Bills @ Cowboys: A Closer Look At Cowboys Run Defense

After the initial hurrah following the Bills game, we've all had time to sit back and reflect on the game with a little more distance. And sometimes, with a little more distance, things pop up that were not so obvious on or immediately after game day.

One thing that kept swirling around in the back of my mind was the Cowboys run defense. I know what Rob Ryan thinks about people harping on and on about the run defense:

"As long as they get seven points and we kicked their ass, that's fine. [...] I'm telling you, this group is coming now. And I know everybody wants to cry and everything about the run defense. Please. Give me a break. We'll see what happens."

But I went back and looked at both the film and the game book anyway to try to figure out what was bothering me. Follow me after the break for some observations.

The first thing I looked at were Fred Jackson's runs to see whether I could discern a pattern there:

Quarter Time Down & Distance Play Yards Score
1 (3:05) 1-10 F.Jackson right tackle to BUF 22 for 2 yards (J.Ratliff). 2 14-0
2 (14:38) 1-10 F.Jackson right end to DAL 33 for 3 yards (K.Coleman). 3 14-0
2 (11:42) 2-1 (Shotgun) F.Jackson right tackle to BUF 33 for 4 yards (S.Lissemore). 4 21-0
2 (9:06) 1-10 F.Jackson left end to DAL 3 for 19 yards (A.Ball; K.Brooking). 19 21-0
3 (14:52) 1-10 F.Jackson left guard to BUF 45 for 13 yards (S.Lee). 13 28-7
3 (14:11) 1-10 (Shotgun) F.Jackson left end to BUF 47 for 2 yards (S.Lee; K.Brooking). 2 28-7
3 (12:36) 1-10 F.Jackson left tackle to DAL 25 for 19 yards (A.Spencer). 19 28-7
3 (:10) 1-10 (Shotgun) F.Jackson up the middle to BUF 30 for 11 yards (S.Lee). 11 31-7
4 (13:32) 1-10 (Shotgun) F.Jackson left tackle to DAL 27 for 10 yards (G.Sensabaugh). FUMBLES (G.Sensabaugh), RECOVERED by DAL-J.Ratliff at DAL 28. 9 34-7
4 (4:54) 1-10 (Shotgun) F.Jackson left tackle to BUF 28 for 8 yards (A.Albright). 8 44-7
4 (4:11) 1-10 (Shotgun) F.Jackson up the middle to BUF 41 for 5 yards (B.Church, J.Ratliff). 5 44-7
4 (3:35) 2-5 F.Jackson left end pushed ob at DAL 44 for 15 yards (F.Walker). 15 44-7
4 (1:52) 1-10 (Shotgun) F.Jackson up the middle to DAL 7 for 4 yards (B.Carter). 4 44-7

The first things that immediately became obvious is that any damage by the Buffalo run game came when the Cowboys were already up by 21 points. So any type of overreaction to these numbers is probably pointless.

The second thing that struck me was that 11 out of 13 runs came on 1st-and-10. Jackson ran on second down only twice, and not a single time on 3rd down. Of course, the Bills only had seven third downs, four of which were for eight or more yards. They had two 3rd-and-threes where they chose to pass, and one 3rd-and-one where Fitzpatrick ran for three yards. Still, rushing only on 1st-and-10 seems a little odd.

Even odder is that after three short runs, Jackson started gashing the Cowboys defense, and ended up rushing for 8.8 yards a clip. Nobody runs at that pace without multiple defenders missing tackles on each play.

My worry was that - similar to what happened against the Eagles - the Cowboys were rushing in an overly aggressive manner, over-pursuing and leaving rushing lanes open. So I looked in detail at the first big Jackson run, the 19-yarder with 9 minutes left in the second quarter.

Here's how the Cowboys lined up:

Fj-19-1_medium

At first glance, this looked like a pretty standard defensive line-up. Until I looked at the personnel. Playing left end with his hands on the ground is linebacker Alex Albright. Next to him is Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher is the right end. Crouching next to Hatcher is Victor Butler, who has Keith Brooking standing next to him. Behind the line, Sean Lee is getting ready to attack while Abe Elam is the strong safety who just seems to be loitering around. Frank Walker and Alan Ball are the outside corners, with Walker playing press and Ball giving WR Donald Jones (#19) a 10-yard cushion. Sensabaugh is the free safety, Scandrick is playing the slot.

No DeMarcus Ware. No Anthony Spencer. No Terence Newman. Five defensive backs, four linebackers, two linemen. Hmmm...

Fj-19-2_medium

Just prior to the snap, WR #19 starts moving, Alan Ball starts accelerating to the other side of the field in hot pursuit. Sean "Q-tip" Lee and Abe Elam start to blitz and will come crashing down the middle.

Fj-19-3_medium

The ball is snapped, Fitzpatrick takes a few steps back and hands the ball off to Fred Jackson, who initially appears to be heading towards the right side. Scandrick sees the run and runs towards the far side of the field. Ball breaks off and goes with the slot receiver. Brooking, who had been standing at right end is also pursuing the run and lumbering towards the middle of the field. The blitzing Lee and Elam are caught somewhere in the huge pile of humanity between the hashmarks.

Fj-19-6_medium Fj-19-7_medium

Fred Jackson, who looked to be running to the right, sees the unblocked Alex Albright waiting for him (left picture), plants his legs and reverses direction to his left.

Fj-19-4_medium

Every Cowboys defender is caught on the wrong foot. The crashing Lee and Elam are stuck somewhere in the pile. Brooking tries to change direction, Butler can't get off his block fast enough. And all Jackson sees are green, pastoral fields that just beckon for a leisurely stroll down the sideline

Fj-19-5_medium

All the Cowboys defenders can do at this point is run after Jackson. Brooking (51), Albright (55), Butler (57) and Lee (Q-tip) are all in hot pursuit, but in the end it's Alan Ball who brings Jackson down at the Dallas 3-yard line. Two plays later, the Bills score their only touchdown.

I saw enough ineffective blitzes down the middle by the linebackers last year to last a lifetime, so I was worried I'd see more of these types of defense plays, but none of Jackson's other big runs saw saw this type of aggressive rushing by the defense. Most of the other runs were the result of missed tackles, which is another issue all by itself.

At the end of the day though, Rob is right. Seven points allowed trumps any other stat out there. But after holding their first four opponents to under 100 yards rushing, four of the last five opponents have had more than 100 yards. That's at least something worth watching for.

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