Since this game was so huge, and so fun to dissect, I've split the film review into two parts this week. I'll review the defense now, and later tonight should have the offense review completed.
So how did the Dallas Cowboys defense hold the high-powered Colts offense to just 14 points? With a little ingenuity and a whole lot of elbow-grease. Anybody looking for the magic bullet probably won't find it in this game. The Cowboys just lined up and whipped their man for the most part, but they did add a few wrinkles into the defensive gameplan that got the Colts off their rhythm. Also, before I go any further, I have to give a shout-out to the offense, who won the time of possession - 34-26 minutes - and dominated the last 20 minutes of the game. That was a big help and it kept the defense fresh in the second half.
Looking at the Cowboys defensive formations, they weren't anything particularly new except for one aspect. They lined up in their base 3-4 on first down and a majority of the plays in the game, and they switched to the traditional nickel when they were in a passing down and distance and they continued to move Terence Newman into the slot in the nickel. There was nothing new in the formations save for the movement of DeMarcus Ware. On the nickel, Ware would was moving to the left defensive end position regularly and Jason Hatcher was the right DE. They did this with Ware a couple of times in the base 3-4, but it was predominately on the nickel. It seemed to pay dividends although it wasn't that tricky of a move, but it did allow Hatcher time on the end to pass rush, his best skill, and it allowed Ware to take a shot at beating both tackles during the game.
The Cowboys blitzed a little more than usual in the game; but most of the pressure came from basic 4 or 5-man rushes. DeMarcus Ware was a beast in this game. In addition to his sack and forced fumble and his pass deflection, he was putting pressure on Manning throughout the game. Ware stepped up and gave us the pressure we were getting from Ellis, and took it a step further. I counted at least five plays that his pressure made Manning throw the ball early, most of the time incomplete. He also made a great play on the 4th and 2 at the end when Manning threw incomplete. Dallas Clark was in the slot with Ware in coverage and a safety over the top. Clark was going to run an out-and-in route to the middle of the field, but when he ran his out and started to come back in, Ware chucked him and slowed him down from getting into his route. By the time Clark recovered and got in the endzone, the safety was right there in coverage, Manning had to throw the ball incomplete because of late pressure and the game was essentially over.
Also helping in the pressure department were Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher. On the play described above, it was Hatcher getting the late pressure that caused Manning to throw it incomplete. Hatcher had three pressures on Manning while lining up in the nickel at the right DE. Jay Ratliff also got a big play when he worked the Colts center and bolted through the line to hit Manning's arm to cause a fumble. Ratliff also recovered an earlier fumble caused by Bradie James. It was pure hustle on that play because he was rushing Manning and the pass to Harrison was five yards downfield, but Ratliff hustled after the play and was there to scoop up the fumble; Kenyon Coleman also hustled back and was in position. That's great work from two reserves. Marcus Spears also was active; he had some good tackles in the running game, one tackle for a loss and had a QB pressure. He did pick up a roughing the passer penalty, but it was about the cheapest one I ever saw. Even Jason Ferguson and Chris Canty got a pressure apiece. Just good all around work from the front five.
How did we replace Greg Ellis? Al Singleton started the game and closed it, but Bobby Carpenter got plenty of work, too. They alternated series for the most part, although Singleton got a few extra. Al's work was solid; he made no major mistakes and played the run very well. On the Colts first offensive play they tried to run the stretch to Singleton's side, but Al busted through the blocking and pushed the runner back 5 yards where James finally made the stop. That set a tone right off; we were going to be aggressive and attack the ball. He was stout against the stretch play for most of the game and had one QB pressure when he came in unblocked.
Bobby Carpenter wasn't bad in his first game playing extended minutes, but he does have a problem of getting off the blocks on running plays. Three different times they ran the stretch play and the TE was able to block Carpenter one-on-one and Carpenter couldn't hold the edge. To his credit, a couple of times he did a great job of getting the blocker turned and pushed back inside. He also blew up a running play in the backfield and he got a good pass rush once. For the most part, his debut was encouraging, and with a little experience, could improve as the season progresses. The combination of he and Singleton did a good job of handling the LOLB position.
