The Cowboys’ regular season opener is finally upon us, and there isn’t a much bigger stage than New York on Sunday, September 11. A lot of people are arguing the Jets will be extra hyped for this game due to the date, but I think that’s a load of crap. It isn’t like the players are from New York, and even if they were, why would 9/11 really make anyone more pumped than they will already be for a nationally-televised game on opening night? September 11 or not, this is a big one. Here are some things to watch. . .
Will the Cowboys challenge Darrelle Revis?
Despite popular belief, Revis does get challenged quite a bit. Rex Ryan rolls coverage to the side of Antonio Cromartie, leaving Revis on an island and forcing teams to throw to him or into double coverage.
In that way, you can see just how valuable it is to have a shutdown cornerback, as his impact is felt all over the field.
I don’t think Jason Garrett, Tony Romo & Co. will be afraid of Revis. He’s undoubtedly one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL (second to Nnamdi Asmougha, in my opinion), but Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are spectacular receivers.
The ‘Boys shouldn’t get dangerous in attacking him, but there’s no reason to not give Austin or Bryant a shot if Revis is in a true man coverage look.
How will youngsters Bill Nagy, Phil Costa and Tyron Smith hold up?
This is the great unknown for Dallas this season. I think Smith will be just fine, and certainly superior to Marc Colombo last season. Costa has a chance to be solid. . .he has more upside than Andre Gurode, but he’s more of a risk as well.
Bill Nagy is the weak link on this line. Average play from him might be a blessing. The Cowboys were smart to sign Derrick Dockery this week.
On Sunday night, the most important task for these young players will be avoiding mental mistakes. Rex Ryan will throw all kinds of looks at them to cause confusion, so 90 percent of their success will come in being in the right positions.
Will Dez Bryant be a focal point of the offense from the start of the season?
He should be. Expect Bryant and Austin to see a similar amount of targets this season, starting this week. The game plan of Garrett will likely be dictated by the coverage of New York.
Will the lack of a true fullback hurt the offense?
Shaun Chapas, Jason Pociask and Chris Gronkowski were all released, leaving the Cowboys with tight end/H-Back John Phillips as their “fullback.” The team signed Tony Fiammetta earlier this week, only to release him today in favor of receiver Laurent Robinson.
This lack of a true lead blocker could cause problems in short-yardage situations, but I’m actually not against the move. Phillips is probably comparable to all three fullbacks in terms of lead blocking, and he is certainly a more talented pass-catcher.
Plus, it could force Garrett to run outside or pass more often, which he should do anyway. With Costa and Nagy inside, we would have likely seen more outside runs regardless of the fullback situation.
Will we see “Double Tight Strong”?
Double Tight Strong alone isn’t a problem, but rather the incredibly predictable play-calling from the formation. Despite improvement in 2010 from 2009, Garrett still called the same strong side dive play 64.2 percent of the time the Cowboys lined up in the formation, and 77.6 percent of the time on running plays.
Dallas lined up in the formation 116 times in 2009 and 81 last season. I think you’ll see that total dip to 40 or less in 2011. When the offense does line up in the formation, expect more passes, especially downfield.
How often will Felix Jones come off the field?
For the first time in his career, Jones is considered a true No. 1 running back. He looked the part in the preseason, and it is time to feed him the ball. Jones is by far the most talented running back on the roster and is a threat to take any play to the house.
Garrett should utilize Jones on inside runs, outside runs, screens, draws, short-yardage work and so on until he’s fatigued. Felix Jones at 90 percent is better than anyone else at full-go.
How will Rob Ryan attack the Jets?
We saw a few glimpses of unique defensive alignments in the preseason, but it was evident that Ryan was holding a lot back as well. It will be interesting to see what kind of chaotic looks Ryan dials up on Sunday night.
You can bet his brother has instructed Mark Sanchez & Co. as to how Rob might attack, so let’s see if Rob can outsmart Rex with some “surprise” calls.
The Jets see a defense similar to Rob’s every day in practice, so you may see Rob design some calls which appear to be something the Jets think they recognize, but turns out to be something entirely different.
Is Orlando Scandrick ready?
Terence Newman has been ruled out, meaning Scandrick will start outside and Bryan McCann will receive significant snaps. Santonio Holmes is the Jets’ top target, but I actually think Scandrick matches up best with him.
