Each week, I consider a team’s strengths prior to creating my “DOs and DON’Ts.” For the most part, they are intended to stop what the opposition does best. Against the Patriots, it was limit Wes Welker. The Cowboys’ pre-game plan versus Detroit was to control Calvin Johnson.
But who do you focus on this week? Jeremy Maclin is the Eagles’ top receiver thus far, but does he deserve more attention than DeSean Jackson? Do you sit back in an effort to stop big plays and risk LeSean McCoy going wild underneath?
And Philly’s quarterback isn’t too bad either.
Dallas will score their points this week, but the result of the game will be determined by Rob Ryan and this defense’s ability to thwart the Eagles offense. It should be evident early who they try to contain, but this week more than ever the defense needs to play solid and unified fundamental football.
DON’T Blitz Too Often, Unless Necessary
Despite this “DON’T” being a reoccurring theme of mine this season, I’m not against blitzing. I think it is vital to get pressure on the quarterback, and the ability of Rob Ryan to do that successfully has been the primary reason we’ve seen a turnaround from the Cowboys defense (in addition to superb tackling).
Blitzing Michael Vick is a risky proposition, however, because he can use his legs to buy time. If he evades the initial surge, it’s quite easy to find an open receiver when only five or so defenders are in coverage.
That isn’t to say the Cowboys should sit back in Cover 2 and Cover 3 all day long. There are times when blitzing is appropriate, but I really think Dallas can benefit from playing cautiously aggressive and mixing up looks. Follow a five-man blitz with a three-man rush. Stack the line of scrimmage and back out post-snap. Show Cover 2 and bring a safety late.
Game situations will dictate the total amount of pressure that must be applied, but I would not come out blitzing incessantly and risk getting down early. The blitz will still be a useful tool in Dallas’ arsenal, but only when used at the right times.
While passer rating can be a poor tool to assess a quarterback’s performance, there is still something to be said for the disparity in Vick’s rating when he throws in the face of pressure. When given a clean pocket, Vick’s rating is 104.2. When pressured, it drops to 49.3. While we would expect the passer rating of any signal-caller to drop when he has defenders in his face, the significance of that disparity is reinforced by Vick’s passer rating when not blitzed (97.1) versus when extra defenders are sent after him (69.6).
So why not blitz all of the time?
Because, eventually, he is going to beat you for a big play.
The Cowboys need to come out in a manner that is both cautious and aggressive, playing hard-nosed football and attempting to get pressure without sending more than five defenders. If that doesn’t work, you can think about turning up the dial.
DO Be Careful with “Psycho”
Rob Ryan’s “Psycho” look is tremendously effective. Employing one (or sometimes zero) down lineman (shown below) and utilizing pre-snap chaos in the box, the look creates confusion among the offensive linemen and quarterback regarding who might be rushing.
Smart Football has a great post on the ways by which a team can beat “Psycho,” and two of them suit the Eagles offense quite well:
—Sprint out or quick bootleg from the gun. Isolate run/pass defenders and attack them in the flats, on the corner and so on. Get outside of the garbage inside. The quarterback must know he can’t dilly dally, however. It must be first pass choice, second pass choice, run or throw it away.
—Screen them. Fast screens in particular, but also tunnel screens, running-back screens and so on. Try to use their aggressiveness against them. Get to the perimeter and away from the junk and get the ball to playmakers in space.
Philadelphia has been the best screen team in the NFL for perhaps a decade, so the ‘Boys need to be really careful about how they attack the Eagles. Send too much pressure, particularly from “Psycho,” and LeSean McCoy or DeSean Jackson could be off to the races.
Further, if “Psycho” really creates a vulnerability in a defense which can be exploited via bootlegs, Dallas could find trouble.
When Ryan does decide to blitz, especially from “Psycho,” he should primarily use zone looks behind it. Zone blitzing has two primary advantages for Dallas, as it allows for safe coverages behind looks that can generate pressure, and it limits Vick’s ability to run wild.
If you blitz from the traditional man coverage and Vick escapes, he has nothing but defenders with their backs to him and lots of green in his sights. In a zone blitz, the linebackers and linemen who are in coverage will have their eyes on Vick, and even if they can’t bring him down in the open field, they can slow him up until help arrives.
DON’T Go Out of Your Way To Force Vick to His Right
There was a time when forcing Vick right was a surefire way to halt his game. Teams would overload the right side of their defense and do everything possible to get Vick to scramble away from the side of his throwing arm.
Vick has improved dramatically with his ability to throw from the pocket and on the run, however. This season, his passer rating is not substantially better when throwing to any single portion of the field.
