Cowboys 2011 Defense: Blitz Packages To Stop The Run And Pass

The Cowboys defense helped the team stay in the 49ers game as the offense sputtered before Tony Romo's heroic return. The Cowboys did not have a great first half versus San Fran. Though the defense allowed two touchdowns, the Cowboys didn't let the game get away from them as the offense had a few three-and-outs and a turnover before finally managing to score points at the end of the half. Yet, at the end of the day, the defense held 49ers Alex Smith to under 180 yards passing and Frank Gore rushed for less than 50 yards. Everyone will remember the Romo led comeback, but too many will forget the great effort by this defense.

Every time the 49ers seemed to be building momentum, the defense found a way to stop it. Some break downs occurred in the backup-laden secondary allowing the 49ers to convert 50% of their third-downs even though they were forced into long third-downs, but the defense came up with big stops to keep the Cowboys in the game. Newly signed Frank Walker showed some promise as the Cowboys injury-riddled secondary held the dually hampered 49ers receiving corp in check. Though the 49ers played with the lead for most of the game, the Cowboys defense didn't allow Frank Gore to run away with the game, in fact, they didn't even let him get started. Vernon Davis was also a non-factor. The defense was a major contributor to the victory in Week 2. With the offense banged up heading into the Week 3 division rivalry game, the defense will have to be even better.

Let's take a closer look at how the defense held the 49ers to only 206 total net yards, and the upcoming matchups versus the Redskins...

There was a lot to like about the Cowboys defense in Week 2, though certainly the return of Terence Newman will help solidify the secondary that allowed too many yards through the air against teams with sub-par passing attacks. But six sacks against the 49ers, which dropped back to pass only 24 times (30 including the sacks), is a promising display by this new Cowboys defense. Rob Ryan has dialed up a lot of blitzes in the past two weeks, and I don't expect that to change much. Not only because the pressure can help hide weaknesses in the secondary, but Ryan is also utilizing the blitz to stop the run.

Run Blitz

To start the game, the Cowboys offense drove down the field but couldn't come up with any points and missed a short field goal. The 49ers opening drive starts to pick up some steam and gets to midfield with the help of a 20-yard completion to Braylon Edwards. Momentum building, the 49ers line up on second down needing only a yard for the first down, and Rob Ryan calls a run blitz.

The first hint that this is a run blitz is that Josh Brent has come in to replace Jay Ratliff at nose tackle. The next hint is how Ryan also stacks the line to the right, as if knowing from film-work that the 49ers intend to run in that direction. DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee execute their run blitz to near perfection as the play-call leads to a tackle for a loss of yards.

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Off the snap, Sean Lee displays his incredible read-and-react skills and his blitz has already gotten him in position to defend against the run before the offensive-line can even engage him in a block. Josh Brent and Jason Hatcher anchor their spots along the line and Ware is about to take the athletic tight-end for a ride.

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Sean Lee manages to beat the right guard and tracks the play through the trenches to help make the tackle on an off-tackle run to the left...for a loss. It's a very impressive play by the young linebacker. Josh Brent drives his man so far back that he shuts off the running back's ability to cut-back while DeMarcus Ware also creates havoc in the backfield. Showing why he isn't just one of the league's best pass rushers, but really one of the best defensive players around, Ware pushes Vernon Davis into the backfield (doesn't try to go around him like when he is QB hunting), takes on the double-team block by the fullback, and then sheds the blockers to assist on the tackle.

Even without Lee's great individual effort, Ware and Hatcher seem in place to make the tackle as well. It was a perfect play call by Ryan and the execution was equally impressive, not to mention timely. With the 49ers building momentum and driving down the field, the Cowboys forced a third down after 2nd & 1 and later capitalized by forcing a punt to end the 49ers opening drive.

I expect to see similar run blitzes called against the Redskins, having defenders pressure gaps before the zone blocking schemes can create running lanes.

There was another big second-down run stop on the 49ers opening drive of the second half. This is an interesting play design by Rob Ryan. On second-down after an incomplete pass, Ryan appears to call a run blitz with one defensive lineman just off the line of scrimmage. Kenyon Coleman is the left end yet he is playing as a linebacker standing up beside Anthony Spencer. At the snap, they both appear to be playing some kind of edge coverage, one perhaps has coverage duties on the back. This throwback scheme seems to again honor the great Tom Landry, using his idea "flex" linemen reading the play before reacting. Ware is sent on a run blitz, again pushing the blocker in to collapse the pocket instead of rushing the passer and losing containment on the edge. Jay Ratliff is sent to pressure the A-gap (again more of a run blitz than having a traditional 2-gap nose tackle taking up blockers) and he nearly makes the tackle in the backfield.

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Though Ratliff gets blocked just before making the play, Jason Hatcher is solid on his 2-gap assignment and Bradie James plugs up the running lane as the defense converges. This interesting run blitz forces a third-and-long, where Rob Ryan's defense is in perfect position to unleash some organized chaos...and does just that, sacking Alex Smith to end the 49ers drive. 