If he covers Plaxico Burress, he will likely get overpowered. Either way, the Cowboys need to be sure a safety is over top of him on the majority of snaps. He still needs to prove he’s worth the $27 million.
Will Garrett continue his great red zone play-calling?
After horrendous play-calling in 2009 when inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, Garrett improved substantially in 2010. Take a look at these numbers. The ‘Boys need to continue to run on first down inside the opponent’s 10-yard line and pass on first down while anywhere outside of it.
DOs and DON’Ts for Dallas
DO run double moves at Antonio Cromartie.
Cromartie is obviously the weaker of the starting cornerbacks, and the Cowboys will be smart to attack him. Because Cromartie often has coverage rolled to his side, he loves to play aggressively.
The Cowboys can use that aggressiveness against him, running double-moves like hitch-and-go’s, sluggos, post-corners and so on. Even with a safety over the top, there are routes which can beat double coverage.
Plus, I’ll take my chances with Bryant or Austin in a jump ball situation versus Eric Smith or Jim Leonhard.
Of course, protection will be paramount in Dallas’ ability to run deep routes. If the offensive line cannot effectively combat New York’s pass rush and exotic blitz looks, all bets are off.
DO run two-receiver routes at times.
Jason Garrett doesn’t opt for maximum protection often, instead choosing to allow four or five receivers to head into routes and allowing Romo to find the open man. With the Jets’ unusual defensive looks, however, properly picking up the blitz might be an issue.
If the Cowboys line up in a double-tight look and leave both tight ends and the running back in to help keep Romo upright, it will allow for more time for Austin and Bryant to get open.
A post-corner to the receiver opposite Revis out of ‘Ace’ formation, for example, might be a solid play-call.
DO screen often.
The Cowboys figure to run a lot more screens in 2011 anyway with a far more athletic offensive line and the addition of rookie DeMarco Murray. Sunday night is a great time to start, as you know the Jets will bring pressure.
I’m generally against wide receiver screens, but running a few at Cromartie if he is in an off position might be prudent as well.
DON’T run the ball often on first down.
This should be the case in any game, as passing the ball on first down is still far more effective than running it. Defenses are usually in base packages on first down, so throwing the ball out of run-oriented formations works well.
That idea has been effective for Dallas in recent years too.
DO play Cover 2 and Cover 4.
The Cowboys are going to blitz more often than they did in 2010, but Week 2 might be the best time to start doing so. The Jets have a formidable rushing attack, led more by their offensive line than by sensational backs.
Still, I would make Shonn Greene and Ladainian Tomlinson beat me all night before leaving the cornerbacks on islands to cover Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. Until the Jets prove they can consistently gash the ‘Boys on the ground, I would not show them respect and play a lot of save coverages.
Plus, fewer blitzes could give Mark Sanchez some trouble when the Cowboys do opt to send extra pressure.
DON’T bring excessive pressure, but do play aggressively.
The Cowboys can still find ways to confuse Sanchez without playing a risky defense. Look for a lot of zone blitzes from Rob Ryan on Sunday night in an attempt to generate pressure without leaving the defense in a vulnerable position.
Dallas could blitz Scandrick or McCann from the slot and send a linebacker to the flat in an effort to show blitz, yet still maintain a safe Cover 2 look, for example.
DON’T blitz the left side of the Jets’ offense as much as the right.
When Ryan does bring pressure, look for it to be on the right side of the Jets’ offensive line. I’d much rather take my chances against Brandon Moore and Wayne Hunter than D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Matt Slauson.
DON’T run to the strong side too often.
In my article on how game theory suggests teams should run to the weak side more often, I noted how personnel leads to greater efficiency on weak side runs than on strong side runs, despite the fact that running weak side is not inherently optimal.
This week, the Cowboys should be able to find more success running at Bryan Thomas and Bart Scott than David Harris and Calvin Pace.
In particular, look for Garrett to call a lot of “left-handed” formations, but then run to the right side behind Kyle Kosier and Tyron Smith.
Similarly, watch for the ‘Boys to line up in a multitude of balanced formations, such as ‘Ace’ or ‘Spread,’ and run to the side of their choice based on New York’s alignment.