Actually, Vick’s passer rating when throwing left (about 70) is lower than when he throws right (over 100). On top of that, the majority of the success that Vick has had while throwing left has come on screens and other throws behind the line of scrimmage, where he is 9-for-11 for 107 yards and two scores.
Beware of the screen to the left, but other than that, there is no need to apply pressure from primarily one side of the field.
DON’T Spy Vick
To me, spying Vick is wasting a defender.
If that’s the only method you employ to corral him, you’re going to get burned. A single defender isn’t going to be able to tackle Vick in the open-field. The Cowboys need to work as a unit to stop him, and that means mixing up blitz looks with safe coverages and tackling him when he does get into the open field.
DO Double-Team Trent Cole
Last year, the Cowboys used a “new” formation against the Colts to limit the effectiveness of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and that formation cropped up again versus Trent Cole and Philadelphia.
It was Gun 5 Wide Tight (below).
In my view, Cole is far and away the Eagles’ top defensive player. He creates havoc in the opposition’s backfield whether defending the run or the pass. He’s consistently one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
If the Cowboys leave either tackle (particularly Doug Free) on an island against Cole, he will likely get beat.
To negate Cole’s impact, the Cowboys can chip him with Jason Witten from “Gun 5 Wide Tight.” This obviously isn’t an all-encompassing plan to stop the defensive end, but it will help keep Romo upright on passing downs. With the Eagles’ ends lining up very wide in their nontraditional “nine-technique” position, Witten and/or Martellus Bennett can practically be lined up in the slot and still get a body in front of Cole.
DO Bring Out the Screen Game, Particularly with DeMarco Murray
Murray was unreal last week against the Rams, and he’ll be a huge factor in Sunday night’s game in Philly.
He had 71 receptions last year in college, and Jason Garrett needs to get him more involved in the passing game.
The Eagles have blitzed far less than usual this season, but I think you’re going to see them play more aggressively this week. If they do send a lot of pressure, Garrett should have Murray and the screen game ready to combat that strategy.
You can expect a lot of pressure on 3rd down, particularly in medium- to long-yardage situations. Almost paradoxically, I think the Cowboys can succeed by throwing the ball deep on 1st down or 2nd-and-short, but also by throwing short (with screens) on 3rd-and-medium to -long.
DON’T Play Keith Brooking or Bradie James Much
Instead, the Cowboys should use a nickel defense as their base.
The Eagles are the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL, but that’s because of the way in which they run their offense. Vick contributes greatly to that total, and McCoy is one of the most underrated backs in the league, but they are not a great inside running team. They thrive off of draws and other unconventional runs that work due to their spread offense, effective passing game and so on.
In essence, their running game is so efficient because their passing game is the same, and if you contain the latter, the former is unlikely to beat you.
Thus, I would have Orlando Scandrick on the field at all times, forcing the Eagles to run the football. If the Cowboys can limit Vick & Co. through the air, it will be a lot easier to stop McCoy on the ground.
DO Place Terence Newman on DeSean Jackson
From last year’s Cowboys-Eagles Week 14 Manifesto:
Newman has traditionally played well against Jackson and other small receivers like him. (In 2010), he caught only seven passes for 79 yards in the three games he played against the Cowboys.
I think the Cowboys should play a lot of Cover 2 early in the game as well. That will put the cornerbacks in a great position to get their hands on Philly’s receivers and disrupt their routes. That’s a must when receivers are attempting to get 20+ yards downfield.
With the two safeties deep, Cover 2 is also a safe enough coverage to limit the Eagles’ big plays early. Plus, with up to nine defenders underneath, it’s about as good of a coverage as exists for halting Vick on the ground.
DO Attack Asante Samuel
Samuel is a playmaker. . .both for his own team and the opposition. His interceptions are negated by all of the big plays he gives up, and the Cowboys can surely attack him with double-moves. Those slants and outs early in the game, even if not completely effective, can give way to sluggos and out-and-ups late.
The key, as always, will be proper protection, so perhaps the Cowboys should implement max protection from a double-tight-end set when they plan to attack deep. That look will be most successful if used on 1st down or 2nd-and-short as the Eagles will be anticipating a run.
DON’T Shy Away from Nnamdi Asomugha
There was a time when throwing at Asomugha, or even looking at him, wasn’t in your best interest. But now that he is forced to play more zone coverage in Philly, he’s been far less effective.
Already targeted 17 times, Asomugha has yielded 10 completions and 10.0 yards per attempt. He’s also racked up three penalties.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Samuel should be the main targets, but there’s no reason to ignore Miles Austin or Dez Bryant if Asomugha is lined up on them.