This week’s contest against the Detroit Lions is one marked by poor matchups for Dallas. The Cowboys really don’t have anyone who can stop Calvin Johnson, so they will need to throw a variety of defenders and looks at him to at least limit his production.
The Lions also have a talented young tight end who could give the Cowboys problems over the middle of the field, as well as a shifty running back.
The Lions’ secondary is weak, but the ‘Boys are running low on healthy receivers. Running up the middle may not be much of an option this week, and Detroit’s linebackers are solid in coverage.
DO double-team Calvin Johnson on nearly every play.
This will be easier said than done.
Neither Terence Newman nor Mike Jenkins can cover Johnson alone, so this will have to be a team effort. You might see a lot of zone blitzes from Dallas on Sunday, as that will be a way to send some pressure without exposing the secondary. That should allow the Cowboys to keep Gerald Sensabaugh deep over Johnson, with either Newman or Jenkins underneath. Look for Anthony Spencer in coverage—if that happens, a zone blitz was probably just called.
In passing situations, I would place Newman in the slot whenever Johnson lines up there. He has experience as a nickel cornerback, and there is no way Alan Ball or any other non-starter can cover Megatron.
DO play a lot of zone coverage and force Detroit to run.
Against teams that have a dominant receiver and a good running game, I like to play a lot of Cover 1. This allows the defense to put eight men in the box, effectively double-team the top wide receiver, and force an offense to throw the ball to their second and third options.
This week, however, you might see far more Cover 2 than you normally do from Dallas. This will put a safety much closer to Calvin Johnson (Cover 1 simply means the free safety has no responsibility). Plus, I think Dallas should try to force the Lions to run the ball on them.
DON’T run up the middle.
Rookie Nick Fairley doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to go, but Ndamukong Suh is healthy. He is far and away the most terrifying player for Dallas and one they will need to double-team often. Phil Costa and Bill Nagy are going to have a tough time.
DO test the Lions’ secondary with a lot of three-wide receiver sets.
In last year’s game in Detroit, the Cowboys lined up with three or more receivers just 14 times all game. A lot of that had to do with Jon Kitna starting at quarterback, but the Lions’ cornerbacks need to be tested. Even with Miles Austin out and Dez Bryant questionable, Dallas will still be wise to get nickel and dime cornerbacks Alphonso Smith and Brandon McDonald on the field.
DO run a lot of Gun 3 Wide Pro.
When Jason Witten is lined up in a traditional tight end spot, he almost always heads out into a route in passing plays. In “Gun 3 Wide Pro,” however, Witten almost always stays in to block. This formation will allow the Cowboys to have two safety valves against Suh’s pass rush, which is just as dominant as his run defense.
The necessity of Witten in pass protection is another reason the Cowboys might need to lean on their inexperienced receivers more this week. Gun 3 Wide Pro will force the Lions to put nickel personnel on the field, but also gives them ample pass protection ability.
DO also throw out of double-tight sets, and use playaction passes from those looks.
Throwing from run-oriented personnel packages and formations is optimal because the defense will usually have its base defense on the field (and thus be less capable of defending the pass). Thus, even if the Cowboys aren’t in three-receiver sets, they should still air out the football, particularly on first down.
Playaction passes out of run-heavy looks are particularly efficient. Last season, Dallas tested Detroit on eight playaction passes, five of which were thrown 10-plus yards down the field.
DON’T expect a ton of blitzes from Detroit.
Last season, the Lions blitzed Dallas just 12 times all game. Perhaps the presence of Romo will change their strategy, but I think they will want to sit back and try to force Dallas to become a run-first team.
Romo needs to be most watchful of disguised blitzes, as the Lions showed only three of their 12 blitzes in 2010. When defenses show blitz and retreat or line up in a conventional look and then send pressure, Romo is a far less effective quarterback.
DO run a lot of left-handed formations.
Who would have thought that the Cowboys would need to provide aid to Doug Free over Tyron Smith by Week 4 of this season? That is exactly what needs to happen, though, as Free has been pretty poor this season, and certainly worse than Smith.
Whether he is injured or not we don’t know. Either way, look for the Cowboys to run a lot of “left-handed” formations with a tight end right next to Free. In double-tight sets, look for that tight end to be Martellus Bennett.