Kegful of Insight: Preseason Week 1 - Dallas Cowboys Defense

One of the benefits of NFL online game pass is you can watch the game and rewind plays as often as you would like to get a better idea of what every player did during any given time. You basically pay the NFL to have a limited game tape to review at your leisure to study each play design and each players' execution of assignment. This is something that is impossible to do without multiple takes, even with a televised replay, since there are simply too many players and too much action to track in just one or two glances. It can often lead to misinterpretations or missed efforts, and some bad first impressions or faulty perceptions of the actual events.

A lot has been made of the performance of the Dallas Cowboys defense in the first preseason game. The starters, those not injured, were in only for one series, but already comparisons to the dismal defensive showing in 2010 are being made. For what it's worth, I agree with those that think it wasn't a terrible showing overall. I agree that the end result was not what I would like to see during the 2011 season, but I saw more good than bad when I re-watched the game.

In the inaugural "Kegful of Insight" I want to take a detailed play-by-play account of the defensive alignments and schemes of the Cowboys starters on the opening drive of the game. The Denver Broncos drove down the field far too easily, and though they were held to a field goal, few are happy with the results.

Let's take a close look to see if things are as gloomy as they first appear...

1st and 10 - Pass (Defense 2-5-4)

great post by KD has screenshots and run down of the "flex" 4-3 that Rob Ryan called to start the game. There were five linebackers on the field, four defensive backs, and only two down-linemen with Josh Brent over center and Marcus Spears lined up as 5-technique defensive end (technically "7-tech") outside the tight end on the strong side. Denver Broncos are in I-form set, and at the snap Ryan rushes six of the front seven, only Bradie James remains in coverage, and Brent gets a lot of push up-field as the Broncos offensive line run blocks right on a smoke-route pass left. The Broncos basically ran a play-action pass without the fake handoff (the line was "selling" the run) and it ended in the time it takes to take two steps. Result, DeMarcus Ware deflects the pass.

2nd and 10 - Run (Def Base 3-4)

The television coverage was from a strange angle as they were showing the starting lineups and I can't be too detailed with much confidence. It looked like DEN was again in I-Form and called a stretch run to the strong-side right. Cowboys seemed to be in a base 3-4 with Marcus Spears - Josh Brent - Igor Olshansky on the line. It appeared Brent anchored well, and while Lee read the play quickly he missed the "no gain" tackle. Bradie cleaned up making the tackle and Spears gets the assist though he got pushed back by the double team at the point of attack. Gain of four yards.

3rd and 6 - Pass (Def 1-5-5)

DEN in shotgun 3-WR set with the tight end also in the slot, and Ryan brings out a one down-lineman scheme (looked like Brent but tough to tell) with five linebackers and five defensive backs. The defense created tons of pressure. Ware was actually matched up and beat the right tackle and Orlando Scandrick was untouched on a slot corner blitz from the blind side. Orton would have been leveled if coverage didn't break down immediately. Gerald Sensabaugh blows his assignment and the slot receiver is left uncovered due to the corner blitz. Abram Elam playing deep safety (taking a bad angle by the looks of it) pushes the receiver out of bounds after 29 yard gain.

1st and 10 - Pass (Base 3-4)

Even though Orton is now under center and the tight end is on the line, DEN has three receivers on the field and DAL is in a base 3-4 defense. Even more unpredictably, Ryan only sends the three down-linemen after the quarterback. The pressure was decent considering it was only Igor, Brent, and Spears. Igor was doubled and went nowhere, but Brent got a great push initially before he raised his pad level and lost leverage. Spears had a nice swim move to flush Orton out of the pocket, but lost containment in the process. At first glance, Sean Lee seems to be playing middle zone coverage pretty deep, but Ware is also surprisingly deep (over 10 yards) helping cover the lone receiver on his side. Anthony Spencer covered the flat and the slot receiver on the opposite side and was much closer to the line than Ware, so maybe this one is on the great one. In any case, the running back went out on an under route and Lee breaks on it well, but from afar, and makes the tackle after a gain of six.

