Heading into their Week 10 tilt with the Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys have reached a critical junction in their season.
Despite a mediocre 4-4 start to the season, the ‘Boys control their own destiny. They are two games back of the Giants, but have the opportunity to take them down twice in the final four weeks of the season.
Of course, it would be nice to not need a win in Week 17′s matchup in the Meadowlands, so it is imperative for Dallas to take advantage of the “easy” portion of the schedule. With just a .500 win percentage, the team simply must win more games anyway.
It starts this week against the Bills.
DO Focus on Fred Jackson and Steve Johnson
These are the obvious playmakers for Buffalo, and they don’t have much else on offense.
Donald Jones, David Nelson or Scott Chandler could beat Dallas, but not on a consistent basis like Jackson and Johnson. Focus on halting J & J, and force the others to beat you.
How can this be accomplished? Good old Cover 1.
Bring Gerald Sensabaugh and/or Abram Elam up into the box to limit Jackson’s effectiveness. I’d actually opt for the latter, as Sensy has been excelling all year in coverage and open-field tackling.
Elam seems to perform better in traffic, racking up the third-most tackles on the team (behind Sensabaugh and Sean Lee) while near the line of scrimmage.
Actually, it might be prudent to discretely “shadow” Jackson with Elam (similar to a spy), allowing Sensabaugh to play free deep in the secondary. Not only will Sensabaugh’s open-field tackling come in handy in the event Jackson breaks through the second level, but it will also allow him the freedom to play over top of Johnson.
With one of the cornerbacks underneath on Johnson and Sensabaugh shading his side, you have a chance to contain the emerging star. Plus, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t much of a scrambler, so man coverage underneath shouldn’t be a problem.
DON’T Go Crazy with the Blitzing, Especially Up the Middle
Just because eight men are in the box doesn’t make frequent blitzing a necessity.
There will certainly be times to dial up pressure, mixing in different looks to keep the Bills’ offense off-guard. On the season, though, Fitzpatrick is actually averaging 8.3 yards yards-per-pass against the blitz versus just 7.1 yards-per-pass when defenses sit back in coverage.
Blitzes can generate big plays for both teams. In this contest, I think the small increase in the likelihood of an interception (Fitzpatrick is throwing an interception on 3.9 percent of passes versus the blitz and 3.1percent of passes when not blitzed) is not worth the opportunity for Jackson or Johnson to shake loose and get down the field.
Plus, Fitzpatrick has actually thrown eight interceptions without pressure in his face (3.7 percent of throws) versus just one with pressure (2.3 percent of throws).
When the Cowboys do blitz, they should do it outside. Not only might this force Buffalo to place a single man on DeMarcus Ware, but it will allow Dallas to avoid center Eric Wood and guard Andy Levitre inside—two of the top interior linemen in the NFL.
DO Run the Football Often, Primarily Outside
For perhaps the first time all season, I am suggesting the Cowboys run the ball frequently. It must be done wisely and in an effort to set up big plays via the passing game, but DeMarco Murray and the offensive line should be able to take advantage of the Bills’ front seven.
According to Advanced NFL Stats, Buffalo is giving up the fourth-most expected points per rushing play in the NFL, compared to sporting the 11th-best passing defense in terms of the same efficiency stat.
The only caveat to running the ball—do it on the perimeter.
Rookie Marcell Dareus has quietly been incredible this season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’s third-ranked defensive tackle in the entire league. It’s pretty much a given that he is going to overpower the Cowboys’ interior line.
Tosses, counters, powers. No dives, leads or isos.
DON’T Keep Jason Witten In To Block
When the Cowboys could potentially struggle against a team’s pass-rush, I sometimes suggest Witten (or Martellus Bennett, more often) stay in to block.
This week, though, the Bills figure to get to Tony Romo by collapsing the pocket inside. Nose tackle/defensive end Dareus has racked up more quarterback pressures than anyone on the team.
Unless a tight end is in the backfield, he won’t be of much use in pass protection. Plus, the Cowboys need Witten’s presence as a receiver with Miles Austin out.
Doug Free and Tyron Smith should be able to handle the Bills’ outside linebackers, so the Cowboys should try to decrease the chances of a collapsed pocket by...
DO Use Multiple-Back Sets
Felix Jones has improved dramatically in pass protection this season, although he may not play Sunday. Fullback Tony Fiammetta has been solid, too.
I don’t normally suggest using a fullback, but it could be of use this week. Double-team Dareus and let Free and Smith on islands until it is proven ineffective.
DO Attack Drayton Florence
Buffalo’s safeties have been stellar in 2011, but Bills’ cornerbacks Florence, Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin have all been poor.
Florence in particular has played like one of the worst cornerbacks in the league, targeted 37 times, yielding 10.46 yards-per-attempt and three touchdowns. He’s also committed four penalties and surrendered a 106.5 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks.
The Cowboys should use motion and shifts to try to get Dez Bryant matched up against Florence, although Bryant should be a heavy target no matter who is covering him.
DO Continue To Give Bruce Carter Snaps
Carter has looked good in limited action, and Fred Jackson figures to give Keith Brooking and Bradie James fits.
As I said above, I think you’ll see Elam and/or Sensabaugh on Jackson quite a bit, but when that isn’t happening, it would suit Dallas to have Carter on the field.
DO Take Some Shots Deep
A Twitter follower responded to my article on the Cowboys’ red-zone struggles by suggesting they simply score from the 25-yard line.
While the reference was likely made tongue-in-cheek, he’s right.
While it doesn’t help the offense once they’re actually in the red zone, garnering quick scores is the easiest way to limit the negative impact of red-zone field goals. Two touchdowns from midfield beats two red-zone field goals and a red-zone touchdown.