This review of the Cowboys/Lions game is part game review, and part "Dallas going into the playoffs" review. I'll use examples from the game to try and illustrate where Dallas is falling apart, especially on defense.
Five times in this game Detroit got a first down on a short pass to Mike Furrey or the RB that was underneath the linebackers in coverage. Four of those times were 3rd downs. Several other times this same play was successful for good gains. Whether it was Furrey coming across from the outside, or a RB simply leaking out into the middle of the field, Dallas couldn't stop it. Bradie James was invariably too deep in his drop to do anything about it.
Everybody has a theory as to what's wrong with the defense, including Mike Furrey and Roy Williams, who shared their scouting report after the game. Watching the game again, these words were echoing in my head - "We knew that they leave the middle open a little bit," said Furrey, who caught 11 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown. "There are some catches to be made in there. That's their normal defense to leave four deep all the way across."
Maybe when Dallas was getting torched deep down the middle earlier in the season, they made a conscious effort to get the safeties back deeper, and the linebackers had to drop a little deeper to cover the middle hole in the Cover 2. It worked pretty well as long as we had some pass rush, because the QB couldn't sit back and wait for the long ball to come open with the safeties deep, which was probably the game plan. But once Ellis went down, and the pass rush started to suffer, QB's could sit back, look deep to see if something is open, and if there's not they just dump it to a TE/WR/RB underneath. Suddenly, when the deeper patterns weren't working as well, the underneath pattern became the game plan.
Whatever the case, the Cowboys are going to have to shorten the coverage drops of their linebackers and trust their safeties to make a play. They should at least make Seattle prove they can hit the long ball once before they back off the coverage defense. It was just pitch and catch for the Lions in this game. The downside of that showed up late in the game. The Cowboys were trying to stop the underneath stuff by playing some man-to-man with the safeties in zone. Roy Williams beat Anthony Henry on a deep `in' route for a huge first down. A play later, the Cowboys were in zone but Bradie James moved up to cover the underneath route and Kitna hit Furrey on an `in' route. The area he was in was vacated by James to cover short. Danged if you do, danged if you don't. Still, I'd rather see the Cowboys be aggressive this game, besides they need the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to stop Shaun Alexander.
On the outside, teams recognized that if you cross the receivers on the Cowboys' corners, you can shake a man free. The Colts did it to Newman and Henry for an easy TD. Now it's progressed to the point where the Lions ran those patterns as a regular part of the offense. Here, we hear Furrey again - "And we knew we would be able to take advantage on the outside because they never switch off routes." They did exactly that when Furrey lined up in the slot with Al Singleton, but crossed to the outside away from the safety, Singleton stayed with Furrey, Newman went to the inside with the other crossing receiver, and Furrey ended up all alone in the Cowboys endzone. The Cowboys corners are also getting beat on double-moves, and those usually require good protection, so the inconsistent pass rush strikes again.
In the redzone, teams have given up on attacking the Cowboys straight ahead and have gone outside to the edges of the defense. For a few weeks, it was the RB in the flats that was bedeviling the Cowboys. Now, the corners are also getting beat at the sidelines in the endzone. Roy Williams beat Aaron Glenn twice, Mike Williams beat Terence Newman on a move to the outside, and Furrey beat Singleton to the edge as mentioned before.
The Cowboys actually played quite a bit of the 4-3 defense, more than I realized when I watched the game live. I thought it was fairly effective and wouldn't mind seeing it again this week. We managed to cause some havoc in this game for Kitna, DeMarcus Ware ended up with three sacks, Stephen Bowen and Kenyon Coleman each got one. I liked the work from Kenyon Coleman, Parcells should start giving him the majority of the snaps, he's outplaying Marcus Spears right now. Chris Canty has put together two pretty good games in a row, this week he was as good as he's been all year. And Stephen Bowen didn't look bad for his first game at all. The main thing I liked about some of the 4-3 rush was we were able to get a push up the middle; usually it's just around the edges if we get anything in the 3-4. We did have a problem with Kitna running because our linebackers and corners were dropping so deep in the zone, allowing Kitna plenty of room to run once he got past the front four.
Our secondary is playing worse, Aaron Glenn has given up some big plays in recent weeks and Terence Newman had his first bad game of the year. He got beat multiple times. Surprisingly, the safeties weren't that bad again, giving me some hope that Pat Watkins is starting to get it.
Right now the defense is a mess, I'm not sure it can be fixed, but if we could just find the right combination to prop it up a little, it might be enough for the offense, which will put points on the board. The Cowboys have to be a little more aggressive in pass coverage, and need to shake up their 3rd down defense to include more than the same looks they've been showing.
On offense, I already talked about Tony Romo in a previous post. The short version is he doing everything he can to win and he's not getting a lot of help from the offensive line or the running game. But he has to cut down on the turnovers; the team just can't afford them with the way the defense is playing. If he does that, we have a chance to win. He should also tuck the ball and run a few times in a game, he had the opportunity to run on several plays because the Lions were not disciplined in their rush. If Romo picked up some key yards with his feet, he would slow down the rush a bit. But in the redzone, where he tried to run twice at the end of the game, it's a lot harder as the defense and the field are compressed. There are too many linebackers and safeties close to the line of scrimmage.
The offensive line's play can be summed with the first two drives of the game. Kyle Kosier got beat for a sack on first down, and on third down Flozell Adams got beat forcing a poor swing pass to MB3 that went nowhere. On the next series, Marco Rivera missed a block on first down that ruined a JJ run. That was the story all game long, one of the Dallas line, including Jason Witten on a few plays, would miss a block that would kill a run or send Romo scampering around. But for a couple of drives in the 2nd quarter they gave Romo a little bit of time, Dallas used it's short passing game to drive the field and score a couple of TD's. I think that's pretty much going to be life for the Cowboys on offense in the playoffs. They will put together a couple of good drives and score once in a while on a long play, but there will be other drives when the offense is a dud.
One reason is the running game isn't producing. We're getting missed blocks from a variety of players that are causing some of the problems. But JJ is still leaving yards on the field by not making proper cuts; he had at least two in this game that could've been much bigger runs. MB3 never really got things going either.
The Cowboys do pretty well when they use the short passing game to drive the ball; it's their most consistent weapon on offense right now. Jason Witten had another good game and is money in the middle of the field.
My prescription for offense goes like this, stick with the run a little more, we go through whole stretches of games when we alternate the pass and the run, predominately using the pass. The Cowboys should try some more smash-mouth football, and if that means using MB3, then so be it. When they pass, use short timing patterns with 4-5 receivers in the pattern. Use three and five-step drops and if it's not there, Romo needs to tuck the ball and run. Do that for a while, and the defense will creep forward and then you can hit Owens or Glenn deep.
A lot of what I'm saying is the obvious, but Dallas has lost its identity. We used to be known as a strong running team that could also pass. Now we're totally reliant on Romo making things happen. The Cowboys line needs to re-establish their run blocking, and Julius needs to produce or get out of the way. On defense, mixing in the 4-3 looks like a good idea, it creates some pass rush and it allows us to have our three linebackers already back in coverage, instead of one having to back-pedal to cover a zone or a man. I would consider starting Coleman over Spears and have a quick hook for Julius if he starts slow. Barber should be ready to come in the game early if necessary. They should keep Bobby Carpenter as the starter over Al Singleton. They need to regain some swagger back on defense. If you're going to go down, I say go down fighting, turn the defense loose on Saturday and see if they can make some individual plays.
If you have questions about individual players and how they performed or what happened on certain plays I will try to answer them.