Before I get to the secondary, let's finish the front seven by taking care of the MLB's - Bradie James and Akin Ayodele. They played a fantastic game. James continues his sterling work and Ayodele has now put together three really good games in a row. He's finally figuring out the MLB position in the 3-4 and is becoming a player. Ayodele had 8 tackles to lead the team and James was right behind him with 7. James created a fumble and recovered a fumble, along with filling the holes on the stretch play and playing some good underneath pass coverage. Ayodele was equally tough against the run, and had a great play at the goal line. Early in the game, the Colts had a 2nd and goal from about the two, and tried to run the ball. Ayodele exploded through the middle of the line and cause a 3-yard loss on the play forcing a 3rd and goal from the 5. On the next play Roy Williams intercepted Manning. Ayodele's play was a huge factor in forcing a pass on 3rd down.
When the Cowboys did blitz, the guy they used the most was Ayodele coming up the middle. It wasn't overly effective; he never got real pressure on the QB. They brought Roy on a safety blitz once, and they blitzed the linebackers on the goaline regularly, which they do a lot anyway. But in truth, the blitzes weren't that effective, a lot of the pressures came on a regular 4-man rush, or a 5-man rush which is pretty standard in our defense.
Now to the secondary, where the Cowboys made the other adjustment on defense. They played the corners tight in press coverage almost every down. They were committed to being physical with the Colts receivers and bumping them hard within five yards. The safeties, on the other hand, stayed deep in coverage. They were so far back they were rarely in the screen, I'm guessing they were working a zone Cover-2 back there. The safeties stayed back to cover the deep patterns, and the corners played tight and used a lot of man-to-man mixed in with their usual zone coverages. So underneath the coverage was very tight, and over the top it was very loose. It worked.
Anthony Henry still got beat on some passes by Reggie Wayne, but nothing too terrible, unless the Reggie Wayne TD was on him, but it might have been on Terence Newman. They were in man-coverage, and Newman looked like he thought he read the play and jumped the other receiver, Henry continued to play his man, while Wayne waltzed to the endzone. Unless they were supposed to switch men on a cross pattern, then Newman let his man go. Newman gave up a few other plays, maybe he was still dizzy from the hit on the punt return. They twice ran the so-called "cobra" blitz (thanks, Phil Simms) and on one Newman timed it brilliantly and had the RB in the backfield all alone, but he missed the tackle. It was a 3rd and 1 play and the Colts picked up the first down and eventually scored a TD. But on a crucial 3rd and 1 late in the game, the Colts got tricky and tried to go deep to Dallas Clark, but Newman wasn't fooled, and almost had an interception until Roy Williams hit him.
Roy gave up a TD to Clark himself, and he almost knocked Henry out of the game, but he did lay some big hits on Colts receivers, and he snuffed out a Colts scoring chance. The Colts tried to run an `in' pattern to Clark on a 3rd and goal, Roy recognized the play and chucked Clark to the ground and grabbed the pass for an interception. Roy started hitting Clark before Manning released the ball so it wasn't an interference penalty. Just a great play by Roy. As for the FS position, Keith Davis and Pat Watkins must've done their job because there were no major mistakes from the position.
The secondary played a great game - even with Newman being a little dinged up - they were able to get close to the Colts receivers, get physical with them, and live to tell about it. Aaron Glenn also played a great game and was used often on the outside against Marvin Harrison when they moved Newman into the slot. He was also the guy who tipped the ball that Kevin Burnett intercepted. That was a huge play, and Burnett made the most of it by getting up and running the ball in for a TD, where he got nice blocks from Ware, Watkins and Hatcher.
Here's my summary of what the Dallas defense did to beat the Colts offense. They played their base 3-4 and their nickel for most of the game. They moved DeMarcus Ware around to get him more shots at the QB and they got Jason Hatcher on the field as a pass-rushing DE. They blitzed a little extra, and they did a better job of disguising the blitz, although Manning was able to sniff a few of them out with hard counts. They played their corners in press coverage and were physical with the Colts receivers. They played the safeties deep to take away the long ball and they mixed in man-to-man coverage with some zone underneath.
But more than the schemes they ran, they just physically beat up on the Colts players. They were pounding the receivers after the catch, they were getting hits on Peyton Manning, and they were able to beat the offensive line off the ball. The new wrinkles in the defense definitely helped, but it was the desire of the players that got the job done.