Let's go over the mantra: The Cowboys have the easiest part of the schedule coming up. They need to win the next four games to give them a good chance at making the playoffs. That about right?
Well, it all has to start with a win over the Buffalo Bills this week. Jason Garrett talks about playing to win one game at a time, and as cliched as that may be, it is absolutely right.
Dallas fans hope the Cowboys are starting a run to move back into contention for a playoff spot. At 4-4, they are within range of a wild card, and positioned to make a move on the division if the New York Giants should stumble. The Bills are coming into Arlington trying to recapture some of the early season momentum they had. After starting with three wins to open the year, they have been alternating wins and losses since, and stand at 5-3. They are in a three way tie with the Jets and the Patriots for the lead in the AFC East.
The big question for both teams is whether their respective trajectories are up or down. Unlike the Seahawks last week, the Bills are playing to remain in the postseason hunt, just like the Cowboys. They are coached by Chan Gailey, who has performed a remarkable turnaround for the Bills. Last week, though, against the Jets, Buffalo did not look very good at all. I went over the video of the game on NFL Rewind to try and find some keys to the game this week. I'll tell you what I thought after the jump.
Offensively, the Bills and Dallas are comparable, at least based on stats (all statistics used here are from ESPN.com). Dallas ranks ninth overall, and the Bills are twelfth. At quarterback, they are even closer, with Ryan Fitzpatrick having the ninth best passer rating, right ahead of Tony Romo at tenth. But one trend that may be working in Dallas' favor is that Buffalo has been largely a run-oriented team, ranking seventh in yards per game, while only being a middle of the pack fifteenth in passing yards. Dallas fans are very familiar with the emergence of a much more effective running game in the form of DeMarco Murray (and his faithful leading blocker sidekick Tony Fiammetta), which looks to pay off as the season progresses.
Digging into the game I watched with those numbers in mind. The key offensive weapon for the Bills was clearly running back Fred Jackson. He is not only a powerful runner, but also a threat as a receiver. The Jets did a very good job containing him, but he still put up a combined 120 yards, 82 of them on the ground.
He got his running yards out of two basic sets, a single back I formation where he lines up deep (seven yards) behind the center, and offset in the shotgun where the Bills try to take advantage of a pass defense. I only saw the Bills use their fullback in the traditional lead blocking position on one play during the game, but they might have lined him up in an H back position and I didn't catch his number. They did use tight ends that way to get a blocker, and the tight end also would motion across the formation in passing downs out of the shotgun, a play that worked pretty effectively a couple of times. But mostly Jackson appears to rely on the depth behind the line to read and react to the line blocking.
Against the Jets, he simply got stopped a lot, but he also had several nice runs. However, when you look deeper into Jackson's numbers, the story is a little different. He was pretty effective early in the game, getting five yards or more on four of his first five runs, but then the Jets started shutting him down, holding him to four or fewer yards (or forcing a fumble, his first of the season) on ten of his next twelve carries. His last run was for 23 yards, and it happened in garbage time while the Jets were in a prevent with a 27-3 lead and about six and a half minutes to burn off the clock. Take that away, and he had a very manageable 59 yards on the ground. I still think he is the key weapon for Buffalo, and the Jets won by controlling him after the first quarter.
Fitzpatrick was controlled largely through keeping the ball away from him. The Jets returned to their ground pounding ways and wound up the game controlling the ball 37:52 to 22:08, and the time of possession was more lopsided in the first half than in the second. The Jets defense also played a part, with two three and outs and two interceptions in the first half. The game was reminiscent of our Seahawks game, in that the score was 3-0 at halftime, with both teams having trouble scoring, but the Jets taking a big lead in the stats. Then after the half, the Jets got some points up and outlasted the Bills.
Outside Jackson, the primary targets for Fitzpatrick were WRs Steve Johnson and David Nelson, and TE Scott Chandler. Nelson was the "clutch" receiver for Fitzpatrick, at least in this game, getting receptions to move the chains and catching the one touchdown the Bills scored late - but he was also the target on both of Fitzpatrick's interceptions. The announcers made note of what they called the Bills' favorite play, where they send a slot receiver in a seam route and cross the outside WR underneath. It is designed to pull the coverage deep enough to give an easy completion to the crossing man.
I also noticed that the shotgun formation was used more sparingly than Dallas uses it. It was pretty much when the Bills were in obvious passing situations, although they did hand off to Jackson in the shotgun at times. But the team seems to favor going under center in that deep set for the running back.
At least part of the success the Jets had is due to their excellent secondary, but I think that the Dallas defense has the capability to control the Bills offense.
Defensively, the Bills play what has been called a "hybrid" 3-4, in that they use a 4-3 look a lot in pass defense, with one of the OLBs lining up in more of a DE position and the other OLB dropping off the line or being replaced by a nickel back. The base defense puts the OLBs on the line, and I noticed than one usually put his hand on the ground while the other was standing upright but right on the line, usually across from the TE. I suspect the one standing had responsibility for going with the TE in certain situations.
The first Jets possession was almost their best against the Bills defense. They took the ball on their own 6 after a monster punt by Brian Moorman of 64 yards. The Jets then ran seventeen plays (counting one encroachment call on Buffalo), mixing pass and run effectively. On that last play, with a second and goal from the Buffalo 7, Sanchez tried to throw the ball away and just lost track of safety Jairus Byrd in the back of the end zone. He picked it. The announcers said it was the second longest drive in the NFL this season (87 yards) that resulted in no points.
After that, the defense was better through the first half, using a little more blitzing to get Sanchez off balance and not letting anyone get loose. Things broke down in the second half. A second field goal was set up by some special teams errors (more on that in a bit) and then Jackson had his fumble, which was recovered at the Buffalo 19. Plaxico Burress used his height to catch a pass at the 1, and shortly the Jets had a 13-0 lead. The Jets second touchdown came off a pass interference call in the end zone on a deep pass from the 50 yard line (although Sanchez was driving pretty well on that series) and another PI call set up the last touchdown, albeit the Jets had driven from their 16 to the Buffalo 18 and would have likely gotten at least 3 anyway.
The special teams for both teams hurt Buffalo as well. On the opening kickoff of the second half, Joe McKnight took the ball four or five yards deep in the end zone and went up the right sideline to the Bills 45 (his one other return was for 24). As a bonus, the Bills placekicker Rian Lindell hurt his arm pushing McKnight out of bounds and had to turn the kickoff duty over to Moorman. The Bills held the Jets to a 3 and out, but were pinned at the 1 yard line after a great punt. Then the Bills couldn't mount anything and the punt was brought back to the Buffalo 40, leading to a 50 yard field goal by some guy named Nick Folk, who seems to have certain knack for kicking long field goals at the Orchard Park stadium. Then, after the Bills used a two point conversion to get the game within two scores at 27-11 (although with only 3:09 left), the Bills missed an onsides kick. Not making it is understandable, but they were offsides as well.
Overall, it was not a very good day for Chan Gailey and his team, but the Jets did a very good job against them most of the day. Are they a team the Cowboys can beat? Yes. But they are also capable of some good football, so this one can't be taken for granted - but then you can say that every week.
There was one play that I did want to provide as a video clip. It has nothing to do with our game with Buffalo. But if you haven't seen it, it is the funniest thing I have seen on a football field in a while, and a great illustration of why the wildcat is not always such a great idea.