Pass Rush and Blitz Packages

By controlling the line of scrimmage with blitzes, stopping the run while harassing passers, the Cowboys defense has managed to keep offenses off balance. With an NFL-leading ten sacks in two weeks, the Cowboys are forcing offenses to make quick decisions. By also stopping the run, the defense does a good job of forcing third-and-longs and making teams one dimensional, making the pass rush even more potent. As mentioned above, the Cowboys stopped the 49ers opening second-half drive with a sack in just such an occasion.

After forcing third-and-eight, Ryan calls the Spencer Nickel, playing Ratliff and Spencer as defensive ends with their hands on the ground and Hatcher as the nose tackle. In truth, Spencer is playing like a 4-3 defensive end, while Ratliff and Hatcher are playing like tackles. Pre-snap, the Cowboys show a blitz up the middle and force the 49ers to shift their backfield protection to the left, though Ware has lined up over the right tackle.

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At the snap, the organized chaos has worked. The offense adjusts its protection scheme assuming pressure up the middle, but that was a feign and Alan Ball has crept up to the line and joins Ware on a blitz from the outside. The 49ers have committed seven people to block, and yet the Cowboys have disguised where the pressure is coming from and collapse the pocket with only five rushers.

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I continue to enjoy breaking down film from Ryan's defensive schemes. He really has brought an exciting, aggressive, and creative defense to Dallas. In this particular blitz, Alan Ball is sent off the edge, and Spencer and Ware run stunts with the interior linemen. Spencer and Ratliff have crashed down, while Ware and Hatcher run stunts over top.

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Alan Ball forces Alex Smith to step up into the pocket as Spencer has broken free up the middle with a great swim move. Spencer again forces Alex Smith to move in the pocket, never allowing him time to set his feet or scan downfield, until Hatcher finishes off the play with a sack coming off the edge after the stunt.

The Redskins offensive line is playing well at the moment, having allowed only five sacks in two weeks, but Ryan seems intent on creating pressure with blitzes. Another great example of this Cowboys pass rush, and another big second-down defensive play against the 49ers, came in overtime.

The 49ers won the coin toss and got the opening drive in overtime. It begins with a reception for a dozen yards and then a run for a gain of seven yards. With momentum building and facing a second-and-three, Ryan again sends a blitz but manages to keep enough defenders in coverage. The 49ers are in a two tight-end set and Ryan sends a double outside backer blitz.

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Both tight-ends go out on routes and the 49ers have kept no one extra to block. It appears the Cowboys have sent five, but Ware either called his own audible or had coverage duty on the running back, and tracks the running back in the flat. Alex Smith's first read appears to be the pass to the running back in the flat, assuming the hot read will leave him wide open against the blitz, but he is nearly fooled into the bad throw before looking away.

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This split second delay sets up the overtime sack. At this point in the play, the 49ers actually have some receivers open, but Ware plays his assignment (what I call the "caveat blitz" - rush the passer unless player X goes out on a route, or unless a receiver threatens your flat) so well that he draws Alex Smith's attention away from the open receivers. If Alex Smith doesn't look to the flat first, this play could have ended in a completion instead of a sack. Instead, Alex Smith doesn't have time find his open receivers before Ratliff breaks through the line for a clutch overtime sack. Suddenly, the second-and-three becomes a third-and-eleven and the Cowboys are building momentum in overtime.

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Rob Ryan is dialing one, two, and sometimes three or four-man blitz packages and the defense has responded by making big plays in very important situations in the game. With the pass rush disguised and coming from all directions with no sense of predictability, the Cowboys will continue to harass quarterbacks. If Ryan can continue to create sacks sending only four or five after the quarterback, then this defense could become scary with its starting corners back on the field.  

Week 3 Matchup vs. Redskins

After two weeks, the Cowboys have the second best defense against the run (yards/game and avg/carry) and they will face another tough challenge Week 3. A lot can be said about Mike Shanahan, but his ability to design a rushing attack cannot be debated, and he is up to his old tricks with the Redskins running backs, Tim Hightower and Roy Helu. While only in the middle of the pack in rushing efficiency averaging four yards a carry, the Redskins are Top 10 in rushing attempts and rushing yards.

The Redskins rely on a ground game to sustain the offense while taking shots downfield. Their three leading receivers average over a dozen yards a reception, as does rookie Roy Helu on his few catches out of the backfield. The Redskins offense will rely on a rushing attack to try and force safeties into the box and/or get defenders out of place using play-action to help their receivers get open downfield. Their passing attack is also respectable, Top 10 in attempts and eleventh in passing yards even though the Redskins rely on uncelebrated receivers like Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney.

If the Cowboys can continue to stop the run like in the first two games of the season, then the Redskins will have a very hard time getting their offense in rhythm. If the Cowboys can disrupt the rushing attack and harass Rex Grossman before things can develop downfield, the Redskins will have major issues. This seems to play right into the mentality of Rob Ryan's blitzing defensive. The Cowboys are currently not only one of the best run-stopping defenses, but the team also leads the NFL in sacks. These two accomplishments are certainly related.

If the Redskins cannot use a rushing attack to slow down the Cowboys pass rush and create shorter third-downs, it will be a long night for our divisional rivals. If the defense can keep the ‘Skins from scoring as the offense builds a lead, the Cowboys could dominate the game since the Redskins will have a tough time making big plays and playing from behind.

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