A little late, but here are my keys to the Cowboys’ Week 7 matchup with St. Louis. In short, don’t blow it...
DON’T be so schizophrenic with play-calling
I’m not just talking about Jason Garrett here. I am primarily talking about Garrett, but Rob Ryan could be included in here as well. For Garrett, the key is to remember he is an aggressive coach running what should be an aggressive offense. This will probably be the last time I talk about it, but with a three-point lead and 3:36 remaining in the Patriots game, the Cowboys should have been doing everything possible to gain a first down. There wasn’t 1:36 left, and the Pats had all three timeouts. I’ve talked about it here, and I also found an incredible breakdown of Garrett’s decisions here. Until continual running of the ball can all but necessitate a win (up 24 points in the second half, for example), the team should be running the plays that best put them in a position to gain first downs and score.
The situation is a bit different for Ryan, whose defensive calls should display a chaotic look. Being a good defensive coordinator is perhaps made easier by being a bit schizophrenic at times, but it is a controlled schizophrenia. Ryan should have attacked Tom Brady on the final drive, at least in certain situations. His choice to play safe coverages and not disguise looks is a deviation from everything he preaches on defense.
Again, there was plenty of time left on the clock that Dallas should have been playing defense at least close to how they do normally. You can say they would risk yielding a big play, but that’s sure a lot better than having New England meticulously march the ball down the field and win the game with just a few ticks left on the clock.
Simply put, be yourselves, ‘Boys. You are an aggressive, pass-happy team, and should remain that way until the game situation dictates another strategy is undoubtedly superior.
DO capitalize on takeaways
In some senses this is out of the team’s control. Of course they can and should execute better following takeaways, but a 1st-and-10 at the 20-yard line is the same whether it comes as the result of a touchback or turnover. Even so, the Cowboys will see their winning percentage increase as they perform more efficiently following positive results.
DON’T sell out against the run
This might seem illogical, as the Rams’ primary threat on offense is running back Steven Jackson and quarterback Sam Bradford has already been ruled out of the game. While many people (including some in the NFL) are of the mind that you should attack poor quarterbacks, I am not. A.J. Feeley is not going to consistently beat you, so why provide the opportunity for a big play? Until the Rams start smashing it down the Cowboys’ throats via the run, I would sit back in safe coverages and force Feeley to keep making good decisions and accurate throws. The Rams are a heavy underdog and they will not win this game unless they garner multiple big plays. Don’t give them that chance.
On the other hand, maybe Feeley is capable of making good decisions...
DO double-team Brandon Lloyd
When you aren’t blitzing, it’s relatively easy to double-team a player. Although Lloyd was just acquired by St. Louis, he is by far their biggest threat in the passing game. I’d be placing a safety over top of him on just about every snap, forcing Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander or Greg Salas to beat me.
DON’T blitz much
See “DON’T sell out against the run.”
DO establish the run, and by run I mean pass
The traditional run/pass dichotomy we use to break down offensive plays is flawed. Instead, play-calls are less black and white and should be placed in a range of “passiness,” if you will. Some pass plays are more “pure” passes than others (and the same is true of runs). Here is how I explained it earlier:
The rejection of a distinct dichotomy also creates a range of contrast. A cell phone is not inherently artificial, for example, but only more or less so than something else (just as a play-action pass can be simultaneously “more of a pass” than, say, a flea flicker, and “less of a pass” than a straight dropback). Thus, “opposing” qualities take on a pluralistic characteristic: not absolute, yet not radically relativistic, as the ‘absoluteness’ comes with the implementation of a ‘relative’ perspective. This allows for the concurrent existence of contrasting qualities without a logical contradiction.
In the image above, you can see how certain plays are more “passy” than others. A screen play, which I did not display, is very close to being a run—many refer to it as an "extended hand-off." Thus, when I say establish the run, I mean those plays which are closer to the middle portion of the range, and thus more difficult for a defense to decipher. Screens, shovel passes (does anyone know if these are "shovel" or "shuffle"? I’ve heard different variations from numerous NFL types), draws, counters and even play-action passes are not “pure” runs or passes, and consequently they are often among the most effective types of calls.
To me, the Cowboys can gain the same advantages and overall effect from an efficient screen game as they could from a solid running game. Yes, runs can set up the play-action game, but screens can slow down pass-rushers and open up things downfield. Plus, they are safe enough to run in late-game situations—say, with 3:36 left on the clock and a three-point lead.
DO overload the left side of the defense
Pro Football Focus lists Rams left tackle Rodger Saffold as one of the worst tackles in the league thus far in 2011. DeMarcus Ware is going to handle him with ease, and St. Louis is going to have no choice but to place tight ends and backs on the left side of the formation to help Saffold. The Cowboys should overload the left side of their defense with rushers, causing the Rams to either leave someone unblocked or potentially single Ware. This doesn’t necessitate blitzing. Look for Anthony Spencer and/or Victor Butler (if he gets more snaps) to have a big day.
DO throw it deep
Tony Romo has been the most accurate deep ball passer in the league in 2011, converting on a ridiculous 60 percent of his passes which travel 20-plus yards. That’s 39.9 percent better than Tom Brady, who is still in the middle of the pack in the NFL. Nonetheless, Romo has attempted such passes on only 10.4 percent of his throws—good for 23rd in the league among starting quarterbacks. I don’t think this is due to an unwillingness from Romo to air it out, but rather the plays being called.
I’ve written two articles on deep passes in the past, one on why it is efficient in general and another on why Dallas should throw deep more often. The most obvious set of calls which could be altered to create more deep looks is play-action passes. In my 2010 Play-Action Pass Guide, I noted the Cowboys threw deep on 12.8 percent of play-action passes. That is up from 4.8 percent in 2009, but it could still be improved. Play-action passes are a great opportunity to suck up the defense and get receivers behind the safeties, so throwing short on the majority of them makes little sense.