2nd and 3 - Run (Def 3-3-5)

Again, DEN is lined up with three receivers, but under center with the tight end on the line. Ryan was trying a very interesting "nickel" like defense that seems may become a common formation. There were three corners, two safeties, but four linebackers, however, one of which played as a down-lineman. Jason Hatcher came in as nose tackle shading the left guard, Igor lined up as 4-technique defensive tackle between right guard and tackle, and Spencer actually puts his hand on the ground as a 5-technique defensive end off strong-side right. Ryan sends four, Ware against left tackle, Hatcher anchors well and even pushes the line though doubled by center and left guard, but Igor is thrown 5 yards back by guard-tackle double team. While Spencer easily got around the tight end, his mind seemed set as a pass rusher and he wasn't able to cut inside fast enough to stop the run up the gut. Of course, if Igor executes his assignment better, the running back likely is slower through the running (runway?) lane and Spencer has a better shot at stopping the run for no gain. In fact, Igor got pushed back so far that he bumps Lee who was thus late to stuff the gap. Result, Bradie gets the tackle but assisted by Igor and Lee after a gain of about six yards.

1st and 10 - Run (Base 3-4)

This is where the trends begin. Brent has good initial push, but again stands up and loses leverage so partly gets sealed out of the running lane. He manages to hold his ground and help with the tackle, but only because he was going up against the center only. Spears pushes the right tackle towards the center, but eventually loses the battle as the pile pushes him back. Igor gets worked by the left guard and is no help at the point of attack. The biggest problem...you will notice none of the three had to be double teamed. So, while Brent and Spears barely manage to hold the line, the right guard is free to take out Sean Lee, and the fullback lead blocks right though Bradie stuffs him near the line of scrimmage. It seemed like the run was designed to go to the right, but had no room, and so Willis McGahee takes advantage of Brent's loss and Igor's absence center-left. Sensabaugh actually plays the run well and steps into the gap, but instead of a short gain he doesn't make a clean tackle and the pile gets pushed for a six yard gain.

2nd and 4 - Run (Base 3-4)

DEN is in a 22 set (two tight ends, two receivers), again the run is planned to the right, but McGahee bounces it to the left. Why? Guess who got abused again on the right side of the defense? While Igor got hooked on the play, it was after he got sealed out and pushed back four yards, no double team, just the tackle. Brent anchors well, but can't get to McGahee as he runs past where Igor should have been. Sean Lee was too smart for his own good and overran the play. He diagnosed it going right (defense left), but since Spears and Brent did their jobs and the run bounced left, Lee over-pursues and was out of position. No safety help, huge running lane off-tackle. Gain of 12 yards.

1st and 10 Redzone - Run (Base 3-4)

DEN lines up in a heavy set (three tight ends - strong right w/two of them, two backs, and receiver to the left). At the snap, the tight end on the left and the left tackle double team Igor out of the play, Ware tries to double back into the middle as he is unblocked, but can't do much from the outside. Brent again stands up and gets pushed back by center-right guard double team. The left guard pulls inside and helps take out Spears and Spencer who beat the two tight ends and fullback. The right tackle first chips Spears and then takes out Bradie James. Lee is in a perfect position to make the play, but unfortunately misses the tackle for a loss as Spears and the pulling guard fall at his feet.  Elam steps up and stops the run after seven yards.

2st and 3 Redzone - Run (3-3-5)

Again, second down and DEN lines up with Orton under center with the tight end on the line (this time the left) and three wide receivers. Again, Ryan calls the "nickel" defense, Spencer as 5-tech end off the right tackle, Igor as the nose over center, and Hatcher shading the left tackle. The run goes right and Igor is again taken for a ride, this time by the center. The guards take out Lee and Bradie, but Spencer does a good job of shedding the block of the right tackle and seals the edge, but with Igor so far out of position Spencer isn't able to get to the running back before he is through the hole...sound familiar? Igor was a huge liability in the 3-3-5, and even in the base 3-4. Gain of six yards.

