Freeze Frames: Cowboys Play Breakdown - Defense, Field Position Keys To Victory

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A look back at last week's game highlighting the way the Cowboys managed a win despite not putting a lot of points on the board.

The Cowboys last game had some exciting moments for both teams on offense, but a large portion of the game clock wound down on unspectacular grinding drives. In a game like that, defense and field position are the keys, so I've highlighted some defensive and special teams successes.

Play 1

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For our first play, we take a look at Brandon Carr's coverage on a third down. Steve Smith, the target on the play, has a step on Scandrick, but right now we're looking at Carr (top of frame) flexing his press coverage muscles. He's got his legs under him and his arms under the shoulders of the receiver, ready to seriously disrupt the route.

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The result, as you can see, is a receiver eating chalk on the sideline. Steve Smith stumbles on his route, and the pass is incomplete.

The great press here by Carr makes me wonder why he wasn't pressing all game. Surely, he could have done the same to the much smaller Steve Smith, no?

Play 2

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This is the first play on which we heard Anthony Spencer's name. He's hand-fighting with the tight end, Greg Olsen, in this still (in the circle). The running back's intended path is the wide gap between the tackle and tight end, shown by the long red arrow.

If you look closely, you can see that Spencer has pinned Olsen's inside arm to his waist, as a set up to shed into the hole. There is no legal way for Olsen to sustain that block - Olsen has been beaten, but is being held in place by Spencer to give the back the illusion of a hole to run to (if Spencer simply rushes inside at this point, the back would cut to the outside, possibly for a big gain).

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The back took the bait. He's run inside, and is setting up for a cutback to Spencer's gap. Look closely at how helpless Olsen was to prevent Spencer from getting into the hole. He seems frozen in place where he was, while Spencer is now sneaking into the backfield behind the engaged tackle.

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And there's the result. Spencer stuffs the run, looking like he was entirely unblocked on the play. Sometimes you have to look very carefully to see how Spencer was able to make a play - it's much less right place at the right time and much more proper technique, leverage and hand placement.

This play set up a Carolina passing attempt which resulted in a DeMarcus Ware/Jason Hatcher sack.

Play 3

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Now, let's take a look at Jay Ratliff. The middle of our defense, Ratliff and Brent, really showed up in Carolina. Here, you can see Ratliff engaged with a Carolina lineman underneath the 'LINA' in Carolina Panthers.

If you look closely, you can see that Ratliff's hips are lower to the ground than the lineman's, giving him a leverage advantage.

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I've highlighted the two keys that led to this quarterback hit, here. Carolina's free lineman remembers the first sack on Newton, in which DeMarcus Ware came free on a twist up the middle. Because of this, he's watching for the same move, turning his back on Ratliff, who's winning his one-on-one.

Ratliff has set up his swim move, pulling the lineman off balance and getting his inside arm on the lineman's inside shoulder. With that hand, he'll push the lineman outside while bringing his own outside arm over the top of, and behind, the lineman, freeing him to rush upfield.

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The resulting hit was very satisfying. I wouldn't mind seeing Eli in a similar position on several occasions tomorrow.

Play 4

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This play might not be considered big, but it pinned the Panthers near their own 15 after a Cowboys' touchdown. The player circled is Gerald Sensabaugh, taking over at gunner with Barry Church out.

Sensabaugh is really a sure tackler, even if he doesn't hit as hard as Church. I think this play shows that he has a pretty good field awareness, as well (man coverage seems to be his biggest weakness).

Personally, I expect to see the gunner fly quickly down the field and attack the returner. Instead, we see Sensabaugh act like, well, a safety (imagine that), eventually making the stop.

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Despite his conservative approach to this play, he's able to get low in his stance and cover enough ground to create a very positive play. Pinning your opponents inside the 20 is always an accomplishment, and seeing this type of solid special teams lane integrity, one week after a kick return TD was given up.

Play 5

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Finally, I don't think a review of this game, however, brief, would be complete without at least mentioning Josh Brent. You don't see impressive techniques or hand play, or really anything you can circle and talk about when you watch him. But if you want to show what he does, you don't have to look very hard.

I decided to highlight one play for him, and literally the next play in the game was this one. Look at the feet of the lineman engaged with Brent, compared to the line of scrimmage. He's pushed him a full 3 yards into the backfield, on a running play (lineman try to move downfield on running plays, compared to passing plays, where they intentionally set behind the line). He then sheds and makes the tackle himself. Brent is a beast, simply put. He has uncommon strength, and is built fairly low to the ground, giving him leverage advantages in most situations. If he were to develop the hand play skills of, say, Ratliff or Spencer, he would become a truly fearsome player. Well worth a supplemental 7th-rounder.

In closing, I'd like to recommend Bob Sturm's breakdown of Anthony Spencer's play against Carolina - he does a great job of pointing out the subtle things Spencer did to help us beat the Panthers (and prepare for the likes of Vick and RGIII).

Get well soon, Sean Lee, Phil Costa, and DeMarco Murray.

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