On paper you would assume that the Dallas Cowboys would regress in 2017, based on their offseason free-agent losses. They lost 11 players to other teams and two to retirement. That is a lot of production, leadership and depth, but their subtle free-agent additions and solid drafts make them a young team that thinks it will be better than their 2016 team that finished the regular season at 13-3. Now the Cowboys’ sights are set on the Super Bowl. They have a lot of confidence that their young players are ready to step into bigger roles and that their improved athleticism will match the strong teams they face.
With an elite QB and running back, this became a terrific offense that got better as the 2016 season wore on. The coaches kept the scheme simple early but opened things up as they started to trust Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. This offense preaches balance and can either go with “heavy” personnel to run the ball or spread things out to set up a versatile passing game, which is simple but very effective. We see a lot of passes off play action set up by the run. Don’t be surprised if Prescott and Elliott run some zone read — they both did in college. Let’s look at a bread-and-butter run play.
A well designed run game
This elite offensive line is adept in man and zone blocking schemes. On this play the Cowboys show a man power look and a solid off-tackle run. The two receivers on the play side wall off the two corners covering them with a stalk block, and with two defenders out of the play that leaves the O-line with five man blocks, while Elliott stutter steps right to lure the defense that way before cutting back to the left side. The left tackle kicks out the outside linebacker — that sets up the key block, which is tight end Jason Witten coming across the formation to “wham” block the right defensive end. That sets up a wide hole for Elliott and results in a big play. This is power football and nobody does it better.
This is not an elite defense — it really lacks playmakers, so the coaches are forced to try to win with changing schemes and coverages. They want to dominate with their edge pass rush and seem to want to play more man schemes, but they lack the players with the right skill sets. They are constantly faced with a dilemma: If they blitz to create pressure it exposes the back seven in man coverages, which is not their strength. If they sit back and play it straight, good QBs have all day to pick them apart. This play is an example of them being pressured to bring more “heat”:
Bringing the blitz is risky
When they tire of no pass rush pressure, the Cowboys roll the dice with the blitz. They bring six defenders on this play (four defensive linemen, one linebacker, one safety). That leaves them with a single high cover safety and man coverages on the outside receivers. With two running backs who stay in and block, the offense has seven blockers versus seven rushers and they easily handle the pressure. That leaves Dallas with a one-on-one matchup with their left corner versus the wide receiver on the right, who runs a deep curl route for an easy 25-yard reception. No other defender is close. Until they improve their man coverage and can get to the QB with a four-man rush, where they can play more zones, the Cowboys will struggle on defense when they are put on an island.
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- This is now Dak Prescott’s team — There is no more QB controversy with Tony Romo gone. Prescott has earned a lot of goodwill by the way he has carried himself and led this team. His coaches let him run a fairly simple scheme which eliminates turnovers and allows him to have the look of a very efficient QB. That does a lot for everybody’s confidence. He has become a terrific red zone rushing threat. He is solid on third down, and it helps that he directs the best run game in the NFL.
- Their zone secondary needs a better front four pass rush — Free-agent losses really hit the back end of this defense hard. Opposing offenses bypass the run and go right after them in the passing game. In 2016 the Cowboys were really aggressive early with more blitzes and man schemes than we are used to seeing, but they gave up a lot of big plays by DBs who were not a good fit to play on an island, so they adjusted to more zones with a lot of single high safety looks later in the season. If they can get a better rush without being forced to blitz, they can sit back in safer preferred zones.
- This elite O-line sets the tone — The Cowboys run the ball more than any other team in the NFL. Three of their five starters are Pro Bowl players. They can man or zone block (they are better in man), they can block inside or outside, they can pull and trap, and they are excellent at getting to the second level and blocking in space. Their success at opening holes on early downs gives a young QB favorable third down situations. They are often forced to get it done versus eight-man defensive fronts.
- The Cowboys have the perfect passing weapons for Prescott — These coaches keep it fairly simple for their young QB. This receiver corps really meshes with the Cowboys’ “safe” short/intermediate passing game philosophy. Dez Bryant is great on crossing routes and in the red zone, Witten is elite in the middle of the defense. The Cowboys have two excellent slot WRs in Cole Beasley and rookie Ryan Switzer to do the underneath work. Even Elliot is developing into a quality outlet receiver. This sets up a lot of fairly easy throws for a QB who doesn’t have to read the defense a lot.
- Can Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli overcome free-agent losses? — A mediocre 2016 defense took a big hit in free agency, especially in the overmatched secondary that lost four key performers. None of the departed players were elite but they combined for 221 tackles, three interceptions, and 24 PBUs last year. That is significant production to replace. Marinelli is in a constant dilemma on what approach to take: 1) Should he “gamble” and attack with blitzes? 2) Should he sit back in “bend, but don’t break” coverages and use a lot of movement to confuse offenses?
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