1st and Goal from the 3 - Run (Goal Line Def)

DEN is in the heavy set again but this time DAL has four down-linemen, and a fifth, Kenyon Coleman, but who doesn't have his hand on the ground. Tough to tell who the other linemen are, but Spears is the left defensive end and gets into the backfield (untouched) to stop the run for a loss. Oh, happy days! No wait, penalty makes if 1st and goal from about the 1-yard line.

1st and Goal from the 1 - Pass (5-2-4)

This was a very interesting defensive call by Ryan. DEN is again in the three receiver set under center with tight end on the right side of the line. Cowboys have four down-linemen, Igor - Brent - Spears - Coleman but then Ware joins the fun and puts his hand on the ground next to Igor to make it five. Sean Lee and Kenwin Cummings where the only line backers, and three corners and Elam made up the secondary. Looks like DAL got a push at the line, but a quick throw makes it hard to tell. McCann deflects the fade pass to Lloyd. DEN is then flagged for 12 men in the huddle.

2nd and Goal from the 6 - Pass (3-3-5)

DEN is in a 5-WR shotgun set, and Ryan calls in the "Spencer nickel." Spencer lined up as 5-tech, Igor as the nose, and Hatcher as the 3-tech defensive tackle. Igor gets stoned by center-guard double, Hatcher makes things difficult for the left guard-tackle double. Meanwhile, Almost Anthony beats the right tackle, almost forces a fumble and is (well hidden and smart) held on the play, though still forces Orton out of the pocket and to throw the ball out the back of the end zone. Ryan sent only three and they created pressure.

3rd and Goal from the 6 - Pass (2-3-6)

Ryan continues to make things interesting. Two down-linemen, one of which is Spencer as a 5-tech again, and Hatcher is the other as nose tackle. Ware, Lee and Bradie are the linebackers, and it appears three corners and three safeties were brought in (unless Barry Church was in only due limited corner depth cause of injuries). Again only a three man rush with Ware, Hatcher and Spencer, the latter running a stunt, and Hatcher makes a good swim move and chases Orton out of the pocket and forces him to throw the ball away.

Field Goal is Good

Now, what does all this tell us? Relax, the defensive line is not as bad as many people think. Yes, Igor was beat on virtually every play he was in, and if you only have two down-linemen it's sure to make the line of scrimmage battle look one-sided. But did the Cowboys completely fail to create pressure? They actually harassed Orton quite a bit that drive and twice with only a three man rush. Yes, they did not do a good job stopping the run. DEN had over 40 yards rushing, but remember, a dozen of those were two runs against a nickel defense, and another dozen from a play where Igor got worked and hooked. Most of the rushing yards are a direct result of Igor's play...not to mention the absence of Jay Ratliff and the need for the offensive line to double him. It made life very difficult for the linebackers to stop the run.

The defense did not collapse like many assume, at least I don't think so. There were a few failed assignments in the first drive of the first preseason game in Ryan's first game as defensive coordinator. DEN had a lot of red zone attempts but only got a field goal. I know the wounds of the 2010 defense are still fresh in our memories, but this is not the same group. They are playing harder, creating pass pressure, and making it difficult for even someone reviewing tape to realize what players are in and what formation Ryan is running. Our defensive line isn't terrible; Igor played terribly and the team terribly missed its best lineman. Sean Lee missed a few plays though had great instincts for the most part. Sensabaugh's blown assignment turned a would-be sack into Orton's best pass of the night.

In the end, after a few preseason mix-ups and a few lost battles on the line, the Cowboys gave up a few big plays, but the defense kept their opponent out of the end zone. Hatcher showed promise, Spears did as well. Brent needs to learn to keep his pads low, but he didn't do too poorly for a backup nose tackle thrown into the fire. Igor, however, well...the Russian may be introduced to the Turk if Ryan doesn't give him another chance to prove himself. This is only the beginning, it is a work in progress, and it wasn't nearly as bad as some have made it out to be...at least that is my opinion after some film work.

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