual, as he has one of the quickest triggers in the league. With seven men in coverage (including five and sometimes six defensive backs), that task is made easier.
Of course, you can’t play the same defense and expect Manning to not figure it out. The ‘Boys will have to mix in the occasional blitz to throw him off. More importantly, they’ll need to disguise their defense whether they are blitzing or not. Don’t let Manning know you’re in Cover 2, or he’ll beat you. Don’t let him know you’re in man coverage, or he’ll beat you. Don’t let him know your 2nd grade teacher, favorite food or social security number, or he’ll beat you. Got it?
Fake blitzes, line up “normally” when you do blitz, and experiment with “odd” looks. What is there to lose?
DO hit Peyton Manning whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Despite some reports to the contrary, Peyton Manning isn’t God. Like the rest of the quarterbacks in the league, he gets rattled after being hit. His decision-making is so quick that sacks are rare, so the best way to judge the Cowboys’ pass-rushing performance this week is by how often they get in Manning’s face, knock him down, and force errant throws.
As San Diego showed on Sunday, it can be done.
DON’T place Keith Brooking on Colts tight end Jacob Tamme.
Tamme isn’t insanely athletic, but neither is Brooking. Brooking played very well in coverage last week, but I don’t think he has the ability to do that consistently. The NFL is all about percentages, and placing Brooking on Tamme (who is basically Manning’s second option of late) is not a high-percentage play for Dallas.
DO twist the defensive ends to create some sort of pressure.
All four of the primary defensive ends (Olshansky, Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher) have been a disappointment this season. They’ve proven again and again that they’re all very limited in what they can do, and not a single one can seem to generate pressure on his own. Hatcher has been decent of late, but that play should be expected all the time.
I know Wade Phillips (and now Paul Pasqualoni) don’t like to twist much, but if there was ever a week to do it, this is it. It’s harder to stop the run if you twist, but as I wrote above, there’s no reason to respect the Colts’ running attack. Perhaps twisting Hatcher and Ratliff, for example, could benefit each player more than it hurts.
DO realize the Colts love to run behind tight end Brody Eldridge, not Tamme.
Mike Mayock declared Eldridge the best-blocking tight end in this past year’s draft, and he’s certainly lived up to the billing. The Colts have full confidence when running behind the rookie. It isn’t a guarantee, of course, but the ‘Boys need to be aware that wherever Eldridge is lined up, a run could soon follow.
You might be asking, "Why I would care about this after just detailing how Dallas should disregard the Colts’ running game?" The tight end alignment could be useful for Dallas’ pass defense, as a play-fake is more likely to come on Tamme’s side of the field. When Tamme and Eldridge are on the field together, it’s far more likely they’ll run behind the rookie.
DO run a lot of double-tight sets to aid Doug Free and Marc Colombo (specifically the latter) against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
In the Saints game, there were 66 offensive plays for Dallas 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.
Garrett should continue to do this.
Colombo’s job was made far easier last week and Dallas benefited from it. This week, the ‘Boys can’t expect Free to block Freeney one-on-one all game. They’ll need to run some double-tight sets and either leave both Witten and Bennett in to block, or use the tight ends to chip Indy’s defensive ends (followed by a chip from the running backs as well).
DO take some shots deep.
This isn’t the same old Colts defense. They still play some Cover 2, but not nearly as much as in prior seasons. They are far more aggressive and make more plays, but they also yield more big plays as well.
Awhile ago I noted that the teams who throw deep most often generally find more success in the passing game. Sunday’s game sure would be made a lot easier if Dallas can secure a quick score or two, and that starts with rushing efficiency.
If the Cowboys can run the ball effectively early, they can draw the Colts defense up. By using two tight-end sets to provide Kitna with the proper protection to throw deep, playaction looks could prove particularly successful.
DON’T punt on 4th down in Indianapolis territory unless it is 4th and 10+.
On Thanksgiving, the Cowboys punted on a 4th and 4 at the Saints’ 35-yard line. They ultimately gained only 16 yards of field position.
Garrett is usually aggressive in his decisions, but that was a horrible one. The Cowboys need to attack teams and go out trying to win football games, instead of simply attempting to not lose them.
Zone blitzes, such as the one shown above, lower the risk of giving up a big play and can confuse a quarterback, often taking away his ability to "throw hot" against the blitz.
DO duplicate the Chargers’ game plan from last week.
Last week, you saw a lot of different looks from the Chargers defense. They did the unthinkable: Confuse Peyton Manning. A staple of their game plan was the zone blitz–something I think Dallas needs to utilize a lot more.
Zone blitzes this week could trick Manning into thinking more defenders are rushing than is actually the case, forcing him to mistakenly “throw hot” into the waiting arms of a Cowboy.
On offense, San Diego ran the ball a lot more than usual. It’s no secret that Indy loves to draft “undersized” defensive players who can defend the pass. This leaves them susceptible to getting overpowered in the run game.
If Dallas can run the ball effectively early (and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to), it will set up big play opportunities later in the contest.
DO be physical early and often–this team doesn’t respond well to getting punched in the mouth.
Manning isn’t the only Colts player who doesn’t respond well to getting hit. The whole squad is made up of finesse players who use their athleticism and intelligence to beat bigger, dumber players. Well, if the Cowboys can be big and smart, they’ll have an advantage. They already have the big thing down. . .so when does the intelligent play come in?
DON’T run a strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong,” unless it is in short-yardage situations.
Last week, for whatever reason, we saw the return of the strong side dive from “Double Tight Strong.” The Cowboys lined up in the formation 12 times, and ran the strong side dive nine times. It’s one thing to do it in obvious running situations (and I still don’t support it then), but it’s a whole different story to run it in “regular” game situations, such as 2nd and 10 at midfield.
By the way, those nine strong side dives gained 12 total yards.
DON’T use Shotgun much unless in hurry-up mode.
I’ve showed before why the Cowboys are a superior team with Kitna under center (as opposed to in Shotgun). Through Week 10, the quarterback was averaging nearly 1.5 yards more per pass when under center.
Garrett has done a nice job of keeping Kitna out of Shotgun, but last week he got away from it a bit due to game situations. The ‘Boys need to make sure they stay in situations in which Kitna can remain under center.
Plus, we won’t have to cross our fingers before every Gurode snap from the Shotgun.
DO give Tashard Choice all short-yardage and 3rd down snaps, at least.
I want to see Choice get a lot of touches this week, but he needs to be on the field for 3rd downs and short-yardage plays, at least.
Choice is a smaller back than Felix Jones, but his balance and vision are uncanny. On his touchdown run last week, Choice got hit fairly solidly before reaching the goal line, regained his balance, and dove in for the score. It’s so hard to say what another running back may have done, but I really don’t think Marion Barber would have broken that tackle.
Of course, he may have fallen down before he even reached the defender.