Dallas' Defensive Linemen are Finally Playing Aggressive, Consistent Football
The play of every defensive lineman who was not Jay Ratliff was the biggest disappointment of the first half. Chris Canty was so obscure the milk carton people couldn't find him. Marcus Spears would make a play here and then fade to who knows where. Tank Johnson was in and out with little injuries. Jason Hatcher accompanied Canty on his trip around the dark side of the moon.
Now, they're all playing much better and it's letting the inside linebackers, Bradie James in particular, fly to the football and make plays. Let's call roll on yesterday's solid performance.
Canty played perhaps his best game of the year. He held his point the way he did last year. He got off blocks and pursued. Just as important, he kept his lane discipline. Canty was very aggressive in Washington but was too aggressive at times. He would chase plays too far and actually run beyond Jay Ratliff in his zeal to make a tackle.
In a one-gap scheme all front seven guys need to keep their place -- the soccer folks have a phrase called "keeping your shape" that applies here -- so they don't unintentionally create cutback lanes.
Canty also showed some rush skills, especially when Dallas used its 4-2-5 sets or its "chaos" 2-4-5 sets. Canty lined up over the guards in both packages. He plays a 5 technique DE in Dallas' 3-4 but he can be a terror as a 3 technique rusher. Dallas needs this pressure to continue; Ratliff needs help breaking down pockets.
Which brings us to Marcus Spears. He's also playing his smartest, most aggressive football. He was just behind Ratliff on the lineman production sheet in Washington and he kept making plays. He slanted inside and forced Frank Gore wide on a goal line play. Demarcus Ware cleaned up, dropping Gore for no gain on Dallas' first goal line stop in the first quarter. He's been very good at getting off blocks and getting to the ball carrier on any runs to his side of the line.
Spears was also part of a long-delayed line experiment. In camp, the coaches worked at swapping Spears and Ratliff, moving the thicker Spears to NT and sliding Ratliff to DE, where he would theoretically have more space to rush.
In the 2nd quarter, when Dallas had the 'Niners backed up at their one, the linemen flopped. Spears and Tank Johnson played inside and Ratliff and Canty lined up as ends in a 4-4 package, with James and Kevin Burnett playing inside Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
The Niners tried running right at Spears and he split a double team expertly, dropping to a knee and creating a scrum. Gore had nowhere to go and was stopped by Spears and friends for no gain. Spears toughness against the run may encourage Dallas to give Spears more reps inside. We'll see.
The Bear Rampages Again -- I hate referring to Buddy Ryan in any context, so I'm going to refer to Wade Phillips' version of the 46 defense as the "Bum" package from now on.
Wade continued to sprinkle in Bum calls this week and it produced. On San Francisco's first series, Phillips called it when the Niners had a 3rd and long just inside Dallas territory. Bradie James walked over to Greg Ellis' side on San Francisco's left side. The 'Niners slid their protection in Ellis' direction which meant that Demarcus Ware was able to come off the right edge unblocked. He flushed Shaun Hill from the pocket and forced an incompletion.
Early in the 2nd quarter Dallas employed a wrinkle to the Bum set that produced a sack. The 'Niners were in a 2nd and long just after Dallas had taken a 9-6 lead. They lined up in a two-TE, one-RB set, with Vernon Davis and Billy Bajema lined up together next to RT Jonas Jennings. Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson were set up wide on the left and right.
Prior to the snap, James lined up next to Anthony Spencer on the strong side. This time, however, he lined up outside Spencer. This put James over Bajema and Spencer over Davis. At the snap, Davis released to go upfield.
Phillips called for both Spencer and James to blitz off the right edge. Bajema should have blocked James, leaving Spencer to be picked up by the running back. The 'Niners blockers were crossed up. Bajema tried darting inside to cut off Spencer and left James for the back, who slid wide and cut James off.
The reach block was too big of one for Bajema -- Spencer blew past him easily and sacked Hill.
This package is making things easy for the Cowboys but hard for their opponents. More Bum rushes, please. (pun intended!)
-- Dallas continues to use pressure sets in 3rd-and-short situations, because its rush has been strong. Yesterday the Cowboys put nine men in the box on a 3rd-and-2. Both Ken Hamlin and Keith Davis were just five yards off the line of scrimmage. It was the corners, Terence Newman and Anthony Henry, who played deep, at seven yards off the line. The Niners tried beating the pressure with a wheel route to RB Gore, but Demarcus Ware ran with him and knocked down the pass.
-- Martellus the Brutish: The Martellus Bennett roll out continues. He caught his second TD pass in two weeks, a two yarder in the 2nd quarter. More importantly, he showed solid lead blocking skills. Bennett got several reps as the FB in off-set I sets and led Marion Barber on isolation plays.
Bennett cleared out Takeo Spikes each time. He's showing a consistent ability to hit the right shoulder, get his massive frame low and generate leverage. He's taking more and more reps from Tony Curtis. No knock against Curtis, but he lacks the athleticism Bennett has.
-- Deon the Determined: Dallas is also getting solid blocking from Deon Anderson. With Kyle Kosier again nursing a sprained foot the Cowboys will need improved TE and FB blocking to compensate for the performance dropoff from Cory Proctor to Kosier.